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Secrets of the Jewelry Industry: What Your Jeweler Won’t Tell You

Daily Ticker

Nearly 20% of Americans will give jewelry to loved ones on Feb. 14, spending more than $4.4 billion on diamonds, gold and silver according to the National Retail Federation Valentine's Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey. But gift buyers need to ask certain questions before they splurge on diamonds, rubies and other gemstones says Antoinette Matlins, an internationally recognized jewelry expert and author of many books including Jewelry and Gems: The Buying Guide.

In an interview with The Daily Ticker she discusses the most alarming trends in the jewelry business and how consumers can protect themselves.

Rubies

According to Matlins, rubies and other red-colored stones are popular gifts on Valentine’s Day.

Rubies are one of the most “most durable, beautiful and wonderful” gems but many rubies sold in the marketplace today are not 100% genuine, she says. Many gemstones are enhanced in some way to make them more attractive; it's an industry-wide practice that's been happening for decades. Even exclusive, high-end jewelers such as Tiffany (TIF), Cartier and Harry Winston treat gemstones to improve the beauty of the stone (according to Tiffany, “Since the ancient Egyptians, emeralds have been soaked in colorless oil to make them appear more beautiful"). Matlins estimates that 95% of rubies sold in jewelry stores worldwide have been treated in some way.

Typically, rubies and sapphires are exposed to low and moderate heat to make inclusions (natural-occurring imperfections) melt and to improve the color and clarity of the stone. Other enhancements include bleaching to lighten or create more uniform color; filling the gem with a colored or colorless substance such as oil, wax, resin or glass to improve the stone’s appearance; irradiation to change a gemstone’s color.

Matlins says there are untreated or "naturally beautiful" rubies and sapphires sold in high-end jewelers. But these stones are among the rarest of all gems and they're often priced in the 7-figures.

Even though rubies are routinely enhanced, some have been subjected to intense and extreme treatments. The most egregious violation involves filling a ruby’s cracks with tinted lead glass; 20% to 50% of the ruby may contain lead glass. The glass fillers are invisible to the naked eye, Matlins says, but these adulterated stones break and chip easily and can even fall apart when cleaned. Lead glass “forever alters, conceals and changes” the stone, making it irreparable Matlins says, adding that this is a “very serious consumer problem in the trade these days." These glass-filled rubies are sold in national and local jewelry stores and may be priced in the thousands. Matlins says they're not worth more than a few hundred dollars.

There are three questions consumers should ask when buying a ruby:

  1. Is this ruby treated?
  2. How was it treated?
  3. Is there lead glass in the ruby? Federal laws require that retailers provide consumers with a full refund if the product sold was misrepresented or determined to fraudulent.

Diamonds

According to the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker survey, six million couples will get engaged on Feb. 14.

There are many factors to consider when buying a diamond engagement ring (i.e. the 4 C’s – cut, color, clarity, carat weight). Diamonds are usually not enhanced with the same methods described above but some jewelers are using glass to fill cracks. Matlins says these diamonds are referred to as “clarity enhanced.” Jewelers fill fractures to improve the diamond’s clarity, sparkle and overall beauty.

According to Matlins, these diamonds are “frequently sold in wholesale diamond districts without disclosure or with a misleading or dishonest explanations as to what “clarity-enhanced” means…most people are told that ‘clarity enhancement’ is simply “part of the cutting and polishing process” and that it “simply makes the diamond sparkle more.’”

Matlins points out that these “clarity enhanced” diamonds should be half the cost of a comparable “non-enhanced” diamond. Like specially treated rubies and sapphires, these “clarity enhanced” diamonds allow more people – not just the rich – to purchase and wear precious gemstones.

Matlins stresses that fine gemstones and jewelry should always be purchased with knowledgeable, reputable sources. She recommends that buyers consult with certified gemologist appraisers to verify that stones are as advertised. Consumers should also be leery of deep discounts and promotions, she adds.

“Internet sales can offer bargains but they don’t offer what’s represented,” she says. “The main thing is to know what questions to ask and what to get in writing on your sales receipt. Then you can buy with confidence anywhere.”

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