Doings and dealings - part 2

This is Part 2 of a talk I held in front of an audience of german-speaking gemmologists and appraisers at a conference in Vienna´s Museum of Natural History. Thomas Pfneisl, Vienna Gem Center

Changes in international gem trade since 1984

Market changes

A lot has happened In the 35 years since we started our business. There are new channels of distribution, new ways to buy and sell.
Customers´ behaviour, of goldsmiths and jewellers as well as of private customers, has also changed.

When we went on a gem buying trip in the 1980ies, we never knew what we would come home with.
We flew to Asia or Africa, had a look around to find out what gems had been mined and cut lately and, if it fit our bill, we bought them.

Back home we packed our bags and went canvassing from door to door. There were always plenty of jewellers and goldsmiths who bought our stones even without a pending order from a private customer. They bought them simply because they liked them. Sooner or later they turned them into pieces of jewellery and put them on display in the shop window.

Well, these times are over. There is hardly a goldsmith who still buys for stock. And why should he, when whatever gem he needs is just a few mouse clicks away.

Today, as a travelling gem dealer, if you get an appointment at all, the standard phrase after having seen the merchandise, is "Thanks for showing. Should we need anything, we´ll contact you".

For this reason we do not go "on tour" any more. In fact, today we visit customers only upon request.
We are, however, not unhappy with this. After all, it is quite dangerous to travel the country with bags of gemstones.

When before we were actively proffering our gems, we now sit in the office and wait for orders to come in via e-mail, the phone or through the door. The catch is that these requests are, as a rule, very specific. Goldsmiths now ask for e.g. a round Burma ruby, diameter 5.2mm to maximum 5.4mm. Due to the shallow setting total height should be below 3.4mm and price must not exceed € 500.

If you can reply "No problem. We´ll send you two or three rubies to choose  from", chances are you will sell.

This also means, that today you have to keep a much larger stock than 30 years ago. On top of that, your stock must contain a substantially larger portion of high quality and expensive gems. The reason is that the production of "cheap" jewellery has left for Asia long time ago.

Hereabouts there is hardly demand for 5mm amethysts any more. The demand is for 5mm rubies, sapphires, emeralds, tsavorite garnets and other high value gems. Of course, to grow and maintain a stock of ruby is much more expensive than to keep a good stock of amethyst.
So, any newcomer to the trade needs far more seed capital then we did, 35 years ago.

Changes in customer´s preferences

To a degree, gemstones are subject to fashion.
Take, for example, tiger eye. A bestseller in the 1970ies, it is absolutely dead today. I can´t even remember, when we last sold a tiger eye...

Or take blue sapphire. Here the public´s taste has shifted from dark to lighter blue. Sapphires certified with "best colour" in the 1980ies, are too dark for most people´s taste today. Australian, Thai (Kanchanaburi) and Cambodian (Pailin) sapphires, which were considered to be slightly too dark back then but sold nonetheless, turned almost unsellable in the last twenty years.

Much to our pleasure quality standards have changed, meaning risen, as well. Nowadays small round rubies and sapphires have to sport diamond cut and princess squares more or less replaced standard step cut squares.

Less synthetics

Chances to fall for synthetic gems have sunk somewhat in the last thirty years.

One reason is that several growers stopped production or closed shop altogether.
Gilson´s turquoise and lapis lazuli imitations, Ramaura´s and Knischka´s synthetic rubies, as well as the famous Lechleitner emeralds no longer pose a real threat.

Of course some new players have joined the game but in general we feel that the percentage of synthetics on the international gem markets has fallen noticeably.

Another reason is that gemmology today has much more sophisticated means of testing gems, like raman spectroscopy or x-ray fluorescence analysis, at it´s hands.

More treatments

Treatment of gem stones and thus the detection of treatment methods has gained in importance significantly.

In former times corundum was heated, emeralds were oiled and agates were dyed but that was it, basically.

In the 1980ies diffusion treated blue sapphires hit the market. The reason why rubies treated this way never really made it, is, as we think, that nobody wants to pay the electricity bill. Processing times for sapphire are measured in hours, perhaps days. With rubies we are talking weeks!

Then came irradiation, first of topaz (London Blue was the first colour thus produced), beryllium diffusion and coating by chemical vapour deposition.

Clarity enhancement saw some progress, too.
Cedar oil, which was widely used to improve the clarity of emeralds, was replaced by synthetic resins and, starting in the 1990ies, fissures in Mong Hsu (Burma) rubies were "healed" with borax.

Last but not least we need to mention those infamous glas-filled "rubies". The quotation marks are here for a reason because with glass contents of up to 75% (!!) one cannot seriously call these "stones" ruby. In fact, gemmological labs call them "hybrid ruby", "composite ruby" or the like.


In the past 35 years many technological innovations revolutionized communications, trade and gemmological labs.
Thanks to new testing methods it is now actually easier to detect, say, the beryllium treatment of a padparaja sapphire, then it was back then to identify a Knischka ruby of the latest generation.

So, the bottom line is that our lives as gem traders have become significantly easier over time...