Rubies are red, sapphires aren’t just blue ... and diamonds are no longer a girl’s best friend. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, jewellers have woken up to a bright new world of Technicolor gems

Gone are the days when ice-white bling was all the rage, glittering on everything from rappers’ "grillz" to the collarbones of Hollywood starlets. Don’t believe me? Look no further than Jay-Z in his wife Beyoncé’s new visual album, Black is King. In it he wears a passport-sized citrine with hammered-gold chain by Los Angeles jeweller Lisa Eisner. On the lobes of Salma Hayek at the Golden Globes earlier this year: a dangling pair of Chopard’s diamond, lazulite, Paraiba tourmaline and apatite-bead tassel earrings.

Colourful gemstones are winning favour over their ice-white counterparts

If a jeweller’s vision previously comprised white diamonds punctuated by shades of the Big Three (red rubies, blue sapphires, green emeralds), that narrow notion of variety now looks as dated as a pixelated Microsoft logo. The new world is one of Paraiba tourmalines the colour of the Portofino sea, fire opals that mimic a dance on the lip of a volcano, and a whole rainbow spectrum of brilliant gemstones you probably haven’t even heard of … yet.

The new world is one of Paraiba tourmalines the colour of the Portofino sea, fire opals that mimic a dance on the lip of a volcano, and a whole rainbow spectrum of brilliant gemstones you probably haven’t even heard of … yet

There are approximately 3,000 known different gemstones. One might ask why we confined ourselves to four for so long. The answer is new tech (it’s far easier to identify stones these days, while we can "grow" white diamonds in labs); new mines (in summer 2020 one Tanzanian miner became an overnight millionaire and internet sensation, not once but twice, after the discovery of more than £5 million worth of Tanzanite); there are more independent designers than ever before, free to break from established norms; and a wealth of online information has meant that first-timers and connoisseurs alike are more aware of the myriad options previously only understood by gemology geeks.

The jewellery colour landscape is shifting, transforming into Technicolor

Jewellery trends are no longer so dictated by traditional ideas of worth or conservative houses, but by a shifting landscape of rarity and supply-and-demand. Paraiba tourmalines from Brazil, for instance, are now worth more than Colombian emeralds.

Paraiba tourmalines from Brazil, for instance, are now worth more than Colombian emeralds

According to Knight Frank’s Luxury Investment Index, coloured gemstones have outperformed the rest of the jewellery market over the past decade. Oh the mines, they are a-changin'!

Coloured gemstones have outperformed the rest of the jewellery market over the last decade. Oh the mines, they are a-changin'!

"People have been bombarded and brainwashed into thinking diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but white diamonds are not rare, and never have been," affirms jewellery authority and Antiques Roadshow regular Joanna Hardy. She began her career at De Beers, whose A Diamond is Forever advertising campaign of the 1970s single-handedly perpetuated the myth that engagement rings needed to be white diamonds (of which De Beers conveniently owned a global monopoly).

Hardy became a leading auctioneer, chronicling the shifting value of lesser-known coloured gemstones, which she says are much rarer than white diamonds. "We stopped using the term 'semi-precious' a long time ago in the gemology world. Something is precious when you have rarity, beauty and durability – often the value of a stone comes from its rarity or origin, but that doesn’t take into account its quality."

The world is catching up with that way of thinking. Last year, Alessandro Michele debuted Gucci’s first-ever high jewellery collection and set the tone for what’s right for right now. It’s rare that creative directors of houses work across fashion and sky-high jewels, and Michele’s naïve playfulness resulted in an unprecedented approach in which tradition (almost all of the pieces had Georgian or Victorian settings) was brought bang up-to-date courtesy of a sweet-shop variety of coloured gemstones. One parure featured a peacock’s fan of grass-green, Schiaparelli-pink and Paraiba blue tourmalines, honey-hued and blushed-rosé imperial topaz, hypnotically warm mandarin garnet, peppermint aquamarine, wine-coloured rubellite, iridescent opals and a gelateria’s freezer of icy sorbet-hued sapphires. Sure, there were white diamonds, too – but they served as mere punctuation, rather than exclamation marks. "By mixing the colours, you give life to every single stone," Michele explained last summer. For him, the selection of a stone is less about traditional worth, more about its saturated colour and clarity. "A beautiful tourmaline can be better than an emerald."

Not everyone is convinced. Over tea at Jessica McCormack’s art-filled Mayfair townhouse, she arches an eyebrow when I enquire why she doesn’t explore more coloured gemstones. "I’d rather just use a massive emerald," she quips.

McCormack, like many designers, knows her clientele well enough to know that the diamonds plus the Big Three still hold the greatest appeal. "Diamonds are a gateway drug," explains Sameer Lilani of Amrapali, one of the most internationally renowned Jaipur jewellers.

Jaipur’s beautiful Water Palace, Jal Mahal

The Amrapali Gem Bar at Harrods

We meet at his concession in Harrods, beside a YO! Sushi-style conveyor belt of coloured gems arranged not by price but by colour. Most people will start with white diamonds, perhaps an engagement ring, and over the years they’ll discover other stones.

