Are Treatments Killing the Romance of Gems?

A specter is haunting the jewelry industry?the specter of treatments. Consider these excerpts from recent lab reports on ruby, sapphire, emerald, and pearl: ?Indications of thermal enhancement?artificial glassy residue present in fissures.? ?Indication of diffusion treatment present.? ?Clarity-enhanced by artificial resin, determined through Raman investigation.? ?Treated natural pearl with evidence of artificial color modification.? These are hardly the kind of poetic utterances one usually associates with ?romancing the stone.?

The unique character inherent in so many crystals?the slight secondary hue in a Burmese ruby, the intricate web woven of ?silk? trapped inside a Burmese sapphire?is being eradicated. The very features that contribute to the beauty of an individual gem are being burned away, leaving a stockpile of homogenized stones that imitate fine quality but will never stir passion in the hearts of dealers who know the truth. Rarity?the trait that made fine gems so alluring?has practically disappeared.

Treatments everywhere. Enhancements do serve an important function. Tanzanite, for example, owes its color entirely to heat, and the gem is accepted throughout the industry without much talk of disclosure. Using a little heat to drive out the slightly greenish modifier in an aquamarine or to purify the red in a ruby is certainly legitimate, and adding oil or Gematrat to diminish some of the clarity characteristics in an emerald is perfectly acceptable.

Today, however, nearly every colored gem and pearl sold has been treated in some way, often to an extent few people?even jewelers themselves?realize. The degree to which these gems are treated has spiraled out of control, threatening one of the cornerstones of the industry?the mystique of the ?natural? gemstone. Today?s thermal treatment doesn?t simply enhance a gemstone, it redesigns it.

How does one define ?too much treatment?? Here are three examples: Heating bicolored corundum once to make it red and a second time to repair its fractures, all to be able to call it ?fine ruby.? Bleaching, dyeing, and waxing akoya pearls to produce brightness and overtones seldom found in nature. Heating amethyst until it becomes something else (citrine).

Corundum conundrum. Once upon a time, enhanced gems were worth less than unenhanced. But between once-upon-a-time and today, the entire focus of enhancements shifted. Richard W. Hughes, author of Ruby & Sapphire, says the catalyst for this change was, in part, the geuda sapphire. The geuda is a milky grayish to extremely pale blue corundum that?s virtually worthless. It was used as gravel to line the bottoms of small fishbowls in Sri Lanka, where the material originates, until miners and dealers discovered that exposure to heat transformed these crystals to a fine Ceylon blue color. Hughes was studying at the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences under Henry Ho when he saw his first geuda. ?I can remember the confused look on Ho?s face when I asked how much less they would be worth after treating. Ho just looked at me and said, ?Now they are worth more.? ?

Thus began the mass treating of corundum. Treaters soon began to experiment on nearly everything, including stones that could stand on their own. Corundum of virtually all origins was heated, even material from places such as Burma. At this point the trade made a crucial error. According to Hughes, ?Treated stones were accepted and sold as completely natural, with no distinction made between treated and naturally colored gems. Things had gone too far.? Swept up in the excitement of creating a sustainable source of marketable gems, few stopped to consider that without the ability to segregate the natural from the treated, it would be the natural?and all it represented?that would suffer.

The troubling case of rubies. Technological advances in the last quarter- century make it possible not only to alter color but also to heal the crystal. Mong Hsu rubies are a case in point. By using temperatures that reach the melting point combined with flux compounds, today?s treaters can repair fractures and heal fissures in inferior material, radically altering the appearance and quality of the material. The process does leave diagnostic inclusions, but initially these can confuse gemologists, leading to misidentification.

As information trickled out about the degree to which ruby crystals from Mong Hsu are altered, segments of the industry sought euphemisms (e.g., ?inadvertent byproduct of heat treatment?) to use in disclosing the resultant flux-like inclusions. But a 1995 article in Gems & Gemology (by A. Peretti, K. Schmetzer, H.-J. Bernhardt, and F. Mouawad, Spring 1995, pp. 2-26) makes it clear that flux inclusions are no accident: ?According to information obtained in Bangkok, some commercial Thai laboratories use a two-step procedure to heat treat Mong Hsu rubies,? the article states. ?First, the samples are heated, without the use of a borax, to remove the violet core. Then, the rubies are heated in a borax container to fill fissures and thus enhance apparent clarity.?

John Koivula, chief research gemologist at the Gemological Institute of America, suggests that the stuff appearing in healed or repaired fissures and as a residue on the surface of some Mong Hsu rubies may not be glass. It may be remnants of inclusions and impurities from the ruby itself, which were forced toward the crystal?s surface through fractures and fissures while in molten form. He equates this with lava flowing out of a volcano during an eruption.

