Rapaport Magazine

American Gems

Demand to “Buy American” is gaining ground, influenced by efforts to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, as well as growing consumer interest in how products are made.

By Deborah Yonick
 American-mined gemstones — and their interesting backstories — give jewelers unique ways to distinguish themselves and offer a profitable market niche for those willing to learn about the gems and take stock in them. Many consumers are unaware that a broad range of gemstones is produced in our country. Among the most important are agate, coral, feldspar, garnet, jasper, opal, pearl, peridot, quartz, sapphire, shell, tourmaline and turquoise.

Story Telling

In global trends research conducted by trendwatching.com, consumers said they value products with “status stories” that can range from a product’s provenance to uniqueness of materials and craftsmanship to its eco-friendly practices. Reinier Evers, founder of the Netherlands-based online market research firm, explained that a local angle can make a product seem more authentic, trusted or of higher quality. “In an economy in which many consumers favor the intangible over the tangible, status stories are exciting and even necessary,” he says. “This is not about brands telling their story to the masses, but about helping individuals to tell stories. These stories will become increasingly important as buyers evaluate purchases against a new set of standards.”

There are interesting stories behind American gems. American freshwater pearl cultivation on the Tennessee River is one example. The late John Latendresse, who founded the American Pearl Co. in 1961, devoted 20 years to developing new techniques for cultivating domestic mollusks. The first marketable pearls were harvested in 1983, but it was not until 1985 that the company succeeded in cultivating freshwater pearls on a large scale.

Domestic Advantage

In further support of domestically produced gemstones, research conducted in 2010 by the New York–based FIND/SVP, a part of the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC), found that 83 percent of respondents said they would buy “Made in America” products as their first choice if given the option between goods that were made in the United States and those made abroad.

Despite the recession, the United States continues to dominate global gem consumption. The domestic market for natural, nondiamond gemstones was about $946 million in 2010, an increase of 21 percent over 2009 — reflecting improvements in the overall economy and the resulting impact on luxury spending, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries released in January 2011. The estimated U.S. production value of natural gems, including freshwater shell, was $8.5 million in 2010, up slightly from 2009, but about 25 percent less than the banner year of 2007.

Stone States

About a dozen states produce more than 80 percent of our country’s natural gemstones, according to the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Among the most notable are Arizona, Oregon, California, Montana, Arkansas, Idaho and Tennessee.

Arizona is a leading producer of gem-quality peridot and turquoise. Also found in the state are amethyst, agate and jasper, and small amounts of fiery red pyrope, which is known as “anthill” garnet because ants retrieve smaller crystals from below ground and deposit them in their building of desert ant hills.

Oregon produces some of the best gem-quality feldspar in the world and red labradorite, also known as sunstone, one of the most popular gems of the state. Oregon also produces a variety of agates, jaspers and obsidians. California is best known for its tourmaline, particularly in shades of green and pink.

In Montana, sapphire is the top gem. Its Yogo Gulch sapphires have been renowned for their natural beauty for more than a century. Quartz is the most important gem in Arkansas, most notably rock crystal, which is sold under the trade name of

“Hot Springs Diamond.” The state also produces smoky quartz — often heat-treated rock crystal — along with agate, jasper and opal.

A variety of gems are found in Idaho, including agate, jasper, quartz, almandite garnet, and opal, which is either yellow or blue facet-grade or fire opal. Tennessee is known for its lustrous, organically shaped river pearls and shell sold as seed material to the cultured pearl industry.

Bill Heher of Rare Earth Mining Co. ,Trumbull, Connecticut, says he broke into the gem trade in 1976 when excitement over American gems was just starting to grow. What got him hooked was what he considers to be one of the most American of all gems, picture jasper. “Looking at slabs and cut stones of picture jasper is a painter’s experience,” he says in describing a gemstone that is still popular with consumers.

In his 30-plus years in the business, Heher says the American gem market has matured, solidly competing against at least 100 other nations that export rough and cut stones, as well as finished gem-set products. He notes expansions in American production of material like agate, sunstone, chrysocolla, tourmaline, hematite, lapis, opal, red beryl, jade, azurite and opalized fluorite, Herkimer diamond from New York and coral from the southern states.

“The list is huge and still growing, albeit not as exponentially as those earlier days,” Heher says, adding that a friend recently told him about a new jade from Alaska. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Mines reports that at least 60 different types of gemstones have been unearthed in the United States.

Fair Trade

Another benefit that American gems bring to the table besides their historical connection is that they can easily be traced to their source. A pioneer in Fair Trade, Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House/Trigem Designs has a successful GemAmerica™ collection, featuring 19 stones that fit with its fair and transparent mine-to-market protocols in colored gemstones.

In addition to various agate, jasper and quartz, the line includes such unique gems as bertrandite — lavender-to-purple opalized fluorite from Utah; rhodonite — a rose-to-red silicate mineral from Colorado; and variscite — a green-to-light-blue mineral from the phosphate group that looks similar to turquoise and is found in Utah. All of the gemstones in the collection are natural and untreated. Braunwart says his Vancouver, Washington–based company cuts stones for the majority of American miners.

Braunwart supports the GemAmerica brand name for manufacturers and retailers with training and point-of-purchase materials. He says that jewelers who commit to the line continue to restock it. He cites a July 2010 Adweek Media/Harris Poll that indicates 61 percent of Americans surveyed say they’re more likely to purchase something promoted as “Made in America.” But the same poll also suggests that the majority of Americans who are not prompted to buy products made in their homeland are neither more nor less likely to buy them. So, the only way to capitalize on the “Buy American” theme is to market it! 

*Pictured: Willow Creek jasper pendant with peridot accent. Photo courtesy Columbia Gem House




Article from the Rapaport Magazine - April 2011. To subscribe click here.

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