Jewelry Industry News Wire

Could Zircon Be the Next Spinel? Gem Experts Weigh In

New York City. March 22, 2021. Two weeks ago, a jeweler called Geoffrey Watt asking for blue zircon, a gemstone the dealer in mined stones, stocks. Not long after, the jeweler called back about his selection, adding a puzzling remark: “All blue zircon is pretty much not real, right?” The dealer at Mayer & Watt gave him a quick-and-dirty tutorial on zircon, the earth’s oldest gemstone.

Roger Dery Gemstones

“This is why zircon has a hard climb in the gem world,” sighs Watt. “People hear ‘sapphire’ and they know it’s real, but people hear ‘zircon’ and their mind travels to an unknown world.”

Mayer & Watt Gemstones

The name is one of the gem’s struggles in the marketplace, but the reality that it is abundant, brilliant (its dispersion rate is just below that of a diamond), reasonably priced, and available in larger sizes (than spinel) makes it an underdog gem poised for greater popularity. Consider the position of spinel 15 years ago and how it grew in significance because fine-quality rubies had grown pricy. Spinel is now a great alternative to fine ruby for color and price, making some dealers wonder if zircon could be the next up-and-comer to spinel, though there are a few important differences.

“I have been seeing more zircons in the Spectrum & Cutting Edge Awards, but I’ve also been seeing a whole lot of spinel in the past five years,” notes Douglas K. Hucker, CEO of the American Gem Trade Association, the group responsible for those awards.

Zircon Versus Spinel

Differences between the two mined gems start with sources. Both gems are found worldwide, with the most important deposits of zircon in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania, while spinel’s come from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Tanzania, and Vietnam.

The gems also differ in availability, cost, and durability. Zircon is more abundant than spinel, making it less expensive, and fine qualities and sizes of zircons are more readily available than for spinel. Spinel, however, is a more durable gem, 8.0 on the Mohs scale versus a 7.5 for zircon. Origin factors into pricing for spinel, with Mahenge spinel from Tanzania commanding higher prices, just as a Ceylon moniker does for sapphires.

Spinel also needs less treatment to be attractive, while some estimates put 85 percent of all blue zircon as heated to achieve neon colors—gems that rival pricy Paraiba tourmaline for a fraction of the cost. Natural colors of brown zircon, too, almost always make viewers think they’re looking at diamonds because of zircon’s high refractive index or natural sparkle.

But when it comes to the ruby-like colors of red, spinel reigns supreme, which is why demand for it has grown so much, causing prices to rise. Red zircons are rare; rose-colored zircons are more plentiful.

Simon Watt of Mayer and Watt has a red zircon in his private collection, but the only way you can see that it’s red is to shine a light through it. Red spinel just can’t be compared to red zircon. “The greatest similarities they have are that they’re two off-market stones getting a better seat at the table.”

A wide range of colors is evident in both, though spinel may have a slightly more rainbowlike variety. Purple is rare to see in zircon while green is the elusive color for spinel. Geoffrey Watt once found a natural-color green spinel while sorting through hundreds of 4 mm round stones. It was small, and never made its way to market. “It’s a true green and not for sale,” he says.

What Sells in the Market

Considering that the color blue is the world’s most popular hue, both zircon and spinel have comparable footing. Natural-color blue spinel is found in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Tanzania, among other locations, though its hues can often be grayish blue. Blue zircons are found in Cambodia and are largely heated to enhance color, thereby diminishing their durability but not their popularity. “Blue zircon is one of my top-five best-selling blue gems,” says Afshin Hackman of Intercolor.

And while it’s true that zircon’s blues can abrade over time, Hucker suggests selling them with the same caution stores do for pearls or tanzanite. “Just be more careful with it,” he says.

In terms of cost, two- to four-carat fine Cambodian blue zircons from Kimberly Collins are roughly $330 triple keystone a carat, compared to blue spinel at $2,400 to $3,600 triple keystone. But the neon cobalt blue color in spinel is rare and warrants tremendous prices.

Then there’s size. Jaimeen Shah of Prima Gems has 8 to 20 ct. zircon sizes available in a good quality, but that’s not the case for spinel. “If you get a 5 ct. spinel, that is a once-in-a-lifetime stone,” he says.

