Friday, January 21, 2022

Precious or semi-precious, what’s the difference?

Blue Zircon from Cambodia. Submitted

Blue Zircon from Cambodia. Submitted

Most retail jewelers will consider this question an easy way to suffocate a sale, but nevertheless it is an intelligent question. What would be expected to be a rare or expensive gemstone has changed over the centuries. We all know the four basic precious gemstones: the king of kings, the diamond; and then, of course, the ruby; the emerald; and the sapphire.

Guess what? The playing field has changed. Today there are gemstones that are actually more expensive than diamonds! For example, rare Russian alexandrite can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per carat and can exceed the cost of most diamonds weighing exactly the same.

The ancient Egyptians prized turquoise. Other cultures considered lapis, or jade, the primo gem. That is not the case today. So let’s back to the point. Anyone who travels and checks out the prices of fine tanzanite realizes they are not giving that gemstone away. Because it has become a rare gemstone in large sizes, the price per carat reflects this.

Certain varieties of tourmaline, the most common green in color, in large sizes command high prices, especially the neon blue Pariba tourmaline that is difficult to find. Then there are fine Chinese jades that command obscenely expensive prices for their possession. (Don’t confuse Chinese jade with cheap oriental jade.) It is a fact that, for years, if you were convicted of smuggling rare jade from communist China it could result in a death sentence!

I cut my teeth learning that certain stones were more expensive than others: amethyst, citrine, and peridot were relatively inexpensive when I was young apprentice. In my forty years in this business I have seen what I felt were ‘insignificant gems” become not so insignificant. The demand for many types of rare garnet, such as tsavorite, a beautiful brilliant green stone, has made it increasingly expensive and I would now have to consider it a precious gem. I have paid top dollar for some outstanding Vietnamese peridot that years ago I never knew existed. The biggest surprise is the escalation in price of aquamarine. What used to cost only a few dollars a carat is now worth hundreds or even thousands.

OK, I understand it can be perplexing. For example, many jewelers confuse citrine with topaz, and aquamarine with blue topaz. Guess what? Citrine is pretty inexpensive, and so is some topaz, such as smoky topaz–which actually, is not topaz at all! Blue topaz is colored by man, not Mother Nature; and especially “mystic topaz,” again enhanced by man, is not a valuable gem. True South American precious topaz is worth mucho denero, or shall I say, “big bucks,” and is in great demand.

My favorite gem, the zircon, is a totally ignored gem. No, it is not the old diamond simulation that comes to your mind. Besides the color white, did you know this gem possess many shades? The vibrant blue (December’s birthstone) can also be found in yellow, brown, and even red. In small sizes, it is reasonably priced, but expensive in large carat size.

The demand of most opals, which includes whites, blues, black and boulder, has astonished me in the past five or six years, and I would definitely place them in the precious pigeon hole. To keep up with the demand of certain colors, such as orange, pinks and blues, the market has been flooded with imitations and enhancements to satisfy the masses. The buyer must be more aware than ever, and wonder if the gemstone they are purchasing is, in fact, a gem or a cheap imitation. Believe me, only a trained and experienced eye knows the difference between fake and real, and expensive purchases should only be made from a jeweler you trust.

Day after day I encounter customers who ignorantly purchase gems abroad, only to find out the value was misrepresented and they paid way too much. But good news: I will touch on identifying certain gemstones and prevent you from paying too much in the next week’s column, so you can ask the right questions, get your money’s worth and feel confident when purchasing popular gems.

Richard Alan is a designer /goldsmith and owner of The Harbor Goldsmith and Richard’s Reef on Marco Island. He welcomes your questions about “All that glitters.” Call 239-394-9275 or visit

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