Gemstone availability starts to dictate high-end jewellery designs
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The number of global jewellery events that took place over the summer was the strongest indicator that the industry is returning to its pre-pandemic rhythm. However, for many jewellers, gems that featured in this year’s high-end pieces had been sourced long before the outbreak of Covid-19.
These gems came from consignments bought before the imposition of lockdowns, or from existing stock stowed for years in the safes of jewellery houses. But, even for jewellers with ample reserves, the pandemic highlighted the precarious nature of the supply chains for colour gemstones.
Unlike diamonds, which have standardised characteristics and clarity of pricing, given they make up 80 per cent of the jewellery business, colour gemstones are a multi-faceted world of their own. Each gemstone — of which there can be myriad sources — has its own idiosyncratic supply chain, each disrupted in different ways during the pandemic.
“The demand for gemstones is greater than the supply and the top quality stones are becoming more and more scarce,” says Guillaume Chautru, head of gemmology and gemstone procurement at Swiss watch and jewellery maker Piaget. “It was like this prior to Covid, but the lockdowns didn’t help. It is a miracle to find a stone of the right quality. But, during the pandemic, it was even more of a miracle to get it to market when petrol was scarce, borders were closed and power cuts shut down mining and stonecutting operations.”
Chautru mentions shortages of certain gemstones, such as the blue indigolite tourmaline and pink spinels, as well as backlogs in mining operations, and stone cutting facilities.
One jeweller known for its lavish colour gemstones is Bulgari, which has launched the Eden Garden of Wonders collection brimming with thousands of exotic stones. Its creative director, Lucia Silvestri, started collecting the emeralds used “three to four years ago, waiting for the right moment to come”.
With mines being depleted and new sources of gemstones few and far between, the practice of basing designs around the availability of the stones themselves is sure to continue — and even increase. “The creativity of a high jewellery piece always begins with the stones,” says Silvestri. “In general, all the gems are becoming more and more rare so I have to say that it is every day more difficult to find gems of a very good quality.”
For Jason Hirsh, of family-owned jeweller Hirsh London, lockdown provided an unexpected increase in high-value investment jewels “as people weren’t travelling, they were spending their money in the UK”. Unable to travel himself, Hirsh had to ask his trusted international suppliers to send him more stones for viewing, despite having close to 2,000 gemstones in his safe.
On the supply side, Gerhard Hahn, a 120-year old family business in Düsseldorf, had to seek new stones. Hahn specialises in sapphires, emeralds, rubies and pearls but the pandemic forced it to look for other offerings.
“In our case it was Namibian indigolite tourmaline,” says fourth generation jeweller Alex Hahn. “The coolest thing about lockdown was that . . . nobody was out there. I travelled to Namibia and did the negotiations face-to-face and we now specialise in blue green ‘lagoon colour’ tourmalines.”
But, while the jewellery industry is getting back to normal, the inherent problems in the colour gemstone supply chain — highlighted by the pandemic — are not going to be solved overnight. For some, they will require a rethink.
Fernando Jorge, a London-based jeweller who manufactures mainly in his native Brazil, says lockdown gave him an opportunity to look into his gemstone sources — and a lesson in how to deal with changing circumstances.
“I had the time to connect with all my gemstone suppliers,” says Jorge, “to engage in conversations around responsible and ethical sourcing, as well as traceability”.
“There are a lot of things to be improved in the traceability of the gold and gemstones supply chain in Brazil and the pandemic gave us the opportunity to advance these important topics. I also had time to reflect on the importance of responsiveness and to be able to adapt my designs to the changing availability of gemstones. If it comes to the point where I can’t find a certain gemstone, then I can turn my attention to other materials like tagua nut [vegetable ivory] or horn or wood, which I have always been interested in. It is important not to stand still while the world is changing around you.”