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The Provenance of Place
After being the leading critic of country-of-origin gemstone reports, gia has decided to issue these controversial documents. What’s behind the about-face?

If the cornerstone of real estate value is location, location, location, then the cornerstone of precious stone value is locality, locality, locality.

“Every kind of object worthy of connoisseurship has summits that command extra value just because they represent a recognized peak of perfection,” says New York gem dealer Ralph Esmerian, who last year bought world-renowned Fred Leighton Jewelers. “The art world has its Rembrandts and Picassos and the gem world has its Burma rubies and Kashmir sapphires.”

Although Esmerian is one of the world’s most highly respected gem dealers, and Fred Leighton one of the world’s most famous jewelry stores, neither would dare sell a gem as Burmese or Kashmir merely on their own say-so. The days of gentleman’s honor are long gone.

Esmerian cites two main reasons dealers can no longer take each other’s word regarding a gem’s birthplace. “First,” he says, “the spread of sophisticated treatments makes it increasingly difficult to find stones whose traditional tell-tale signs of origin have not been destroyed or distorted. Second, new gem sources produce remarkable Burma and Kashmir look-alikes that can fool the expert eye.” As a result, he concludes, “The trade must rely on the gemologist to develop new ways and means of confirming origin. The gem world is no different from the art world. It must rely on science to defend its most cherished traditions.”

Such defense is expensive as well as complicated and it often comes too late to prevent scandal and crisis. Take a gander at the art world. In 1968, the government of Holland funded a special commission known as the Rembrandt Research Project to authenticate paintings attributed to the Dutch master. It has since published five volumes on its work and studied more than 800 paintings. In all of these volumes, at least 40 percent of the paintings examined were disqualified as authentic Rembrandts.

The art world didn’t take kindly to these findings. In 1989, when authorship of 39 of 86 paintings was challenged, one major American museum openly refused to accept demotion of a Rembrandt to lesser authorship by a gifted contemporary. Esmerian understands why. “Suddenly a painting worth millions is only worth thousands,” he says. “Challenging authenticity can have devastating consequences. But sometimes it’s the only way to preserve a market’s integrity.”

Gemologist C.R. “Cap” Beesley, president of American Gemological Laboratories, which in 1979 became this country’s first lab to issue origin reports, sees “painfully relevant similarities” between art and gem authentication. “Just as a painting attributed to Rembrandt may be by a student or a later-day forger, a sapphire said to be of Kashmir origin may be from Sri Lanka or, nowadays, Madagascar,” he says.

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Kashmir sapphire
Provenance pays: this 22.66 carat unheated Kashmir sapphire, with origin reports from AGTA GTC and Gubelin, sold for $3.1 million at Christie’s in April, setting a new world record for a sapphire and a new record per-carat price for a sapphire.
Burmese sapphire
Seven carat Burmese sapphire, unheated, from Joe Ambalu of Amba Gem, (212) 840-6860.
Platinum ring set with a 19.02 carat sapphire
Platinum ring set with a 19.02 carat sapphire, no enhancement, AGTA report with origin of Sri Lanka, from Jeffrey Bilgore, (212) 223-5140.
inclusion photos of sapphires
Two inclusion photos of sapphires that show how difficult microscopic evidence can be. The typical “brushstrokes” seen in Kashmir sapphires. Below, a sapphire from Ilakaka, Madagascar, with similar (but larger and more angular) “brushstrokes.”
Henry A. Hanni, copyright SSEF.

inclusion photos of sapphires
AGL’s sapphire grading report with origin.
AGL’s sapphire grading report with origin.
AGTA GTC ruby report with origin.
AGTA GTC ruby report with origin.
GIA’s new sapphire report with origin.
GIA’s new sapphire report with origin.