Romancing the sale of both is not without challenges. Neither is a mainstream stone in the same way as a diamond, ruby, emerald, or sapphire, and dealers confirm that the bulk of their zircon inventory sells at AGTA GemFair Tucson—few stores call throughout the year to ask for it. The rise of manmade cubic zirconia, too, dealt a blow to mined zircon—a fact that could be negated through more education. Watt tells his customers to put word “natural” in front of zircon so it’s not confused with Zirconia. For market recognition alone, spinel’s attributes likely eclipse those of zircon, but if buyers became more aware of it, the stone could be poised for greater status.

“The value of zircon is so underrated now,” says Shah. “Once someone sees the brilliance of zircon in person, you’ve already made half the sale.”

Raja Shah of Color First sells 10 different colors of zircon and compares many of their hues to natural-color diamonds, for which the gem serves as another alternative. A third of his inventory is zircon; he sees the prices slowly increasing and isn’t surprised. “Once you overcome that barrier that it’s not a manmade stone, it’s pretty smooth sailing.”

(left to right): Blue spinel and blue zircon from Kimberly Collins Gemstones

(left to right): Blue spinel and blue zircon from Kimberly Collins Gemstones

Brown zircon from Prima Gems

Rose-color zircon from Color First

Rose-color zircon from Color First

Spinel from Burma from Pala Gems

Spinel from Burma from Pala Gems

Diana ring in 18k yellow gold with a 5.78 ct. Mahenge spinel and 5.35 cts. t.w. diamonds, $187,000; Erica Courtney, email jilienne@ericacourtney.com for purchase

Diana ring in 18k yellow gold with a 5.78 ct. Mahenge spinel and 5.35 cts. t.w. diamonds, $187,000;
Erica Courtney, email jilienne@ericacourtney.com for purchase


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Jewelry Industry News Wire

Retailers Host Virtual Roundtables to Keep Gemstone Jewelry Sales Alive

New York City. March 18, 2021. Jason Baskin couldn’t be happier about The Gem Vault’s first virtual roundtable event, which took place on Facebook Live at the end of February.

Roger Dery Gemstones

“I’ve watched friends do live mineral and gem shows with normally up to 20 people online at a time, but we had 50 on at all times!” says the jewelry designer and gemstone cutter at the Flemington, N.J.–based store.

Mayer & Watt Gemstones

Many merchants are looking for creative ways to keep ringing up sales during coronavirus times, and virtual roundtables could be an option. In-person roundtables are a tried-and-true way for retailers, especially those with robust in-house design departments, to lure in colored stone collectors to shop special gems from cutters and dealers and then have custom pieces made by the store. In light of the global pandemic, live events have understandably not been happening, leaving industry scrambling to figure out new methods. This is why virtual versions of roundtables have arisen as potentially viable and profitable alternatives.

In fact, once people simply become aware of this way of shopping, some get hooked. “I sold a couple of rings to a girl in North Carolina who never came into my store at all,” says Laurie Kottke of Laurie Kottke Fine Jewelry in Minneapolis, Minn., about one virtual event she held with Roger Dery Gemstones. (She’s held two to date with Dery.)

How Virtual Roundtables Work

Platforms to produce virtual events include Zoom and Instagram and Facebook Live, among others. And just like in live roundtables, gems are numbered, but that’s where the similarities end. Since participants aren’t in person and can’t examine live gems and pass them from one seatmate to the next, specific studio setups are required to showcase gems on screens.

First, both the store and the stone dealer agree ahead of time as to who actually has the gems in their possession; according to interviewees, it’s a 50/50 mix. All stones are shown loose on a rotating turntable similar to a lazy Susan, with myriad empty trays set up for shoppers’ dibbed rocks to accumulate. Lighting of stones and tripods are key, as is an array of smart phone cameras for an event on Zoom—one should be focused on the dealer, one on a store host or hostess, and at least one on the loose gems. Also helpful: a slideshow presentation of photos and information about each gem, so viewers can see those details while someone is talking about the stone’s attributes and someone else is rotating the gem to catch the light. Alternatively, a camera could be pointing at a gem in a lightbox.

