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The gemstone bead business

Greetings everyone.

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about for what seems like
years. I want to talk about the gemstone bead business, including
how those beads are made, how trends in bead shapes are determined,
and the creating of the mind-numbing varieties of so-called
"out there which just confuse the hell out of me.

First, it seems to me that gemstone beads just have to be made from
a grade of rough which simply isn’t good enough for faceted undrilled
stones. Does that seem right to you, or am I off-base? I mean, if the
rough is high enough quality, wouldn’t the supplier reserve it for a
better quality faceted cut? Why make it into beads? Is there such a
thing as “flawless” gemstone beads?

Second, I’ve been frustrated lately by the proliferation of gemstone
bead cuts which seem to come and go. About 3 years ago I bought
several carats of brilliant-cut, top-drilled aquamarine & tourmaline
beads. I loved that cut. But I can’t find it anywhere now. Everyone
seems to be producing polished briolettes or onion-shaped kisses or
what have you. If I want brilliant-cuts, I have to have them custom
made, which costs a fortune. Obviously the lesson here is to buy
multiple strand of whatever it is I like and stash it away. Do any
of you have similar experiences?

Last, can someone please comment on the staggering varieties of
quartz I’m now seeing? Beer quartz, whiskey quartz, cognac quartz,
lemon quartz… What IS that stuff? Is it glass? Is it quartz? And
what about moss aquamarine and moss amethyst? What is that?

I know I sound frustrated, and I don’t mean to be. I’m just thinking
a lot about all these issues and trying to find my way with good,
solid, high-quality materials. I see so many junky gemstone beads
out there, but I also know that there are some staggeringly
beautiful, high-quality ones too.

I’d love to hear what any of you have thought about this big topic.
Thanks so much!

Barbara Lee
Gemella Contemporary Jewelry

Dear Barbara:

Your instinct is correct. Typically, the top quality materials are
used for faceted stones, the next quality for cabochons, and the last
for beads. Years ago, when the Germans were the top cutters, they
purchased huge quantities of rough, all they could get their hands
on, and used the top quality for everything. In fact, imperfections
can be masked by faceting, but imperfections cannot be hidden in a
cabochon unless the material is very dark. They sold off the lesser
grades of rough to other cutters (at least this is what I have been
told). As the world runs out of material, even the cabbing grade is
sometimes used for faceted stones. You can still get top quality
material in beads and cabochons, but obviously you have to pay

The colored quartzes you are seeing are treated, but the underlying
material is quartz. I have never heard of Moss Aqua or Moss Amethyst?
Where have you seen this material? Sounds like some made up name to
create interest. But, if you have any on this, please
forward it to me. I would like to look into it.

Dikra Gem Inc.

gemstone beads just have to be made from a grade of rough which
simply isn't good enough for faceted undrilled stones. Does that
seem right to you, or am I off-base? 

Well, Barbara, I’d say you asked enough to keep the forum hopping
for a few months!

The economy of the gem business means that most good material gets
faceted if it’s a gem that routinely gets that treatment. However,
over time there have been some who don’t care about economy and do
what they will. Many cutters in Idar do as they please with fine
material. Cartier and Boucheron are well known for the same
attitude. And there are others… It’s out there, but you’re not
going to find that stuff in the “Bunch-O-Beads” catalog.

As far as quartz - it is the most abundant mineral in the Earth’s
crust. Every color and variety that gets found gets some name, seems
like, and we’ve probably only found 1/10,000 of it’s forms. The only
important thing is that it’s quartz, and I for one don’t much care
what the name is (beyond an ID) - I either like it or not, that’s
what counts.

People dig in the ground all the time, and find new stuff all the
time, and give it cute names, sometimes…

I too am curious about the moss aqua. I got some tube beads at the
Tucson gem show and was told they are moss aqua. They are
transluscent greenish color with dark (blackish) moss like dendrites.
Never saw anything like it before.

Alma Rands


I’m no expert on all the bead materials out there–I do know that
"cherry quartz" is manmade. I read once that if you look at beads
through a loupe, you can tell if they are glass–they will have tiny
bubbles inside them. I tried that on a string that looked like clear
agate with white tubes. Sure enough, they were filled with itty bitty
bubbles that couldn’t be seen without a loupe! Volcano cherry quartz
is also manmade, and there is a material that looks like perfect moss
agate which is manmade. I suppose you would have to get gemological
training to really be certain. Or find a dealer that you trust.

Happy beading,

Vicki K

I think there’s more than an economic reason for cutting beads from
included rough. The inclusions help to hide the drilled hole. If you
used facet grade material that hole usually will show as a frosted
thick line thru the bead, not so pretty. Although recently I ran into
some clear quartz beads that had a highly polished hole. Trouble with
that is now the silk or chain will show thru the bead, so some
thought has to go into that piece.

I am a lapidary, mostly faceting, but I have done many cabs and a
few beads, all using natural materials.

First, it is not the supplier who determines what the material is
used for. It is the cutter. Economics is the determining factor.
Faceting quality rough can be very expensive, so even just one 5 or 6
carat piece of rough can be very costly, depending on the material.
If a buyer really wants a flawless bead, whether smooth or faceted,
it will be available, just not in huge quantities at bargain prices.
It is just like cabochon gemstones vs. faceted. A flawless gem
quality cabochon is valuable in its own right, and will usually cost
less than a faceted stone because of less cutting loss and less labor
cost. (These are the so-called “high-end” cabs.) Even rubies and
sapphires may be obtained as cabs. So a bead cut of this kind of
material is likely to be one of a kind or perhaps found in pairs, but
of course strands could be assembled if resources are available to
buy them.

On quartz: yes there are many varieties, even in the case of natural
quartz. (The abundance of man-made quartz out there complicates
matters!) In addition to the old standards like clear rock crystal,
amethyst, and citrine, we now have descriptive or trade names names
such as lemon quartz (a greenish yellow heat-treated Brazilian),
whiskey quartz (a sort of smoky quartz), prasiolite (a greenish
natural and heat treated Brazilian quartz). You just have to get out
there and see it and ask many questions to understand what it is.
Faceted quartz could cost $10 to $60 per carat, depending on quality
and rarity of material.

How do you getiquality? Find a good source and insist on the quality
you want. It won’t be in long strands of a hundred beads. Don’t
expect to find it lying on a table at a bead show. You may very well
have to special-order the good stuff and the cuts you want. You
decide what “high-end” is to fit your requirements and budget.

I hope others chime in!