This week’s post is devoted to a brief lesson on how to tell the difference between natural, untreated gemstones and fake, faux, or simulated gems. There is, quite frankly, so much fakery in the world of jewelry, it’s an important skill to have. Plus, sometimes imitation has reached such a fine art, a 'gemstone' may look like the real thing – but in reality, it has none of the physical characteristics of the natural gem.
There are several common methods for simulating, enhancing, and/or ‘creating the appearance of’ gemstones: creation of a composite gemstone; invention of a new name that sounds ‘gemmy’; submitting stones to chemical or heat-based treatments; and development of ‘stabilized’ or ‘reconstituted’ gemstones.
Composite gemstones actually have a small piece of genuine stone, but it’s combined with an inexpensive or imitation gemstone to enhance its appearance or size (e.g., a small sliver of the real thing may be glued on top of a fake to make it appear larger, or a cleverly colored bonding agent is sandwiched between two clear cheap stones to make it look like a gemstone). In either case, the division between the components is difficult to spot and usually magnification is needed to see this characteristic.
Stones, even very expensive gemstones, are often dyed, bleached, irradiated, heated, and chemically altered. Many in the industry believe this is perfectly acceptable practice in order to increase the visual appeal. You have a couple of fairly easy options for identifying treated stones: 1) ask the vendor whether or not the stone has been treated in any way, and be wary if they hedge or fail to use standard codes and terms from market leaders such as the American Gem Trade Association. If you don't feel you have a vendor you can trust, you can get a great education about stones by reading Colored Stone (http://tinyurl.com/kltp5kg), a trade magazine that provides a wealth of information about the gemstone industry. You can also check out this site: www.jewelrymakingdaily.com -- for free e-books full of great, self-protecting information.
'Creative gemstone names’ are another thing to look out for. For example, the nickname ‘American Ruby’ is really just a Garnet – a much less precious stone than real Ruby, and ‘Indian Jade’ is sometimes used in place of the true gemstone name Aventurine, again, less precious than Jade, even though the nickname sounds quite exotic. Such renaming is rampant, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with the standard gemstone names and be on the alert for anyone who’s telling you this is just a ‘particular type’ of Ruby. Of course there’s always the shyster that’s just going to insist that it’s ‘genuine Ruby’ or ‘genuine Jade’ without even bothering with the nicknames! We'll talk more about how to defend yourself against that, momentarily.
Stabilized gemstones have been treated under pressure to force a simulated ‘substance’ of gemstone (like the powdery remains of real turquoise, for example) into a turquoise-like product that would otherwise be too soft and chalky. Reconstituted stones are also created by taking pieces or powders of the real thing, and mixing them with a binding agent. Sometimes colors are added to ensure that it ‘looks like’ the real thing, when it’s really nothing more than a bunch of crumbles ‘glued together’ to look like a real stone. One mode of defense is to get very familiar with the actual look and feel of real stones. Reputable dealers of natural stones are generally eager to help explain to you and show you how genuine stones are identified, so it’s always helpful to build a good relationship with your trusted sellers. Another way to spot a fake or enhanced gemstone is to look for backings on the stone – foil or other material that enhances color or strengthens a reconstituted piece.
You can protect yourself by reading up on the subject and closely inspecting the items you’re interested in. You might even consider acquiring and learning how to use a jewelry loupe (a small hand-held magnifier that reveals tiny details that can’t otherwise be seen). This won’t make you an overnight pro, but in time you will learn how to be a more savvy shopper. Do remember that faux gems may be an option you want to choose, since they provide a much more affordable way to wear elegant jewelry without the huge price tag. But you definitely want to avoid paying too much for misrepresented gemstones and jewelry. Of course we would argue that once you are familiar with true, natural gemstones, you may never want to own anything else. You might compare it to our modern 'fake food' industry, where food is often dyed, ground up and reconstituted, artificially sweetened, processed with chemicals, created with abuses toward animals, and worse! I would venture to say it's as easy to appreciate a fine natural gemstone as it is to appreciate a wholesome, home-grown organic tomato. The difference in both is often immediately apparent, in terms of color, aesthetic, quality, and especially, ethical and healthy practices. (Check out the gorgeous natural Peruvian Opals pictured here, for example.) In a future issue, we’ll talk about some of the horrific human abuses in the world of gems, and how to build your awareness of fair trade and ethics issues. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy Rocks to Gems, A Metaphor of Transformation.