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Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Do I Buy When I'm Traveling

half moon shape earrings with mixed metals and green stones
Mokume gane earrings with emeralds
A customer of mine passed away recently.  He was a great musician, at one point a local merchant and a very sweet guy.  He was also, as it happens, my prime example for one particular question I get asked on a regular basis.  It's something I have been meaning to write about anyway so I figure it's as good a time as any and to, in some bizarre way, honor him.

The question I get asked always goes something like this:  I'm about to go overseas.  What gemstones should I buy while I'm over there?

The answer I always give goes something like this:  If it costs $100 or less buy whatever you want.  If it costs more than that, whatever you do, don't buy it. I know this sounds like a broad generalization but let me relate to you what happened to my customer (as well as a few others).

He was traveling to Thailand which has been a large gem cutting capital of the world for a number of years.  He did come in to see me before he went and asked me what he should buy.  I told him the same thing I tell everyone.  Don't try to buy anything. Needless to say that's not how the story ended.   While in Thailand he was (in what appeared to be a random fashion) approached by three different people/couples, none of them from Thailand, who all told him about a government sponsored store that he should go check out because he could get great deals on gemstones there. So he went and they proceeded to sell him $5000 worth of large sapphires, which they swore to him he could bring back to the States and resell for four or five times the amount of money he was paying for them.  When he came back to my store to show me the stones and ask if I had any interest in buying them, I had to give him the bad news that not only weren't they a good enough quality for me to buy but that no one in the States was going to pay him much, if anything, for them because of how bad the quality was. He made some attempts to sell them to other jewelers but was unable to find anyone willing to buy even one of them from him.

I have a friend whose father in law was a trader all of his life and had bought and sold diamonds on and off (along with just about anything else) and had made good money at it.  He took a trip to Brazil and ended up buying a number of colored stones, which I believe, he hoped to turn around and sell up here.  What did he come back with?  Some synthetics and a bunch of extremely poor quality examples of tourmalines and topaz. 

There have been plenty of other customers who have rolled through with gems and jewelry they bought overseas only to return to find out that what they thought they had was not at all what they actually had.

Here are the problems with buying something overseas today.  First of all, in today's gem market there are so many known treatments, synthetics mixed in with natural stones, and new treatments only just reaching the marketplace that it is hard for gemologists and gem dealers to be assured that what they are buying is what it is purported to be.  How could a layman possibly be expected to know when they are being sold a false bill of goods? Secondly, due to a lack of education and gemological knowledge, even honest overseas miners and dealers often are selling gemstones as one thing that is really another and they don't even realize it.  

But most importantly once you leave the country with your purchase in hand, you have absolutely no recourse.  If you buy something from a jeweler down the block from you and it turns out to be fake, you can go right back to his store and confront him.  If you live in Boston and buy something from a store in Thailand, you simply aren't going to be able to do that.

There are a few countries where you could feel fairly safe in buying some of their gem materials.  Australia is a great place to buy opals but don't expect to get any deals there.  Depending on the relationship of the Australian dollar and the American dollar, the opals may be as or more expensive than what you would find here and they also know the exact value of their product.  But you will have a wider selection there than anywhere else in the world.  Germany does a great deal of gem cutting and I would feel fairly safe buying something there in a legitimate jewelry store.  The Scandinavian countries, England, France and some of the other European countries are also a safe bet.  But these countries (except for Australia) are not the countries where the mining is done (or near where it's done) so there aren't going to be any "bargains" for the most part in them. Unfortunately the "bargains" in the other countries may often turn out not to be a bargain at all.

So, once again, if you are traveling overseas and it's $100 or less, go for it!   But if you're looking to buy a quality gemstone, stick a little closer to home.