In our newsletter this month:
The 2006 film Blood Diamond drew the world's attention to the fact that some diamonds distributed by respectable companies had in fact been mined in war zones in Africa. The diamonds were sold to fund warlords or insurgencies in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Ivory Coast. Though the UN-sponsored Kimberley Process Certification Scheme has been in place since 2003, and has largely curbed the trade in conflict diamonds, the bad publicity has definitely hurt diamond sales, and has led some consumers to buy colored gemstone engagement rings instead.
But what about the colored gemstone trade? Are colored gemstones conflict-free? Is someone buying a sapphire rather than a diamond more likely to get a conflict-free stone?
The honest answer is that we don't really know for certain. There is nothing like the Kimberley Process in place to certify colored gemstones as they go from the mine to the market. But there are a number of aspects of the colored gemstone trade that make colored stones less likely to be used to fund conflicts.
For one thing, colored gems - especially the more valuable ones like ruby, sapphire, emerald, tsavorite garnet and alexandrite - are much scarcer than diamonds. There is rarely enough material available at a particular place and time to fund a war. Also, though many colored gems are much rarer than diamonds, they are usually significantly less valuable, especially in rough, uncut form. Diamond prices have been controlled by major players such as De Beers, and prices for rough diamonds are kept artificially high. This is not so for colored gemstones, where prices fall when supply increases.
Unlike diamonds, there have been relatively few documented cases of colored gems used to fund conflicts. There have certainly been conflicts over gems, such as the emerald mafias who fought a war in Colombia in the 1980s to keep the drug cartels out of the emerald business. More recently, Campbell Bridges, the Scottish geologist who discovered tsavorite garnet, was murdered in Kenya in 2009 in a conflict over mining rights.
Probably the worst case of conflict gems happened right in our own neighborhood. Our home of Chanthaburi in Eastern Thailand is located very close to the Cambodian border, near to a town called Pailin. This town was once the stronghold of the Cambodian Communists known as the Khmer Rouge. In 1967 the Khmer Rouge mounted an insurgency against the national government and succeeded in taking power in 1975, under their notorious leader Pol Pot. They ruled for 4 years until they were ousted by the Vietnamese army in 1979. The Khmer Rouge regime was distinguished by a radical form of agrarian collectivism and the shocking genocide of an estimated 1.5 million innocent people, many of them in the notorious Killing Fields.
The Pailin region in Cambodia was once famous for blue sapphire. Many dealers rated the Pailin sapphire nearly as highly as Kashmir or Burmese sapphire, and ahead of Ceylon, Thai and Australian sapphire. The Khmer Rouge used the proceeds from mining Pailin sapphire to fund their offensive, and later their government once they gained power. It is sad to say that Pailin sapphire was one of the first "blood gemstones".
The Khmer Rouge completely exhausted the Pailin sapphire mines, and you will hardly ever find a Pailin sapphire in the market. But this awful chapter in the colored gemstone trade reminds us, as gem dealers, to always be aware of the origin of the gems we sell and to follow events closely in the countries where they are mined.
Sphene is a rare gem that is famous for its very high refractive index - higher than sapphire and zircon - and its dispersion (fire) that is comparable to that of diamond. Large sphene gems are difficult to find and most are heavily included. So a large, clean sphene is a special find. We graded this 6.59 carat cushion as loupe clean (VVS). It has an exceptionally rich cognac-like color. Although the darker sphene colors don't display quite as much fire as the lighter tones, this piece has outstanding sparkle.
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Happy gem hunting,Your friends at GemSelect
- First Published: May-01-2010
- Last Updated: October-31-2014
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