August 2014 Newsletter
Table of Contents
Shows and Events
Pala International News
Gems and Gemology News
- Mexican Opal – A reprint by David Gibson
Shows and Events
Tour Mogok and More with the Experts: Nov. 5–19, 2014
We've been informed by Eloïse Gaillou, Associate Curator of Mineral Sciences at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, that five spots have opened up for the museum-sponsored "Ultimate Gem and Mineral Tour of Burma." The expedition, which takes place November 5–19, 2014, will include a journey through Mogok, Burma's valley of rubies (and sapphires, spinel and peridot!). While the focus is on gems and minerals, plenty of sightseeing time is set aside as well. The tour will be conducted by geologist and longtime special friend of Pala International, Kyaw Thu, as well as museum staff.
The Arusha Gem Fair: November 18–20, 2014
Karibu! is the greeting on The Arusha Gem Fair's home page, meaning "Welcome!" The 2014 event, to be held November 18–20 in Arusha, Tanzania, is the third annual show. (Previously it was billed as The Arusha International Gem, Jewelry and Minerals Fair.)
The show, according to its organizers, "brings together primary gemstone and mineral producers from Sub-Saharan African countries in one forum, along with renowned industry leaders, respected mineral collectors/dealers, lapidary seminars and demonstrations, and round-table discussions with Government Leaders and industry players from our regional African partners."
The show is a more intimate affair than many. Last year's show featured only about 500 buyers, exhibitors and guests, from 29 countries.
For more related to the fair, see:
- "Arusha 2012" by Pala International's Will Larson, an overview of the inaugural show
- "Add Value to East Africa Gems and People Will Shine, Too" by Robert Weldon, GG, GIA Manager of Photography & Visual Communications
Tanzanite Foundation to Close
As reported by JCK on August 13, the Tanzanite Foundation—the first colored gemstone marketing firm devoted to a single stone—will close at the end of the month. The Foundation had dealt with a number of ethical and operational challenges facing the industry. It also had given back to the mining community, building two schools, a clinic, and an orphanage, and providing employment opportunities.
The reason for the closure, according to JCK, is economic, in terms of the stone's current historic low price, and factors such as poor output, illegal mining operations, and theft.
Pala International News
Pala's Featured Stone: Mexican Opal
This month we feature a superb Mexican opal carved in flowing freeform by master lapidary Steve Walters.
This exquisite Mexican opal was brought and sold to Pala International personally by the opal's mine owner at the Las Vegas show two years ago. At the time, it was an epic piece of rough. After the purchase, Pala studied it and hoped that Steve Walters would agree to use his considerable talents to carve the lovely rough into a pendant. When Steve saw the piece he agreed, and in the next several months finished this marvelous piece.
Aristotle once said that when what is black is mixed with the light of the sun and fire, the result is always red. This flame-colored opal exhibits orange, yellow and red in a cascading play of colors—a veritable mix of fire and sun.
Fine opal also might be said to embody Aristotle's forebears' notion of the four elements: earth (from whence it came), water (it is hydrated silica, after all), fire (a coveted variety), and air (it is a self-contained world, with its own atmosphere).
This is all of that. This is a true collector's item.
For more on Mexican opal, see our reprint this month of an article by David Gibson, directly below.
Interested? Contact us!
Gems and Gemology News
A reprint by David Gibson
We are pleased to reprint this article on Mexican opal, by David Gibson, a British collector. It comes from his website, Mexican Amber. The article is © David Gibson, and is used by permission.
Opal was known to the Aztecs by the name Vitzitziltecpa, which means hummingbird stone, due to its similarity to the bright iridescent colours of the bird’s plumage. The original mining locations were lost during the Spanish conquest. They were rediscovered sometime in the early 1800s, by Sir Maria Siurab, in the state of Querétaro, some 130 miles northwest of the Mexico City. The first mine was Santa Maria del Iris. Soon other mines were opened: La Carbonera, La Hacienda, La Trinidad, and El Perido being but a few of the first mines. The colonial City of Querétaro became center of the Mexican opal trade. In the late 1950s Alfonso Ramirez of Querétaro discovered opal near the small town of Magdalena about 50 miles northwest of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. He opened the first mine, La Única, close to the Tequila Volcano. Soon after, prospectors and miners moved from Querétaro to Magdalena. Other deposits were discovered in the municipality of Magdalena (Las Latillas, La Mora, San Simón, Las Cruces, San Martín, El Huaxical and El Cabon being but a few of the early mines. By 1960 there were hundreds of mines around the small town of Magdalena. From the early 1960s to the late 1970s much opal was produced by the mines in the state of Querétaro and the Magdalena area. Nowhere as much mining takes place now. It seems the best deposits were discovered back then and mined out.
