Everything You Need To Know About Buying Coloured Gemstones

While Christmas is the most popular time of year for engagements, you needn't be expecting a diamond sparkler to experience the thrill of unwrapping a piece of jewellery you’ll cherish forever. In fact, in recent years fine jewellery has become as much of a must-have fashion accessory as the latest 'It' handbag (not to mention lasting a whole lot longer).

From stacking rings to statement earrings, more and more designers are creating contemporary fine jewellery that appeals to a younger generation and complements our everyday wardrobes. And like our fashion choices, we’re becoming more daring in terms of colour and scale.

Add in the increased availability of coloured gemstones on the market, thanks to technical advancements and deposits of emeralds discovered in Zambia and rubies in Mozambique, and our jewellery boxes have the potential to be far more colourful than our mothers’ or grandmothers’ ever were.

Those mines are both owned by Gemfields, the world’s leading supplier of coloured gemstones. It produces 25% of the world’s emeralds and 70% of the world’s rubies. By investing in the mines and controlling the entire process, from sourcing the stones to selling rough gems to the market, the company ensures that every Gemfields emerald and ruby is produced according to their strict business, social and environmental standards. Not only are they beautiful, they’re also responsibly sourced.

But choosing the right stone is by no means straightforward. Before you invest – whether treating yourself or someone else – we spoke to the experts at Gemfields to find out everything you need to know about buying coloured gemstones.

created by Rosanna Webster.
Rubies are red and emeralds are green. But that’s not the whole story. Coloured gemstones come in an endless array of shades, and finding the one that’s right for you is a personal decision. “Rubies vary in colour from a raspberry hue to something more like classic Ferrari red, and different people are drawn towards different shades depending on their skin tone, hair colour and personality,” says Elena Basaglia, downstream manager at Gemfields.

Unlike diamonds, which are graded on a scale of D to Z (D being ‘colourless’, Z being almost yellow), rating coloured gemstones is a more subjective task. “People perceive colour differently: two people looking at the same ruby would see it as different shades of red. It’s a very personal choice,” says Basaglia.

Instead, each stone is given a description according to its primary and secondary colour. Rubies vary from purplish-red to orangey-red, while emeralds range from yellowish to blueish-green – and all shades and combinations in between. The colour can give a clue as to where the stone comes from. “Generally speaking Colombian emeralds have a shade like mint leaves, while Zambian emeralds appear more like a rich, blueish green,” explains Basaglia.

The colour and country of origin can both affect the price. Traditionally, Colombian emeralds are seen as the most desirable, and are therefore the most expensive. Pure red rubies, a shade known as 'pigeon’s blood', have long been considered the most prestigious and therefore the most valuable. They were thought to be found only in Myanmar but, as always with coloured gemstones, the reality is a bit more complicated.

“Myanmar was always held up as the ‘holy grail’ of ruby origin, but since the deposit has been found in Mozambique we’ve discovered every single shade and quality of ruby there – including pigeon’s blood,” says Anna Flower, head of PR for Gemfields.

The lesson is not to get too caught up in a gemstone’s country of origin but instead find the shade that works best for you. Try jewellery on, hold a stone against your skin, look at it in different types of light (it’s amazing how the colour of a gemstone can change appearance between natural and artificial light ) and, ultimately, choose the one that best suits you.
created by Rosanna Webster.
“Whatever you know about diamonds, forget it – because for coloured gemstones it’s the exact opposite,” says Basaglia. While in the diamond world a lack of colour is covetable, for coloured gems it’s intensity of colour that matters. And while diamonds are prized for a lack of inclusions (tiny imperfections caused by heat and pressure over millions of years beneath the Earth’s surface), inclusions are what give coloured gemstones their character.

“Don’t associate inclusions with negative connotations,” advises Basaglia. “Even if a gemstone has inclusions you can still fall in love with it.” The inclusions found within emeralds are even known as ‘jardins’, meaning ‘gardens’ in French – an indication of the romance found within these characteristics.

