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One of the featured pieces in the Harry Winston jewelry collection this fall is a $3 million ring with a 5 1/2-carat diamond between two smaller shield-shaped stones. It's big and blindingly bright. But perhaps the most striking thing about it: The middle diamond is orange.
Colored gemstones are red-hot. Available in a variety of shades, grades, and price ranges, they are being incorporated into everything from teardrop earrings to bulky bangles and Renaissance-inspired collars. The broad palette allows you to buy jewelry that will flatter someone's coloring or match a favorite outfit -- making for a more personalized gift.
"I haven't seen this much interest in color in the 40 years I've been in business," says Louis Tennenbaum, a Houston jeweler who says pink and green semi-precious stones such as morganite and peridot are especially popular in "sporty settings reflecting today's more relaxed lifestyle."
Scarcity and fashion dictate the cost of colored stones. Diamonds come in yellow, pink, blue, and yes, orange. But they are extremely rare and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per carat (one-fifth of a gram). High-quality emeralds, sapphires, and rubies are more likely to run thousands of dollars per carat. Other lesser-known varieties such as black opal, pink topaz, alexandrite, jadeite, and pink sapphires cost $250 to $5,000 per carat. So-called semi-precious stones like lime-green tourmaline, sky-blue aquamarine, and mandarin-orange garnet are in the range of $50 to $500 per carat.
Assessing the quality of most colored stones is much easier than appraising a diamond, which requires a trained eye and magnification. The most important determinant of quality is the brilliance of the color. "The richer and more vivid the color, the more valuable the stone," says Douglas Hucker, executive director of the American Gem Trade Assn., based in Dallas. Clarity isn't so important because imperfections in colored stones, called inclusions, can make them more interesting, like the "stars" in star sapphires or "cat's eyes" in cat's-eye chrysoberyl. A fantastic cut that shows off the color by reflecting more light back to the eye doesn't necessarily increase a stone's value, but it doesn't hurt.
When making a choice, line up several examples of the same gemstone side by side to see which is the most radiant. Hucker says most people will pick the best-quality gem when allowed to make comparisons. Because some stones may change color in different kinds of lighting, Scott Gordon, a jeweler in Oklahoma City, recommends looking under natural, incandescent, and fluorescent lighting to make sure you get the shade you want. For example, alexandrite is called "emerald by day and ruby by night" because it changes from green to red depending on whether it is viewed under natural or artificial light, he says.
You can hire an appraiser to look at a stone to assure you of its quality. But you're better off going to a reputable jeweler who will guarantee the stones and take them back if you're not satisfied. If you're buying colored gems online or from a home-shopping channel, you won't be able to make side-by-side comparisons of stones, so make sure you can return any item for a full refund. You should also be aware that stones can be artificially enhanced -- such as a ruby that has had the element chromium added to it under high heat to make it appear more intensely red. If that concerns you, ask the retailer about it.
Many well-known jewelry designers are using a full spectrum of stones in their creations. New York-based Harry Winston, which has boutiques all over the world (harrywinston.com), sells diamonds in every color of the rainbow for prices that arc about as high. Samuel Getz in Coral Gables, Fla., (samuelgetz.com) features similarly clean, classic designs but tends to use more unusual stones and color combinations such as an emerald-cut aquamarine ring with triangular-shaped rubellites (a red tourmaline) on either side ($12,500). His multicolored gem bracelet is a series of cushion-cut stones like lemon citrine, smoky quartz, and rubellite set in 18-karat yellow gold ($20,500).
Laura Munder in Palm Beach, Fla., (lauramunder.com) creates pieces that are a near-riot of color. Some of her bracelets have a kaleidoscopic quality with crazy mixtures of pastel tourmalines, pinkish kunzite, and aquamarine ($21,300). More geometric is her cuff-style bracelet with rectangular-cut rhodolite, peridot, iolite, citrine, and blue topaz arranged in a grid ($53,250). Laura Gibson in Tucson (lauragibson.com), likes to cluster stones together, which creates a nubby jumble of color. You'll find combinations such as lemon and blue topaz, citrine, peridot, and chrysoberyl. Necklaces cost $2,000 to $5,000, with matching earrings for $250 to $1,000.
You can also get some of David Yurman's designs for under $1,000 (davidyurman.com). A pink-tourmaline-and-diamond sterling silver bangle costs $800, and a pair of sterling silver earrings set with your choice of stones like citrine, black onyx, or blue topaz costs $425. To make more of a statement, you can spend more than $16,000 on Yurman's bold 18-karat gold Renaissance-style collar with citrine, smoky quartz, lemon citrine, pink tourmaline, olive citrine, and cinnamon citrine. Colorful and sparkling, a gift like that can truly light up the holidays. By Kate Murphy