The Natural, Treated, or Synthetic Dilemma: Risk or Opportunity
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Antoinette Matlins

  The Natural, Treated, or Synthetic Dilemma: Risk or Opportunity

by Antoinette Matlins (Guest Blogger)
August 12, 2012

With so many man-made diamonds surfacing at laboratories we're hearing a lot about synthetics these days, usually in an unfavorable light. People are afraid of them, concerned they'll buy and sell them inadvertently, or be exploited by the more knowledgeable.

I'd like to point out, however, that the labs have detected them, and if history continues to repeat itself, there is no reason to expect that laboratories will not continue to do so. There are also new developments in instrumentation and the promise of affordable tools for detection in the foreseeable future. So let's take a deep breath and a look at the possibilities as well as the challenges.

Today there are really three "gemstone" markets, each with its own niche, and each offering profitable opportunities for knowledgeable, creative people:
1) gems created in nature and untreated in any way;
2) gems created in nature and improved in some way, by one or more techniques; and
3) lab-grown stones, both treated and untreated.

Natural, untreated gems are among the rarest and most precious of all, but also are prohibitively costly for most people, which is why many have no objection to buying a treated gem.

Treated gemstones have been in the market for a significant period of time. The "oiling" of surface-reaching fractures in emeralds has a very long history, going back many hundreds of years. It is a method that was actually considered a "fair trade practice" since it simply removed the whitish reflectivity of the fractures, reducing their negative impact on appearance without altering the stone's inherent color or clarity. Oiling did not interfere with the ability to properly grade clarity or color.

Irradiation entered the picture in the 1950s and1960s to create fancy-color diamonds and "blue" topaz. In the 1960s and 1970s, the scarcity of beautiful, natural sapphires and rubies, and escalating prices, with demand sharply outpacing supply, led to the introduction of routine heating of these stones, followed by a variety of other treatment techniques to alter their color and clarity.

According to the traders' conception, these procedures just continued and completed a process, which left to nature, could have happened without any human intervention (i.e. underground heating of sapphire... etc.). For example, Sri Lankan geuda sapphires, with a milky white appearance (and sometimes without any blue color at all) became a magnificent blue just by heating at 1800°C for a few hours.

Once accepted by the trade, treatments were here to stay, and we now see an ever-widening variety of treatments used on an ever-increasing number of gems. The availability of treated stones provides a much larger supply of lovely, sparkling material, in a wide range of prices, and enables a much larger number of people than ever before to enjoy them. The price range is related to the kind and degree of treatment.

Today we also find a growing number of people who prefer man-made or lab-created gems. Some are simply interested in having a beautiful "adornment" which will make them feel stylish and successful, but who are not interested in spending a lot of money for the look they want. For these people, lab-created stones give them exactly what they want - something that has all the allure and mystique of the natural, at a much lower price, and with the only "real" difference being "origin" - made by humans rather than by nature!

There is also an increasing number of people who prefer lab-grown gemstones because they are concerned about human rights and ecological issues associated with mining...but who still enjoy adorning themselves with lovely jewelry, and take pride in pointing out exactly what they are wearing, and why.

These three markets each appeal to different buyers, but there is also overlap and an opportunity for cross selling, and opportunities to expand the marketplace and increase sales. Many people do not want to take their prized gems with them while traveling, for example, but still want to have a certain look. Treated or lab-grown products may well suit their needs. There are also upwardly mobile customers who dream of owning major gems one day but who can't - yet - afford them, and for whom lab-grown gems best meet their needs and enable them to project the "successful look" they want.

For the upwardly mobile customer, each time they wear their jewelry they are reminded of the dream that one day they'll be able to have "the real thing"! For these customers, these products don't replace the dream of owning "the real thing" but just the reverse... they keep the dream alive!

Interestingly, I keep hearing the clamor about lab-grown diamonds, and certainly they have been in the headlines recently. But in reality, the distinction between "natural" and "lab-grown" diamonds and other gemstones is straightforward. Where "treated gems" are concerned, however, the market is anything but clear!

When it comes to treated gems, confusion and misrepresentation abound, yet we're not hearing any clamor about this undeniable fact. In reality, "natural" gems are more often than not so extensively treated that they have less in common with their natural counterparts than lab-grown stones.

Today, all too often the starting material of the "treated" product is of such low quality, and they require such extreme treatment to make them beautiful, that it is really quite unfair to refer to them as "natural gems" at all.

Although many gems undergo what are today considered "legitimate treatments" (i.e. heated citrine or sapphire), some of the stones that are sold today should more accurately be viewed as manufactured rather than treated. This includes what is referred to as "composite gem material", or, dare I say it, lead-glass infused corundum! Starting with ruby, lead-glass blue "sapphires" are now in the market, and other colors as well.

Disturbing as it sounds, the main problem is not the identity of the material but rather disclosure provided by the seller. There is already market demand for low priced lead-glass rubies, especially for inexpensive jewels, as long as they are properly disclosed.

But in these cases simple disclosure is not sufficient for end-consumers. For such customers, proper disclosure cannot not conclude simply with the term "treated." It must include an easy-to-understand explanation regarding the nature of the gem and instructions on how to care for it, to keep it safe from damage. Lead-glass ruby material is particularly vulnerable to damage or breakage, even by mild cleaning solvents, and cannot be repaired. Such items will never get passed on to the next generation. They will never become prized heirlooms.

Personally, I'd rather have a synthetic ruby, sapphire or emerald than many of the heavily treated gems currently in the market... and they'll certainly last longer! Yet no one seems to be concerned about "distinguishing" among the huge differences associated with treated material, including the huge ranges in "rarity," "quality," "durability" and "value"!

I don't think "lab-grown" gems pose a serious risk to the industry but I fear those offering "treated gems" without full disclosure certainly do. Sellers must provide customers with all the essential facts about the product, including how it compares to other gemstones with similar appearance. Consumers have to be provided the opportunity to make informed decisions as to what best meets their own needs.

There is nothing wrong with any long as the seller fully discloses what the product is. In the absence of such an assurance, however, the responsibility has shifted to buyers, especially those in the trade. Everyone must take time to keep knowledgeable about what's in the market, and ask the right questions to help ensure you know what you are buying and selling.

This means being informed, or working with people who are. It means asking the right questions related to treated material. It's not enough just to know whether or not a gem is "treated," but rather, you must ask - explicitly - how the stone has been treated, and to what extent, and so on. And check or have a laboratory verify what you are told.

Success in today's gem and jewelry industry depends upon keeping an open and educated mind! Success depends upon keeping up-to-date about the types of products in the market, and how they differ from one another. Success depends upon taking responsibility for what you're buying and selling.

Only by so doing can we also help ensure the health of the entire industry.

About the author
Antoinette Matlins is a highly respected gem and jewelry expert and well-known author and lecturer. Often seen on international television networks, including CNN, ABC, NBC, and CNBC, offering important consumer information. Matlins also devotes much of her work to education and consultation within the trade. Former Gemology Editor for National Jeweler, for almost a decade, she is the author of many highly acclaimed books on gems and jewelry, including 'Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide' (now in its Seventh edition). Other popular books by Matlins include 'Gem Identification Made Easy'; 'Diamonds: The Antoinette Matlins Buying Guide'; 'Colored Gemstones: The Antoinette Matlins Buying Guide'; 'Jewelry & Gems At Auction'; and 'The Pearl Book'.
For more information on her books, visit