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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Rubies and the New Opal Pendant

Pear shaped multicolor opal with dangling red and green stones
Australian Boulder Opal, Ruby and Emerald Pendant in 22k and 18k Gold

In my last article I promised a picture of the new boulder opal piece I got in recently and here it is!  The stone, as you can see from the picture is really pretty outstanding.  It has a couple of rubies and an emerald on the bottom.  And the rubies bring me into today's topic.

This is something I've discussed before but because I have noticed a number of articles about the topic on social media of late it seems to be coming into the mainstream consciousness.  There were a couple of news exposes (these are what are being reprinted on the social media venues) about glass filled rubies being sold, undisclosed for the most part, in the major jewelry chains.  In my previous article on this topic I went into this issue here.  But it's worth revisiting.

Oval red ruby in a prong setting with a bezel set diamond in a ring
1.37 ct. Ruby and Diamond Ring
So the first thing you should know about ruby is that it is a form of corundum.  Sapphire is also corundum.  Ruby is simply the red variety of it.  Red is also the rarest color that it occurs in so rubies are consequently more expensive.  As with many of the other fine gem materials today the price of high quality goods has been skyrocketing.  This is happening with ruby for a number of reasons.  The first is simply that it is a relatively rare gem.  The second, as with opal, is that the Asian market has expanded so dramatically and they are always most interested in the highest quality of goods.  The third is that the United States banned importation of ruby and jade from Burma (Myanmar) a couple of years ago in a quixotic attempt to force regime change in the country (note that now that it has undergone some significant changes the law hasn't been changed back).  Burma is without a doubt the source for the finest ruby available.  The ban has meant that dealers here in the states have been unable to purchase new material and are either working off of old stock or buying pre ban stock from other dealers.  There are other factors as well impacting the price today:  better mining practices which inevitably mean higher retrieval costs and higher labor costs, higher transportation costs, third world nations are no longer letting their resources be removed from their country free of tariffs and taxes, etc.

As always, when the cost of something that a lot of people want rises dramatically, someone comes up with a way to make money on it, often through shady business practices.  In the case of ruby, since there was such a dearth of fine material, the process used to heat treat goods was used far more aggressively and on far lower quality material.  There is material that would in the past have been tossed into the garbage that they realized if they heated it aggressively enough could be made to look far better than it actually is.  The process used to over heat this material ends up infusing the flux into all of the cracks and fissures in this low grade material where it turns into glass.  Some of the material has so much of this glass in it that the head of one of the major gem labs said a few years ago that: "we don't know whether to call this ruby with glass in it or glass with ruby in it".

If you've been reading my blog long enough you know that many, if not most, gem materials are being treated in some form or another.  So you might then ask what is the problem with this particular treatment?  Well first of all, if the stone is more glass than ruby there is the primary question of whether or not it should be called ruby to begin with. The second issue is that the glass flux in the stones can be dissolved in anything mildly acidic such as lemon juice or vinegar so normal everyday wear is pretty much out of the question, even though ruby is normally considered a fairly durable gem material.  If you own one of these stones in a ring you will see distinctive changes in the look of it fairly quickly. 

The largest problem with this whole issue is, once again, disclosure.  The purchasers of these goods are not being told that the material they are buying has been so aggressively treated nor are they being told about the special care needed in wearing the stones.  Because this material is so cheap (and trust me, if you see a 1 ct. ruby these days being sold for less than $500 you can pretty much be assured it's one of these stones) and it LOOKS good, people are buying it.  Unfortunately most consumers simply don't know enough about high quality gems to even ask the questions about the material.

The jewelry industry is, in this case, more than deserving of a lot of the blame.  Not only do most chain stores seem completely disinterested in disclosing treatments (or educating most of their sales staff) but the industry's self policing organization itself is in part to blame.  There is an organization known as the Jeweler's Vigilance Committee that is supposed to help police the industry over a number of issues including disclosure.  Unfortunately the JVC and I parted ways a few years ago when they announced that they didn't believe heat treatment of rubies needed to be disclosed.  Their logic went like this: Since almost all rubies are heat treated it doesn't matter if disclosure is made.  In my discussion with them, I pointed out that not a month earlier than they announced this decision, I had sold a fine 2 ct. natural color (unheated) ruby to a customer and that I had had absolutely no problem acquiring a half dozen unheated stones for him to look at.  While smaller stones are routinely heated it is still possible to get natural color stones so, as with all gem materials, full disclosure is necessary.  I pointed out to them at the time that their stance was going to lead to problems with the new flux infused material but they claimed it wouldn't be a problem.  A number of months later when more and more of the glass infused material was coming into the marketplace they came out with a new statement saying that material that might have durability issues should be disclosed.  Unfortunately by then the general feeling was that if the JVC says heat treatment in rubies doesn't have to be disclosed then this is just another form of heat treatment so why should we disclose it.

So what is the poor customer to do?  Well there are a number of things.  First of all, if it sounds to good to be true, it is.  So if you see someone trying to sell you a 2 ct. ruby for $1000, there is going to be a problem with the material.  Secondly, as I have said so many times in the past, buy from someone you can trust and with whom you have recourse if something is wrong (so don't buy something when you are overseas).  If possible look for reputable retailers who are members of the American Gem Trade Association (I am) who insist that all treatments be disclosed.  And then ask a lot of questions.  If the sales people don't really seem knowledgeable about topics like treatments buy somewhere else.  And quite honestly I wouldn't buy any significant sized ruby on line anywhere these days.  You just can't tell what you're getting.

The ruby ring in the picture has a 1.37 ct. oval ruby in it.  It has been heated but not aggressively.  Although it has a similar color to most Burmese material I don't believe that it is a Burmese stone.

Coming up soon:  Tax free weekend is August 16 and 17 this year.  My regular existing customers will know what that means.  Look for an email from us Friday!  In the next day or two I will have some pictures of a few more new pieces that are out.  

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