C.R. Beesley, president of American Gemological Laboratories in New York, agrees that this partially explains the repaired fractures, but he doesn?t think it?s the primary factor. ?The borax works to facilitate the repair, so whether the fractures have been filled with a foreign material such as glass or a material equating synthetic ruby is not yet understood,? Beesley says.

Hughes questions whether the nature of the repaired fractures is relevant. ?The issue is not really the residue, which is often microscopic, but the fact that before treatment these rubies are severely fractured, and after treatment these fractures are gone,? he says.

Slamming the door on disclosure. The response to concerns about treatments has been perverse. Instead of seeking greater awareness and demanding enough information to enable jewelers to detect treatments, the industry has taken the opposite tack. Disclosure is still based on what can be detected, and the major gem associations have lowered the standard of detection. They?ve decided, in effect, that if a filling isn?t visible at 10x magnification, it doesn?t exist. For example, here are two definitions from the American Gem Trade Association?s Gem Information Manual:

Filling. The filling of surface-breaking cavities or fissures with colorless glass, plastic, solidified borax, or similar substances, which are visible at 10x magnification. This process will improve durability [and] appearance and/or add weight.

Heating. The use of heat to effect desired alteration of color, clarity, and/or phenomena. (Residue of foreign substances in open fissures is not visible under properly illuminated 10x magnification.)

How will the market interpret this? Is the industry prepared to accept the undisclosed fracture filling of diamond when not visible above 10x? As Beesley suggests, the 10x standard ?sends the wrong message. It simply isn?t a matter of being visible at 10x and not at 9x. What does a fracture-filling look like at 9x? The issue is one of fracture-filling, period.?

The 10x standard was implemented to address the legitimate concerns of retailers, who are becoming increasingly liable for enhancements, which are becoming increasingly difficult to detect. But for disclosure to be meaningful, it must reveal the nature of the treatment and the extent of alteration. Actions that suggest jewelers are hiding something only strengthen the public?s suspicion that jewelers aren?t trustworthy. Setting a 10x standard for detection may do exactly that.

Disclosure first. It?s been clear for some time that meaningful disclosure cannot be based on detection. As new techniques for treating gems continue to outdistance methods of detection, it?s obvious that disclosure needs to come early on, at the treating stage in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Brazil, or wherever the gems originate.

Unfortunately, as the industry continues to focus its efforts on detection, disclosure remains noticeably lacking at the crucial treating stage. John ?Bear? Williams of Bear Essentials, Jefferson City, Mo., warns, ?If we remain on the current course, the trade will find it necessary to have a report for every stone. The market should be careful to avoid getting to that point, because the reports will add to the price, but not the value, of the stone.?

Lazare Kaplan International recently used the detection-before-disclosure argument to justify the secrecy surrounding the company?s decolorized ?Pegasus? diamonds (now marketed under the name ?Bellataire?). Elly Rosen, an appraisal consultant, creator of the Internet-based Appraisers Information Network, and JCK?s appraisal columnist, points out the major downside to this approach: ?Given an understanding of what can be done to alter the appearance of gems today in what is, at least initially, an undetectable manner, we might soon have no way of setting a line between natural and synthetic,? he says.

The notion that you don?t have to disclose what you can?t detect comes with a price. Warns Rosen, ?We might be rapidly moving into an era where we have to say to consumers that we just don?t know anymore, and it must be assumed that all gemstones, including diamonds, have been altered.?

Can jewelers ethically encourage consumers to pay two months? salary for a product they admittedly know so little about?

If the industry wants a level of treatment that guarantees enough supply to fill any level of demand, then it must commit itself to meaningful disclosure. It can begin by rejecting the idea that treatments have been performed for hundreds or thousands of years. Such flimsy historical arguments form the backbone of much of the disclosure literature produced for the trade.

Here, for example, is a line from a consumer brochure designed to ?educate? retail consumers about ruby treatment: ?Although modern-day heating involves use of sophisticated furnaces and computerized control systems, the technique is not all that far removed from the one Pliny wrote about.? It?s doubtful Pliny ever saw a ruby heated to its melting point or one whose internal structure had been redesigned.

?Today?s dramatic face-lifts are a far cry from the subtle changes of the past,? says gemologist Richard Hughes. ?We are reaching a situation today where the products produced through these processes nibble at the edge of synthesis, rather than belonging in the realm of the natural.?

As technology advances, so does the industry?s ability to improve the appearance of gem materials far beyond levels found in nature. Today, if you?re selling a gem that?s untreated, you?ll have to prove it. And if nature?s gems are pushed out of the marketplace, they?re likely to take their rarity, romance, and history with them.

Stuart Robertson, a Graduate Gemologist, is research director and gemstone editor for Gemworld International Inc. in Northbrook, Ill. He also has experience as a sales associate in a retail jewelry store.