The marketing slogan “All Natural” has been used for years to advertise products from cereal to shampoo. Now some gem dealers are using it to market their natural, unenhanced gem material – and to distance themselves from negative publicity over treatments.
Why not take advantage of the fact that stones like garnet, peridot, and sunstone not only are unenhanced, but can’t be improved with treatments? After watching the price of small-sized yellow and orange sapphires tumble because of the controversy over diffusion treatment, some gem dealers are creating a marketing niche for people who want an absolute guarantee their purchase is not enhanced.
For Richard Shull of Out of Our Mines in Arcata, California, the “natural” label increases the value of the stone.
“A stone in natural color is more valuable. We’re promoting the value of the stone… I find part of the appeal of gemstones is the rarity of all things coming, together in nature to produce [that color], to have something more rare. If something is done by humans, it takes away a little of the magic.”
Shull and his wife deal primarily in Peruvian blue opal, as well as golden opal; Oregon sunstone; variscite, a green stone similar to turquoise-, and pink tourmaline, with a “bubble gum” color that does not need treatment. They take pride in mining this U.S. sourced material themselves.
The Shulls have chosen to specialize in these unenhanced stones because of their extraordinary color. “We make sure we only use natural stones. They’re beautiful the way they are,” says Helen Constantine Shull. The colors are so vibrant that customers sometimes asked if the stones are treated. That’s why they make a point of mentioning in their advertising that the stones are unenhanced and natural. Customers are “generally impressed,” yet it is not the main selling point.
“It’s mostly a qualifier to establish the integrity of the stone. It’s not as important as the fact that it’s that color,” says Shull. The Shulls only provide certification if requested; it’s usually written on the packaging.
Promoting garnets as “100 percent natural” is a good selling point, says Joseph Gil of Akiva Gil Co. Inc. in New York, a wholesaler who specializes in garnets, including tsavorite, rasprodolite, and spessartite.
“We emphasize what is natural,” Gil says. “It’s important; people like that. We try to explain to customers that these gems are not enhanced. Unfortunately, very few of today’s ‘ gems are natural. People feel good about that; there’s nothing to trick them into. There are no surprises in the future that something was added to color [them],” Gil says. “You cannot enhance garnets; nothing happens. If you try, they burn under an extreme level of heat.”
Author and gem seller Joel Arem is convinced that marketing unenhanced gemstones is the way to go. Worried that skepticism about treatment is growing, he has worked six years to develop Trugems™, a company that takes the guesswork out of shopping for gems by selling only materials that cannot be treated and that have no synthetic equivalent,
Those include, garnet, peridot, feldspars, and, he notes, precludes most of the best selling birthstones, like ruby, sapphire, aquamarine, diamond, and topaz.
Based in Laramie, Wyoming, Trugems is the “organic food section of the gemstone supermarket.” Its slogan is “All natural, all the time,” Arem says. In most cases, the company will mine and cut its own material; certificates will be issued verifying their natural status.
Arem says he saw the writing on the wall when De Beers began branding its diamonds with laser inscriptions, attempting to distance their diamonds from those with controversial treatments. The issue of disclosure will become a bigger and bigger threat to the industry, he says.
“It’s going to be a big gorilla some day. People don’t know how scared they should be” about undisclosed treatments and synthetics. “At some point in the market, everyone is going to get suspicious. It’ll be a growing mistrust that will just continue.”
Arem also created Trugems to generate a mass commercial market for sunstone and, in particular, golden sunstone, the company’s flagship gem. Dealers in Oregon sunstone have been unable to create a mass market because not enough is produced, and the material is so unique that it is difficult to match two pieces.
Like Oregon sunstone, golden sunstone is a feldspar derived from volcanic rock. However, while Oregon sunstone has copper, which takes the form of metallic inclusions, and a wide range of colors, golden sunstone has ferric iron and is a consistent golden straw yellow. The stone has a low refractive index and takes a high polish. It also is mined in larger sizes than Oregon sunstone, with an average 9 size between three and 10 carats.
“This material has zero variation. lt’s the most consistently uniform stone I’ve ever seen. In terms of the [high-volume] market, matching is no problem,” Arem says. It is mined in one locality in Mexico, a mine in which Arem is a partner. Right now, “tons” of the stone are be the market for decades.”
Once the golden sunstone market is developed, Arem predicts, other sunstones will “piggyback” as “fancy” sunstones, much the same way fancy sapphires have found a market niche in relation to the popular blue sapphire.
With the market growing increasingly wary of treatments and the controversies surrounding them, will the guarantee of a natural, untreatable stone make sales? Maybe. But for now, dealers agree, the treatment issue still falls behind price and color.
Price, not treatments, is on customers’ minds, says Daniel Assaf of The Tsavorite Factory in New York. “I think treatments in general are not an issue. Gemstones make beautiful jewelry,” and customers are pleased if you can make it cheaper, he says.
The Tsavorite Factory specializes in unenhanced stones like tsavorite, spessartite, and peridot, but does not promote the fact. “It’s just a happy coincidence. I think marketing, only that reason isn’t right either… It’s a little bit pretentious,” says Assaf.
Most buyers don’t ask because they already know garnets are not treated, he says. “If they ask, they don’t know much about tsavorites.” Besides, there is nothing wrong with treatment, as long as it’s disclosed. “It’s a beautiful thing to make topaz different colors, as long as you know it’s treated, and the market will make a price for it.”
He agrees, however, that skepticism about disclosure and treatment have hurt the market. For example, the controversy over diffusion treatment of sapphires has caused the bottom to drop out for small-sized sapphires, Assaf says. “Yellow, pink, and orange sapphire are dirt cheap right now for small stones. I think people definitely pay attention, especially the way sapphire is losing its value in small stones.” For instance, a 3-carat yellow sapphire that once cost $1,000 a carat now goes for $400 a carat.
While the backlash from the beryllium diffused sapphires hasn’t yet led to a greater demand for untreated stones, many dealers see the handwriting on the wall.
“The fact that they’ve lost value on these things will put more value on untreated stones,” Assaf said.
Bill Barker of Barker & Co. in Scottsdale, Arizona, buys rough that is typically not heated or enhanced, including Arizona peridot bought from Apache Indians, and tourmalines from Asia and Africa. He also doesn’t currently market his material as unenhanced.
“Not a high percentage of customers are asking for unenhanced stones, but they are certainly aware of what’s happening in the market,” says Barker. “[The sapphire controversy] has shaken up the market considerably. We know a lot of people who are unsure about the future business in corundum because of the collapse of prices”