Read the rest of the article on Palagems.com, including photos of mining and fine opals, lists of types of opals, opal terminology, gemological information, useful links, and more…
Off the Cuff: Ex-Spy Chief Loses Shirt
Today and tomorrow, an auction was scheduled to take place, selling off the jewelry and watches of Vladimiro Montesinos, the head of Peru's intelligences service under president Alberto Fujimori, as reported by the BBC.
During the 1970s and 1980s Montesinos was in and out of jail and prison—or threatened with them—for having a loose tongue in sensitive governmental matters, but usually was able to finagle his way through. With the election of Fujimori in 1990, Montesinos found himself favorably placed, having given legal representation to the president-elect when he was a political unknown.
That association, however, contributed to his downfall during the Fujimori corruption scandal of 2000. Montesinos fled Peru, but was repatriated the next year.
One hundred fifty-two objects were to be auctioned. The BBC story shows eclectic examples of jewel-encrusted watches and cufflinks, many with monograms. The sale should garner $1 million. The most expensive piece is a Corum watch featuring more than 300 diamonds, worth $160,000, according to Perú.21.
A remarkable 31.34-carat step-cut diamond, a noted lot in Sotheby's Geneva's Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale on May 13, failed to sell. Dubbed the Victory diamond following the allied triumph in World War II, it was faceted from one of three massive roughs found in the 1940s in Sierra Leone's Woyie River. Even prior to its eventual cutting in 1953, the largest diamond from the 770-carat rough was given that name. It is described in great detail by Sotheby's.
The Victory once was owned by Florence J. Gould, who according to the Sotheby's profile, gave Charles Arpels of Van Cleef & Arpels the idea for the house's minaudières, or compacts for evening, containing all a woman would need, obviating the necessity of a handbag; her own original had been a Lucky Strike tin. She also initiated the trend of wearing baccarat pajamas during the day, their large front pockets being as practical as the cigarette container at night. Abandoning the States for Paris during Prohibition, she and her husband Frank Jay Gould built, among other hotels and casinos, the Palais de la Mediterranée in Nice, the remodeled Juan-les-Pins casino and cabaret, and the Hôtel Provençal. The profile implies that it is one of the couple's unassuming innovations that we all take for granted today: "a new piece of soap for every guest." In the Gould salons held at their villa in Cannes, a who's who of Americans were introduced to their European counterparts. Years later, Florence's arts patronage was acknowledged in 1970 when she was admitted to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, one of only a few women to receive the honor.
Florence Gould was not to be parted from her jewels, regardless of the travel destination, according to the Sotheby's profile. In Japan, she shared them with women in a geisha house; in Angkor and the Cambodian jungle she wore them as if she was strolling on the Champs-Élysées or dining in a Marseilles bayside eatery.
For whatever reason, the Victory diamond was unable to achieve its estimate of $5 to $8 million in the May 13 sale, despite this description, also included in the Sotheby's profile, of the rough from which it was faceted:
The area of this cleavage face is 11.5 sq. cm., and is so clean a fracture that the blow which produced it must have been a sudden, sharp impact in precisely the correct direction. The surface is exceedingly smooth, whereas most cleavage faces show a certain stepping from layer to layer while keeping in the same general direction. The blow need not have been a heavy one, but the marvel of the smoothness of the fracture-face can only be appreciated by those who have tried to cleave a diamond using the cleaver’s tools.
Online Shopping Comes of Age
Your editor still remembers the days of late 1990s when pundits pooh-poohed the idea that money could be made from the World Wide Web. Shopping online was considered trendy, but not the basis for any worries by brick-and-mortar businesses. This was in the days when we still browsed the shelves of used bookstores. And Timemagazine had more pages in it than a Sunday church bulletin. Well, that was then.
On August 1, the Wall Street Journal remarked on the growth of online jewelry sales. Lest one think that buying jewelry online might appear risky to the contemporary consumer, WSJ states that website Editorialist, featuring goods from four score of designers, brings in half its net from fine jewelry sales. So if we're talking rings, for instance, David Webb's diamond and ruby nail ring, a corkscrewed affair, tops the list for $18,000; Anita Ko's gold, tsavorite and diamond pavé panther is yours for less than $6,000. Net-A-Porter, which sells clothing as well as accessories, has been so successful in online jewelry sales it has snapped up beensie brands like Bibi van der Velden, according to WSJ.
One can imagine that the online shopping experience is not only convenient for the busy buyer, but also confidence-boosting for the bashful buyer. But the picky patron also will find needs met: a Moda Operandi said that after, say, a Nina Runsdorf show, if the color or stone isn't just right, the seller's team is happy to oblige. And although the virtual experience of buying a top-flight colored gemstone, Stone Set's cofounder Jenna Fain reminds the reader that this is not the first generation to buy jewels sight unseen. When the relationship is established between buyer and purveyor, a lot can be forgiven on both sides.
