Rubies remain one of the most popular of all the precious gems, and following the recent publicity surrounding Jessica Simpson’s ruby and diamond engagement ring, are likely to become even more so.
A few years ago this would have been good news to the jewelry trade, but today it may spell disaster for many retailers, designers, buyers and sellers of estate jewelry, and bench jewelers when serious and irreparable damage occurs to a “ruby” in the course of normal wear or, worse yet, when being mounted, re-mounted, re-sized, and so on. Shock sets in when a ruby becomes a molten glob on the workbench, or when its appearance is horribly marred by acid etching from top to bottom, around the entire stone. And some appraisers are making matters worse.
Over the past few weeks I’ve received numerous phone calls and emails related to “problems” with rubies, and seeking advice on what to do. The calls are coming primarily from bench jewelers and retailers who have purchased a ruby or taken one in from a customer for mounting, setting, or re-sizing, only to end up having to deal with a badly damaged stone. The damage is not the result of carelessness or ineptitude but occurs in the process of using routine techniques that jewelers have always used when working with ruby, a gemstone that ranks high on the durability scale. Most are asking, “What’s happening with rubies?”
What’s happening is that most of the low-quality, inexpensive ruby now being sold in the market as “commercial-quality’ or “treated ruby” is not really ruby at all, but rather, an altogether different product being confused with “treated ruby with glass.” For purposes of clarification here, when I refer to “treated ruby with glass,” I’m referring to those in which a tiny amount of glass has been used to fill a fracture(s) in order to lessen its visibility, and/or in which high-heat techniques used to improve the stone have left minor glass residues in small surface fissures. Treated rubies with glass have been around for over a decade. The “new” material to which I’m referring — being called “ruby glass composite” or something similar by an increasing number of labs — is created from extremely low-quality corundum from which extraneous material is chemically leeched out, leaving voids (think of a sponge) that are infused with a huge amount of lead glass. The glass is necessary to give the resulting product sufficient stability to be cuttable, and the use of lead-glass makes it impossible to see where the ruby ends and the glass begins!
As most of you know, these stones sell for very little at gem shows (most selling for less than $10 per carat, in every size and shape, and for much less in bulk), but they are being sold at grossly inflated prices in an ever-increasing number of venues including well-known jewelry store chains; I also found them in several antique rings (and the rings were true antique mounts) at the Vegas antique jewelry show and GIA encountered one set within a lovely antique brooch surrounded by old-cut diamonds and natural pearls. Even so, in spite of the presence of so many now in the market and popping up almost everywhere, many appraisers are failing to distinguish between these heavily lead-glass infused stones and treated rubies, despite the fact that the amount of lead glass now found in these stones often exceeds 25% of the stone, and in many cases 40%, or more.
Many gemologists and appraisers have been aware of composites for some time, and while they may have questioned whether or not they should be sold as genuine ruby, few understood just how much these differed from other “ruby” products in the market. The huge percentage of lead-glass and the need for extreme care by consumers and bench jewelers–to a degree that is unprecedented for any type of ruby–puts them in a category apart from any we’ve had to deal with previously.
In the limited space I have here, I can’t even scratch the surface in terms of detailed information on how composites differ from treated ruby, but my article on the AGA website is an in-depth piece that lists all the ways in which composites differ from anything else in the market. Also, go to the AGA website for eye-opening information and the findings of their on-going research for over 3 years; there are also excellent images showing what can happen at the bench and with normal wear.
While many appraisers do understand what these are and how to distinguish them from other treated rubies, many appraisers still do not. Based on the number of appraisals showing up that are incorrectly identifying them and showing highly inflated values, it seems that many are confused about what composites are and how they differ from other rubies. Ignorance and/or incompetence among some appraisers is nothing new, but what is new is the number of retailers and consumers taking legal action against appraisers whose appraisals result in a costly mistake. This results in negative press related to appraisers, which can then have a negative impact on all appraisers.
A jeweler in the USA recently purchased a quantity of composite rubies unknowingly, based on the identification and valuation provided by a local appraiser. While making some jewelry pieces with some of the stones, the bench jeweler was shocked to discover he’d destroyed several, and neither he nor the retail jeweler could understand what happened. They sent the remainder of the rubies to a highly respected gem lab and learned they were composites. The retailer is now suing the appraiser for his loss since he would never have bought them had they been correctly identified in the first place.
In another recent case, a consumer purchased a large composite ruby set in a piece of jewelry from a jeweler going out of business; she is suing the appraiser because she recently learned from another appraiser (confirmed by a respected lab) that it was a composite, and she would never have purchased it at the price she paid, had the appraiser accurately appraised the piece before she bought it; in this case, she’s suing the appraiser for the difference in value between what she paid (over $3,000) and what it’s really worth (under $200, including the gold and diamond accents).
And such cases may be just the tip of the iceberg unless we all get involved and become pro-active. I’d like to appeal to AIJV members to do more to help make the public aware of the presence of these stones and the need for consumers to verify what they are buying from appraisers with respected credentials. This could be done in a variety of ways, from speaking to local women’s groups, professional organizations, schools; by getting local newspapers and TV stations to run a story; by writing press releases to send out and post on your websites. There are also AGA members who can arrange to loan stones to AIJV members who’d like to get involved in this effort to bring attention to this ruby crisis.
And that’s what it is: a crisis. I don’t know what the trade will end up calling these stones, nor can I predict whether or not there will be agreement that these should be classified as imitations, not gemstones, as I and other AGA members are advocating. But I do know we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg as far as problems related to them. Unless we all work together to educate the public — AND the TRADE — their presence will result in extensive consumer dissatisfaction and the loss of consumer trust and confidence.
Antoinette Matlins – Woodstock, USA. December 2010
Images of composite “rubies” – Craig Lynch, GG.
Image of Jessica Simpson – CelebrityBrideGuide.com
Disclaimer: The AIJV blog is authored by a selection of AIJV members and guests specifically to be able present many different viewpoints on a large variety of subjects. The opinons expressed by the authors are not necessarily those of the AIJV.