“It takes at least three people to do this right,” observes Lois Wacholtz, owner of Christopher & Co. in Champaign, Ill. Wacholtz and now-deceased stone dealer Barney Goff pioneered the roundtable idea in 1987; she has done four virtual events to date and has four more scheduled to take place this year. Her highest-grossing one, held over three consecutive nights with dealer Penny Nisenbaum, rang up $27,000 in gross sales.

The number of stones and guests also differ widely for virtual roundtables. For many jewelers, live event attendees typically number about 12, while there can be as many as 130 stones. Numbers of virtual guests can be much greater—consider The Gem Vault’s 50 guests—while numbers of stones are often less, anywhere from 30 to 80.

Stacey Friant of Ken Walker Jewelers in Gig Harbor, Washington, held a virtual roundtable in July 2020 with Artinian Gems, where 25 attended. Dealer David Artinian showed 30 gems total, and Friant sold 12 stones that night, ultimately making a custom piece for each. “It wasn’t as good as an in-store event, but I was happy with how it turned out,” she reveals. Her biggest sale of the night? A $4,000 cushion-shape royal blue sapphire.

Price points are another consideration, with many for virtual events lower than in-person ones. Friant’s gem selections started at just $100. Dery, too, oftentimes offers moderately priced stones at virtual events because of the obvious barriers in communicating the specialness of pricier gems online. “We’re not showing a $40,000 stone to start,” he says of his inventory, much of which is from East Africa, a place where he travels extensively and reinvests profits back into local mining and education initiatives.

His first virtual roundtable took place in March 2020 and resulted in the sale of seven gems. Dery often works with retailers with whom he’s traveled to East Africa, so their clients are interested in stories of his work on the ground.

“He’s not just selling stones to my clients—they are really buying into gems with a purpose,” explains Kottke, who held her first virtual roundtable with Dery in the summer of 2020 and who traveled to Kenya with him in 2019. At her roundtable, she had two couples and three individuals present, making at least one stone sale to each party.

Learning Curves & Success Stories

For sure, participants all must learn to be comfortable on the digital platform of their choosing and in securing the right mix of clients. Plus, hospitality was still a consideration. Friant hand-delivered the store’s signature baked cookies—white chocolate chip macadamia nut and cranberry oatmeal from Otis Spunkmeyer—to each person’s home. Wacholtz, too, sent snacks to locals, while Kottke shipped bottles of wine (where possible, depending on state laws) and cheese and crackers that arrived an hour before the event started. “People were just excited to get a gift at their door!” she maintains.

Kristine Wylie of Jewelsmith in Durham, N.C., held one event with John J. Bradshaw in mid-October. She invited 75 guests, and 30 attended, and her staff chose 40 gems from photos for Bradshaw to highlight. The store sold 12 that night and have made a third of those custom pieces thus far, gleaning tips to improve future events. Among them? More prep time and spacing out in-store staffers, who were each logged in separately. “When you’re too close you get a terrible echo,” she recollects.

To better romance each sale, they would also need to see stones in person before the roundtable, not just work from a list and images—information that would have been helpful to share in a slideshow presentation. “If it was difficult for us to remember the stones, then it was definitely tough for our clients.” The dibbing process, too, got a little complicated, with some clients texting store employees instead of doing so on the chat. Still, the overall experience was good. “This really opens us up to long-distance sales since we have a lot of clients who aren’t local,” adds Wylie.

Meanwhile, The Gem Vault’s Baskin is eager to roll out more virtual roundtables (his next one will be in early April), given the success of his first. The store made a few sales that night and even more in the days that followed, keeping the gems in store for a period after the live event. “People were coming in with lists to see specific stones or were calling about ones they didn’t pull the trigger on that night,” he says. Out of the 65 stones shown, upwards of 17 sold; five custom jobs have deposits, and four more are in the works, including a $20,000 emerald bracelet.