Jaded in Jade Land
On August 11 and August 13, global intelligence firm Stratfor posted two Field Notes blog entries regarding life for people on both sides of the Burma–China border. These people have the same ethnicity: China's Jinghpaw are akin to Burma's Kachin, although the anonymous author found that Jinghpaw see themselves as Chinese first; vice versa for the Kachin. The report contrasts the good old days of jade's "golden age" of border porosity with the present clampdown by Burma's military. Profiled is Xiao Liu who, while only in his early twenties, already has seen a windfall—a three-thousand-dollar investment had paid off x100—and a near-downfall—being detained by Shan soldiers near Myitkyina, which could have cost him his life had the soldiers been Burma military.
On the same day as Stratfor's second blog entry, The Irrawaddy reported on new fighting in Kachin between the Burma army and the Kachin Independence Army, displacing 200 civilians in Kachin's Hpakant Township. The clash took place at Sabaw Maw, a ruby mine controlled by the KIA. Fighting like this is not unusual, but it causes concern because legal jade mining—suspended in Hpakant since 2012—is scheduled to begin again in September, as noted on Friday by The Irrawaddy. A senior official of Burma's Myanmar Gems Enterprise said that mining operations would resume, regardless of fighting. (Kachin News Group also covered the clash.)
Peace talks had been taking place in July, although the vocabulary to be used in an eventual agreement caused some stumbling, according to the Shan Herald. Ethnic armed groups wished to be called "Ethnic Armed Revolutionary Organizations," paying tribute to fallen insurgents, whereas government negotiators felt the R-word should be omitted, since the new government ostensibly is civilian. A compromise was achieved: no "revolution" will be found in the peace agreement's headings—only in the text itself, as reported by Mizzima.
Despite such peace talks and the Burma government's past reforms, U.S. lawmakers continue to call for continued sanctions. The latest such call, by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, hinges on the constitutional ban on Aung San Suu Kyi's candidacy for president, due to her having foreign nationals in her immediate family.
Jade Land Jump
Jade production, as measured in exports, has steadily increased over the past three fiscal years, per Eleven Media Group on July 29:
- FY 2011–12: $34.2 million
- FY 2012–13: $297.9 million
- FY 2013–14: $1 billion
An August 8 article in The Irrawaddy, about a jade scam, put the jade sales (both legal and illegal) in 2011 at $8 billion (source: Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation).
Jilted in Jade Land
The Irrawaddy scam story, mentioned above, is remarkable for its scale. Over the past few months, hundreds of people were involved in selling about $160 million in fine jade to a Chinese conman named Zhong Xiong, 33. Zhong had set the stage for the scam by wining and dining his "fellow" gem dealers. The generosity paid off when Zhong obtained the jade, only to disappear without paying. The article states that the setup must have taken years in order to gain gem dealers' trust. Even though Zhong was apprehended, the scam had a cascading effect. One dealer could not return home since he'd involved business partners' jade in his dealings with Zhong, a common practice. The article does not state whether any of the loot had been recovered.
First, the sublime…
- Myanmar Times: Mandalay pagoda, built entirely of jade, nears completion
- Xinhua: Jade casket found in north China, believed to be connected to a Buddhism branch that flourished in Burma
Next, the serious…
- Eleven Media Group: Vietnam wants to create an industrial zone in Burma concerned with gems and jewelry manufacture
- Eleven Media Group: Gas tank explosion in Mandalay gem market causes stones to go missing
Then, the silly…
With Pala Presents, we offer selections from the collection of Pala International’s Bill Larson, who will share with us some of the wealth of information in the realm of gems and gemology. And, as with this edition, gemstone-related collectibles.
Sardonyxly Speaking: Birthstone Collecting Cards
August's birthstone is sardonyx, a variety of chalcedony, displaying parallel bands of sard or carnelian, banded with black, white, or both. The banding makes this material perfect for the fashioning of cameos, although you'd not know this from our collecting cards this month, which feature faceted examples of the material.
Appropriately enough, sardonyx cameos have survived Roman Empire founder Augustus himself, for whom our month is named.
August's child is fated to die abandoned. Augustus may have as well; it was rumored that his wife Livia poisoned him. It would have been unthinkable for Augustus to wear his own cameo, but could it have saved him from "doubting cruel"?
For more information on birthstones, see Palagems.com.
A Votive Agate Axe Head Inscribed, Described
Recently, an Italian researcher queried us regarding a "votive stone axe head," of a 3rd century B.C.E. vintage, that he'd been informed was in the collection of Pala International's Bill Larson. Intrigued, we asked Bill about it. Indeed, he gave us color images of the axe head, fashioned from agate, as well as journal articles and book passages that discuss its enigmatic feature—a cuneiform inscription. We're pleased to share them with our readers.