While being beautifully unique, inclusions can also have a downside: they can make a stone more brittle. So emeralds for example, will often be treated with oil, which helps to reduce these imperfections and strengthen the stone. This type of treatment – along with heating a ruby to increase (or decrease) the intensity of its colour – is commonplace and has been accepted for centuries.

“In the diamond industry, treating a stone to improve colour or clarity can be frowned upon, but in the coloured gemstone industry it’s quite accepted,” says Flower. “Looking only for an untreated stone will mean your budget can spiral out of control: buying a treated gemstone is absolutely fine, as long as the treatment has been disclosed to the buyer.”
created by Rosanna Webster.
As well as knowing how your gemstone has been treated, it’s also imperative that you know where it comes from. “Not only should you wear coloured gemstone jewellery because it looks good, you should also be proud to wear it because you know exactly where the stones come from,” says Flower.

The coloured gemstone industry is relatively underdeveloped in comparison to the diamond industry, which has been under pressure to clean up its act thanks to publicity around ‘blood diamonds’. In contrast, coloured gemstone production has traditionally relied on small-scale, artisanal producers – whose ethical credentials are difficult to trace.

Gemfields has radically changed this, by ensuring that every stone that bears its name is responsibly sourced, and every step in the journey from mine to market can be traced. Every Gemfields ruby comes from the Montepuez mine in Mozambique and every Gemfields emerald comes from the Kagem mine in Zambia. Each of these mines is assessed to ensure it meets strict environmental and sustainable standards.

“To mine gemstones you need to dig, and we go about that in a way that has the smallest possible impact on the environment,” explains Flower, adding that as well as funding new schools and health centres in mining areas, Gemfields works with local communities to develop agricultural projects to ensure that they have a livelihood that enriches the area even after the mines are gone. “That is a responsible way of producing coloured gemstones and it’s one we’re very proud of,” she says.
created by Rosanna Webster.
Yet another way in which coloured gemstones differ from diamonds is that there is no internationally recognised benchmark for how much a stone should cost. Pricing, therefore, is a bit of a ‘dark art’ – but don’t let that put you off.

“There is so much mystery around coloured gemstones that people think they must be extremely expensive, but they’re not,” says Basaglia. “Don’t be afraid of going into a shop and asking to try on a piece of ruby or emerald jewellery – you might be surprised, it might not cost as much as you think and you'll likely be able to find something within your price range.”

While Gemfields rubies and emeralds are used as the centrepieces in extremely valuable, one-of-a-kind designs from the world’s most prestigious jewellery houses, they are also used by contemporary, up-and-coming designers, who use smaller stones with interesting features to create more affordable pieces you can wear every day. And actually, when you look beyond traditionally desirable coloured gemstones, there are bargains to be found.

“If you move outside the traditional criteria – say Colombian emeralds, Burmese pigeon blood rubies or untreated stones – and broaden your mind, then you can absolutely find a great quality, fairly large stone for a very affordable price,” says Flower.

Far more important than where a stone comes from or what the laboratory report says is whether or not it speaks to you. “Gemstone buyers are as picky as a woman choosing a pair of shoes, so have faith that if you see a stone in a jewellery shop then it is there for a reason – because it’s beautiful,” says Basaglia. “So follow your instincts.”

There are certain practical considerations to take into account. Emeralds are more fragile than other gemstones, so are more suited to necklaces or earrings than rings or bracelets, where they’re at greater risk of being damaged. And due to their fragility, they’re more likely to be set in gold rather than platinum, as it’s more malleable and less likely to damage the stone. But beyond that, the choice is entirely yours.

“To me, it’s important that jewellery is worn, not kept in a box,” says Flower. “So buy something that resonates. I’ve seen countless gemstones and my favourites aren’t always the most expensive, but the ones that have spoken to me. It’s important to have that gut reaction and buy something that you’ll be proud to own and wear.”