Send in the Aquamarines

March 7, 2022  |  Francesca Fearon

Image: Cartier

Many March birthdays fall under the star sign Pisces, the symbol of which is two fish. It’s one of the watery zodiac signs, and serendipitously, the birthstone for March is the aquamarine. The name comes from the Latin for “water” and “sea,” and was first applied to the gemstone in 1677. Legend has it that aquamarine was the treasure of mermaids, and sailors carried or wore it as an amulet to calm stormy seas and keep them and their ships safe.

It is also known for having healing properties: Centuries-old documents declare the gem a panacea for arthritis, eye inflammation, sore throats and seasickness, among other things. In medieval times, it was thought to reawaken the love of married couples.

Today, the blue gemstone, with its vitreous luster, is the second-most popular beryl, after emerald. This enhances its perceived value compared to other semiprecious stones, which is why luxury brands like Cartier, Bulgari, Tasaki and Tiffany & Co. feel comfortable using aquamarine in their fine- and high-jewelry designs.

Color journey

The best gem-quality aquamarine comes from Brazil, where it occurs in pegmatites and alluvial deposits of gravel. The presence of different iron levels in the stone’s chemical make-up results in colors ranging from pale powder-blue through duck-egg and even greyish-green or teal. These factors make for important distinctions in terms of clarity, quality and value.

In the 19th century, sea-green was the favored color, appearing in Art Nouveau jewelry by creators like René Lalique. However, tastes evolved. In the early 20th century, “it was the sky-blue Santa Maria aquamarines from Santa Maria de Itabira in the [Brazilian] state of Minas Gerais that enlightened the world,” says colored-gem dealer Constantin Wild. Remarkable examples of saturated blue specimens from that mine appear in the British royal family’s collection, and in 1936, the Brazilian government gave US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt a spectacular rectangular step-cut, 1,298-carat, dark blue aquamarine from the Minas Gerais region.

However, the Santa Maria mine has since been exhausted. The only Santa Maria aquamarines on the market today are vintage stones mounted in Art Deco jewelry, majestic cocktail rings and tiaras. They tend to be in large step cuts to showcase their color, clarity and unmistakable beauty, and their allure makes them highly desirable to connoisseurs and collectors alike.

Today, “Santa Maria” is usually a quality adjective for stones of a similar hue, but not from the mine itself — much like the use of “Paraiba” to describe some tourmalines.

Color preferences continued to change as the century progressed. “In the 1950s and ’60s, it was the light-blue colors, the water colors, which were the most desired,” says Wild. “Since the 1970s and ’80s, good-quality aquamarines were reaching the market from Africa (Nigeria and Mozambique) and Brazil. The more saturated the color, the rarer, more expensive and more beautiful they are.”

The top colors in the 4- to 20-carat range are most in demand today, he adds.

Market value

Prices for well-cut, lighter-blue aquamarines are stable for most sizes, according to a recently published monograph by gem dealer Richard Drucker in the book Constantin Wild: Gems, Colours & Wild Stories (see Legacy, Page 84) — though he notes that darker stones in fine to extra-fine qualities are in shorter supply, so prices for those categories have crept up. Overall prices for most aquamarines have risen in the past three decades, but less so in recent years. Some categories have doubled in price, while Santa Maria-colored gems — mainly from east Africa — have probably tripled in price because of the limited supply and superior quality, Drucker estimates.

A growing interest in pastel stones right now is leading many to embrace aquamarine’s lighter blue tones, says Eric Braunwart, founder of Columbia Gem House. He views this as part of a huge overall trend in blue gems. “There is currently a good supply of nice-quality aquamarines, from small to quite large sizes, to meet all design needs,” though the biggest increase in demand is for 2- to 15-carat stones, he says.

“The main markets for aquamarine would be Brazil, the US, Canada, Europe, and then smaller, finer stones to Japan,” he continues. “There does seem to be a consumer market developing in the Far East as they learn more about stones other than diamond, jade, ruby and emerald. This is also putting pressure on supply.”

‘Watery and feminine’

Aquamarine’s hardness — a solid 7.5 to 8 on the Mohs scale — makes it a favorite with gem cutters, as it allows them to experiment with innovative cuts they wouldn’t dare try on a softer stone. Still, round and oval brilliants, emerald cuts and cabochons are the most popular.

“I really love all the different shades; they are so watery and feminine, and the colors are so beautiful and soft,” says designer Irene Neuwirth, who uses aquamarines in multiple cuts for rivières, or in floral designs for pendants. “Right now, I am drawn to round, faceted aquamarines, but I love them in all shapes.”

