Troops Should Be Seeing Red
By Antoinette Matlins, PG
Author of Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide (GemStone Press, USA)
For thousands of years, rubies have been sought and treasured, prized as one of the most valuable of all things on Earth. A fine ruby has everything a precious stone should have — magnificent color, shimmering brilliance, extreme rarity, and excellent hardness and overall durability. Such stones command high prices, and the finest and rarest rubies are among the costliest of all gems, costlier than sapphires, emeralds, and even the finest colorless diamonds.
So of course, when stationed in, or near, gem-producing countries, it is only natural for our troops to be looking for a beautiful ruby, or other gem, to bring back home. But today, rubies are quickly losing there sparkle for many military personnel returning to the states only to learn they didn’t get what they bargained for.
An ever-increasing number have become the unsuspecting victims of a costly scam in which they are sold what appear to be beautiful, sparkling rubies—at bargain prices “because they are so close to the mines” or for some other equally compelling reason—only to find out when they get home that they are not real rubies at all, but fakes! In fact, what they are buying is a “blend” – a composition of extremely poor quality corundum which has been infused with a huge amount of tinted lead-glass (corundum is the mineral known as “ruby” only when it occurs in a lovely red color, and “sapphire” when it occurs in other lovely colors including blue and yellow). Gem testing laboratories are calling these a “lead-glass composite ruby” or a “manufactured product.”
To make matters worse, while these lead-glass products look pretty, they are very fragile. They can break much more easily in the course of normal wear—an accidental knock or blow can do it—and simple cleaning solutions, even lemon juice, can damage them. Worse yet, they can crumble apart when a jeweler goes to set them into a piece of jewelry, or remount them into a new piece.
There is nothing wrong with buying one of these lead-glass/ruby composites as long as you know what you are buying, pay an appropriate price – such stones in sizes under 3 carats should sell at a jewelry store for under $25 per carat – and as long as you understand the type of extreme care that is required to keep them looking lovely. However, this is usually not the case. Most buyers are led to believe they are paying much less than the stone is really worth, and some have been encouraged to buy them in quantity for re-sale at a profit upon returning home, to earn some extra money in these tough economic conditions. Gemologists and appraisers across America are seeing them in alarming numbers, but by the time they see them, it is too late for our troops; the money is gone, and they’re stuck.
Internationally respected gem testing labs are finding that many, if not most, contain more glass than anything else. Composite stones are not new, but these are produced in a different manner than old-fashioned composite stones, and as a result, went undetected until recently. The World Jewellery Confederation known as CIBJO (an affiliation of organizations from 40 nations and whose mission is, among other things, to protect consumers) does not recognize composite stones as genuine gemstones. CIBJO defines composite stones as: "artificial products composed of two or more, previously separate, parts or layers assembled by bonding or other artificial methods." And this is exactly what we find in composite rubies…and exactly what is being sold to troops abroad by unscrupulous vendors.
In the USA, it is a violation of FTC guidelines to sell any composite stone or manufactured product without disclosing what it is. Furthermore, when a treatment reduces the durability of the stone, the FTC requires disclosure of this fact as well. Nonetheless, these stones are being sold extensively without any disclosure that they are composite, and without mention of the need for special care.
What Can The Troops Do?
1. Buy any ruby—or any fine gem—only from a reputable source, ideally one who is a gemologist or has an on-staff gemologist or gemologist consultant working with them for quality control purposes. Your base BX, post PX, or AAFES catalog, is an excellent source, at home or abroad.
2. Ask whether or not the ruby has been treated*, and if so, what type of treatment.
3. Ask whether or not any special care is required, and if so, what type of care.
4. Make sure to get all of this information in writing, on the sales receipt (and if told that it is natural, get this in writing, too).
5. Verify what you have purchased by taking it to a qualified gemologist-appraiser. A more complete list of questions and information pertaining to selecting a reliable appraiser can be found in any of Antoinette Matlins’ books, including Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide. Matlins’ books can also be found at your local exchange……
Members of the Accredited Gemologists Association (AGA) are willing to provide free IDENTIFICATION for any consumer who suspects they may have a composite ruby. Please contact the AGA at www.accreditedgemologists.org to find an AGA member in your area who can help. Note: The free service is for IDENTIFICATION only. It does not include an appraisal or valuation of the stone, although these services may also be provided for a fee.
* Today gemstone buyers must understand there are two general categories of gemstones: treated and natural (that is, not enhanced in any way). Rubies have been routinely enhanced by a variety of techniques for almost half a century, and are well accepted within the trade. The most common type of treatment for ruby is heating, which improves the color and clarity to varying degrees. Today anyone buying a ruby should assume it’s been heated (and possibly treated in other ways) unless there is documentation from a respected laboratory confirming that it is entirely natural. Natural rubies (that is, rubies that have not been enhanced in any way) are among the rarest of all things—an exceptional 8.60 carat natural ruby sold at auction for $3.6 million dollars, $465,000 per carat! The price of this extraordinary gem reflected the extreme rarity of anything comparable in today’s market—its pure red color, high clarity, and brilliance, all found together in a stone of such large size. The price of rare natural rubies as seen in the case of the 8.60 carat gem exemplifies the underlying reason for the introduction of treatments: the increasing scarcity of beautiful rubies. This is what led to the introduction of techniques to improve the appearance of natural gems. Natural rubies of the finest color and clarity were disappearing; the mines were depleted and supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Heating techniques were introduced in an effort to provide beautiful rubies (and sapphires and other gems as well) at prices people could still afford. Otherwise, only the world’s wealthiest would be able to dream of owning magnificent rubies or other gems today!
In addition to the routine heating of ruby, there are various other treatments used today, and varying degrees of treatment. Treated rubies are priced according to the type of treatment used, how extensively it was treated, and the overall post-treatment appearance compared to that of other similarly treated rubies. There can be minor glass residue in small surface-reaching cracks, and when unsightly cracks detract from the beauty of an otherwise beautiful ruby, they can be filled with glass to reduce their visibility; these are called glass-filled rubies. With so many treatments now used on rubies, many fine jewelry stores only sell rubies that have been submitted to gem-testing laboratories and each stone is accompanied by laboratory documentation. When present, treatments are indicated on the reports.
But “treated” rubies should not be confused with “rubies” made from multiple pieces of low-quality corundum fused together with red-tinted glass. “Treated” rubies are single stones that have been improved in some way to look more attractive. Some were lovely even prior to treatment, the treatment simply having made them even more attractive. Composite rubies are an altogether different thing, much less durable, and of much lower value.