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Green Makes a Dazzling Return

posted May 22, 2010, 6:03 AM by Alex Barcados

LONDON — Unlike mere minerals, gemstones possess an alchemic mix of beauty, durability and rarity. Emerald, however, goes one better. Prized by the Romans, the Incas, the Moguls and the czars, it lays claim to one of the gem trade’s longest and most illustrious histories.

And therein lies the rub.

During the designer renaissance of the past 20 years, emerald became a victim of its own highfalutin image. Considered too classic, too expensive and too fussy by the talented young jewelers who revolutionized the trade’s understanding of fashion, May’s birthstone was forsaken by all but the most conventional stylists.

Adding insult to injury, in 1997, the U.S. television news program “Dateline” revealed the prevalence of undisclosed treatments in the emerald trade. A related court case sent the market into a slump that dragged on for nearly a decade.

“It was a terrible time for the industry,” said Gary Roskin, founder of the Roskin Gem News Report. “But emerald never lost its reputation. There isn’t another stone that can equal that color.”

Now, emerald is, by all accounts, in the midst of a dazzling comeback. It began at the Oscars in 2009, when Angelina Jolie paired a simple black gown with 115-carat pear-shaped emerald earrings by Lorraine Schwartz, favored jeweler of the red carpet crowd. Unadorned by diamonds, the $2.5 million dangles glowed a pure, Platonic green. The market treated them as a revelation.

“It’s unbelievable what those earrings did for emeralds,” Ms. Schwartz recalled. “I have seven calls for them now. It was about the color and simplicity.”


In February, Bulgari upped the ante with its new global jewelry advertising campaign featuring the actress Julianne Moore lounging around a boudoir clad in nothing but tear-drop emerald earrings valued at $3 million.

“It took more than 500 hours to make these earrings,” said Nicola Bulgari, the company’s vice chairman. “The two emeralds are perfectly matched in both shape and hue, which is a magnificent and totally uniform shade of green.”

The color is, invariably, associated with Colombia, and, specifically, Muzo, the largest and most prestigious of the country’s mines, located about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, north of Bogotá.

Blessed with pitch-perfect concentrations of chromium and vanadium, the elements that transform plain beryl into a crystal cocktail of extreme desire, Muzo emeralds were adored by the Moguls, who engraved them with verses of Islamic text or fashioned giant emerald crystals into wine goblets.

Centuries later, an effort is afoot to harness the marketing potential of that history. Muzo International, the new sales and marketing subsidiary of Texma Group, based in the United States, which acquired operating rights to the government-owned Muzo concession in late 2009, is preparing to deploy a sophisticated mine-to-market branding strategy for its loose emeralds, said its managing director, Gilles Haumont.

Phase one rolled out in February, when Muzo International opened a showroom in Geneva and struck a partnership with Chopard. The companies celebrated the jeweler’s 150th anniversary at the Cannes Film Festival this week with a spectacular jungle-themed party — where an elaborate necklace featuring a yellow diamond tiger clutching a 60-carat Muzo stone was the star of the show.

Fawaz Gruosi, president and executive director of the Geneva haute horlogerie and jewelry brand de Grisogono, is no stranger to dramatic displays of emeralds. According to his signature style, however, they are best incorporated into unexpected combinations, as in a necklace of 26 turquoise boulders peppered with emerald pavé.

“Emerald was considered such a high stone, but it wasn’t accessible, and we’re now seeing it in this more bohemian, less traditional way,” said Jill Newman, senior style editor at Robb Report, an affluent-lifestyle magazine.

Proof that Ms. Newman is on to something lies in a pop-up collection of bespoke emerald jewelry on display in the Wonder Room at the Selfridges flagship store in London through mid-June. The collection is a collaboration among eight world-class designers; Gemfields, the Zambian emerald miner; and the World Land Trust, whose Indian Elephant Corridor project will benefit from sales of the collection when it goes on the block at Sotheby’s next month.

The Emeralds for Elephants campaign caps a productive six months for Gemfields, whose steady supply of ethically sourced goods from the Kagem mine in Zambia has helped to revitalize the emerald market. Majority owned by Pallinghurst, a global natural resources investment group that also owns a stake in Fabergé, the company has promoted its transparent, fair-trade business model in places like the gem-trading hub of Jaipur, India, and the Oscars.

The resurgent popularity of emerald is not merely a product of the ubiquitous environmental movement, but green mania certainly has not hurt.

“There’s an appetite for emeralds,” said the Gemfields chief executive, Ian Harebottle. “The word green is on everyone’s lips, and our product is green. It is the greenest of the green.”

That may be true metaphorically, but in fact Zambian emeralds are often somewhat bluish, as are those from Brazil, another volume producer. For the cognoscenti, the sporadic output from other, smaller-scale mining localities can be more interesting. But true top quality stones are hard to find.

“The best emeralds in the market these days are from the north of Afghanistan,” said Rolf von Bueren, chairman of Lotus Arts de Vivre, an international jeweler based in Bangkok. “Sadly, they blast the rock, and only smaller sizes are available. Colombia seems to have dried out, and the quality manipulation has done the rest.”

Mr. von Bueren’s mention of manipulation raises a delicate issue. Any discussion of emerald today goes hand in hand with a discussion of treatment.

Most emeralds emerge from the ground riddled with fissures that lend them a gauzy appearance, like cobwebs inside a glass bottle of Sprite. Colombian dealers routinely rub the fissures with cedarwood oil to improve clarity, but that traditional technique has evolved over the years to include high-tech resins and epoxy fillers.

“The trade is widely divided on the subject,” said Shane McClure, the director of West Coast identification services for the Gemological Institute of America. “Some feel that cedarwood oil is the only material that should be used because it can be removed easily and re-treated. Others say epoxy resins are better if they’re stable.”

The scarcity of transparent stones that are also 100 percent natural underscores the limitations inherent in the colored stone business, which, despite the best efforts of organized players like Gemfields, remains a wildly unpredictable affair.

“Emeralds are elusive,” said Robert Weldon, a colored-stone expert at the gemological institute. “An emerald dealer once said to me, ‘If you look for them, they hide.”’

By VICTORIA GOMELSKY

NYTIMES

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