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Buying Guide

Gemstone Quality



Buying Gemstones

All gems are not created equal, and they're not sold that way either.

The Basics
As with diamonds, gemstone quality and value are evaluated according to the "Four Cs": color, clarity, cut, and carat weight. And there's one other, much less scientific factor--perception.

Color, not surprisingly, is the key factor. A common misperception in judging gems is people assume that the darker the color, the better the stone. That isn't true: color can be too dark, as with some sapphires that look more black than blue. If a gem's color is too dark, it is subdued and lifeless. A much better rule of thumb is the brighter and more rich and vivid the color the better. In general, within each gemstone variety, a clear, medium-tone, very intense and saturated basic color is the most preferred. Muted colors or colors between hues, which some might find very attractive, are usually less expensive. Look at the color in different kinds of light, since the light spectrum can affect color grealty.

The next most important factor affecting value is clarity, with clear transparent gemstones with no visible flaws being the most valued. Some gemstone varieties, notably emerald and red tourmaline, are very rare without inclusions of some kind so the price structure takes this into account. Other gems are actually valued for their inclusions! Tiny inclusions reflecting back light put the eye in cat's-eye chrysoberyl and the star in star sapphire and ruby. Inclusions can also act as a birthmark, telling where a particular gemstone was mined.

A good cut is something that may not cost more but can add or subtract a lot of beauty. A well-cut faceted gemstone reflects light back evenly across its surface area when held face up. If the stone is too deep and narrow, areas will be dark. If it is too shallow and wide, parts of the stone will be washed out and lifeless.

Gemstones are generally sold by weight not by size. Some gems are denser than others so the same weight stone may be a different size! The carat weight also affects the price--large gemstones are usually more rare, so the price per carat is higher.

Which Half is Precious Again?
In general, gemstone pricing within each variety follows common sense: the better final visual effect of all the quality factors, the more valuable it is. But different varieties have different price ranges. This is where the perception factor comes in. Some varieties are lower in price because they are readily available, some because the color isn't very popular (brown and yellow stones, for example), some because the material is relatively soft, and some because... they have all the right stuff but no one knows it. There are plenty of examples of beautiful rare gemstones that cost less than gems that are less rare because they have a funny name, or people get them confused with an inexpensive variety or no one has ever heard of them.

The gemstone business in the past was dominated by the "big three"-- ruby, emerald, and sapphire. When other gemstone varieties began to be popular in jewelry, the jewelry industry got tired of calling them "colored gemstones other than ruby, emerald and sapphire." Unfortunately, the term they made up for these other stones was "semi-precious" since the big three were often called precious stones, probably from the French "pierres precieuse." Unfortunately the French terminology was not followed for the other stones, or they would be known as "fine gemstones," which is much better.


The problem with "semi-precious," and the reason why the jewelry industry has essentially banned its use, is that it is quite misleading. Rubies, emeralds, and sapphires can sell for less than $100 per carat and a fine Paraiba tourmaline, for example, can sell for $20,000 per carat!

For Simplicity's Sake&
We can break the price ranges of the different gem varieties down into five basic categories: traditional gemstones, new classics, connoisseur gems, collector gemstones, and affordable gems. These categories have basic price ranges, but, again lower quality stones or stones with less popular colors may cost less and stones with particularly fine quality or color may cost more. These price ranges are meant to give you a general idea of the relationship of prices between different kinds of gemstones.

The traditional gemstones are ruby, emerald and blue sapphire. Because of their lasting appeal and distinguished history, ruby, emerald and sapphire are generally more valuable than other colored gemstones. Generally, ruby and emerald are also priced higher than a comparable quality sapphire due to rarity. For a one-carat stone of average to good quality in the varieties in this category, you can expect to pay between $250 and $10,000 per carat. Of course truly fine gems will cost more.

The new classics are gemstones that are the rising stars of gemstone jewelry: tanzanite, tourmaline, aquamarine, imperial topaz, and tsavorite garnet. These gemstones are usually available in standardized sizes but you really should look at some fine larger single stones to see why they have so many fans. Gems in this category range between $50 to $1,000 per carat for an average to good quality one carat stone, with a good example of tsavorite easily reaching $3,000 per carat.

Connoisseur gems are gemstones that have a more specialized market because they are more rare. These gemstones include black opal, jadeite, pink topaz, chrysoberyl cat's-eye, fancy colored sapphires, and rare stones like demantoid garnet and alexandrite which are practically "extinct" in rough form. These gemstones are highly prized and prices range from $250 to $5,000 per carat, although alexandrite with a good color change will command at least $10,000 even in a one-carat size.

Collector's gems are not available in quantity to be marketed effectively so you get a lot of beauty for the money. This category includes spinel, zircon, moonstone, morganite and other beryls, and many rare other gemstones. Red and hot pink spinels can command a few thousand per carat but most of the gems in this category will sell for hundreds not thousands, even for specimens with excellent color.

Then there are the affordable gemstones, which combine great color with a surprisingly reasonable price and good availability. These gems include some old favorites and some new gems: amethyst, white opal, citrine, ametrine, peridot, rhodolite garnet, blue topaz, iolite, chrome diopside, kunzite, andalusite, and many ornamental gemstones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise, onyx, chrysoprase, nephrite jade, and amber. Prices for these gemstone range between $5 and $100 per carat for a one-carat stone.

In every variety, especially the more expensive ones, you should expect to pay more for matched pairs, sets, and special shapes and cuts.

When you shop for gemstones in jewelry stores you will see a range in qualities. Generally, you will find low to medium quality gemstones set in jewelry and a wider range of qualities in unset gemstones. Often the jeweler will have to call in top quality gemstones from a supplier: most jewelers do not stock a wide selection of fine gems, even in ruby, sapphire, and emerald.

How can you comparison shop on the web? Very carefully. Some sites make extravagant claims about the "investment quality" of their stock. With gemstones, color is the most important value factor but it is difficult to compare online because the differences between monitors makes color comparison of even the best photographs difficult.

To counter this effect, the better gem retailers, such as Alrashid Cyber Mall, will only stock and sell top-quality gems because it is very difficult to show subtle quality differences on the screen. Also, a liberal return policy can assure you of the opportunity to independently appraise your gem to verify its quality. Certainly lesser quality, less expensive gems can be sourced out by retailers who offer finding services. But before you decide to trade down in quality, think about choosing a top quality gemstone in a more unusual gemstone variety instead.




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