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Move over diamonds, these little-known gemstones are heating up

By Sarah Royce-Greensill, CNN

(CNN) — In 2016, jeweler Olivia Young of Ouroboros sold a red spinel ring for £6,000 ($7,700). Last year, the client’s insurance company paid out £30,000 ($38,400) to replace it. Experts say that this previously overlooked gemstone is rocketing in desirability and value, as collectors look beyond the so-called “Big Four’” (diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires) for more affordable, niche gemstones that may just be a shrewd investment.

Found in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and some African countries, spinels come in a range of colors, from vivid blue, pink and red to dusky grey, green and purple. Until they were properly identified in the 18th century, red spinels were called rubies; the 170-carat Black Prince’s Ruby at the front of the Imperial State Crown, part of the British Crown Jewels, is in fact a spinel. In 2015, the auction house Bonhams sold the 50.13-carat Hope Spinel for a world-record £962,500 ($1.22m) — over six times its estimate — helping to catapult the stone into public consciousness.

“Historically, spinels have been regarded as less important and therefore more affordable, but they are becoming increasingly desirable,” said Jennifer Tonkin, Bonhams co-head of jewelry, over email. She noted that “fire-engine red” and hot-pink spinels from Burma, as well as rose-pink examples from Tajikistan, are most sought after by connoisseurs. Rahul Kadakia, international head of jewelry at Christie’s, agreed that pink and purple spinels “should continue to see market appreciation,” and shared that fine examples sell for up to $25,000 per carat. “The escalating prices of the “big four” gems have compelled buyers to explore unconventional alternatives,” he said in an email, but explained that appreciation of spinels’ rich colors is no new phenomenon. “They were, after all, one of the favorite gems of Mughal rulers.”

A matter of ethics

London-based jeweler Lily Gabriella features spinels in myriad shades in her one-off collectors’ edition designs. She has seen a “notable increase” in their price, reflecting “both their aesthetic appeal and their rarity” she said via email, adding that spinels are “often sourced from small-scale operations, presenting fewer ethical concerns compared to other stones.”

Charles Abouchar, director of Abouchar SA, a Geneva-based dealer who exhibits at the trade show Gem Genève, said that rising demand for colored gemstones has led to a shortage of quality specimens, driving up prices. “As rubies, sapphires, and emeralds have become very expensive and scarce, people have begun buying other gemstones that were previously more affordable, causing prices to rise significantly,” he said over email. “Spinels and Paraiba tourmalines have seen a steady increase in demand over the last decade.”

Originally discovered in the 1980s in a now-exhausted mine in the Brazilian state of Paraiba, this once-niche variety of tourmaline is distinctive for its electric turquoise color, the result of traces of copper. Experts posit that only one Paraiba tourmaline is mined for every 10,000 diamonds — and while similar hues are found in Madagascar, the scarcity of Brazilian stones has seen prices soar. At Bonhams, Tonkin said prices for top-quality Paraiba tourmalines reached $75,000 per carat in 2022, compared with $4,800 per carat in 2009.

Roberto Boghossian, Managing Partner of the jewelry house Boghossian, added that the price of Paraiba tourmalines has doubled in the last three to five years, which he attributes to their “rarity, beauty and enduring appeal,” describing their neon glow as “a refreshing alternative to more traditional gemstones.” Moti Ferder, founder of Lugano Diamonds, began working with Paraiba tourmalines over 20 years ago. “There is an undeniable attraction to them — they are very rare and absolutely mesmerizing,” he said in an email. Ferder foresees continued growth in value as demand increases and supply diminishes, “making it one of the market’s most coveted and prized gemstones.”

So, what if you’re already priced out of the market for a Paraiba? Olivia Young is buying as much tourmaline from Afghanistan as she can, because these newer deposits offer “incredibly beautiful bi-chrome material that’s blue-green in one direction and grass-green at 90 degrees,” describing them as “the most exquisite and vibrant gemstones I have ever seen.”

Likewise, gemmologist and founder of Minka Jewels Lucy Crowther counts blue-green tourmalines as the connoisseur’s choice, having personally discovered them in India 15 years ago. “These incredibly vibrant, clean gemstones really stirred something in me,” she explained in an email. Now, she sources top-quality examples for unconventional engagement rings and colorful cocktail rings. “With lab-grown diamonds becoming increasingly popular, colored stones are a great choice for those wanting to stand out and have something natural that is also unique.”

Crowther and Young are both determined to educate clients that there’s more to life than the Big Four. “I believe across the board, that tourmalines of top-quality material and significant sizes will sky-rocket,” said Young. “There is a finite amount of the incredible material and it is exceptionally beautiful, so I can only see its popularity exploding.”

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