Posts tagged Afghanistan
I just read an incredible article on Price Scope by Jim Rentfrow, who has been teaching faceting and gemology in Kabul since 2011. The article is Gems of Afghanistan and is beautifully written to cover all the stones in detail. Even though he lists Emeralds and Rubies as gemstones of Afghanistan (which they are), I still recommend avoiding those stones in the bazaars. There are just too many synthetics and treatments out there for those stones and the only way to identify them are with a microscope and plenty of practice.
Here is the short list of gemstones mined in Afghanistan:
- Lapiz Lazuli
I recently answered another email about black diamonds being purchased in Afghanistan and it reminded me of a number of soldiers that I met buying them in Kabul. I have to say….I’m baffled as to why. In my own searches on the internet, I found references to black diamonds as being rare, which is maybe contributing to the hype. Let me set the record straight. Black diamonds are simply heavily included diamonds and they are not rare. Black diamonds are so included, that IF natural, they will likely have received their coloration from natural heat causing graphite to form in the inclusions…giving the appearance of black. More often though, the “black” diamond you come across is actually receiving it’s color from treatment. Treated black diamonds can either be irradiated to a very deep green or blue that appears black; or exposed to high temperatures in a vacuum causing graphite to form in a heavily fractured “milky white” diamond. (Irradiation is much more common then the specialized vacuum heat treatment.)
How do you tell the difference between these black diamonds. Well, you might be able to identify the irradiated diamond by shining a mag light through the back (this is called transmitted light). If you see glints of green or blue either in the body color or fractures, then you know you have an irradiated diamond. Since the natural and vacuum heat treated black diamonds receive their color from a similar process (natural vs lab heat treatment), your only option to tell the difference is to SEND IT TO A LAB.
Despite these facts, black diamonds are still all the rage. I guess we pay good money for pre-ripped jeans, why not buy fractured diamonds? So for those of you who like black gemstones…cool, knock yourself out on black diamonds. I personally think black diamonds are a great choice for men’s jewelry. Just remember that they should be substantially less expensive then a similar sized clear diamond. Ice.com has a pair of 1 carat diamond stud earrings set in 14k white gold for $195. Given the sky rocketing price of gold….take a guess at at the value of those black diamonds. Just to show I’m not AGAINST black diamonds, I picked a couple of celeb photos where I think they they rocked the black diamond.
I remember the first time I came across Kunzite (a.k.a Pink Spodumene) ….I thought it was a gorgeous gemstone. Kunzite is found primarily in a soft pink or lilac color that is not seen in any other gemstones. Not only the color, but the size and clarity make it unique. Kunzite is commonly found between 15 and 20 carats, eye clean, and inexpensive compared to most gemstones at that size. Afghanistan is one of the primary locations for mining Kunzite and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you come across it while deployed to Afghanistan. So – what is the Question of Kunzite…….
Does all Kunzite fade and if so, is it worth the purchase?
Unfortunately, the beautiful lilac and pink colors of Kunzite are not stable. The color fades when exposed to light, especially sunlight, and can end up looking washed out and gray. Now, I’ve heard two different stories about this. The first, obtained in a conversation with one of my favorite jewelers, is that Kunzite, whether it is treated or natural, will always fade over time when exposed to bright lights. This particular jeweler refrains from selling the stone because it doesn’t want its customers to feel cheated when the beautiful color disappears. Of course, if one keeps their Kunzite stone out of bright lights, the color will fade very slowly. This story of Kunzite is the standard one found on the internet and is known by most experienced gem lovers.
I recently heard a second story that caused me to raise an eyebrow. This story comes from a dealer I met at recent gem show. He claimed that Kunzite is dug out of the ground in its true color, but almost always treated by irradiation prior to cutting (for Afghanistan rough, the treatment and the cutting generally takes place in Pakistan). The dealer insisted that it is only the color produced from that irradiation that is unstable. In other words, most Kunzite is mined an ugly pale gray and irradiated to produce the desired lilac or pink color. This also means that if NATURAL (i.e. untreated) Kunzite can be found in a strong lilac or pink, the color should be stable and not fade. He was of course telling me this as he tried to sell me his “natural” Kunzite. I was very skeptical, especially since I was under the impression (from research) that Kunzite is only occasionally treated by irradiation, yet Kunzite is widely known for its universal fading.
