A Rainbow of Rare Gems
New York Times, March 18, 2013
TUCSON, ARIZONA — Amidst hundreds of thousands of colored stones on display in this desert city during last month’s Tucson winter gem show season, a 15-carat pear-shaped tourmaline from the Brazilian state of Paraíba stood out above the crowd.
“You could see it halfway across the aisle,” said Jeffrey E. Post, curator in charge of the mineral collection at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution. “It looked like somebody had stuck a battery in it.”
Prized for its electric-blue color, known in the trade as Windex blue, the tourmaline — set in a platinum necklace and surrounded by a double halo of diamonds — was among the rarest and most sought-after gems in Tucson. Craig Lynch, an appraiser familiar with the stone, declined to comment on its value, but he said several dealers had offered millions for it.
Unlike most gems in Tucson, however, the Paraíba tourmaline was not for sale. Neither were the pieces sharing show space with it, a mix of loose gems and contemporary jewels including fine examples of alexandrite — a chrysoberyl stone that changes color from green in daylight to red or mauve under incandescent light — and myriad varieties of zoisite, the mineral family that includes purple-blue tanzanite.
Titled “Somewhere in the Rainbow,” the collection is making waves at the upper echelons of the international gem trade not only for its breadth and depth — running the gamut of colors, gem families and origins — but also for the unusual, even mysterious, circumstances surrounding its ownership.
A husband and wife living in Phoenix, Arizona, began the collection five years ago, when they bought five exceptional gemstones at a local retailer — a 10-carat alexandrite, a 4-carat alexandrite, a 15-carat tanzanite, a 5.55-carat Tanzanian spinel and a 17-carat bicolor topaz.
The $750,000 purchase marked the start of a collection effort that, by now, has resulted in the purchase of some 230 loose gemstones and 145 pieces of finished jewelry worth in excess of $10 million. For security reasons, the couple asked to remain anonymous.
“The collection was never meant to be this big or this fine,” said Shelly Sergent, the retail sales associate who helped orchestrate the original 2008 deal and now serves as the collection’s full-time manager. “What started out as a simple hobby has turned into an amazing passion.”
In addition to the 15-carat Paraíba — which brought one young Japanese man to tears when he saw it in Tucson, Ms. Sergent said — the collection includes a 20.2-carat tsavorite garnet known as the Scorpion King from the private collection of the man who discovered tsavorite, the Scottish-born geologist Campbell R. Bridges. Mr. Bridges was killed in Kenya in 2009 in an apparent dispute over mining rights and his son, Bruce Bridges, recently sold it to the Phoenix collectors.
“We’ve got stones that even gemologists don’t see, like a bicolor topaz that is astounding in its rarity,” said Mr. Lynch, an independent appraiser and gemologist who has worked with the collection for four years, referring to the 17-carat stone that was part of the initial purchase.
Most of the holdings in “Somewhere in the Rainbow” come through two gem brokers: Evan Caplan, a dealer based in Los Angeles, and Commercial Mineral in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix.
“We created a monster,” said Mr. Caplan, who brought the collectors their first five gems. “Whenever I’d come back from an overseas trip, three or four times a year, I’d make them my first stop. They’d buy the most incredible stones: aquamarine, pink topaz, spinels in every color, sapphires in every color.”
A unique aspect of the collection is that the owners are fans of contemporary jewelry and have commissioned scores of designers, including Eddie Sakamoto, Mark Schneider and Henry Dunay, to create pieces around their gems.
Mr. Sakamoto, for example, was tasked with designing a necklace for a 30-carat African yellow tourmaline. He flew from his home in Los Angeles to Phoenix on four occasions to fit the piece to the client’s neckline.
“I’m getting all this freedom so I’d better make something special out of it,” he said.
What truly sets “Somewhere in the Rainbow” apart from other well-regarded gem collections, however, is its owners’ keen desire to share it. Rather than keep the gems and jewels under lock and key, the husband-and-wife collectors have devised a plan to lend the collection to jewelry stores and gem conferences around the world, bringing hands-on colored stone education to retailers, gemologists, cutters, appraisers, and consumers.
“They’re very cool people who love education and get great pleasure from the process of procuring stones and sharing them,” said Jerry Romanella, co-owner of Commercial Mineral.
Shortly before the start of the Tucson gem shows, the owners joined Mr. Sakamoto, Ms. Sergent and their spouses for drinks in Scottsdale, to reminisce about some of their favorite stones. They spoke, for example, about “the triplets” — a trio of tricolor tourmaline they had purchased, one by one, in 2008 and 2009 only to discover that all three gems had almost certainly been cut from the same crystal, unearthed in 2007 in an alluvial deposit in Mozambique.
“I lined up the three and they all matched,” the woman, a retired nurse, said with obvious pride as she told how she and her husband, a physician and health care consultant, then donated the stones to the Smithsonian.
The talk turned to the genesis of the collection and the woman pointed to a large blue sapphire ring on her hand, a 2007 gift from her husband. “It was for putting up with his job for 20 years,” she offered. “Sapphire is my birthstone.”
The ring, with a frame of enormous diamond baguettes, was a far cry from the Zuni coral and turquoise bracelet the couple marked their engagement with in the mid-1970s, when they lived on tribal reservations in Arizona, but their collecting skill may be derived in part from those days, when they would buy craft work from Navajo and Apache artisans.
“We learned on the reservation that if you love it and it speaks to you, you should buy it because otherwise, it will go away,” the husband said. His wife added, “When I hear that it’s the first, the last, the biggest, I’m buying it.”
Ms. Sergent, the collection’s manager, spoke of the considerable financial resources required to build up such an exceptional grouping of gems.
“I don’t know the depth of their wealth,” she said. “I assume that when we’re presented with the opportunity to buy these amazing stones and they can say yes or no, that if we’ve reached a maximum, they’ll say no. I don’t really talk to them about budget.”