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What’s in a name? The use of historical terminology to describe colour

The rest is history

An example of a saturated ‘India ink’ sapphire sometimes mislabelled ‘royal blue’ by less reputable labs.

The International Colored Gemstone Association’s (ICA’s) conference at Tucson GemFair this year offered numerous sessions on timely topics, one of which led to an animated discussion on the matter of gem-identification laboratories using historical terminology to describe colour.

I listened with rapt attention and learned most of the reputable labs have been printing traditional and more fanciful terms on gemstone grading reports. Not only ‘pigeon’s blood red’ and ‘cornflower blue,’ but evocative words like ‘crimson,’ ‘flame,’ and ‘royal,’ to name a few. Now that I think of it, these terms sound more like an interior decorator gushing over fabric choices than what I would expect to find regarding a scientific-based depiction of colour on a grading report. I worked up the courage to speak my mind, which led to this article and the hope of stirring additional discourse. My question was, do these descriptors of colour help or hinder our industry? What can we, as jewellery valuers, do?

Traditionally, coloured gemstone reports only stated the obvious colour—sapphire was blue, ruby was red, and emerald was green, etc. However, we all know there are blue sapphires, and then there are blue sapphires. This makes a marked difference in our research, and ultimately, the value printed above our signature.

If we were to rely solely on a lab report, it would be very difficult to tell what the gemstone really looked like. In their attempt to better describe colour, I feel some labs are perhaps, unwittingly, becoming marketing arms for gemstone dealers and retailers. Some think their use of these terms is a trend, while others feel they are necessary to survive. A quick search on eBay results in dozens of ‘pigeon’s blood’ rubies, some ‘certified’ some not, although one would surmise quite a lot use these terms because that’s what the ‘big players’ do.

There will always be an element of the market that finds an opportunity to deceive. With just enough truth to be plausible, as well as a consumer who will believe anything they read or hear, the temptation is certainly there. Where might these labs be placing themselves when this kind of language grates upon the monikers ‘science’ and ‘laboratory?’ They can be gem-identification labs or romancers of the stones, but not both. Labs add certain legitimacy to a stone. By using historical terminology, valuers—myself included—feel it will lead to a proliferation of ‘pigeon blood’ rubies ranging in colour from pink to the most saturated red, and ‘royal’ blue sapphires resembling dried India ink. When this happens, it will render the terms meaningless.

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