Kunzite is a much bad-mouthed beauty. At its best a deep-pink lavender, this spodumene is hard to set and, once set, easy to fade. Nonetheless, kunzite deserves a place in the sun.
No, make that shade. Hot lights can, and do, turn this stone a whiter shade of pale, although color loss is usually very gradual. However, worn with an understanding of its high-strung traits, top kunzite can give enduring beauty equal to that of Ceylonese pink sapphire and Brazilian pink topaz—for vastly less money.
Unfortunately, the deep pink/lavender varieties of spodumene are rarely seen in this country. More appreciative markets—Japan, in particular—are willing to pay higher prices for these scarce stones. So, instead, America sees weaker commercial colors whose pale pinks are hardly comparable in hue to those of fancy corundum. But it is not these $10-$25 per-carat wash-outs that we are talking about here. Nor even the $25-$40-per-carat stones with a pleasing blush of lilac.
No, what we have in mind are kunzites with the electric-lavender color shown on the opposite page. This hue is rarely encountered in stones under 10 carats and can be the object of somewhat intensive searching in sizes below 15 carats. For this reason, much-requested but seldomly found top-color 8-15 carat sizes are quoted to us at $60 to $80 per carat, occasionally a bracing $100 per carat.
To bring down the per-carat cost of super-saturate pink spodumene, jewelers will have to buy it in 30-40 carat sizes where fine color is more common—but certainly not commonplace. Our price surveys indicate that retailers will have to pay per-carat prices for such stones that are only around 50% to 60% those of stones below 15 carats.
But even at $30 to $50 per carat, some jewelers express outrage, citing spodumene’s brittleness and color instability. Others think those negatives are overplayed. “Kunzite is like opal,” says kunzite specialist Meredith Mills, Split Rock Precious Mineral Cutting, Casper, Wyo. “You got to handle it with care. But that doesn’t stop people from wearing and enjoying it.”
Avoiding the Cleavages
Mills, who has cut at least 5,000 carats of kunzite since 1970, believes the stone is a victim of “bum raps.” Its reputation for brittleness, he says, comes from the fact that spodumene, very much like diamond, is plagued with cleavages (planes of weakness). If cut improperly, these cleavages simply give way. “You just can’t pick up a kunzite and start grinding it,” Mills explains. “But the same can be said of tanzanite, a stone which can cleave even more easily.”
“Heat is a no-no,” Mills continues. “That means you must use a burnishing tool not a torch when setting. Further, you can’t force the prongs or crackling could result. But once mounted—preferably in malleable 18k gold- prongs or perhaps a bezel setting—the stone is fairly durable.”
While on the subject of heat, it is important to note that close proximity to high heat (whether from flame or lamp) as well as the ultraviolet rays of sunlight, will bleach out color most often over years. But these conditions, kunzite, partitions add, can take a similar toll on pink topaz, too.
Although kunzite is a stone which shuns heat, it can’t seem to escape it. Today, in fact, at least 50% of all kunzite sold has been subjected to either heating or irradiation, during which processes stones that started life light-grayish or bluish pinks turn cherry-blossom lavenders.
It is very hard to tell treated from natural kunzite. But Mills thinks he has found a simple visual test to detect many treated stones. According to him, treating often destroys the trichroism—the display of different colors from different angles—that is the hallmark of kunzite. Consequently, stones take on a sameness of color, no matter from what direction they are viewed. On the other hand, natural stones will appear different colors when viewed in different directions. For instance, a stone that is lavender when seen through the table may appear slightly greenish when seen through the girdle.
The Afghan Connection
Because kunzite is a trichroic stone, it is critical to orient the stone properly when first cut. That means cutting along its C-axis for optimum color (which ranges from lavender-pink to lavender bluish-pink). Generally, this is what is done.
All too frequently, however, stones are cut with big windows that rob them, in Mills’ words, “of full fire and color intensity.” When perfectly cut, Mills says, fine-color stones “are the equal of medium-pink sapphire. And being an extremely transparent material to begin with, kunzite has far more life than, say, pink tourmaline whose colors are usually darker and brilliance therefore more masked.”
Deep-lavender kunzite, while a relative rarity, is a bit more common now that Afghanistan has replaced Brazil as the gem’s main source. It did so by default. According to Brazilian gem expert Ary Rieth, P. Gems Co., New York, Brazil hasn’t produced material in at least 25 years. “Whatever stones you see from Brazil are old goods that have been hoarded for decades,” Rieth says.
Although Afghanistan has been actively mining kunzite since around 1978, production there hit its greatest stride in 1984-85. Since then, the country’s main producing area in Nooristan, a stronghold of rebel resistance against the Soviet invasion of 1979, has been under constant bombardment. As a result, mining is down to an estimated 20% of what it was in 1984-85. Nevertheless, Afghanistan continues to produce the intense-color kunzites whose fame has overshadowed the Brazilian variety. That fame couldn’t come at a better time. Pastel-pink gems are currently enjoying enormous fashion popularity.
Besides its color, the fact that kunzite, unlike, say, rubellite, is generally clean has helped boost this gem’s reputation. Kunzite would enjoy even greater usage if stones with better color were more often bite rather than boulder sized. Roughs are so very large that they frequently yield 50-carat polished stones. Indeed, New York gem dealer Michael Horovitz, Marriage Gem Ltd., has a pet 170-carat Afghan stone of deep-pink color that he takes to gem shows as a showpiece—and as living proof that the species can stand up to more heat than it is given credit for. “I’ve kept that kunzite under hot display lights now for around 100 days with no sign yet of fading,” Horovitz says.
“Even so,” he quickly adds, “it’s probably best to consider kunzite an evening stone.” That’s pretty much the consensus about this species.
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 38.8-carat kunzite shown in the header image is courtesy of Leo Boyajian, Naples, Fla.