Virtual Event Takeaways

  • Roll with the mistakes—laugh.
  • Plan for a two-hour event.
  • Employ old-fashioned clienteling to source the right guests and stones.
  • Get a manicure. (Ungroomed fingernails can distract from the gems.)
  • Role play on your platform before the event.
Dioptase drusy from Kazahkstan, $640; email penrocks@sonic.net for purchase

Dioptase drusy from Kazahkstan, $640; email Penny Nisenbaum at penrocks@sonic.net for purchase

Purple sapphire from Roger Dery Gems

Purple sapphire from Roger Dery Gems


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Jewelry Industry News Wire

A New Show and a Rescheduled One Announced by AGTA for 2021

Dallas. March 18, 2021. The American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) has announced that it will produce two shows for 2021. These include the AGTA GemFair Las Vegas show, which will take place Aug. 24–26, 2021, at the Encore at Wynn Resort, and the new AGTA GemFair Denver, slated for Sept. 18–21, 2021, in conjunction with the Hard Rock Summit (HRS).

Roger Dery Gemstones

AGTA GemFair Las Vegas was originally slated for June 2021 but was shelved until new dates and a new location could be confirmed. AGTA CEO Douglas K. Hucker expressed excitement over the location. “The great thing is we are in the same resort complex as the COUTURE Show and the Las Vegas Antique Jewelry and Watch Show (LVAJWS).”

Mayer & Watt Gemstones

Though each show will maintain separate registrations, AGTA will honor COUTURE and LVAJWS badges. “We will work closely with Encore Resort and local health officials to make sure all safety protocols are in place for the show,” said Ruben Bindra, AGTA board president. Access registration for GemFair Las Vegas here

Meanwhile, the AGTA GemFair Denver show will be an integral part of Sparkle & Joy, a section of the HRS dedicated to fine gemstones, fine jewelry, and extraordinary gemstone objects. “GemFair Denver is in a beautiful location, and the timing is perfect for stocking up for the holiday season,” says Hucker. Registration for GemFair Denver will be accessible on the AGTA website soon.

The dates for the 2022 AGTA GemFair™ Tucson are February 1–6, 2022. For more information, email shows@agta.org.


Jewelry Industry News Wire

No AGTA GemFair Tucson? No Problem for Some AGTA Dealers Who Held Virtual Events

New York City. March 15, 2021. For the first time in 42 years, stone dealer John J. Bradshaw had to spend winter entirely at home in New Hampshire because there was no American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) GemFair Tucson fair to attend. Despite that fact, however, the specialist in rare stones (like benitoite and sphene), who runs an eponymous firm, still almost matched the monies he made at last year’s show. His savior? Internet sales.

Roger Dery Gemstones

“I was thinking if we could do 30 percent of what we did last year, that would be great,” he says about 2020 GemFair Tucson sales, which were his best in 40 years. “We did 90 percent of what we did last year, with top clients spending even more on Zoom than they did in person.”

Like all stone dealers this year who were without Tucson gem shows, Bradshaw was forced to find other means of making sales. (Besides the canceled AGTA event, there are roughly 40 other venues to shop during the same early February time period, many of which also didn’t occur.) Like many others—dealers, retailers, designers, and more—he turned to digital efforts to fill the void. From Instagram Live to Zoom, sales occurred in myriad ways, with many AGTA dealers getting creative in order to keep business happening. The upside of this dilemma? Innovative techniques that will amplify all sales efforts moving forward.

Mayer & Watt Gemstones

“This challenge made us work harder to develop other sales channels like ecommerce, and I don’t think that’s changing,” notes Raja Shah of Color First.

A Successful Event

Not surprisingly, Instagram Live played a role in sales for many dealers. Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House used both his @columbiagemhouse and @columbiagemhousetradeshow accounts with success. He held 13 events on Instagram over seven days, averaging about two Lives each day at 45 minutes apiece. The @columbiagemhouse account is open to anyone, and that’s where he held informational talks—no sales, as those occurred on the other handle. He covered sapphires in all colors, tourmaline, and green beryl, among other gems. “We also sold quite a bit of Sea of Cortez pearls, and we oversold moonstone by 10 times,” says Braunwart.