So where does this leave you? Should you buy Kunzite or not? I bought Kunzite in Afghanistan and do not regret it! The gemstone is set as a necklace and is one of my favorite pieces. That said, I handle it under the assumption that, treated or not, the color will fade. To avoid exposing by gemstone to bright lights, I only wear it in the evenings and keep it stored in a dark satchel. I’ve seen Kunzite in jewelery stores here in the states and it is generally an ugly whitish gray because some uneducated sales clerk decided to put it under strong lights day after day. I don’t plan on making the mistake with my own Kunzite stone and would never buy one that is already faded. Color is so important in this stone because….well, you just don’t know how long its going to last and faded Kunzite is basically worthless.
Keep Up Your Education
If you have already read my first nine tips than you are on the right track to making yourself a more educated gemstone buyer, but the education does not stop here. I simply identified the points that you need to be aware of when shopping for gemstones in Afghanistan (or Pakistan or Thailand or Africa.) I have recommended further reading material and the purchase of some basic gemstone identification tools. If you forgot what I recommended or decided to jump ahead to Tip Ten as if the first nine tips don’t count, shame on you and look below for my recommended books and tools. Frankly, all the self-education in the world isn’t going to guarantee that you don’t get ripped off, especially in a place like Afghanistan where even the dealers don’t know what it is they are selling. But my Top Ten Tips and your continued education are going to be your best chance at successfully purchasing gemstones in an unregulated market. So go forth with some additional knowledge, don’t spend more than you are willing to lose, and keep educated if you are going to keep buying. My blog posts won’t stop with this Top Ten List as I will continue to update you with my own research on market trends and gem identification. Happy Hunting!
Last week, I received a great question from a reader thinking of purchasing a Star Sapphire in Afghanistan. While I have written in the past about Star Rubies, I focused on the presence of Lead-Glass Filled Star Rubies (see Lead Glass filled Star Rubies) in Afghanistan. Star Sapphire’s follow the same general principles as Rubies since Rubies are simply a specific color of Sapphire (also known as Corundum). As with Rubies, natural Star Sapphires of any value are insanely rare and expensive. They are not going to end up at a market in Afghanistan…I promise. In Afghanistan you will see three types of Star Sapphires – heavily treated (diffused or lead glass filled¹), extremely poor quality, and synthetic.
I’m not recommending that you refrain from buying Star Sapphires while abroad, since it may be the only chance you will have to purchase one. Just don’t expect there to be any resale value to the stone. Buy one for the purpose of your own enjoyment or study. I wouldn’t pay more than $10 per carat for the Synthetics and even less for the poor quality, natural star sapphires. I would probably avoid the lead glass filled as they are more fragile and of average color quality.
Tips and pictures to quickly identify Synthetic Star Sapphires:
1.Synthetic Star Sapphires will have a perfect six point star with fine, sharp lines. Even the best quality, natural Star Sapphires do not exhibit a perfect star with sharp lines.
2. Synthetics generally have a smooth, flat back. Natural Star Sapphires, whether of good or bad quality, will have a slightly curved back that looks like a plateau.
3. Synthetic Star Sapphires are a perfect, rich blue color that is uniform throughout the gemstone. Natural Star Sapphires are generally lighter and more gray in color with uneven color zoning.
Notes 1. While there has been no specific reporting of lead glass filled treatments in Blue Sapphires, this treatment is possible and likely for all corundum (red, blue, white, black).
