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

by jacquie_dealmeida | June 14, 2016 9:00 am

Described in its report as ‘pigeon’s blood red,’ this 15-carat Burmese ruby ring went on the auction block last year, selling for $18 million U.S.

By Carole C. Richbourg

The answer to the question posed by the title of this article seems simple enough. Yet, when it comes to coloured gemstones, it’s not quite so black and white. When I think of a well-cut almandine garnet, I envision jewel-like votive candles in a church lined up like soldiers, offering prayers to heaven with flickering flames. Kashmir sapphires conjure images of a Milk of Magnesia bottle.

Depending on where and in which culture you were raised, the visual of these gemstones might be very different. Consider two traditional names for very fine ruby and sapphire: ‘pigeon’s blood red’ and ‘cornflower blue.’ In countries where one finds these treasures, these names carry certain meanings. To the worldwide consumer, however, they evoke great value.

Today, demand for very fine gemstones, such as Burmese rubies and Kashmir sapphires, is at an all-time high. These gems are being offered at well-known auction houses; to achieve record prices, they are accompanied by laboratory reports stating origin, level of treatment, and historical terms to describe colour. I’m not so sure this is a good idea, as these names conjure images, as well as cement perceptions, whether true or not. Let me explain why.

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.

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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.

Business is business

When a fringe lab uses a historical descriptor like ‘cornflower blue,’ consumers believe the stone is on par with ones described as such by reputable labs.

Labs have always felt pressure from dealers to name exceptional stones. One main reason they might have succumbed is that labs catering to the precious gemstone industry are not the same as a university research lab or government lab. By that I mean they don’t receive public money. Instead, they are businesses that serve the trade. The ‘big’ labs and the smaller ones, as well, have a challenging job of maintaining their integrity, while accommodating the base that sustains them.

To better understand the sentiment and reasoning behind this trend, in addition to surveying fellow valuers, I spoke to the principals of two reputable gem labs: Christopher Smith, who heads American Gemological Laboratories (AGL), and Richard Hughes from Lotus Gemology. Both had compelling points of view, but were polar opposite. Hughes said it is difficult to remain competitive without attempting to satisfy the trade, while Smith said he believes using historical terminology actually limits business. To put this in perspective, Lotus joins GIA, Swiss Gemmological Institute (SSEF), Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS), and Gübelin Gem Lab in using these terms. In contrast, AGL does not.

Examples of dubious ‘pigeon’s blood red’ rubies carrying reports from fringe labs abound on the Internet.

As I stated earlier, labs have always felt pressure to use descriptors and some believe doing so is inevitable. Smith explained his lab was looking at the longer view. His policy, as it was when he was at the helm of Gübelin, is not to use this terminology directly on the lab report. His belief is the industry has chosen to take some of its most revered terms and commercialized them to the point of being almost worthless today. “These terms used to mean the best of the best; however, due to industry pressure, labs are now putting them on reports to market a stone to consumers,” Smith said.

Always looking at things from a unique angle, Hughes takes a different approach, preferring instead to provide detailed explanations of these colours in reports, including the use of lush images. He added, “Faceted coloured gemstones do not display a single ‘colour,’ but instead present a mosaic of ‘colours,’ each of which is subtly or significantly different. The mosaic’s colours are subtly or significantly affected by cutting and symmetry; polish; colour zoning, inclusions, and texture; pleochroism; the spectral composition of the light source; the background; and viewing geometry.”

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Smith is no less passionate about fine coloured gemstones than Hughes, and also believes that for the right gemstone, there is a place for more poetic descriptions. However, he thinks they belong in ancillary documents, not the main gem-identification report.

This sapphire is described as ‘cornflower blue’ on its gem-identification report; however, some appraisers feel the use of historical terminology such as this one may lead to a proliferation of blue sapphires exhibiting a range of colour in an effort to better market them.