Most people will start with white diamonds, perhaps an engagement ring, and over the years they’ll discover other stones

The idea behind Lilani’s gem bar was to educate his clients and encourage them to choose the stone they love, rather than the one they think is most valuable. I can attest that it gives jewellery shopping something like the giddy sugar-rush of a childhood pick-n’-mix.

Case in point: spinels. The red spinel was once considered "the great imposter", "the poor man’s ruby", and the deceiver even of royalty. The dazzling 170-carat centrepiece of the Queen’s Imperial State Crown was long considered the Black Prince’s Ruby until it was found out to not be a ruby at all. Mughals prized wine-coloured spinels, but Joel Arthur Rosenthal, known as "the Fabergé of our time", was arguably the first contemporary jeweller to use spinels and other coloured gemstones instead of white diamonds, creating micro-pavé textures in red, green, violet and pink – and charging a fortune for them. "People used to call spinels 'that fake stone'!" he laughed to the Financial Times in 2013. "Thirty years ago I could get a great spinel for $300/carat; today they are $15,000/carat."

It is to Jaipur, the global epicentre of coloured gemstones, that designers have often voyaged for inspiration and rough stones. Marie-Hélène de Taillac famously set up her business there, with the help of the late Gem Palace owner Munnu Kasliwal (beloved by Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana, Mariella Agnelli and many glamorous more).

Jaipur’s beautiful Water Palace, Jal Mahal

Jaipur’s beautiful Water Palace, Jal Mahal – though jewellery lovers head for the city’s oldest jewellery shop, The Gem Palace, home to some of the most lavish jewels in the world. Photo: Shutterstock

Solange Azagury-Partridge still makes pilgrimages to The Gem Palace to source stones for her playful but precious designs. The London-based jeweller Pippa Small remembers Sanjay, Munnu’s brother, "tipping a packet of brilliant pinks and flashing oranges, warm heathers and plum-coloured gems on to the table in front of me and being captivated. They were so beautiful. Each stone was hand cut and uneven and in such a rainbow of colours."

Indeed, gemstones have had spiritual associations in India for millennia. The Hindu Navaratna outlines nine gemstones as symbols of celestial deities in the spiritual universe: emerald, diamond, yellow sapphire, cat’s eye, blue sapphire, ruby, pearl, red coral and hessonite garnet. To wear them all at once in the Navaratna is an ancient, auspicious talisman for good fortune.

In the Georgian period, too, acrostic jewels that spelled out words in gemstones were hugely popular. This has had something of a renaissance at the hands of houses such as Chaumet, which sells bracelets dotted with amethyst, morganite, opal, uvite (tourmaline) and rhodolite, spelling out "amour". Far more romantic than a diamond solitaire, no?

It wasn’t until after World War II that perceptions of coloured gemstones regressed. Much like Christian Dior’s "New Look", values shifted to more conservative and traditional – you could say "narrow-minded", "narrow-waisted" – notions of luxury, rarity and aspiration.

Combinations of vivid jewels provide striking and unusual contrasts

Now, even Dior is playing catch up. Victoire de Castellane, arguably a modern-day pioneer of costume-cum-haute irreverence, looked to tie-dye as inspiration for her latest haute joaillerie collection, kaleidoscopically layering sugared-almond pearls with pink and blue sapphires, tsavorite garnets and Paraiba tourmalines.

In Pomellato’s debut high jewellery collection La Gioia ("joy"), a choker referred to as the Gourmette Caméléon comprises 29 rose gold links, each one pavé-set with a whopping 1,798 stones that form a spectral harmony of 27 nuanced shades. Elsewhere, zesty green peridots and lemon quartz, rose tourmaline, amethyst, rhodolite, tanzanites, tsavorites and topaz form the vertebrae of a delicious collection. "Chocolate" and "cognac" diamonds – yum.

Elsewhere, zesty green peridots and lemon quartz, rose tourmaline, amethyst, rhodolite, tanzanites, tsavorites and topaz form the vertebrae of a delicious collection. ‘Chocolate’ and ‘cognac’ diamonds – yum

"There is more and more openness towards lesser known gemstones than ever before because they allow us to break the traditional and conventional cliché of the jewellery world," explains Vincenzo Castaldo, creative director of the Milan-based house. "I feel flattered and pleasantly surprised every time I see how the choice of a specific colour from a customer is driven by her desire to rediscover an emotion and to create a sentimental connection with the gemstone that will last forever, beyond the market value of the gem itself."

Essentially, it’s a question of worth versus cost – and ultimately that’s a conversation about value. Diamonds may be forever, but life’s too short to have just one best friend.

← Previous Article Next Article →

Time for Men to Shine

By Mark O’Flaherty

The Men's Edit Unpicked

By Fiona Matthias

Modernist Mastery

By Vivienne Becker

The Real Deal

By Annabel Davidson
Sign up for our newsletter
Maybe Later