From The Curious Lore of Precious Stones
by George Frederick Kunz, 1913.
Included in the chapter Religious Uses of Precious Stones, Pagan, Hebrew, and Christian.
One of the rarest and most significant specimens illustrating the use of valuable stones for religious ceremonial purposes in the pagan world is in the Morgan-Tiffany collection. It is an ancient Babylonian axe-head made of banded agate. So regular, indeed, is the disposition of the layers in this agate that one might be justified in denominating it an onyx. Its prevailing hue is what may be called a "deer-brown"; some white splotches now apparent are evidently due to the action of fire or that of some alkali. This axe-head bears an inscription in archaic cuneiform characters, and presumably in the so-called Sumerian tongue, that believed to have been spoken by the founders of the Babylonian civilization. The form of the inscription indicates that the object dates from an earlier period than 2000 B.C.
While the characters are clearly cut and can be easily deciphered, the inscription is nevertheless exceedingly difficult to translate. It is evident that the axe-head was a votive offering to a divinity, probably on the part of a certain governor named Adduggish; but whether the divinity in question was Shamash (the sun-god), or the god Adad, or some other member of the Babylonian pantheon, cannot be determined with any finality. The French assyriologist, François Lenormant, who first described this axe-head in 1879, and Prof. Ira Maurice Price, of the Semitic Department of Chicago University, both admit that it may have been consecrated to Adad. As the weather-god, the thunderer, the axe-symbol would have been more especially appropriate to him in view of the usage, almost universal among primitive peoples, of associating stone axe-heads or axe-shaped stones with the thunderbolt, and hence with the divinity who was believed to have launched it toward the earth.
This Sumerian axe-head measures 134.5 mm. in length (5.3 inches), 35.5 mm. in width (1.4 inches), and 31 mm. in thickness (1.22 inches). It was originally secured by Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731–1804), for some time secretary of the College of the Propaganda [Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, or Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide] in Rome, who probably acquired it from some missionary to the East. From the cardinal's family it passed for 15,000 lire ($3000) to the Tyszkiewicz Collection, and when the objects therein comprised were disposed of at public sale, the writer purchased it for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, April 16, 1902.*
*For a fuller description of this valuable relic, and a discussion of the meaning of the inscription, see "On the ancient inscribed Sumerian (Babylonian) axe-head for the Morgan Collection in the American Museum of Natural History," by George Frederick Kunz, with translation by Prof. Ira Maurice Price and discussion by Dr. William Hayes Ward. Bulletin of the Museum, vol. xxi, pp. 37–47, April 6, 1905.
Since you axed…
In his collection, Bill Larson has four additional references on the Babylonian axe head, three of which we reprint in full.
- On the Ancient Inscribed Sumerian (Babylonian) Axe-Head from the Morgan Collection in the American Museum of Natural History by George Frederick Kunz, 1905 – An in-depth description of the relic
- An Ancient Bablylonian Axe-Head by Prof. J. Dyneley Prince and Dr. Robert Lau, 1905 – A detailed discussion of the challenges faced in translating the axe head inscription
- In Morgan Hall, American Museum of Natural History, New York City by George Frederick Kunz, Hon. Curator of Precious Stones, 1913
- From Quartz Family Minerals: A Handbook for the Mineral Collector by H. C. Dake, Frank L. Fleener and Ben Hur Wilson
And while we're on the subject of carvings…
Last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the acquisition of an elaborately carved porphyry vessel dating from first to early second centuries C.E., according to a press release.
The vessel probably held the cremains of a VIP. It intentionally is shaped like a situla (wine bucket), featuring two masks of Silenus, who was Dionysus's companion and tutor. Rather than swing handles, this vessel has two large ear-shaped handles. It measures 10 inches in height by 9 inches in width. It's believed to have been crafted in an Alexandrian or Roman workshop.
Regarding the material, the press release states,
Porphyry is a rare hard, purple-red stone that was highly prized in antiquity for its distinct color. Because purple was considered the imperial color, porphyry was regarded as a royal stone. Under Roman rule, the quarrying of porphyry in the remote eastern desert of Egypt was an imperial monopoly. The stone's hardness made it difficult to quarry, and the need to transport the stone long distances added to its value as a luxury material.
— End August Newsletter • Published 8/18/14 —
Note: Palagems.com selects much of its material in the interest of fostering a stimulating discourse on the topics of gems, gemology, and the gemstone industry. Therefore the opinions expressed here are not necessarily those held by the proprietors of Palagems.com. We welcome your feedback.