Check out the Tuscan 2010 Color Report from Gemworld International, Inc. This is the company that produces The GemGuide, which is a biannual publication on wholesale colored gemstone pricing. I am highlighting this report because it makes some good points on pricing and availability of gemstones for those of you traveling abroad. First off – a word of warning. The report talks about the scarcity of quality rubies available on the market right now and how that is causing price increases….what did I say about buying Rubies in Afghanistan? Don’t do it! The fact that good rubies are scarce at the largest Gem Show in the world, means that the likelihood of you getting natural, untreated, and good quality Rubies in Afghanistan is ridiculous. Unless you are a seasoned professional or only interested in owning a synthetic or heavily treated gemstone, walk past the Rubies at the market. FYI – for those of you tempted to search out a Burmese Ruby, don’t forget that there is an embargo against buying Burmese Rubies. Licensed dealers are able to sell them in the U.S, so long as they can show purchase prior to the embargo. Don’t be stupid – you will just end up with a poor quality stone anyway and will have, oh, broken a U.S. law.
So where is your good news from this report??? Tourmalines and Spinels! My favorite gemstones are on the rise. Those of you lucky enough to be in Afghanistan will have access to both. According to the Color Report, rich green and light mint green Tourmalines are hot, hot, hot and guess where they are mined? You guessed it! I bought both colors of Tourmalines in Afghanistan at relatively inexpensive prices (although not always intentionally, see Tip Four.) Tourmalines are typically untreated and don’t have a synthetic market, so you get what you buy. Spinels, on the other hand, are produced synthetically, so there is a bit more risk. If you are in Afghanistan, I would stick with red and pink Spinels as this is the color typically mined in the north and just across the border in Tajikistan. Expect to bring some money to the table with Spinels. Price will depend on availability and demand. I paid over $250 for a natural pink 4 carat Spinel….which was a steal! That said, I was probably the only person in the market asking for one. Here are some photos to help guide you on color….
Understand the Effects of Lighting and Backgrounds
Have you heard some gemstones referred to as “day stones” or “night stones”? Have you noticed that some gemstones have an intense color in the jewelry store but become almost washed out as soon as you step outside? Why do the gemstone dealers ask you to put your hand out and they place the gem in the gap between your fingers? The reason for all of these scenarios is that light source and background play a tremendous role in the assessment and impression of color. While you may want to wear your gemstones under ideal light that emphasizes the color, you certainly don’t want to base an evaluation and purchase of a gemstone under enhanced circumstances. If possible, a gemstone should be viewed under multiple light sources and against both white and black backgrounds prior to purchase in order to accurately assess the true color of the stone.
Different colors are enhanced or muted by different light sources, daylight fluorescent being the most neutral. When viewing red stones, early and late sunlight as well as incandescent light bulbs will intensify the red and give you false impression of the true color. On the other hand, blue and green stones are enhanced by normal fluorescent lights and an overcast sky, which also makes for a false color impression. Grading laboratories use daylight fluorescent bulbs to assess gemstone color; however, that is not very realistic for most buyers, especially those in Afghanistan or traveling abroad. For the gem enthusiast, I recommend a strong neutral (or white-light) fluorescent or LED lightening source, such as the Ott-Lite OTL13MAG 13-Watt Task/Magnifier Lamp. For those who are looking for something simple to carry with them, try a MAGLITE 3-D Cell LED Flashlight or a Smith & Wesson Galaxy 13 LED Flashlight. Make sure to view the gemstone with the light source directly above the gemstone or behind you. The goal is to have the light enter through the crown of the stone and reflect the color back at your eye. If you are buying outdoors in a market and dependent on natural light sources, mid-day bright sun is best for most stones. Keep in mind that a cloudy sky or late afternoon sun will enhance cool colors and give you a false impression. For those of you shopping at your local retailer, most jewelry stores use incandescent lighting. Before buying any jewelry set with gemstones, ask to take the piece to a window or outdoors for a better view. Any jewelry store worth purchasing from will say yes and likely be impressed with your understanding of color and light.
Of course, when you are wearing gemstones, the opposites hold true and you may want to wear your gemstones under enhancing light sources. Rubies will look inticing in incandescent light and a blue tourmaline will be the most vivid on a cloudy day.
As for backgrounds, a non-reflective, white background is generally the best for viewing stones as it will help you determine quality of cut and not influence your perception of the color. Make sure the gemstone is clean when you are viewing it as you don’t want any finger prints or dust to be mistaken for an inclusion. A black background can also be useful when viewing gemstones as it will aid in identifying any black spots in a stone. Black spots are dark, colorless areas of a faceted stone. While most cut stones have some, very small black spots, a poorly cut stone will have too many or too large spots. Lastly, if you intend to be the wearer of the stone, place it against your own skin to evaluate the color! Believe it or not, different gemstones will look good or bad on your own skin.
