Coloured gemstones are on the rise. Here’s what to look for when shopping for one

Whether it’s the 12-carat sapphire ring that Prince William chose to make his proposal to Kate Middleton or the 128.54-carat Tiffany diamond worn by Lady Gaga to the Oscars, coloured gemstones are gaining favour over traditional white diamonds.

Splashes of colour have been used in jewellery design for centuries, of course, but colourless diamonds have reigned supreme among gemstones since at least the 19th century. After the De Beers Mining Company was established in 1888, diamonds quickly became symbols of power and romance, notions that were reinforced in 1946 when New York copywriter Frances Gerety came up with the company’s iconic advertising slogan: “A Diamond is Forever.”

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“A decade ago, colourless diamonds were widely perceived by consumers to be the most prestigious of gems,” says Gemfields CEO Sean Gilbertson. “Now the swing toward precious coloured gemstones is overwhelming, with robust demand prompting double-digit growth in many countries.” Gemfields, the world’s leading supplier of responsibly sourced coloured gemstones, announced in March that it expects to record US$39.1 million in net profit for 2019, with its Montepuez mine in Mozambique, the richest known ruby deposit, generating revenue of almost US$122 million. Maybe this is because today’s jewellery buffs are seeking something unique—a one-of-a-kind treasure that’s yours and yours alone.

A Little Something Different

Let’s face it, white-diamond tennis bracelets just don’t cut it any more. Modern customers want something that’s different and personal, and Dior’s fat, juicy cabochons or Chaumet’s pump, bulbous rubellites can be viewed as enhancing a sense of individual style. Whether floating off-centre above a chunky pavé ring or swinging about the neck off a diamond-dusted chain, colour combinations or one-off shades say something that’s exclusive to you.

De Beers’ Andrew Coxon (Photo: Richard Foster)
The Talisman collection by De Beers features different coloured gemstones (Photo: John Bennett)

High-calibre mines like Montepuez and stricter international rules have also helped drive a comeback for coloured stones, after a series of exposés in the late-1990s criticised jewellers for not disclosing colour-enhancing treatments such as oiling and filling. “Mozambique’s consistency and transparency of supply has instilled renewed confidence in rubies and has enabled high-end jewellery brands to create extraordinary capsule collections with fine rubies they would typically have spent years collecting,” says Gilbertson.

Acclaimed Hong Kong jewellery artist Wallace Chan tells me that acquiring the right coloured gemstones for his creations can take “months, years and even decades”. Well known for his sculptural works that are deeply rooted in Chinese culture and philosophy, Chan’s gem-faceting and patented jade technology has revolutionised haute joaillerie.

“China enjoys a long history with coloured gemstones, especially jade,” says Gilbertson. “The region is also fond of ruby’s vibrant red colour, which represents luck, happiness, beauty, vitality, success and good fortune.”

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Jeweller Wallace Chan (Photo: Isaac Lawrence)
Chan’s Ruby Castle ring is set with pink sapphires (Photo: Courtesy of Wallace Chan)

A Colourful Comeback

Sotheby’s Asia is also experiencing an increased interest in Mozambique rubies, says deputy chairman Wenhao Yu, because information about diamond alternatives is more readily available. “The surge can be attributed, in part, to a class of increasingly sophisticated jewellery collectors who are buying into an expanded array of gemstones.” And not only rubies. “Other rare gemstones have also interested buyers in recent years, including spinels, alexandrites and Paraiba tourmalines.”

The Paraiba tourmaline is Lucia Silvestri’s favourite. “Demand for it has grown exponentially over the years,” says the Bulgari creative director. “It is extremely rare and has an unusual hue that looks like the colours of the sea. Stones like this are a great creative challenge because it’s more difficult to find other gemstones that complement them. But at Bulgari, this is something we love to do.” The brand’s high jewellery collection, Cinemagia, features numerous kaleidoscopic jewels. Standout emeralds, blue diamonds and rows of apple-green chrysoprase take inspiration from cinema’s best-known heroines.

Chan’s Birth and Blossom emerald earrings are embellished with yellow and pink sapphires, pearls and conch shell (Photo: Courtesy of Wallace Chan)
Chan’s Faerie titanium brooch is set with pink sapphires, amethysts and diamonds (Photo: Courtesy of Wallace Chan)

Dispelling Myths

Jean Ghika, global head of jewellery at Bonhams, agrees with Yu that the fall and return of coloured stones is about more than shifting fashions. “International auction houses have contributed to collectors’ awareness.” But despite heightened knowledge, clients continue to be misinformed, says Gemfields gemmologist Elena Basaglia. “People sometimes think you can easily tell the origin of a coloured gemstone by its colour and clarity, which isn’t always true. They can also think that a stone’s country of origin has an influence on its price.”

Yu agrees. “‘Origin equals quality’ is one of the most common misconceptions,” he tells me. “New collectors tend to assume that a stone’s origin dictates its value like how a brand does for a watch or a producer does for a wine. This is only partially true—saturation and hue are the key factors when valuing a gemstone.”

Wenhao Yu of Sotheby’s Asia (Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's Asia)
Cartier bracelet sold by Sotheby’s (Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's)

Sound Investment

“Clients are looking for rarity, so fancy coloured diamonds are particularly in demand,” adds president of the De Beers Institute of Diamonds Andrew Coxon, before predicting an increased interest in pink and red diamonds, largely because owner Rio Tinto has announced that its Argyle Diamond Mine has announced it will be closing later this year. Nestled in the remote north of Western Australia, the mine accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s pink diamond production.

According to Rio Tinto, over the past 18 years pink and red diamonds (despite rarely weighing more than two carats) have increased in value by 400 per cent. At a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale just last year, an “exquisite 10.64-carat vivid purplish pink diamond” sold for just under US$20 million. And these aren’t the only coloured gemstones currently outpacing the growth of colourless diamond prices per carat, according to Knight Frank’s Luxury Investment Index.

Bulgari’s Cinemagia necklace (Photo: Antonio Barrella)
The making of Bulgari’s Cinemagia collection (Photo: Antonio Barrella)

Prices for emeralds and rubies now surpass those of a colourless diamond on a per-carat basis. The highest per carat price achieved by an emerald is the 18.04-carat Rockefeller, which sold for US$305,516 per carat in comparison to the world’s most expensive colourless diamond, the 76.02-carat Archduke Joseph, which came in at US$282,545 per carat.

The market for coloured gemstones is heating up, but for Coxon, a jewel’s beauty should always be in the eye of the beholder. “Recent auction prices show just how valuable red and green diamonds have become. They are both more than 200 times more expensive than a colourless diamond of a similar size and quality. But all are a good investment over time, and should be viewed in the same way as you’d appreciate a fine or rare painting.”

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