I have the utmost respect for these gentlemen and the labs under their direction, almost bordering on awe. I am grateful they took the time to explain their positions. I can understand both, especially from the point of view as a valuer. However, my position is the argument on using these terms tips the scales a bit more heavily on the side of not using them.
The common thread among appraisers is this isn’t
a good thing. A wise colleague puts it this way:

“As gemmologists, we’d probably prefer terminology that’s repeatable and precisely defined, but the reality has always been that describing and ‘grading’ the colour of coloured gemstones is as much based on experience, colour memory, and ‘art’ as it is which colour description system we use to try to be ‘scientific’ in our descriptions. The major labs get to see and experience more of the finest of the fine than most anyone else, and they can create comparator sets to enhance their consistency more readily than most of the rest of us. I’m far less worried about GIA, AGL, and the other ‘biggies’ creating reports using those types of descriptions than I am the ‘trickle down’ to less reputable labs and small, independent gemmologist/appraisers, and retailers feeling the pressure to follow suit.”

A slippery slope?

Although this stone exhibits some blue flash, diamonds with the phenomenon throughout were once called ‘perfect blue-white,’ a reference to infer they were ‘very fine, the best.’

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—which operates similar to Canada’s Competition Bureau—is an arm of the U.S. government that polices unfair business practices. An old term that still rears its ugly head today is ‘blue-white.’ Also known as ‘perfect blue-white,’ this descriptor traditionally referred to a colourless diamond with strong flashes of blue, a reference to infer ‘very fine, the best.’ The expression was so abused, the FTC banned its use in the late 1930s as deceptive. Consider the following reference to the misuse of this term in Frank B. Wade’s A Text-book of Precious Stones (1918):

The term ‘blue-white’ (a much-abused expression, by the way) should be applied only to diamonds of such a close approach to pure whiteness of body substance, as seen on-edge in the paper that, when faced up and undimmed, they give such a strong play of prismatic blue that any slight trace of yellow in their substance is completely disguised, and the effect upon the eye is notably blue.

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Once the public got wind ‘blue-white’ was the best, not surprisingly, there were a lot more ‘blue-white diamonds’ in the market. Lower-colour diamonds with blue florescence were sold as ‘blue-white,’ as the fluorescence masked the diamond’s yellowish appearance. How can history not be repeated?

These terms not only infer the finest colour in their respective class, but also the locale where they were found. Colour and origin matter today, especially in the high-end. Reputable labs are necessary; they have sophisticated equipment that not only identifies the material as natural or synthetic, but if treated, the kind of treatment and to what extent. A good friend in the auction business told me, “Auction houses must have grading reports from the major labs that include AGL, GIA, Gübelin, and SSEF. We live and breathe through the labs due to buyer and seller demand. We are constantly at their mercy for time and grading results. In order to get top-dollar, as you know, it’s of the utmost importance.”

To calm fears, these labs aren’t assigning colours willy-nilly. I’m told that at AGL, only very fine stones merit ancillary reports. Further, only a select few will be likened to these historical and coveted terms within these reports. The problem is, opportunistic fringe labs don’t have an issue calling a cough drop ‘pigeon’s blood,’ and when the consumer sees the term on a report from a reputable lab, a sliver of legitimacy creeps in.

What do we, as valuers, do with these reports? Most labs use their own grading systems, as opposed to the ones we might use. My suggestion is to colour-grade the stone as we would any other using repeatable methods, which aren’t really ‘systems,’ but attempts to describe the appearance of faceted coloured gemstones based on the Munsell Color System. This is a good system: gem-identification labs (who have no bias as to the value of a gemstone) provide the facts, while accredited qualified valuers (also unbiased) use repeatable colour-grading codes that we can further decipher into layman’s terms that help the readers and users of our reports better visualize their stone.

This is an ongoing discussion that is sure to change from year to year. Personally, I feel less fanciful wording would be better for the consumer, but more descriptive terms, if used with care, might light a crimson flame for coloured gemstones.

Carole C. RichbourgCarole C. Richbourg is an independent gemmologist/appraiser in Northern California and has been appraising full time since 1999. She is an accredited senior appraiser, master gemmologist, and a fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain. Richbourg is co-instructor for the American Society of Appraiser’s (ASA’s) GJ-202 appraisal report writing for insurance coverage class. She may be contacted via e-mail at carole.richbourg@finejewelryappraiser.com.

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