At last count, four South American neighbors—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay—are producing, at the very least, 75% of the world’s most popular affordably priced gem: amethyst. So without Latino output of this purple quartz, there would be little or no future for this jewelry mainstay. Not as a bread-and-butter stone, anyway.
Nevertheless, it is Russia and Africa that capture most of the kudos for this gem as far as quality goes—even though the former is a long-inactive source, the latter an erratic one. Instead, South America is stereotyped as a quantity producer, better counted on for bulk than beauty.
Now, however, South America may be shedding that stereotype as connoisseurs discover that Latin amethyst comes in a wide diversity of strains, some superb. While Brazil remains the gem’s main source by far, still types cast for middle and lower grades, next-door Uruguay, vies for contender status with Africa. That kind of comparison is rather high praise with the extremely origin-conscious world of gem dealers and aficionados.
The most startling aspect about the new ado over South American amethyst is that the gem rarely commands more than $30 per carat—regardless of origin—from jewelers in sizes up to 5 carats and $100 per carat in larger sizes. How can a plentiful quartz costing so little be prized on the basis of locality? The answer probably has a lot more to do with the gem’s past than its present.
To most jewelers, amethyst has forever been a semiprecious stone. In reality, such a notion is of relatively recent vintage. For most of two centuries, amethyst, from the Greek word amethustos (meaning: “unaffected by drink”), has had a sort-of reputation as a precious stone.
Its standing capsized after the discovery of rich deposits in South America during the 19th century. Writing in 1904, the pioneer gemologist Max Bauer still thought it important to note amethyst’s reeling loss of stature and value among connoisseurs. To back his point, he cited the fate of a magnificent amethyst bracelet belonging to Queen Charlotte of England. Valued at 2,000 pounds early in the 19th century, Bauer estimated that it would scarcely fetch 100 pounds by its end.
No wonder, then, that South America in general and Brazil in particular are associated with the gem’s decline from, in Bauer’s words, “a costly material for superior jewelry” to a gem meant for use in “simpler and cheaper ornaments.”
Yet, strangely enough, as scores of dealers who specialized in finer stones in the past have taken refuge in low-end gems in this decade, they have tended to treat amethyst with a high-end regard that is a throwback to attitudes of antiquity. To hear, for instance, Colombian emerald maven Ray Zajicek, Equatorian Imports Inc., Dallas, describe the subtle differences between Brazilian and Uruguayan amethyst, one might think the discussion was on the differences between Burma and Thai ruby, where origin constitutes a value component all by itself. “Under incandescent lighting,” he notes, “material from Uraguay shows red flashes while that from Brazil shows blue.”
For Zajicek and other dealers, those red flashes evoke Africa—Zambia and, more recently, Tanzania—whose top stones, in turn, evoke Siberia: to amethyst what Kashmir is to sapphire. Given Africa’s ascendancy, it follows that many fine Uruguayan stones are sold in amethyst’s proliferating Asian cutting centers as “African.” That’s often enough to coax an extra $5 to $10 per carat out of prospective buyers.
As the market wises up to the fact that some South American countries routinely produce amethyst on a par with Zambia’s, African-origin premiums may become harder to justify. For some dealers, Argentina is now on a near-equal footing with Africa, producing South America’s most princely stones—ones so dark when found that they must be lightened by heating. After treatment, says Eric Braunwart, Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Wash., “they possess a crystalline color with lots of red and little zoning”—the latter a common problem with amethyst.
Too many untutored eyes, both Argentine and Uruguayan goods so strongly resemble African stones that they are easily sold as such. This confusion stems from the fact that caliber of amethyst in jewelry is primarily concentrated in calibrated sizes under 5 carats for which deeper shades are mistakenly believed to come solely from Africa—famous for cramming colour into small stones. Although Brazilian amethysts tend to lighter tones in small sizes, this trait of paleness is absent from bordering countries’ smaller amethyst. Obviously, however, a lot of gem buyers paying African-origin premiums don’t know this yet.
While higher prices based on origin may not be warranted, stiffer prices in general may be coming for deep-purple amethyst now that simple tests have been found to weed out the superb-color made-in-Japan (as well as Russia) synthetic amethyst that flooded the market after its introduction in the mid-1970s. With the cost of natural and lab-grown amethyst so close, it was not unusual for jewelry retailers and makers to later find that parcels they had bought from their suppliers here and abroad contained embarrassing high ratios of manmades.
Today, when dealers everywhere are screening parcels to make sure they are free of synthetic stones, Africa and South America combined can’t supply all that is needed of finer material—in spite of an overall improvement in the availability of rough from what it was three years back. Indeed, to pump up the supply of better grades, cutters are taking bi-colored quartz from Bolivia called “ametrine” that is half amethyst and half citrine, sawing off the citrine part and cutting the amethyst remaining.
Why the big thirst for top amethyst? Best-of-the-breed stones in ultra-trendy 10mm x 8mm to 12mm x 10mm ovals don’t run more than $30 per carat today, often nearer $20 per carat for large-volume buyers. Such prices aren’t too much above the current range of $5 to $15 per carat for meat-and-potatoes goods. Besides demand for ovals, dealers are getting calls for oddball fancy shapes such as half moons, hearts and trilliants. At $10 to $15 per carat, these cuts are adding more luster to amethyst’s already immense appeal.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1992 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles/2: The Second 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 7.69-carat South American amethyst shown on the opposite page was mined in Uruguay, and is courtesy of Jack Lowell, C.G.M. Co., Tempe, Ariz.