Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

Aurora Borealis

Similar to moonstone, labradorite showcases the beauty of blues and greens.

By Mark Lepage

Amáli
While iridescent gemstone labradorite has been known for almost 250 years, it is enjoying a surge in popularity for a number of reasons. Christopher Clark, product knowledge coordinator of Jewelry Television (JTV), graduate gemologist and JTV gemstone expert, calls it “one of the best semiprecious stones available for the beauty you get for the price. When I go out to shows, I see it all over the place. It’s in every row.”
   Barbara Lawrence, owner of Barbara Lawrence, Fine Gemstones in Boston, has worked with labradorite — also referred to as “rainbow moonstone” — for 25 years. “The colorless form of labradorite is probably among the rarest jewelry feldspar there is and I started collecting it in the 1970s,” she says. “It’s one of the most remarkable stones, with a clear body and rolling flashes of purples and greens and blues” due to light refraction between layers of the stone.

Discovery
   Labradorite was discovered by Moravian missionaries in 1770 on St. Paul’s Island in Labrador, which is attached to the Quebec mainland but is part of the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Given its remarkable iridescence and play of color, called “labradorescence,” Inuit mythology held that the stone was the Aurora Borealis trapped in rocks on the Labrador coast.
   Despite the stone’s name, “all of the best gem material today is either from Madagascar or Finland,” says Lawrence. In fact, the Pearly Gates quarry in Labrador is no longer active, confirms Canadian geologist Bruce Ryan, mainly because those stones fracture too easily to be useful in jewelry.
   “It takes a bit more skill to cut labradorite because it is brittle and has perfect cleavage in one direction, making it vulnerable to fracture,” Clark adds. “You would definitely need a lapidary who knows the stone to cut it, and a jeweler who knows it to set it.” As a result, labradorite is best suited for necklaces, pendants and earrings. “It’s fine in rings, but for occasional wear, not daily. Otherwise, you’d risk chipping it.”

Rising Popularity
   Eric Braunwart, president of Columbia Gem House in Vancouver, Washington, explains the rising popularity is also partly due to “bigger retailers wanting to get involved in color instead of just diamonds. Color represents 8 percent of sales in average independent jewelry stores and half that, about 4 percent, in majors. No matter how you look at it, color has better profit margins than diamonds.”
   JTV’s Clark confirms the stone’s rising popularity with hard numbers. “Checking through our records, it looks like sales have been good for labradorite on the jewelry side and are showing a 20 percent to 40 percent increase for the past 12 to 24 months,” he says. “The number of different individual designs we offered tripled from 2011 to 2012 and has increased about 20 percent per year since then.”

Price Appeal
   Despite some anecdotal reports to the contrary, Braunwart insists that the gemstone’s increasing popularity is not due to the “Pantone effect.” He says that labradorite and similarly blue-hued stones aren’t being bought because they complement Pantone’s Color of the Year: Radiant Orchid. “We hear all this stuff about tying into fashion colors, but I don’t see that. It’s got to do with price.”
   Though the colored gemstone business is famously resistant to quantification, Braunwart breaks down the labradorite pricing process with a rare clarity. “Generally, we buy the rough in kilos, convert it to grams to carats and price according to what it cost us. It costs 40 cents a carat to cut it. At $50 cost per kilo, that’s 5 cents a carat for the rough plus 40 cents for cutting it and we want to make five times markup over cost.”
   Price, indeed. Clark affirms that the industry is shifting away from gold and higher-end gemstones to silver and better-value stones “because they have so much visual appeal for the price. Right now, you can probably get a nice, flat, polished labradorite stone that would cover most of your palm for $40 to $50. I’ve seen golf-ball-size pieces for as low as $10.” However, prices for finished jewelry pieces can range higher — JTV’s most expensive piece, a necklace with three large pieces of labradorite set in combination with mystic topaz, sells for $700.
   With those price parameters, labradorite compares well to more traditional gemstones. “I sell to a lot of designers who use it with sapphires and in silver jewelry,” Lawrence says. “Everything has gone up in price, including labradorite, but you can still get a beautiful piece of jewelry for under four figures.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2014. To subscribe click here.

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