Beauty, Quality, Rarity
According to the CNBC special below, the investing market in jewelry has flourished during the recent recession. If anything, it has grown as investors see an opportunity for adding diversity to their portfolio in an area more reliable than stocks. There is a catch to this growing trend – the jewelry pieces must contain three characteristics: 1) Beauty of the piece 2) Quality of the workmanship 3) Rarity of the design and materials. These universal rules apply both to gemstone and gold jewelry. Gemstones increase in value based on their rarity on the open market, the uniqueness of their size and cut, the craftsmanship of the faceting, and the absence of any heat treatments. Gold follows the same basic guidelines, although more emphasis is placed on the beauty of the design and the quality of the metalwork.
What does that mean for those of you buying in Afghanistan?
If you are looking at this as an investment opportunity, you’ve gotta throw down the cash to get the valuable stones. My biggest regret was not having spent $1,000 on a 6 carat bi-color tourmaline (pink and green), much like the one shown in my post, Custom Designs from the Gem Vault. Almost anything that I purchased below $100 ended up being of little value (except to me). The gemstones that I splurged on and spent over $200 to buy were at least worth their price and praised by the jewelers that had them set into jewelry. I’m not saying you avoid the cheap stones, especially if you are shopping primarily for self-ownership and within a budget. But if you are looking to invest while in Afghanistan, bring your cash to the table and your equipment from my last post to get the best quality gemstones available.
One last update….
Remember my post Christie’s Jewelry on my Mind that featured the Bvlgari Blue Diamond? This rare blue diamond and matching white diamond SOLD at auction on Wednesday for a whopping $15.7 million dollars, which is three million over the expected sale price. This makes the BVLGARI BLUE the most expensive jewel sold at auction in 2010.
Invest in the Necessary Equipment
The biggest challenge a new buyer will face when shopping for gemstones is accurately differentiating the synthetics and imitations from the natural gemstones. Every gem enthusiast (whether experienced or novice) has and will make mistakes in properly identifying their purchases, especially when they are shopping in the blind with no equipment. Utilizing some basic tools for gemstone identification can help avoid basic mistakes by identifying the majority of imitation and synthetic stones present in Afghanistan. The tools that I recommend for the beginner gem enthusiast are a 10x Loupe, a calcite dichroscope, and a Chelsea filter. With a little bit of practice, the basic tools will instantly help you identify the difference between a Ruby and a Garnet; a Ruby and synthetic Spinel; most synthetic and natural Rubies. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Antoinette Matlins and A.C. Bonanno’s book Gem Identification Made Easy: A Hands-on Guide to More Confident Buying & Selling. The book details the use of all three tools as well as provides a wealth of information on gem identification including use of more advanced equipment.
Following Matlins and Bonanno’s lead, I agree that the best loupe for gemstone identification is a triplet-type 10x power loupe in a black finish. Triplet-type and black finish are necessary to avoid any color influence that can occur from a chrome or silver finish. Anything more than a 10x power loupe will make flaws even more difficult to find given the narrowed field of view and can lead the buyer to overlooking an inclusion that would have been picked up with a 10x power loupe. The purpose of a loupe is to assist the buyer in identifying internal inclusions, workmanship of the cut, and cracks or scratches on the surface of the gemstone. Remember, some gemstones really should be flawless and are essentially worthless if they contain blemishes (i.e. green tourmaline and perdot.) Other gemstones, such as rubies and emeralds, are expected to have inclusions and if they appear flawless, they are likely synthetics or imitations. One last note, make sure you clean the gemstones thoroughly before observing them through a loupe to avoid mistaking fingerprints as flaws or scratches.
