Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Colors of Light...

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, from sea to shining sea. So, this morning I had the good fortune of waking up to a gorgeous mountain view of Honolulu complete with a world-class rainbow.

Slowly emerging from a drowsy jet lag, I was reminded to get back to my favorite part of the story about the colors associated with diamonds – the seven visible colors of the light spectrum – our good friend Roy G. Biv from grade school – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

As I said, the 4C’s tell us what a diamond is. What is less obvious is what a diamond does.

Until very recently, certificates and grading reports only described the physical features of a diamond. The advent of new “performance” based diamond quality analysis now tells us the direct benefits of certain cutting styles and standards.

The reason we cut diamonds at all is to enhance their beauty – literally to make them shine.

In antiquity if a rough crystal was a certain shape, the cutter delivered a finished diamond of roughly (sic) the same shape. It was more shiny and smaller after being cut and polished, but his goal was always to keep it as big as possible.

We can only imagine the penalties suffered by cutters who delivered diamonds that were deemed too small, because even the most important diamonds were cut by unheralded masters who remain un-named to this day.

It is no small irony that the world’s museums are full of examples of diamonds cut expressly to “save weight” – domes, egg-shapes, flats, lozenges, cushions, and the like. Very few round diamonds, that’s for sure.

Today we know that round diamonds produce the best results in terms of light performance, quite simply because rounds have the highest level of symmetry. It’s a physical fact that all diamond shapes with lesser degrees of symmetry will “leak” some precious light.

Yet, the battle still rages over whether or not to compromise beauty for extra weight. Quality versus quantity. Its an age-old dichotomy.

What is meant by light performance? I'm not just talking about light return. But, I'm also not suggesting that it's rocket science either. Simply put, in order to be beautiful a diamond must be bright and colorful and sparkle like crazy. More importantly, these three elements of beauty should be well-balanced.

Like most elegant equations it's relatively simple, but like most mathematics it can get pretty tricky. If a diamond is too bright and sparkly, it will not be colorful enough. If it is too colorful it will not be bright enough. If it is too sparkly it will become fuzzy.

We’ve been taught to think diamonds should be white (as in body color) and bright and sparkly. What happens when we see colors of the rainbow? We are led to believe the diamond looks too dark. But, we now know that the best cut diamonds have the ability to transform clear light into its component parts - brightness, sparkle and a blazing display of rainbows.

This brings me to,

Rule #2 - In order to appreciate the full value of a diamond, you have to know what to look for.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Fancy Colors…

I’ve been talking about colorless and near colorless diamonds – those tinted by the more common colors. I also said that diamonds can come in almost every other color of the rainbow. These are called fancy colors.

Until recently fancy colored diamonds have been traded or held only by aficionados, brokers and connoisseurs. These diamonds are extremely rare. Even in the lightest shades – think G color – a pale blue, pink, green, and/or violet can command astronomical prices.

For the average consumer, only the intense and vivid yellows and cognac browns are remotely affordable. Even the brown-series pinks are so rare that the Argyle Mine in Australia has an invitation-only tender for less than 100 stones per year. Less than 1/10th of 1% of Argyle’s diamonds are pinkish and production is dwindling – diamonds are a non-renewable resource.

Collectors are still the primary market for all the fanciest colors. Purples are so rare, that there is virtually no data available on them because their owners have kept them such a well-guarded secret. There are only a handful of known reds. Almost ten years ago a 0.95 ct brick-red diamond sold at auction for $1,000,000 per carat. That is still a ton of money.

As much as I’d like to say that the fancy colored diamond marketplace is all about the rarity of the color, it’s always a big mistake to think that supply is the only determinant of price.

Another factor affecting price is demand – or in this case I’d like to call it taste. For example, to the best of my knowledge pink diamonds are rarer than blue ones. But, pink – especially pale pink – just doesn’t look very good next to most people’s skin. It looks washed out. On the other hand (sic), blue looks stunning, and it is often thought of as royal. So, blues sell more quickly and for more money.

And, then there are the bragging rights. Years ago a fancy color diamond broker told me that the major buyers of his diamonds were mostly from the Persian Gulf. Blue was the super hot ticket. Blue was the color of that rarity we call water. Blue had historical and religious meaning. But, if the blue diamond wasn’t big enough – let’s say only 5 carats – then it simply wasn’t noteworthy of collecting. Ironically, no one else in the world could afford them, so these gorgeous diamonds went begging for quite some time.

Whether colored, near-colorless, or colorless – we’re still talking about what a diamond is. But these days, the story is all about what a diamond does… stay tuned.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

What Color is G?

If you think defining and describing colorless has been hard, just wait until you take up the rest of the alphabet. It's fun, but it can get tricky.

Did you ever sit there and think to yourself, I’m going to spruce up my life, I’m going to paint my mailbox G, drive me a big old G color car, in my G color suit, wearing a G-wiz watch, thinking I’m a G-man!?

I doubt it, because G is not a color. It is a degree of not being colorless.

Thanks to modern gemology D E F are now classified as colorless, G H I J are called near colorless, the range between each letter grade gets broader as we go down the scale to Z. It's really pretty simple.