Favorite cuts for jeweler Tayma Page Allies “would be the classic mid-blue, sparkly modified emerald-cut aquamarine [on a] cocktail ring, with a cabochon sea-foam aquamarine coming a close second,” she says. “I’m influenced by jewelry in Renaissance portraits, so I find cabochons very appealing and easy to wear in a work situation. They’re not flashy, while being luminous and yet understated.”

Pippa Small, who sources her aquamarines from small family-run mines in Myanmar and is inspired by initiatives like the women-only Zimbaqua mine in Zimbabwe, describes the stone’s hue as “the most gentle and soothing color of all colored gemstones.” She professes her love for “clear, polished, tumbled, amorphic-shaped stores with a strong blue — they have the feeling of being tossed and rolled in the waves for millennia and washed ashore.”

Hanging an aquamarine amulet around the neck “seems to me to be a calming influence on you and those around you,” adds Small. “The shade of blue makes us think of the infinity of the sky, the seas, and that can be reassuring in times of stress.”

Perhaps the ancient seafarers’ belief in the power of aquamarine talismans was well-founded.

From crowns to cocktail rings

As the UK’s duchess of Sussex sped off with her new husband to their wedding reception in 2018, a quick wave of her hand set the internet alight with searches for the large emerald-cut Brazilian aquamarine she wore on her finger. The cocktail ring previously belonged to her mother-in-law, Princess Diana, having been commissioned from Asprey in 1996.

New York-based vintage jewelry dealer Dana Kiyomura saw a sudden flurry of interest in similar rings at the time. “Among colleagues in the trade, there was definitely an increase in demand,” she reports. However, “this style of ring is classic and remains an attractive and popular style regardless of famous icons.”

In her market, Kiyomura tends to see more aquamarines from the 1940s and ’50s — typically large emerald-cut gemstones with diamond embellishment, popular for their bold size and color. “I have [also] bought beautiful Georgian jewelry using aquamarines, as well as exquisite Art Deco bracelets and even headpieces,” she says. Rarest these days, though, are Georgian rivière collet-style necklaces bearing the blue gemstone.

Aquamarines and diamonds were a hugely popular pairing for tiaras at the turn of the 20th century. One example is a rare Fabergé aquamarine tiara from 1904 that is currently on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition on the Russian jeweler. The piece, which features diamond forget-me-not flowers, is on loan from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which acquired it at auction in 2019 for approximately $1 million.

In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II commissioned Garrard to make an impressive aquamarine and diamond tiara she could wear with a necklace of nine large oblong aquamarines in diamond scrolls. She had received the necklace, along with a pair of matching earrings, as a coronation gift in 1953 from the president of Brazil, who later gifted her an aquamarine bracelet and brooch as well.

Garrard continues to make tiaras today, and aquamarine is one of its signature gemstones, sparkling in the Catherine tiara from the jeweler’s Princess Tiara collection.

Cartier similarly made tiaras for the British aristocracy in the 1920s and ’30s. There is a restored Art Deco-style aquamarine and diamond trefoil bandeau in the current Cartier Tradition collection.

“Aquamarines were very popular from the 1930s onward, especially in the English and — more recently — Russian markets,” says Pascale Lepeu, curator of the Cartier Collection. That was “partly, perhaps, because the color matches the blue of their eyes.”

Jewelry also began growing in size around that time, she says, “so the designers looked for larger stones, and the semiprecious aquamarine answered their needs.” For Cartier, this led to large Art Deco aquamarine bracelets and dramatic necklaces.

Meanwhile, Boucheron was setting aquamarines into Art Deco double clip brooches such as the pair the queen received as a birthday gift in 1944. And in 1939, Tiffany & Co. created the majestic aquamarine World’s Fair necklace. The US-based jeweler reproduced the piece entirely in diamonds — including an 80-carat center stone — for the Expo 2020 event in Dubai last year. Aquamarine’s pale-blue hue, echoing Tiffany’s branding, made it a go-to gem for famous designs such as Jean Schlumberger’s Bird on a Rock, Elsa Peretti’s Wave ring, and Color by the Yard lariats.

David Webb’s aquamarine jewelry from the 1970s frequently gets snapped up at auction and vintage sales, especially his cocktail rings. He was an architect with stones, creating voluminous pieces with exciting combinations of colored gems.

“They have the feeling of being tossed and rolled in the waves for millennia and washed ashore”

Today, aquamarines feature in fine-jewelry collections from Pomellato, Garrard and Tiffany. The semiprecious gems join the ranks of high jewelry in pieces such as the Blue Infinity earrings from Boucheron’s Contemplation collection. This blue is also a favorite of Bulgari jewelry creative director Lucia Silvestri, while the latest Tasaki Atelier collection boasts large aquamarines resembling pools of water in its Forest Valley cascade necklace and mono-earring.

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