After three years of virtual gatherings, members of the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA) met in Dubai in mid-February for their annual conference. An intimate affair with only 150 registered attendees — down from 370 in 2019 — the 2023 ICA Congress featured prominent speakers, insightful presentations, and deliberations on the gem sector’s future. Here are some of the key topics that came up.
1. The art of storytelling
Two standout presentations demonstrated the value of storytelling for the colored-gem industry. Jeffrey E. Post, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Gem and Mineral Collection, brought breathtaking images of precious stones to life by interspersing them with stories of the collectors who’d donated them to the museum.
And Guillermo Galvis, president of the Colombian Emerald Exporters Association, drew parallels between the “butterfly wing” optical effect in select Colombian emeralds and the iridescence in the wings of endangered Colombian butterflies near emerald deposits. His organization has been helping preserve the butterflies as part of its overall positive impact and that of the emerald trade, he said.
Meanwhile, miner Gemfields announced the upcoming publication of its latest storytelling project: a collection of short adventure stories by none other than this reporter, based on true events in the colored-stone world. The book, No Stone Unturned: The Hunt for African Gems, is set to come out in September.
2. Changes in the grading landscape
Artificial intelligence (AI) was a hot topic at the gathering when it came to grading stones. Experts from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), American Gemological Laboratories (AGL), and the Gem and Jewelry Institute of Thailand (GIT) deliberated on how the emerging technology would influence the role of gem labs.
Computers can’t replace a trained gemologist who has years of grading experience, maintained Chris Smith of AGL. Thanong Leelawatanasuk of the GIT echoed that sentiment, but added that “machine-based learning can support…gemologists, especially with large quantities of calibrated goods.”
GIA executive vice president Tom Moses, meanwhile, called to stop assigning a premium price to historic sources, and instead focus on the fundamentals of a gem’s beauty when grading. He quoted former GIA executive director Richard Liddicoat, who argued that “sourcing of colored stones misleads the public and imposes an artificial price differential. Why should someone pay more for an inferior ruby from Burma?”
3. The role of the mine
As origin discussions unfurled, several presentations highlighted the importance of identifying a stone’s source, whether for storytelling or ethical purposes.
Multiple mining companies — including Gemfields, Fura, Belmont, Potentate Mining and Fuli Gemstones — pointed to consistent and responsible supply chains as part of the value that institutional players brought to the industry, along with their marketing might and other contributions.
Instead of just talking about Gemfields’ mines in Zambia and Mozambique, CEO Sean Gilbertson shared data: research from the World Bank and resource site Artisanalmining.org, import and export statistics from the United Nations, and monetary inflow figures from the Bank of Mozambique. In one graph, he showed that countries with higher levels of government corruption tended to have a greater number of informal miners. He also mentioned that people had been smuggling rubies out of Mozambique since the gems’ discovery there in 2008.
Because there may be both good and bad actors in a country’s mining industry, “we are keen to instill a ‘mine-of-origin’ model [for gem tracing, rather than] the prevalent ‘country-of-origin’ [model],” he stated. Delegates also expressed concern about ongoing insurgent attacks in Mozambique and how they might affect future ruby supply.
4. East Asia’s influence
Social media is crucial for sales and marketing in China, stressed presenters — specifically Jing Jing, editor in chief for Harper’s Bazaar Jewelry in China, and Andrew Lucas and Ruby Liu from Guild Gem Labs.
Jing credited women with boosting the popularity of colored gems via PR, retail and media, while Lucas and Liu shared statistics on the Chinese gem market. Although 69% to 70% of imported emeralds are from Zambia, said the Guild presenters, Chinese labs see more Colombian emeralds coming in for certification. Panjshir and Swat emeralds — from Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively — are considered premium brands among consumers, they added, and buyers tend to gravitate toward trade names such as Jedi spinels.
In addition, consumers in China are shifting their focus from the price point of jewelry to its long-term value, they reported, and cautioned that “to be successful, you have to be innovative and fast.”
There was also a panel on Fei Cui jade, aka jadeite. Despite having a market worth more than $8 billion — second only to diamonds — Fei Cui jade has been undervalued in the West, maintained the panelists. The top auction record for emerald is $300,000 per carat, while the record for Fei Cui is only $120,000 per carat, leaving room for future growth.
5. Social Development Goals (SDGs) and diversity
Industry stakeholders should embrace diversity not only in their workforce, but also in their products and marketing, said Annie Doresca, board president of the Black in Jewelry Coalition. In fact, firms with greater diversity and inclusion are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors, according to data she cited from McKinsey & Company.
Launch and growth expert Elle Hill urged companies to communicate their SDG achievements transparently. “If no one heard it, the tree didn’t fall,” she said.
The diversity panel acknowledged that there was no single yardstick for measuring a company’s inclusivity level; much depends on regional and cultural context. To access the best talent, the panelists advised, companies need to abandon their preconceived notions of where such talent resides, and work to create the kind of environment that can help it flourish.
Image: Ahmed Bin Sulayem, CEO of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) and host of the 2023 ICA Congress. (International Colored Gemstone Association)