Remember, I was talking about the more common diamond colors - yellow, brown and grey? Any of these can be graded G if the tint is slight enough to fall within a range. That means some G’s might “warm” the ice, and others may look a wee bit “tan”. That’s OK. But it can seem confusing, especially when you’ve been thinking that your choice is between White vs. Yellow. It gets more obtuse when people start trying to compare colors on certificates.

Now we know that all G’s aren’t the same, even if they're graded by the same grader. If we take the same G around to several independent laboratories, then what do you suppose might happen? I'm guessing the chance for differences of opinion would go up.

No matter what anybody says though, every single expert I ever met agrees that the only way to know what you like is to go look at some diamonds (refer to Rule #1 below).

Rule #1
In order to appreciate the value of diamonds you have to actually look at them!!!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


What is the best color?
The “best” is the benchmark for any classification system. Ironically, in diamonds the best color is no color. Not just because it’s very rare. For us it symbolizes purity – literally and figuratively.

Diamond is pure carbon. Any color in a diamond is the result of minute differences in original crystal formation. For instance, when traces of nitrogen enter the mix, it makes yellow. And when the crystal lattice is mis-aligned it produces browns.

Colorless is pure. It is in a class of its own.

A short aside on the value of the best...
In the 1970’s the world’s economy experienced shocks like gas-rationing, 18% prime interest rates, $900+ per oz gold, and $65,000 for a one carat “D” color flawless diamond… at wholesale!

That’s right, $65,000 per carat for a one carat. By 1980, after things settled down, that same diamond sold for $15,000. Ouch! Some speculators really got hurt. But that’s still 3X the price it sold for in 1975. For most folks, holding on to their diamonds was a good thing.

For US jewelers the run up in prices was a market on fire - a time to cash in. High-end diamonds that had been stocked for years started fetching unheard of prices when sold as “collectables” to money managers and speculators.

The rules of the game changed very quickly. Investors demanded only the best – D E F colors, Flawless to VS in clarity, one carat and above. This required independent verification. The GIA blossomed overnight. Every diamond that was even remotely close to the best got certified! The very best got sold right away.

Meanwhile back at the family store, the best jewelers had to offer Joe Q. Public was a G, SI1, one carat. Sound familiar? It should. That’s been the sweet spot of the “best deal” for diamonds ever since.

Starting in 1980 - for over 25 years - your local jeweler has been telling everyone who will listen that “you can’t see the difference by eye” especially when the diamond is mounted so “why pay more?”

Is it any wonder that people now believe that's what they really want?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Color and Colors

There are two very distinct types of color associated with diamonds.

The first, which is what most often comes to mind when you look at a diamond, is the color of the diamond itself. I like to think of this color as what the diamond is.

The other, which is what distinguishes the best cut diamonds, is the rainbow of spectral colors as light exits the diamond. Think of that as what the diamond does.

What color is a diamond?

Interestingly enough diamonds actually come in almost all colors of the rainbow. They can be blacker than coal to colorless as pure water – from opaque to crystal clear. Each color has a certain degree of rarity in nature, and to a great extent that is reflected in its value.

Our tastes and preferences for color also dramatically affect a diamond’s real value. Diamonds are especially prized when they are colorless. The extent to which otherwise colorless diamonds show any amount of the 3 most common colors – namely yellow, brown and grey – decreases their appeal and value to us. When these colors are intense, however, it is an entirely different story. More on that later.

As you might expect various systems emerged to describe diamond colors.

I first learned the old-time miner’s language that included terms like the top-color being called “Jaeger”, short for the Jaegersfontein Mine in South Africa that produced the highest percentage of these lusted after diamonds. There were also colors called Wesselton and Premier, for similar reasons.

South Africa was known as the Cape (of Good Hope). The truth is that diamonds from the entire region tend toward yellow, so “Cape” became synonymous with yellow in a diamond. Further clarification included illusionary modifiers like “top-silver”, which described a diamond that “faced-up” silver-ish rather than white from the top.

To make a long story shorter, after a series of retail methods failed to consistently classify even the best color, first as A Quality, then AA Quality, then AAA, then AAAA, approaching ad infinitum, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) finally adopted “D” as their top color choice on lab reports. They reasoned that it sounded “scientific” and that no self-respecting salesman would ever stoop to such language.

That’s not exactly what happened next…

Thursday, May 3, 2007

What Is It About Diamonds?

I just returned from the American Gem Society’s annual Conclave. It’s a great time for re-energizing, visiting old friends, making new acquaintances, and especially learning about the latest news in and around our trade.

The emphasis is always on basic and continuing education. The AGS is the only organization I know of in the industry that requires all its members to take a re-certification exam every year to be in good standing.

This year’s theme was “Take the Vow” – directly linking romance and jewels. That may seem like a no-brainer, until you consider that jewelry can fulfill our basic needs as well as our most frivolous desires and extravagant luxury fantasies.

Admittedly, I’m a glutton for all the “technical” information and forums, but I’m increasingly curious about why diamonds in particular command the greatest and most enduring overall appeal of all gemstones.

On one hand, are we so strongly bonded to the physical material itself, just because of all its superlative properties? Is this attachment truly innate? Or, on the other hand is it more sentimental - an acquired taste, if you will? Is our fascination simply a cultural artifact, passed down through legend and driven by marketing? I don’t know.

Either way, the power and the magic of diamonds remains very real and alive.

I invite your comments.