A dichroscope is probably the most difficult of the tools to become accustomed to because it requires that the user develop an eye for subtle color differentiation. That said, the dichroscope is invaluable to identification and can accurately tell the difference between ruby and garnet as well as blue sapphire and blue spinel. The tool works by identifying whether a stone is singly-refracting or double refracting (i.e. dichroic). In other words, does a ray of light split into two separate rays in the gemstone or remain as one. A dichroscope has two small windows that will either display the same color for a single refraction or two different colors for a double refraction. This simple test can tell the buyer the difference between commonly confused gemstones. For example: a ruby is dichroic while a garnet is not. A ruby will display two different hues of red in the windows, such as an orangish-red and a purplish-red. On the other hand, a garnet will show the same coloring through both windows, evidence that it is not a dichroic gemstone. There is also such thing as Trichroic gemstones, such as Kunzite, Tanzanite, and Topaz. These stones will display three different colors in the two windows as the dichroscope is rotated around the gemstone. Glass and plastic imitations will show neither dichroism or trichroism and are quickly distinguished by the identical coloring in the dichroscope windows.
A Chelsea Filter is a very easy tool to use and one that I wish I had with me in Afghanistan. Simply put, it is a color filter that only allows red or green to be viewed through the filter. It was originally marketed to tell the difference between an Emerald and it’s many imitations, such as green sapphire, glass, and tourmaline. An Emerald appears red or pink through the filter, while the imitations remain green. Today’s synthetic Emeralds now trick the Chelsea Filter, however, it will still differentiate between the previously listed imitations. A quick glance through the Chelsea filter will also identify the difference between synthetic spinel and aquamarine. I also find it helpful to identify the difference between natural ruby and synthetic ruby. Although both appear bright red through the filter, the synthetic ruby will be slightly stronger. This is where owning some synthetic stones comes in handy as it allows you to practice identifying those subtle differences.
Use the 4 C’s to your advantage.
Almost every book you read on buying gemstones or diamonds will refer to the 4 C’s – Clarity, Cut, Color, and Carat. These characteristics are not just important to purchasing a quality stone, but even more so to aid in gemstone identification. Take for example, an Emerald. I know…I said to avoid buying Emeralds in Afghanistan and I stand by that tip. But Emeralds are a great example so, as the owner of this blog, I’m going to use the 4 C’s of an Emerald to demonstrate my point.
Clarity – The Clarity of an Emerald is expected and often desired to have visible inclusions. The presence of inclusions give Emeralds a warm depth of color that sets it apart from higher refractive stones, such as Tsavorite Garnets. Inclusions can also help identify origin of the stone as certain mines are known for distinct mineral inclusions.
Color – The Color should be a vivid green with some combination of both green-blue and green-yellow. Emeralds are dichroic – meaning they exhibit two different colors or hues of colors.
Cut – Typically, Emeralds are cut in the traditional square or rectangular step cut to emphasize the color and maximize use of the rough stone. Emeralds are rarely found in brilliant or oval cuts, which would greatly increase the value of a quality Emerald.
Carat – The Carat size is also important as Emeralds above 3.0 Carats are incredibly rare and expensive, especially in good quality.
What does this mean for you? Let’s say you are offered a pure green, eye-clean, 4 carat, brilliant cut Emerald at a very reasonable price. Well, if you paid attention to the 4 C’s for Emeralds above, then you would immediately spot a shady deal and avoid making a costly mistake.
Aquamarine, Tourmaline, Spinel, Peridot – they all have expected clarity, cuts, colors, and carats. This concept can be applied to all gemstone varieties, some with more success then others depending on the specificity of the 4 C’s. Tourmalines, for example, come in a wide variety of colors and hues. Nevertheless, before you hit the market looking for a specific gemstone, take some time to learn about the 4 C’s for that variety and you will save yourself from making foolish mistakes.
P.S. Even with the 4 C’s, I still don’t recommend buying Emeralds from anyone but a reputable dealer. Synthetic Emeralds and “doublets” exist in the market place that will pass the 4 C’s test and trick many of the filters available on the market. Additionally, Emeralds are commonly treated (oiled, waxed or filled). While some treatment practices are accepted in the industry, they often go undisclosed to the buyer, whether you are in Afghanistan or your local department store. These treatments may special care and use of the stone.