February 27, 2020
By Duncan Parker
Diamonds have fascinated jewellery and gemstone fans for thousands of years. We regard these shiny stones as solidified drops of the crystal-clear, pure morning dew, with the most exceptional among them classified as gems of ‘the finest water.’
These descriptors are all well and good for clear gemstones, but what about diamonds of other hues, colours, and tones?
The colourless diamond has long been considered a classic gem, generating considerable excitement when it slips onto a finger, decorates an ear lobe, or adorns a wrist—and, indeed, our innate fixation of these stones has led us to use some peculiar expressions to describe their colour over the years.
Antiquated terms (some of which were used in Europe until not long ago) include such inscrutable words as ‘Wesselton,’ named for a South African diamond mine, or ‘river’ (the latter at least speaks to the possibility of that ‘finest water’—and these stones are, of course, of finer, or less, colour than their Wesselton counterparts). Another term, ‘Cape,’ is derived from South Africa’s Cape Town, where diamonds were discovered 150 years ago. This expression is often used to describe diamonds of a noticeable, but not quite ‘fancy,’ yellowish hue.
By comparison, modern terminology for colourless diamonds is far more mundane. Rather than clever, romantic descriptors, today’s diamond grading world has embraced the rather ordinary and quite undescriptive alphabet. In formal grading, gone are the days of ‘river’ and ‘Wesselton;’ now we use ‘D’ or ‘E’—practical terms for adequate description.
The alphabet for diamond grading is unusual. While most believe the alphabet starts with ‘A,’ we don’t use ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C’ when grading diamonds. These basic letters are absent, for reasons that are, I’m sure, known to someone. I’ve heard all sorts of unreliable reports about how we happened to ‘forget’ to include the first three letters of the alphabet, but, as they are unreliable, I won’t list them here. The good thing is that we do, at least, manage to include the other end of the alphabet: ‘Z’ (which is pronounced zed in Canada and zee in the United States, but, fortunately, equates to the same thing regardless).
Yellow-tone diamonds with colours stronger than ‘Z’ are called ‘fancy yellows;’ colours stronger still are referred to as ‘fancy intense,’ while those that are stronger still are called ‘fancy vivid.’ After ‘Z,’ the stronger the colour, the higher the price is (when all other factors are equal). Vivid yellow stones, for example, can be twice the price of intense yellow.
The ‘Z’ threshold for fancy colour diamonds applies to yellow tones; other colours, such as pink, blue, red, and green, may be called fancy even if they display less colouration than ‘Z.’
When it comes to coloured diamonds, some of these stones are ancient and incredibly famous. For example, the 45.52-carat deep-blue Hope Diamond, which is kept at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and the 41-carat Dresden Green Diamond, located in Germany’s Green Vault, are rare, irreplaceable, and, in all likelihood, the most famous diamonds in the world. At auction, large blue and pink diamonds have generated multi-million dollar bids, setting records in recent years. Indeed, the ideal market for almost any large, coloured diamond is at auction, as this arena provides an open and transparent market to present any important and rare item to the world.
The rarest diamond colour is red. In fact, once upon a time, only a couple red diamonds were known in the world. This was before Australia’s Argyle Mine appeared on the scene in the 1980s. In the years since this site opened, the very rare pink, exceedingly rare blue, and the almost never found red coloured diamonds have (occasionally) become slightly more available—but are still comparatively incredibly rare.
The Argyle Mine is scheduled to close by the end of this year, which has created some speculation in the diamond world. While pink diamonds have, on occasion, been recovered throughout history, it was only after this mine was opened that pink became a diamond hue that was predictably available. In short, Argyle was really the first branded diamond locality—and the first site where production was sometimes tracked from the mine to the consumer.
Argyle’s announced closure has led some owners of pink diamonds to think they’ll be able to sell their wares for a profit now that the main source for these stones is set to cease operations—but who knows how this will play out? We may see a flood of pinks entering the market from private owners, all of whom are hoping to cash in because of the reduced supply. Indeed, we’ve seen a growth in the number of coloured diamonds being considered for sale at auction in recent years.
On the alternative side, there is some speculation Alrosa, a major Russian diamond mining company, has sources that could replace at least some of the pink diamond supply after Argyle closes. If this is true, the new source of supply could help keep pink prices stable—this, however, remains to be seen.
The vast majority of fancy coloured diamonds produced by the Argyle mine are brown. With the closure of the site, there’s very little speculation about the profitability of re-selling ‘coffee,’ ‘cognac,’ ‘champagne,’ or other brown flavours of diamonds. For a long time, brown diamonds were used for industrial purposes, but now these stones have found a place alongside other gems. Brown diamonds have a fascinating palette of tones and can be quite lovely to look at. Further, as they are quite modestly priced, they can fullfil a desire for a diamond that is out of the ordinary, but still fits within a smaller budget.
For some years, we’ve seen a growth in awareness of fancy coloured diamonds. There’s been plenty of press and marketing for these stones, and, as these gems continue to enter consumers’ vocabulary, their demand (and price) increases.
Of course, nothing lasts forever; the overall interest in diamonds has softened recently, and this diminished demand includes coloured diamonds. That said, the vintage jewellery market continues to love its coloured diamonds, with pink, blue, and (of course) red diamonds more or less holding their place—but perhaps the canary in the coal mine is the yellow diamond.
The price for yellow diamonds has taken a tumble recently. As a silver lining, this means that if you (or your customer) desire fancy yellow diamonds, you’re in luck! I’ve always said the words ‘investment’ and ‘jewellery’ should not be used in the same sentence; the real ‘investment in jewellery and diamonds is in beauty and sentiment.
An item of beauty pays big dividends in pleasure and joy. While a diamond of colour may cost you less money these days and might not increase enormously in price (unless you have a rare and large diamond), the colours can be extraordinarily lovely and would make most of us very happy.
Duncan Parker, FGA, FCGmA, CAP-CJA, is vice-president of Dupuis Fine Jewellery Auctioneers, based in Toronto. He has worked as a gemmologist and jewellery specialist, appraiser, and consultant for the past 28 years. Parker is an educator and lecturer on jewellery subjects, and has been a speaker at international conferences with a focus on jewellery history. He has served as president of the Canadian Gemmological Association (CGA) and Jewellers Vigilance Canada (JVC). Parker can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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