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Purchasing Gems Overseas Caveat Emptor

(Let The Buyer Beware)

Purchasing gemstones while traveling overseas is a very tempting, cost savings idea.  If you do your homework, you could theoretically get a good buy, again if you do your homework.  What usually happens is a traveler is lured into jewelry store by an unsavory cab driver or someone paid by a jewelry store to get travelers into their store.  Many of the scams seem to be reported coming from countries such as India and Thailand, and Bangkok, but the scam could occur anywhere.

The scam continues by you being enticed by being told you can purchase "stones" at very low prices by being taken directly to the manufacture of the jewelry, or the person who supplies the jewelry stores in the tourist areas.  Once you arrive at the location you are taken into a room where you observe precious stones being polished and made into jewelry.  At that point you are taken into a room where you are shown various precious stones or jewelry pieces containing precious stones.  The prices seem outstanding and you make a purchase of a few "Oriental Emeralds"  When you arrive home, show you new jewelry to your friends, and everything ends happily ever after, until you take the jewelry into the local jeweler to have it cleaned or to have the loose precious stones mounted.  That's when you find out your "Oriental Emeralds" are actually "Green Sapphires" worth about one quarter of what a true emerald is worth.  What you really purchased was in fact a fake, phony gemstones, synthetics, glass imitations, natural substitutes, enhanced (treated) gemstone, or   "reconstituted gems."  No mater what you called them, you were ripped off..  

Within the United States, it's a violation of Federal Trade Commission guidelines to use names of gemstones which mislead buyers as to the identity of what they are buying. This is often not the case abroad. When shopping overseas you might be tempted to purchase stones from a jewelry store and not know in reality that your are buying a worthless stone.  Below is a partial list of misleading gemstone names encountered abroad, but represented as expensive gems. 

For explanation of how and why gems are altered see information following the below misnomers.

Misnomers (and what they really are)

  • Japanese Amethyst - Synthetic Amethyst
  • Alaskan Black Diamond - Hematite
  • Herkimer Diamond - Colorless Quartz
  • Matura Diamond - Colorless Zircon
  • Mogok Diamond - Colorless Topaz
  • Ranggon Diamond - Colorless Zircon
  • Chatham Emerald - Synthetic
  • Gilson Emerald - Synthetic
  • Oriental Emerald - Green Sapphire
  • Goldstone - Glass with Copper Crystals
  • Australian Jade - Chrysoprase Quartz
  • Indian Jade - Aventurine Quartz
  • Korean Jade - Serpentine
  • Manchurian Jade - Soapstone
  • Mexican Jade - Dyed Green Calcite
  • Soochow Jade - Serpentine, Soapstone
  • German Lapis - Dyed-Blue Jasper
  • Swiss Lapis - Dyed-Blue Jasper
  • Atlas Pearl - Imitation
  • Red Sea Pearl - Coral
  • Adelaide Ruby - Garnet
  • Australian Ruby - Garnet
  • Balas Ruby - Spinel
  • Bohemian Ruby - Garnet
  • Brazilian Ruby - Tourmaline
  • Cape Ruby - Garnet
  • Lux Sapphire - Iolite
  • Water Sapphire - Iolite
  • Madeira Topaz - Quartz
  • Palmeira Topaz - Quartz
  • Rio Topaz - Quartz
  • Smoky Topaz - Smoky Quartz

What does the term "synthetic" gemstone really mean?

 A  "synthetic" gemstone is laboratory-grown, or manufactured. All the chemical, physical, and optical characteristics of synthetic gemstones are identical to their natural counterparts. Good synthetics have been made since the early 1900s. Because they mimic natural stones so well, most synthetics are difficult to detect, even by experts. Often, the only clue is the physical perfection of the stone--synthetics are usually flawless.

Which are the most well-known gemstone imitations?

Imitation, or simulated, gemstones may be natural (substitutes) or manmade (artificial). Substitutes are cheaper look-alike stones.

Red spinel or garnets may be substituted for ruby, and green tourmaline is used to replace emerald. Cubic zirconia, a manmade stone from a natural substance, is a well-known substitute for diamond.

How can we tell?

Their name is often a clue to substitutions. Genuine gemstones are called by their true names, with no descriptive words as part of the name.

Example, a sapphire is simply called a sapphire. However, a water sapphire is iolite or cordierite. A balas ruby is spinel.  A Madeira topaz is citrine. Evening emerald may be any green stone. German lapis is dyed chalcedony. Mexican jade is dyed onyx. Herkimer diamonds are quartz.

New names are invented on a regular basis. As a consumer, you need to be aware that gemstones with additional names are substitutes and pay the appropriate price for them.

What about imitation stones made of glass?

Glass is a time-honored material for making artificial gems. Glass imitations have been found in Egyptian tombs which are at least 5,000 years old. Non-transparent glass was first used to make artificial turquoise, lapis lazuli, and onyx.

Artificial gemstones of all varieties were later made from paste, which is a very hard kind of transparent glass. Glass is often used now to make artificial jade and opal. The "fabulous fakes," which are nearly always glass, allow us to make many pieces of beautiful, but inexpensive, costume jewelry.

 Is plastic common in imitation gemstones?

Plastic is also frequently used for imitation gems, particularly the organic ones like amber, ivory, and coral.

What is a  natural gemstone?

Suppliers may only call gemstones natural if nothing has been done to them which changes their color, stability, or durability. Natural gemstones may only be polished or cut to show off their beauty. Natural stones often have imperfections in them. Perfect gemstones are a tip-off to experts that a human has improved upon Mother Nature.

What are the main reasons for changing a natural gemstone?

