Whenever stock markets fluctuate widely and global economic forecasts are uncertain, there is stronger interest in tangible assets. Diamonds and colored gemstones are among the rarest and most desired of all things and have also performed well historically, so it is no surprise that they are again gaining the attention of investors, who have an unusual opportunity today. Changes in the types of gemstones now on the market also put investors at greater risk however; the term “natural” is used only to distinguish gems created by nature from “synthetic” gems made in labs or factories. Today, most “natural” gems are, in reality, treated in some way.
For many decades most sapphires and rubies have been heated to improve color and clarity, and most emeralds contain some type of filler to reduce the visibility of fractures typical of the extreme geological conditions under which they form. With each passing year we find new treatments and a wider variety of gemstones being “improved.” Unless a gemstone is accompanied by documentation from a respected gem testing laboratory stating that the gemstone is both “natural” and has not been treated in any way, one must assume the gemstone could have been treated.
There is nothing wrong with buying or selling treated gemstones. In fact, were it not for the use of treatments, only the wealthiest among us would be wearing gemstone jewelry today. But it is still possible to find natural gemstones that have not been enhanced; it is these that are becoming rarer and rarer, and these that investors should be seeking.
In the diamond industry, people are paying close attention to the rate at which prices for large diamonds (over five carats) of very fine quality (D-F color/FL–VS2 clarity) have been escalating over the past year, with no indication of reversal. All of the major auction houses are seeing record-setting prices: at a recent Sotheby’s auction in Geneva, five diamond lots—with stones ranging from 10.69 carats (D/VVS1) to18.00 carats (G/VS2)—sold for over $1,000,000! The historic 34.98 carat Beau Sancy diamond, a stone with a royal history going back over 400 years, fetched $9.7 million dollars, almost five times its pre-auction estimate, and it is not of exceptional quality; its color is very tinted (K) and it is slightly included (SI1 clarity). The following month an 8.01 carat fancy-color vivid blue diamond with VVS1 clarity fetched $13 million in Hong Kong.
There are also unusual opportunities for fine, rare, colored gemstones with documentation that no enhancement has been used; for the finest quality natural gemstones, documentation of origin (such as Burma for ruby, Kashmir for sapphire, Colombia for emerald, and so on) can also affect value. Demand for such stones is rapidly outpacing supply, and I see this gap widening over the next 10 years as wealth continues to spread to more people globally and the markets for precious stones expands in Southeast Asia and China. Demand and appreciation for rare, naturally beautiful colored gemstones will probably outpace diamond performance. Record-breaking auction prices for emeralds, rubies and sapphires are driving up prices dramatically. At Christie’s in Geneva, a brooch centering a 47.15 carat natural sapphire of Burma origin brought $3.6 million dollars, almost six times its pre-auction estimate of $482,000-$590,000. At Sotheby’s Geneva sale, a ring with a natural ruby weighing 7.66 carats reached $1.12 million dollars, almost twice the pre-auction estimate. At Christie’s Hong Kong sale a month later, a ring containing a 6.04 carat ruby of Burma origin hit $3.3 million, a record $551,000 per carat, well over its pre-auction estimate.
There have also been significant price increases in less-well-known natural gemstones such as alexandrite, spinel and tsavorite. An amazing red spinel necklace (an Indian Moghul piece) set a world record for spinel in 2011, at $5,210,902. In Christie’s recent Hong Kong sale, a ring with a 15.58 carat alexandrite sold for $934,480. (Alexandrite has been sought by connoisseurs for many years, but never at such prices). Spinels and tsavorite (a rare emerald-green variety of the garnet family) used to sell for a few hundred dollars per carat in the finest quality; these natural beauties are now several thousand dollars per carat.
Most experts agree that prices will go much higher. Supporting this are gloomy predictions about the fact that mine production has been decreasing and extraction costs increasing. Since diamonds and gemstones represent a very small percentage of their total profits, it is expected that many leading mining companies will withdraw from gemstone mining and focus much more heavily on more profitable minerals and metals. Minor players will not have the resources to invest in expensive exploration and extraction.
These predictions, if accurate, combined with increasing demand from emerging economies, point to continued price increases, as well as far more artificially enhanced material entering the market. We're already seeing it; the character of the gem industry is changing. Many treatments can be easily detected by experienced gemologists, but some require sophisticated testing only available at major gem testing laboratories such as the American Gemological Laboratories (New York, NY) or the Gemological Institute of America (New York, NY and Carlsbad, CA). When considering any gemstone investment, having a report from a respected gem-testing laboratory is essential.
A sound investment in gemstones also requires the ability to obtain what you want at prices as close as possible to “wholesale” or below. You cannot buy “retail” and then sell back to a jeweler and expect to make money. Other sources of fine, rare gems include auctions, estate sales; even flea markets and pawnshops.
We are also seeing a re-emergence of private diamond and colored gemstone investment funds, and I can’t overstate the importance of taking time to learn before considering investment. In the late 1970s, when Wall Street “discovered” “diamonds and gemstones, virtually all of the popular investment publications such as Business Week, Fortune magazine and others began to recommend them to investors. Investment houses specializing in diamond and gemstone funds sprang up across the country. Many of them succeeded in conning buyers out of tens of thousands of dollars or more. Investors knew nothing about the products or the market dynamics. There were no books to help lay people understand the ways in which gemstones could be created, duplicated or altered to look better than they really were. With the Wall Street impetus, it didn’t take long for diamond prices to strengthen. In 1978, the wholesale price of a 1-carat diamond of the rarest quality (D/FL) was around $6,100; by March 1980 the wholesale price of such a stone had soared to $62,000! In September 1981, the price for that same quality stone plunged to $23,000, and by 1985, it bottomed out at about $9,600 per carat. Some investors, conned into buying fakes, lost everything they’d invested. Some purchased stones in sealed containers, with warnings—if the seal was broken, all buy-back guarantees were voided. Shockingly, many didn’t realize that if you couldn’t remove the stone from the sealed container there was no way to know if it was what it was represented to be! The same scenario occurred with colored gemstones, where the absence of universal grading standards made it even easier to exploit investors.
There are still many pitfalls, but in my opinion, the world of diamonds and gemstones has changed in ways that provide unique investment opportunities for the serious investor. It is still true that investment risk is greater with diamonds and gemstones because of the scientific complexities. As with other specialty investment areas, successful investment requires extensive knowledge, or the availability of expert counsel to guide you in making a careful selection, one stone at a time.
Today however, there is also much more information available about what to look for and how to avoid the risks. There are quicker, easier ways confirm the facts. There is greater awareness of the quality factors that affect rarity, desirability and value. There is greater due diligence with regard to verifying facts before money changes hands.
The best advice I can offer? The wisest initial investment in diamonds or gemstones is to take the time to learn as much as possible about their sparkling history and allure, about the factors that set one apart from the other, and about the hidden dangers as well as the delights!