Complicating demand was his own Covid-19 status: positive on the third day of his digital sales series. Still, business continued. Four email accounts were set up to facilitate appointments, orders, and sales, with the bulk of purchases resulting from private Zoom calls. “Appointments are where a lot of our sales came from,” say Braunwart, who set up a broadcast room with dozens of trays of inventory, just like at a live Tucson show. To further help set the mood, a cactus poster was visible behind him on screen. He contacted clients through email, Instagram posts, his weekly e-newsletter, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat. Clients could email to set up an appointment, and images of trays of stones could also be viewed at a Dropbox link. “People could scroll through it like a catalog,” he observes. The overall result? Pretty good. Braunwart isn’t yet done totaling up sales but is optimistic. “I think we’ll still be pretty close to Tucson’s number last year, and that was our best show in 20 years.”

Zooming for Sales

Many dealers relied on Zoom to show stones and close sales. Niveet Nagpal of Omi Prive held 12 calls on the platform to move Paraiba tourmaline and spinel, among other gems. He, too, set up trays of goods just as if he were at GemFair, and price points of sales were higher than he expected. “Clients who previously spent maybe $2,000 on a stone were spending $3,000 or $4,000,” he says.

Bradshaw, who typically brings upwards of 125 different types of gems to Tucson, had 11 Zooms over eight days, and seven of them were private with his biggest customers. Four group Zooms, meanwhile, allowed a multitude of shoppers to compete for stones; winners had only to type in “sold” first into chat to stake a claim. “It was a bit like herding cats but went really well,” he explains. “It took a couple of hours to download the chat and see who had made claims first.”

And though Jaimeen Shah of Prima Gems didn’t hold a Tucson event specifically, he did conduct a lot of virtual business meetings. “I’ve never had more 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. meetings in my life,” he maintains. The hours may be odd, but the impact of connecting a buyer, a sales agent, and a cutter on the same call is priceless. “It was amazing,” he says of his highly organized meetings. “At a show, a customer asks us about a variation, and then we have to ask the factory and get back to them, but all of those pivots were accomplished in one call,” he says.

For sure, Shah is hooked on Zoom; he’s held about 100 calls in the last six months. Not surprisingly, he had a paid account to hold calls longer than 45 minutes (allotted with free accounts) but eventually abandoned it for the free one—not because he’s cheap, but because it was better for business. “The meeting should end in 45 minutes,” he says. “Anything longer and you start digressing from the focus.”

Tips to Host Virtual Events

To organize your own successful digital events, AGTA dealers interviewed for this article offer these tips.

Plan early. Braunwart started planning four weeks ahead of time, and he wishes he’d started six weeks ahead. If he had, perhaps he would have hit his goal—selling every stone in inventory. “We didn’t sell every single one, but boy we were close!”

Be enthusiastic. Part of the fun of Tucson shows is connecting with friends over a shared passion. Nagpal suggests bringing that enthusiasm to each digital encounter. “We’re communicating about all our beautiful stones in different ways to create an overall excitement,” he says.

Analyze your strategy. Bradshaw thought that holding multiple events at different times for the same material would make sense for clients based all over the world, but he found that one time slot worked just fine. “My Japanese buyers stayed up late to see material first—they didn’t want to wait for a time convenient to them, they wanted first crack at the stones,” he says of events held during Eastern Daylight Time business hours.

Have good lighting. Ring lights and natural daylight are key to illuminating inventory. Tripods to hold phones or iPads help, too, should you need to steady your video source—if you are not using your laptop or desktop.

Focus on quality of buyer, not quantity. Connect with your best shoppers for private appointments. “So much information is being thrown at people right now since this is the only way to shop,” observes Shah. “You have to be focused and different.”

Helen Shull of Out of Our Mines took to the Internet, too, to reach clients in lieu of a live trade show. She showed a lot of new inventory, including calibrated sets and vintage coral, on her business’s Instagram account @outofourmines. Photographing inventory early helped, but moving forward, she would send out more emails ahead of time. “Trying to wing it is tough,” she says. Still, she’s grateful online marketing was an option at all. “[Virtual sales] aren’t a substitute for a live trade show, but thank goodness we can do them,” she says.

Montana sapphire from Prima Gems

Montana sapphire from Prima Gems


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