Many gemstones are enhanced, which may improve or change the color, provide stability, or increase durability. Stability means that the stone won't change under normal conditions. Turquoise is an unstable gemstone in its natural state, because chemicals and body oils easily damage it. Durable stones won't scratch or break when worn. Soft stones, like opal, must be protected if they are to last.

How are gemstones changed?

The four main methods of enhancement are heat treatment, irradiation, chemical treatment, and assembly. While some enhancements are done with an intent to deceive, many gemstones would not be usable in jewelry if they were not treated in some way. Reputable suppliers disclose known enhancements at the time of purchase.

Except for durability enhancement, what other reasons are there for chemically changing gemstones?

The results of heat treatment and irradiation often mimic what Mother Nature would have achieved had the stones been left in the ground a few more centuries.

How can we tell the difference between a natural and an "enhanced" (treated) gemstone?

It is usually impossible to detect which gemstones have been enhanced by either of these methods. Chemical enhancements are generally used to change the surface characteristics of gemstones, and assembly is often used to protect fragile stones.

Assembly is usually easy to detect before a stone is set; the results of chemical treatments range from obvious to invisible.

What is heat treatment?

Heat treatment is commonly used to improve color. Color changes resulting from heating are permanent in most gemstones.

Amethyst, ruby, sapphire, topaz, tourmaline, and zircon all are routinely heat-treated. Most aquamarine now sold has been heated, to change it from its natural green to the blue that is currently popular.

What about irradiation?

Irradiation is also used to change or deepen gemstone colors. Clear topaz is irradiated to produce blue topaz, and colorless tourmaline may be changed to any one of several colors. Some diamonds are irradiated to improve their color.

Irradiation is not always permanent; some irradiated stones revert to their natural colors when exposed to extreme heat or light.

What does chemical treatment do?

Chemical treatment of gemstones includes bleaching, dyeing, and staining. It also includes the uses of oils, waxes, resins, or plastics to stabilize or change the appearance of a gemstone.

Chemical treatments are often called impregnation because the chemicals usually penetrate the surface of the stone. Porous stones, like turquoise, are frequently sealed with wax or resin to keep the color from fading.

Oils, waxes, and plastics are used on many stones to hide small scratches and surface flaws. Coral, ivory, and pearls may be bleached.

Nearly all gemstones can be dyed or stained. Some chemical treatments are permanent. Others will dissolve in solvents like acetone or in ultrasound cleaners. Waxes melt when exposed to heat or strong light. Bleaching can be impossible to detect. Dyeing can usually be detected with a microscope.

What does "assembly" mean?

Assembled stones may be composites like doublets and triplets, or they may be foilbacks. A composite stone is two or three pieces of material fused or joined by colorless cement.

Although any stone may be made into a composite, opals are the best-known. An opal triplet consists of a piece of good opal sandwiched between a top layer of clear quartz and a bottom layer of low-quality opal. A doublet is usually a good opal underneath a quartz layer. The quartz helps protect the delicate opal.

Composites also allow the use of gemstones too small to be used otherwise. False composites contain no gemstone material. False opal doublets are made from crystal cemented over abalone shell. Soude emeralds are crystal cemented over green glass.

What does foilback mean?

Foilbacks have been made for nearly 4,000 years, using a variety of techniques. One kind of foilback involves placing a backing of foil or a metallic coating on a stone to give it a more brilliant color.

Colored substances on foilbacks add color to clear stones or deepen the color of pale stones. Cat's-eyes and star effects are created with etched backings. Rhinestones are one example of a popular foilback.

Are pearls synthetic or natural?

Cultured pearls fall into a special category. Natural pearls are made by mollusks (oysters and mussels). Mollusks have shells and most of them live underwater. They secrete a substance called nacre (rhymes with acre). The purpose of nacre is to make the inside of the shell smooth so that it doesn't irritate the soft body of the mollusk.

A pearl is simply an abnormal growth of nacre. Natural pearls are formed when something, such as a grain of sand, gets inside its shell and irritates the mollusk. To reduce the irritation, the animal covers it with thousands of smooth layers of nacre. The process is similar to what your body does when it forms a callus to protect irritated skin.

The difference between cultured and natural is in how the pearl is started. A cultured pearl is formed around an irritant placed in the oyster by humans, rather than around a grain of sand randomly lodged in the oyster by nature.

The outsides of natural and cultured pearls have an identical appearance. It generally takes an expert and special x-ray equipment to distinguish cultured from natural.

Cultured pearls may not be sold as natural; however, they are regarded as "real" pearls and not fakes. Nearly all pearls on the market today are from Japan. There are also many pearl companies in Hong Kong. Freshwater pearls are also produced in the United States. In Tahiti, the famous black pearls are cultured.

How are imitation pearls made?

Fake pearls have been made for more than 400 years. Fish scales are used to prepare a substance called pearl essence. The essence is used to coat glass or plastic beads to manufacture artificial pearls. A thick coating of pearl essence can make the fake look very realistic.

Fake pearls are easy to detect. They feel smooth if gently drawn across the edge of your teeth. Natural and cultured pearls feel gritty or rough.

What does "Reconstituted" mean?

Reconstituted gems fit into a separate category. Although reconstituted gems do contain genuine material, experts regard them as imitation.

Reconstituting, or reconstructing, means that small fragments of gem material have been combined to form a large piece. Amber and turquoise are two common examples.

Reconstituted amber, typically called ambroid or pressed amber, is made from scraps and shavings generated by amber carvers. The tiny pieces are collected and heated, then pressed into large blocks. Manufacturers of ambroid can easily insert insects to make it look even more like natural amber.

Reconstituted turquoise is made from inferior grades of turquoise that have been powdered. The powder is mixed with an adhesive and dye mixture to form a solid mass, which is then cut into shapes.

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