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GemSelect Newsletter - January 2007

In our newsletter this month:
Thai New Year 2550
Happy Thai New Year 2550!

Happy New Year to all and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2007.

Actually it's not 2007 here in Thailand, as you might have noticed from the graphic above of His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Thais already enjoyed the year 2007 quite a long time ago. The new year for us is 2550. That's because the Thai calendar is based on the Buddhist Era (B.E.), which began with Buddha's departure from this world on his 80th birthday, approximately 543 years before the start of the Christian Era (Common Era).

Like so many things in Thailand, the calendar is a curious mix of East and West. Although we count the years according to the Buddhist calendar, we start the calendar year on January 1st, just like the rest of the world. That gives us a good excuse to celebrate the Western New Year, even though our main new year celebration is in April, which is the real start of the Buddhist year. We also celebrate the Chinese New Year, which generally falls in the 2nd half of February. So it's more or less a continuous new year celebration here for about 4 months. The Thais are indeed a fun-loving people.

What's in a Name? Back to Top

It's a well-known fact in the jewelry industry that gemstones with difficult, confusing or obscure names are a hard sell to the average consumer. That's not a problem for our customers, who delight in the rare and unusual. But the mass market won't buy something it's never heard of or can't pronounce, no matter how good the stones look.

Many jewelers may wonder how so many attractive stones ended up with such unattractive names. Was it really necessary to name fine gems spodumene and orthoclase? Why did a lovely blue-green stone end up being called apatite? These are are not just isolated examples. Think of sphene and diopside. Even spinel, zircon and peridot are fairly strange names. Charming and evocative names like moonstone, fire opal and aquamarine seem to be the minority. It's like the gemstone industry forgot to hire a marketing person. How else can we explain a gemstone called chalcedony?

Gemstones are in the odd position of having one foot in the technical world of mineralogy and the other in the commercial world of jewelry. The name that works in one world rarely works in the other. Sometimes the problem is solved by having two names, such as red corundum and ruby. But in many cases we have only one name and it's usually the wrong name as far as the jewelry business goes.

Yet things could be worse, and in fact they once were. At one time, marketing names for gemstones were rife, and with all the fanciful names it was hard to know what you were really getting. Would you buy an Arizona ruby? That was once a well known name for pyrope garnet. How about Brazilian aquamarine? Really just blue-green topaz. Fancy a Ural sapphire? Actually it's just blue tourmaline. Mexican diamond? Plain colorless quartz. You'd do better with Ceylon diamond. At least that was white zircon.

Due to the danger of intentionally giving a misleading name being especially high in the gemstone trade, definitions for gemstones are now regulated through an international organization known as the Confédération Internationale de la Bijorterie, Joaillerie, Orfèvrerie des diamants, Perles, et Pierres. Since that's a bit of a mouthful, they usually go by the name CIBJO which, frankly, is not that much easier to pronounce. It's hard to avoid the thought that those folks have a naming problem of their own. But they do provide a very valuable service to gemstone dealers and buyers alike. We all need to know what we're really buying and selling. Names matter.

New in Gems Back to Top

We are in the midst of rebuilding our stock after a very busy Christmas season. With the gem market open again after the New Year's holiday, our buyers are busy finding the best value gems for our customers. So look for lots of interesting new gems coming soon. Here are some of the good buys we made at the end of 2006. Click on the gem names to view the latest samples.

Tourmaline from Nigeria: At year-end we added new stock of some very fine African tourmaline in vivid hues of pink and rose. These gems weigh up to about 3 carats. These are some of the nicest tourmaline gems we bought in 2006.

Citrine from Brazil: Citrine is such an affordable stone that most of the pieces available are quite large. So it can be hard to find citrine gems that are appropriately sized for rings or earrings. We've just acquired some lovely Brazilian citrine starting at around 1 carat weight, in round, octagon and briolette shapes. Some of these are offered in matching pairs.

Spinel from Burma: We had a major run on spinel after the feature in our December newsletter. At the end of the year we acquired some new pieces, mainly in red and pink, in a variety of cuts and shapes.

Azotic Topaz from Brazil: Back by popular demand! We've bought some new colorful topaz. These gems are treated with the patented Azotic enhancement process. Fun and fashionable.

Peridot from China: Green peridot (actually peridot only comes in green) is increasingly popular, and we've acquired some very nice Chinese pieces in elegant octagonal shapes, mainly weighing 1 to 1.5 carats, with some matching pairs as well.

This Month's Birthstone Back to Top

The traditional birthstone for January is garnet. Known since the Bronze Age, garnet is actually a family of related minerals, with slightly differing chemical compositions and optical properties. In general, garnet is quite hard (7 to 7.5 on the Mohs scale) and gem-quality material is usually very clean, with relatively few inclusions. Those properties, combined with the affordability of many varieties, has made garnet one of the most popular gemstones in history. Most people think of garnet as red, but it actually occurs in a host of colors, including yellow, orange, purple and green. Some garnets, such as almandine, are extremely common and inexpensive; others, such as tsavorite and demantoid, can be quite rare and expensive.

Gemstones Worth Knowing Back to Top

Each month we focus on one of the lesser known gemstones. This month's featured stone is fire opal.

Fire Opal
Fire Opal

Fire opal may not look much like a typical opal, but it is a true opal nonetheless, with the same chemical composition (hydrous silicon dioxide). Unlike common opal gems, good quality fire opal stones are often transparent enough to be faceted, though typically they are translucent. The fire opal from Mexico is the most highly regarded.

Fire opal gems range in color from white or yellow to red-orange, with red-orange being the most highly valued. Fire opal is quite an affordable stone and can sometimes be found in large sizes; we have occasionally bought specimens weighing over 50 carats. It's good to remember that fire opal, like common opal, is fairly soft and has a high water content. So it needs to be handled with some care. For more information see our fire opal information page.

Customer Questions Back to Top

Every month we answer questions of general interest from our customers. Please feel free to send your questions or suggestions to our support team at!

What is the significance of the refractive index of a gemstone? Is a higher value better? CH, Canada.
Refractive index, or RI, is the measurement of the bending of light when it passes from air to another material. If light passes from air into a transparent material at one angle, it is deflected at a different angle (the coincident angle). Gemstones with a higher RI are generally more brilliant than those with a low RI, because more light is returned back out of the top or crown of the stone, instead of passing through the bottom or pavilion. Diamond has an RI of about 2.4; quartz, about 1.54 to 1.55. The RI of most gemstones is easily measured by using a simple optical instrument known as a refractometer.
What does "birefringence" refer to? You mention it in the gemology section of your information pages, but you don't explain it. Thanks! WCW, USA.
Some gemstones are singly refractive; they have only one refractive index. Other gemstones - in fact, most - are doubly refractive: they have two different refractive indices. When a beam of light enters a doubly refractive gem, it is split into two beams, each traveling at a different speed and on a different path through the crystal. Birefringence is a measurement of the difference between the two refractive indices in gems that are doubly refractive, and it ranges from a low of .003 to a high of .287. Very few gemstones are singly refractive. The best-known singly refractive gems are diamond, spinel and garnet. These properties are very useful tools in gemstone identification.

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Happy Gem Hunting!
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