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.
“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.”
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
Brown zircon from Prima Gems
Rose-color zircon from Color First
Spinel from Burma from Pala Gems
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