Words by Sophia King as reported in the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index 2019.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending a breakfast hosted by Gemfields, the world-leading supplier of responsibly sourced coloured gemstones.
The event proved memorable, thanks not only to insightful presentations from CEO Sean Gilbertson and independent fine jewellery specialist Joanna Hardy, but to a remarkable array of uncut emeralds and rubies on display. Sparkling in the light, the gems gave a tantalising glimpse into the beautiful pieces of jewellery they’re destined to become. I left the event fantasising about ornate ruby rings and emerald pendant necklaces.
It’s not just me in awe of these precious gemstones. The appreciation of coloured gemstones dates back centuries, if not millennia, when they were worn for their talismanic properties and believed to be gifts from the gods. Roman emperors and empresses would wear them to cement their status, power and wealth. But the discovery of diamond mines in South Africa in the 1870s, followed by powerful marketing campaigns, saw the likes of emeralds and rubies usurped by diamonds as the supposed ultimate symbol of beauty, love and wealth.
A GROWING APPRECIATION
The past decade, however, has seen a resurgence in the popularity of coloured gemstones. Take a look at the jewellery of British royalty: the Duchess of Cambridge’s deep blue sapphire engagement ring; Meghan Markle’s aquamarine ring; Princess Eugenie’s coral Padparadscha sapphire ring and Boucheron emerald Kokoshnik tiara. Each has sparked countless imitations and inspired thousands to look beyond the traditional diamond.
Gilbertson confirms a markedly growing demand in the sector. “The swing toward precious coloured gemstones is overwhelming, with robust demand prompting double-digit growth in many countries. The past decade has seen the world record prices for an emerald and a ruby surpass that of a colourless diamond on a per carat basis. It surely can’t be long before sapphires overtake diamonds, too.”
Josina von dem Bussche-Kessell, global sales director at Fabergé, names two segments performing particularly well in the coloured gemstone market: “Bespoke, custom-designed coloured gemstone jewellery pieces and everyday coloured gemstone designs.”
Much of the rising popularity of coloured gemstones is due to growing awareness (primarily via the internet and marketing) and developments that have boosted consumer confidence, such as widespread certification, more industry transparency, and gemmological analysis.
The discovery of new gemstone deposits in the likes of Mozambique and Zambia has seen a reliable supply of fine gemstones enter the market, spurring an increase in marketing. The power of this should not be underestimated. In 1948, De Beers coined its ‘a diamond is forever’ slogan to invent the modern day engagement ring; in 2000, Le Vian saw sales rocket after rebranding previously dismissed brown diamonds as ‘chocolate’ diamonds.
Stephan Reif, director of the International Colored Gemstone Association, attributes this increase in marketing coloured gemstones as a result of the “many opportunities [they offer] to create unique product lines at attractive margins”. Hardy, however, attributes it to a more sentimental reason. “Colour speaks to people,” she says. “Gemstones are unique and allow people to have their own preference and identity.”
A comprehensive understanding is imperative to finding the right gem, too. Unlike diamonds, for example, where clarity is a crucial criterion, inclusions in coloured gemstones are accepted as these give each stone their unique character.
The latter is crucial, says Jean Ghika, global head of jewellery at Bonhams. “The rarity factor is an undeniable pull,” she says. “Potential buyers are looking to expand their collections beyond colourless diamonds. They’re keen to seek out the very best examples of highly desirable and rare specimens, whether that be Kashmir sapphires, Burma rubies or no-oil emeralds, the likes of which they may never find again.”
The consideration of geography is important not only in terms of where the gemstones are being mined, but also in where the demand is coming from. “Fabergé is seeing increased demand from Asia in particular for rubies,” says von dem Bussche-Kessell. “There, the colour red represents good luck, fortune and mystery.”
As global demand increases, so too does price. Over the past decade, coloured gemstones have experienced some of the biggest price jumps in history. In 2015, the world’s most expensive ruby sold at auction: a 25.59-carat gem, known as the Sunrise Ruby, for $30m.
Since 2009, Gemfields has held 41 auctions – 30 of Zambian emeralds and 11 of Mozambican rubies – and has now surpassed US$1bn in combined auction revenue, an achievement described by Gilbertson as “a remarkable benchmark that would have been unthinkable a decade ago”.
Yet while the extraordinary quality ‘big three’ – emeralds, rubies and sapphires – are affordable only for a very few, high quality examples of each from newer deposits are currently far more accessible than those from more established origins.
INTO THE FUTURE
So, what’s next for the world of coloured gemstones? Could their growing popularity see them eventually replace diamonds as the ultimate gem for declaring one’s love?
Von dem Bussche-Kessell’s outlook is positive. “Overall, colour is more of a staple than ever before,” she says. “We’re seeing clients be much more adventurous in their choices and a desire to look beyond diamonds.”
Gilbertson agrees, and believes there will be a growing emphasis on where gemstones come from. “We expect vibrant consumer interest and sector growth to continue,” he says. “Responsible sourcing will receive ever-increasing attention and become progressively more important to consumers, making gemstone provenance perhaps the key driving factor.”
Each of the experts I speak with has their own fascinating insight into the world of coloured gemstones, but there’s one thing on which they all firmly agree: synthetic stones won’t ever replace their natural counterparts. As Reif so succinctly puts it: “No technology could replace the magic and fascination of natural coloured gemstones.”