Sunday, 11 June 2017

Is it real? A musing on gemstones and their simulants and knowing what you're buying.

All the above are types of synthetic ruby.   Photo GIA.
Putting my gemmologist hat on today! 
If you are buying jewellery described as containing some sort of gem (s) and pearls, don't be afraid to question the authenticity of the stones or pearls and even the metals. Please!
Although replacing gems with simulants has happened for centuries, I have recently seen a lot of people who make jewellery, describing the items they use as a particular gem when they are actually something else entirely.   What are they really?   Often they are a lower cost stone that has been treated to look like a valuable gem and that is usually a manmade / synthetic copy, glass or even plastic!
Natural amber (left), heated and clarified amber with its typical sun-spangle look (middle) and plastic (right).
Wouldn't you feel more comfortable knowing what you have really bought?   Whether its $30 or $3000, the customer has a right to know exactly what they are getting.    
Moonstone (left) and opalite (glass) (right)

The practice appears to becoming rife - in just one day, I saw these examples online:
"moonstone" that is really glass,
"pearls" made of shell coated with a lustrous 'paint', 
''lapis lazuli" that is sodalite (a less costly and more brittle stone that contains no pyrite) 
"lapis lazuli" that is a manmade simulant; 
"turquoise" that is dyed magnesite or howlite;
"turquoise" that is actually a very low grade turquoise that has been powdered, compressed and dyed;
"silver" and "gold" that is plated metal;
"chrysocolla" which is dyed jasper, agate or manmade;
"amber" which is really plastic;
"sea-sediment jasper" which is a manmade stone (made with ground up stone and a lot of dye).
and if I looked more the list would go on ... and on! 

(And the prices of the jewellery containing the misnamed stones were not just a few dollars but in the range from $30-$410!)

Cultured pearls (left, photo GIA), shell pearls (right)

Even some jewellery stores gloss over reality. Those "emerald" and 9ct gold rings for $250 with a lovely green colour you see in the jewellery brochures? Look at the fine print and you will find they are either synthetic, a manmade simulant or at the very least a composite stone.  A few months ago I was collecting a watch repair in a reputable jewellery store and heard and saw a sales assistant refer to a synthetic emerald as just "emerald" to a potential customer, without going into the detail of what it actually was made from!
Lapis lazuli (left) is often replaced with sodalite (right) (photo
Imitation Lapis Lazuli under magnification (photo GIA)
To add to the confusion, many manmade simulants have gem sounding names eg. opalite is actually manmade glass. "silver tone" is a way of saying base metal with a silver colour, "goldstone" is a manmade aventurine glass.  Cubic Zirconia has been around so long that it's almost accepted as a gem even though it is manmade and can come in virtually any colour you desire. 

Photo: Beadworks

Whilst not everyone selling jewellery is meaning to deceive you by misnaming the materials an item is made with - I'm sure many are really lovely people who just want to create - but their lack of knowledge (and sometimes experience) means they believe what the wholesaler is telling them.   
A couple of decades ago, the ability to buy gemstones or pearls was limited to a small number of jewellery professionals who had a relationship with cutters and gemstone dealers and occasionally dealt directly with the miners.   Alternately a visit by a tourist to an area that was known for a certain gem - eg. Tahiti for black pearls, Baltic countries for amber, etc. meant they could bring back jewellery or stones/pearls.     Synthetics and simulants were available but there was less intent by the dealer to deceive, although people did occasionally get caught out, usually by a 'bargain'.

These days, however, there are thousands of websites selling all variety of gemstones and pearls, some are long established and inherently honest but, unfortunately, some are not so truthful in their descriptions - many describing items as what they are simulating rather than what material they actually are.  
Chrysocolla (left),  and some of the simulants:- (2nd from left) beads described on Etsy as "azurite chrysocolla jasper"ould likely to test as treated jasper, (3rd in row) beads described as "azurite chrysocolla jasper are a composite bead of stone powder, polymers and dyes, (right) "azurite chrysocolla" on a Chinese site - these could be dyed jasper or more likely are similar to the beads in the 3rd photo with a polymer coating for shine.
Add to this small hobby shops that may purchase strands of beads and on-sell them as what they believe them to be, but without expert knowledge to properly identify them - and the misinformation continues.

Even I have bought gems online described as "genuine" or "natural" and when they arrived have found them to be a mix of ground stone powder, polymers and dye! Ebay for example, is a minefield of misinformation.  (Although I am sure there are some selling genuine product as well). 

Not everyone who makes jewellery can be a gemmologist, but the creators and sellers of jewellery do need to take responsibility to make sure they know what they are buying and that the information they pass on is accurate, so that their customer has full confidence in what they are purchasing.

Goldstone is a type of aventurine glass, some people believe it to be a natural gemstone and sometimes it can be used as a simulant for Sunstone.

So, what can you do as a consumer? If the piece is very inexpensive, it is likely not to contain genuine gems or precious metals, so if you love a pair of earrings around $10-15 that are described as "moonstone and silver" just know that it is highly likely they are glass and plated metal. If you love them anyway, then by all means buy them as there is not a large monetary investment by you and you buy them just because you like them - not because they are supposedly moonstone. 
If, however, those same earrings are $40, $80, $120 or even $250... then you DO need to question the seller. Ask where the stone is from? (If they bought the stone from overseas or their local "bead shop", definitely ask more questions and perhaps do some research). Is it genuine? (brightly coloured "stones" are likely to be at the very least dyed, this has potential setbacks in the future - ask if the stone has been treated and if it will fade).   Is the silver sterling silver or plated metal? (this is important for allergies or if you want a piece to last.  Plated metal is likely to discolour relatively quickly and affect the look of the piece over a period of time).    You may be happy to buy non-genuine gems and metals, but you should at least know that is what you are purchasing.

If the person who is selling the item can't answer your questions fully, then perhaps you need to keep looking, or get someone in the field you know and trust to make something similar for you.

If you are buying online, do the same thing - have a look at the seller's experience and background and make sure the items are fully described.  If the information is scanty, then take into account the old saying "buyer beware". At the very least, send the seller a message and ask questions. 

Don't let this put you off buying jewellery, but if you love natural gems and cultured pearls and prefer to buy genuine gems and pearls, do question more :)
Till next,
P.S. I follow the CIBJO (the world jewellery confederation) standards for jewellery professionals and fully disclose materials and any known treatments.  I also examine gems and pearls that I use so that you know exactly what you are buying and can rest assured that your items are genuine and 'real'. :)  Annette Piper Dip. Gem. Handcrafted Jewellery
P.P.S.  If you are designer and/or maker of jewellery, do acquaint yourself with the Blue Books put out by the CIBJO, they are freely available to read and download on their website.

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