Ian Harebottle is searching for a global celebrity to do for emeralds what Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn did for diamonds.
The chief executive of Gemfields, the world's biggest producer of the green stones, said he wanted ''to bring in an A-lister to be the face of emeralds''.
The plan is to mirror what the actresses did in past decades to help then monopoly producer De Beers sell diamonds as symbols of lasting love. Diamonds still dominate today's $US21 billion ($A20 billion) precious stone industry.
Rarer than diamonds yet cheaper, emeralds are gaining among consumers. At current growth rates they may take more than 20 per cent of their competitor's market share within two decades, according to trade group the International Diamond Manufacturers Association. Gemfields' share price has gained 78 per cent this year.
''Sometimes rarity is not an asset,'' Harebottle said. ''You need the volumes of supply, which is what we're doing.''
Mr Harebottle's strategy, from buying African ruby and emerald mines to leveraging iconic names, is supported by Brian Gilbertson, former CEO of the world's largest miner, BHP Billiton. Many will remember Gilbertson as the South African-born boss of BHP who clashed with the board and walked out with a $38 million payout back in 2003.
He was one of the key architects of the $57 billion merger between Melbourne-based BHP and Anglo-African miner Billiton back in 2001.
On leaving BHP Billiton, Gilbertson told BusinessDay: ''I'm pleased to have closed the book on all this and look forward to doing more creative things.''
Gilbertson now heads an investment fund that licensed the Faberge brand name to London-based Gemfields and bought a controlling stake in 2007. Emeralds and Faberge seem to be those ''more creative things''.
High-quality emerald prices increased more than tenfold in the past three years, outpacing a 21 per cent gain in diamonds. Still the red, green and blue stones comprise just 10 per cent of global gem sales and lack standardised pricing.
A 0.9 carat round diamond that is internally flawless and of rare white colour would cost about $US7000, says online retailer Blue Nile. A round emerald with ''excellent clarity'' of the same size would cost about $US3500, says Africa Gems, an online retailer of the stones.
Gemfields' market value increased to about £140 million pounds ($217 million) this year as prices increased for its Zambian output. That's where it owns 75 per cent of the Kagem emerald mine, the world's largest. It also has 75 per cent of the Montepuez ruby field in Mozambique. The biggest investor is the Rox unit of Pallinghurst Resources, a Guernsey-based fund that invests in natural resources. Its chairman is Gilbertson. Rox owns 63 per cent of Gemfields.
The company lacks the heft of the 20th-century De Beers model, in which a single company mined, marketed and largely controlled wholesale prices. Coloured stones are a fragmented industry that's largely supplied by individual miners - sometimes parents and children - across about 10 countries.
At the same time it has benefited from singer and clothing purveyor Jessica Simpson, actress Halle Berry and the Duchess of Cambridge receiving engagement rings containing coloured stones.
Global imports of rough emeralds, rubies and sapphires totalled about $US2.2 billion in 2011, according to the United Nations Comtrade data. Rough diamond sales totalled about $US18.9 billion, according to BMO Capital Markets research.
''During the past three years, these other gemstone categories have taken away yet another half per cent from our market share, of our display space, of our sales in the jewellery retail shops,'' Moti Ganz, president of the diamond manufacturers group, said in a speech at the World Diamond Congress last month.
De Beers dropped so-called generic marketing of the stones when its monopoly was ended after losing a 10-year legal battle with the United States over price-fixing in 2004.
Polished diamond prices have declined for five straight quarters as Asian purchases slowed and the euro region debt crisis eroded demand, according to PolishedPrices.com data.
Rough, or uncut, prices have fallen for the past two quarters and are heading for the first yearly decline since 2008 after rising by more than 20 per cent in each of the past three years.
The coloured gem market was about equal in size with the diamond industry in the 1940s.
De Beers, the world's biggest producer, created the industry and developed the ''Diamonds are Forever'' tagline that was voted as the best slogan of the 20th century by Advertising Age. Monroe's recording of Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend and Hepburn's Breakfast at Tiffany's film helped cement an allure in consumers' minds, spurring a boom in demand and prices that were underpinned by a cartel.
While the growing popularity of coloured gems is reflected in the shop windows on London's Bond Street, diamonds are still the first choice of consumers who are better educated about the stones.
''Coloured stones are mainly bought by more experienced customers who already have diamond pieces,'' said Richard Campbell, whose family runs the jeweller Lucie Campbell on New Bond Street. ''It's incumbent on the buyer to have confidence in the jeweller or their own knowledge.''
Lucie Campbell's display is dotted with emerald, ruby and sapphire jewellery, including the shop's most expensive piece, a pair of 22.45 carat and 21.66 carat emerald earrings set in platinum, surrounded by diamonds. The display carries no prices.