Believe it or not, the stone that kicked off South Africa’s diamond rush in 1868 was a 21-carat yellow rough that was later cut into a 10.73-carat, supposedly canary-yellow, oval cushion called the “Eureka.” This find would have seemed augur great things for the world supply of colored diamonds, especially those of the yellow variety, which until then had been as rare as any other color.
But fate had nothing that grandiose in mind. Instead, South Africa merely swelled the number of yellowish diamonds. Alas, the yellow usually present was not so much a hue as an unattractive tint (later dubbed “cape,” after South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope). Occasionally, when the yellow was sufficient to give the diamond an identity as a full-fledged colored stone, the stone was deemed “fancy yellow.”
However, very few diamonds merit the designation of fancy yellow—or fancy color of any sort. In 1978, San Francisco dealer/gemologist Joseph Gill, one of the few to have written at length about colored diamonds, put a rough diamond’s chances of fancy-color endowment at 2,500:1. Since then, with major but mainly industrial diamond finds in Australia and Botswana, the ratio has probably widened.
Yet the market doesn’t seem to care. Indeed, to prop up prices for these somewhat scarce diamonds, De Beers has had to rein in as hard on allocations of fancy yellow diamond rough as it has on white rough. It is the resulting scarcities, not any great renewed demand, that has pushed prices up for fancy and fancy-intense yellow diamonds at least 40% since late 1985. Once 2-carat eye-clean fancy yellow stones that cost jewelers between $2,000 and $3,500 per carat then cost $3,000 to $5,500 as of early 1988. Gains were as sharp for fancy-intense yellows in the same size and clarity range: stones for which jewelers paid $5,000 to $10,000 per carat in late 1985 had soared to $8,000 to $15,000 per carat 30 months later. Exceptionally intense yellows were known to command $20,000 per carat.
Yet even at such levels, the prices of fancy and fancy-intense yellow diamonds were still on a par with comparably-grade white diamonds—despite far greater rarity. Why haven’t jewelers taken more to these bargains?
The Second Time Around
Fancy-color diamonds rarely attract novice diamond buyers. Fancy diamond specialist Chuck Meyer, Henry Meyer Diamond Co., New York, says tradition and the association of white with diamond calls for a first diamond to be white. “However, the second time around, many diamond buyers tend to be more indulgent and less traditional, thus opening the way for sales of fancy-color diamonds,” he adds.
Unfortunately, jewels take advantage of the customer’s subsequent openness to fancy colors. Meyer says the majority of jewelers who buy fancy colors from him run carriage-trade stores. But the identification of fancy colors with posh shops is needless, he adds.
For instance, the same $3,000 per carat a jeweler might spend for a 1-carat H-I/VS2-SI1 diamond could also buy a decent fancy yellow stone with the same clarity grade. But it takes more than price to make jewelers feel comfortable with the idea of stacking fancy-color diamonds. It takes getting used to thinking of diamonds as colored stones.
A Knack for Nuance
The term “fancy” covers a broad spectrum of hues and intensities. This is especially true for fancy yellow stones. Pure yellow fancy diamonds stretch in intensity from straw through lemon to taxicab yellow. Yet the Gemological Institute of America, Santa Monica, Calif., is content to subdivide this broad range into three loose categories: fancy light, fancy and fancy intense. These categories are inadequate, dealers charge.
Take those in-between stones designated by GIA simply as “fancy.” According to Meyer, plain fancy runs a gamut equal to the G-J range on GIA’s white-to-cape diamond color scale. “Yet the term is given no further breakdown,” he notes. “Based on this description, jewelers have no idea where stones are located along this wide range of color intensity.”
The same holds true for “fancy intense” stones which Meyer likens to white diamonds in the GIA’s D-F color range. “Some stones barely make it into this top category while others are so intense that they transcend it,” he says.
To make matters worse, many fancy yellow diamonds possess traces of secondary color, including brown, green, orange and red. Very often these secondary colors merit a mention as modifiers on a GIA fancy-color diamond certificate. This, of course, affects value. Brown is considered a negative while orange is a strong plus.
So the first step in stocking fancy yellow diamonds is to develop what New York dealer Hank Frydman, who operates out of the Diamond Trade Association, calls a “knack for nuance.”
Tips from the Top
Lack of experience with fancy yellow diamonds leads many jewelers to characterize most of what they see in fancy yellow as “canary.” This is the most abused diamond term since “blue-white,” and actually refers to a certain kind of extremely rare fancy-intense yellow with a warm orange tinge. Don’t expect to buy such a stone for less than $15,000 per carat in a 1-carat size—unless it’s visibly included.
Since jewelers concentrate on large stones under $4,000 per carat nowadays, we asked dealers how to get the most for the least when buying fancy yellows. Although such a spending cap eliminates eye-clean, fancy-intense yellow stones, it still leaves room for moderately yellow fancies.
To maximize the color of such stones, Frydman recommends staying with fancy shapes because the brilliance of round stones will wash out the color of all but the fiercest fancy-intense yellows. Look for stones with deeper bottoms because they tend to hold color better. However, if buying elongated fancy shapes avoid poorly cut stones with hourglass-shaped zones of color blackout (called “bow-ties”) in the center. The more pronounced, the more bow-ties extinguish color. Another no-no: fancy yellow with moderate to strong blue fluorescence that robs stones of intensity. On the other hand, yellow fluorescence adds kick to fancy yellows.
Regarding clarity, which is far less important relative to color in fancy diamonds, you can buy SI2 stones with little fear of flaws marring appearance. As for settings, dealers urge jewelers to use only 18k gold when mounting fancy yellow diamonds. The greater richness of this alloy boosts fancy diamond color.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 2.14-carat fancy yellow diamond shown in the header image is courtesy of Aurora Gems, New York.