Author: Katherine Palmiter
It’s not everyday that the unofficial “king of diamonds” buys the same ruby at auction for the second time in a row. That was the case last month when jeweler Laurence Graff paid $8.6 million at auction in Geneva for a Burmese ruby he had originally purchased for $3.6 million in 2006. The recent record sale is indicative of a shift in the jewelry market over the past few years. With large diamonds’ increasing popularity in investment portfolios, rubies and sapphires offer a colorful alternative.
For one, the colored stone market is much more nuanced when it comes to pricing than the customary set of rules that dictate diamond grading. The standard “four C’s” diamond pricing guide tends to be a rigid assessment of cut, clarity, color, and carat weight. However, colored stones pose an exciting opportunity for new buyers and experienced collectors alike. Compared to the narrow margins of the diamond trade, the colored stone market is like the Wild West, a less trafficked terrain where buyers can discover rare treasures that are sure to appreciate. Elizabeth Taylor was an early colored stone connoisseur; starting with the cabochon sapphire engagement ring she received from Michael Wilding, she developed a storied predilection for emeralds and sapphires.
Although the process of assessing colored stones requires an aesthetically-driven kind of expertise, it doesn’t mean all gemstones are equal. Rubies, sapphires, and emeralds sourced from historically significant regions are still more desirable and continue to fetch higher prices. For centuries esteemed mines in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Burma have produced highly sought after corundum, the extremely durable mineral that forms rubies and sapphires. These mines are known for producing stones with deep color saturation, like prized “pigeon blood” rubies and “velvet” blue sapphires. Even though they are found on every continent, a vanishingly small percentage of colored stones on the market stand apart. Over 98% of the stones available today have been heated in an attempt to improve their natural color. Connoisseurs should look for telltale signs that the mined material remains authentic and untouched by human meddling. At first glance a high quality stone should have three things: a deep color tone, few visible inclusions, and a symmetrical faceted cut.
While it’s important to trust your eye, especially in respect to coloration and cut, due to the proliferation of synthetic stones and the frequency in which mined stones have been altered, sometimes a loupe may not be enough. When trusting your eye is not an option, accompanying paperwork including receipts, appraisals, and certificates may be your best bet. Luckily, laboratory evaluations by organizations like GIA and Gubelin are another option for buyers seeking additional assurance.
Despite the explosive growth at the high end of the market, vintage pieces provide an accessible and trustworthy entrance to the world of colored stones. Timeless Edwardian rings from the early 20th century often feature deep blue sapphires set on rectangular plates surrounded by intricate diamond millegraining. Framing colored stones in a halo of pearls or diamonds first became popular during the Art Deco period, but the halo setting remains the style of choice for those looking to showcase a dazzling colored stone. Back in 2010 the Edwardian halo made headlines after Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton with the 18-carat sapphire ring Prince Charles had originally bestowed Princess Diana.
As the market grows pink sapphires have proven more and more popular, recognized for their brilliance and color intensity. With pink sapphires as with blue sapphires and rubies, the fact remains that unaltered colored stones are increasingly hard to find. Mary-Kate Olsen’s Cartier ring is perhaps the most noteworthy vintage piece of late, boasting a halo of 16 sapphires. Olsen’s beau Olivier Sarkozy hit the nail on the head with the purchase. As it goes to show, vintage jewelry is a surefire way to invest in quality without compromising elegance.