Sunday, November 28, 2021

Is it real, or isn’t it?



You are in a jewelry store in Anywhere, U.S.A. looking at a gorgeous gemstone ring with a hefty price tag. You ask the sales person if it is a genuine stone. They answer, “I’m not sure, the tag says it’s an emerald.” Sadly most retail jewelry stores’ salespeople wouldn’t know the difference between an emerald and a green tourmaline, and many times the extent of their gem identification knowledge is printed on that price tag.

The scary thing is that “emerald ring” could be anything but an emerald. It could be cheap imitation green glass, or a crude doublet from the late 1800s, or even that synthetic green stone that you find in most school rings; it could even be the hardest to detect…a sophisticated laboratory-created emerald. The point is:  just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s an emerald.

Customers will often present me with heirlooms, or ask me the value of great-grandma’s ring. When I identify them as worthless glass, it usually bends some noses out of joint, and they cry, “How can that be? It’s very old!”

Ancient Egyptian jewelry entombed for two thousand years is old and it’s loaded with glass “gemstones.” Glass is made from sand and the Egyptians, as anyone knows, had an unlimited supply of that commodity. Museums throughout the world have discovered that in many exquisite exhibits of “priceless” jewelry many of the gems were actually fake!

Having fooled the “experts” for centuries, only lately, because of state of the art technology, many important pieces have found to be set with fantastic gem imitations or other minerals that resemble precious gemstones.

I’m reminded of a couple’s fate when they purchased a cache’ of expensive emeralds while traveling in South America. When they got back home, they hurried to my shop so I could appraise their five hundred dollar purchase. They had been told in Columbia that, in the U.S., these gems were worth ten times their investment.

Under close magnification, I started to chuckle under my breath and grabbed a nearby cigar lighter. To their horror, I placed one of their “emeralds” over the flame. It melted, smoked, and dripped like candle wax. The five hundred dollar investment was, in fact, green plastic.

I read later, in a trade publication, that it is a common practice for poor Columbians to climb traffic signal poles, remove the green light lenses, and bring them home, where the family would pulverize and polish the plastic into small chunks to sell to naive tourists. Live and learn! I’m sure the red lenses were sold as rubies. I’d hate to drive through that intersection! The emerald is found in several parts of the world, most commonly in Africa, but Columbia, has been the most popular source for centuries. Its rich green color is unmistakable compared to a Zambian (African) emerald. The reason: Columbian emeralds contain chromium, whereas the African emeralds contain the mineral vanadium, which causes the green color to be more black or grey, or less intense.

I don’t want to get too technical, and lose many of you, so let’s just say that gems are, in fact, minerals. Some are incredibly valuable, while others are worth nickels—a shovelful. And one should not pay top dollar for the latter.

I don’t expect anyone to walk away from a gemologist after reading this, but you can learn to ask the right questions when purchasing your favorite gems and hope you get intelligent answers. If you get the usual song and dance, accompanied with smoke and mirrors, walk away and find a jeweler with gemstone knowledge and, above all, a reputation for honesty and professionalism.

You may not know that many gemstones are “enhanced,” sometimes right at the mine. This could involve boiling the rough gems in oil to saturate the gems for improving the color and masking flaws or inclusions. The emerald is one of these. (Inclusions are specks of other minerals that can cause striations or faults; the more a gem contains, the less valuable it is.)

Lately, a cheap glass infusion process has entered the market to improve the appearance of many gems. It is now considered a double-edged sword because it is unstable and impossible to detect if you are unskilled in its detection. The emerald is almost always soaked in oil to improve its appearance, so those of you who own valuable emeralds should always be careful not to use strong cleaning methods that will remove the oils and render the stone dull and grainy.

Almost all emeralds have flaws or inclusions. (The French call the inclusions “le jardin,” or the internal garden because the inclusions tend to run in a vertical line.) It is indeed rare to see a flawless one. The emerald is in the beryl family of gems that also includes the Aquamarine, Morganite and, of course, golden and red beryl.

Emerald, though hard (7.5-8 on the Mohs scale, a diamond is a 10), is very brittle because it is a heavily grained gem. Under magnification, it has a grain similar to a wooden board. Give it a sharp blow along the grain while wearing it and, crunch, goodbye emerald. The imitations or imposters are endless and will fool many jewelers who are not on their game.

In the early sixties, a process was discovered by two chemists, Carroll Chatham and Pierre Gilson Sr. They created man-made emeralds in a laboratory, using an emerald synthesis process that grows from a colorless beryl seed. (Remember growing salt crystals in high school?) The finished product is amazing—rich green, it’s complete with inclusions, and it tests as an emerald! The created emerald, as it is called, is less expensive than the natural, but they don’t come cheap either. At this writing, they cost about $700 per carat. I sell them on a regular basis as pendants and earrings because the alternative; the genuine, can cost thousands per carat.

Until next time.

“I think men who have a pierced ear are better prepared for marriage because they’ve experienced pain and bought jewelry. Rita Rudner

Richard Alan is a designer/goldsmith and owner of the Harbor Goldsmith’s and Richard’s Reef on Marco Island. He welcomes your questions about “All that glitters”

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