Cat & Moiss: Con artists have tricked pawnbrokers by selling them synthetic moissanite as diamond. Jewelers may be next.

Leslie E. Eckman was instantly suspicious when the well-dressed, unfailingly polite man strolled into her store, Ace Diamond of Boardman, Ohio. For one, he was walking – in her town, most people drive. For another, he tried to sell a 1-ct. diamond for $1,500, which is the store’s normal buying price, not the standard price offered to consumers. “The man knew exactly how much to ask for,” says Eckman. “Consumers never know. They usually want something like $6,000.”

But the final straw was the stone’s “grayish-green” color – typical of a synthetic moissanite, the diamond lookalike introduced last year by C3 of Research Triangle Park, N.C. And while the stone passed its thermal test, there was something unusual about it. “The girdle was really thick,” Eckman says. “And it had too much of a prismy effect. There were too many colors going through it.” Eventually, store employees determined it was moissanite and that they were about to be ripped off. Since moissanite retails for $500 to $800 a carat, the man stood to make up to $1,000 profit. The employees called the police, who arrested the man and discovered that he had a list of other jewelry stores in the area.

The case is unusual among jewelry retailers, but it’s become common in pawnshops. “There’s not a day goes by where I don’t get an e-mail or something about someone who has accepted moissanite without knowing what it is,” says Tom Horn, executive director of the National Pawnbrokers Association in Dallas. And the scam isn’t limited to the United States; there have been moissanite-as-diamond cases reported in Japan and elsewhere in the Far East.

Jeweler beware. Now there’s anecdotal evidence that con artists are targeting jewelers as well. They may find some easy prey. A reporter at Miami’s TV station WSVN recently tried to sell moissanite earrings to 10 jewelers and pawnshops. All but one accepted them. The Gemological Institute of America’s Gem Trade Lab in New York has seen several instances of retailers submitting moissanite as diamond. Even stores selling the stone are wary. “We’ve had calls from Las Vegas, looking for loose stones without a mounting,” says Elaine Yurvon, owner of a store called The Vault in Fresno, Calif., which sells moissanite. “We didn’t sell to them. It seemed a signal that they wanted to resell it as natural.”

In one case, two Florida brothers were arrested and charged with fraud for representing moissanite as diamond. But in most cases – including the one cited here – police don’t press charges, especially when the transaction is not completed or the suspects plead ignorance. Occasionally, the authorities are not sympathetic to those being scammed. “A lot of police departments say that people who are dealing in diamonds should know if something’s a diamond or not,” says R.B. Grammp of Bluestone Trading, a Cleveland diamond dealer who has written extensively on moissanite.

Trade-ins aren’t the only way jewelers can be fooled with moissanite. In one incident, a pawnbroker unwittingly sold a pair of moissanite earrings to a customer. The irate consumer demanded his money back, plus damages. He received a refund plus a used Rolex, but the pawnbroker now wonders if the hocker and buyer were working in tandem.

Meanwhile, the Jewelers Security Alliance in New York worries about the possible use of moissanite in stone-switching cases. “Moissanite is going to be the favorite device of people who do switches,” predicts JSA vice president Robert Frank, who notes that switches are up in general. “It is a lot harder to detect than cubic zirconia.”

But it is detectable. Jeff Hunter, C3’s president, notes that his product is not the first to be misrepresented and says his company is educating the industry to prevent such incidents. “Somebody out there is always trying to make money by taking advantage, whether it’s diamond switching or CZ switching,” he says. He adds that unscrupulous people get their hands on moissanite “the same way they get normal gemstones.” (There are currently at least 80,000 cts. of moissanite in circulation and some 100 U.S. stores selling it.)

So what can jewelers do? JSA recommends that you be wary of any trade-in offered for sale at below-market value. The group also stresses jeweler education. There are many ways to identify moissanite, whether visually or with a device (see sidebar). Yet even now, a year after the product’s introduction, widespread ignorance persists. When JSA recently issued a warning bulletin on moissanite, officials were shocked when jewelers called to say they’d never heard of it.

Still, many think that will be the exception rather than the rule. “Eventually the industry will get educated,” says James Evans Lombe of De Beers’ marketing liaison department. Until then, some con artists will be having a field day.

New Ways to Identify Moissanite

The good news on the moissanite front is that gemologists keep discovering new – and easier – ways to detect it. Ohio diamond dealer R.B. Grammp recommends checking a stone’s girdle. Most moissanite stones have polished girdles, while many diamonds have faceted or rough girdles. And Jeff Hunter, CEO of moissanite manufacturer C3 Inc., notes that most moissanite stones have shallow crowns. Of course, a stone with a shallow crown and polished girdle isn’t necessarily moissanite – it just warrants a closer look.

Scottish gemologist Alan Hodgkinson recommends putting the table facet to your eye and looking through the stone at a single light source, such as a candle, a pen light, or fiber optic lighting. “With a diamond you will see all these tiny specks of color,” he says. “With a moissanite, it’s a blizzard of colored snowflakes. It’s night and day.” He also recommends spilling diamonds onto a medium-set hot plate. “If there are three moissanites in a thousand diamonds, they will go bright yellow,” he says. “A diamond won’t.” More information and other tests can be found on Hodgkinson’s Web site, www.scotgem.demon.co.uk.

The Gemological Institute of America’s standard recommendation is to use a 10x loupe to look for a doubling of the facet junctions through the pavilion or crown facets. “If you look directly down through the table, you might not see it,” says GIA’s director of research, James E. Shigley. “But if you tilt it slightly, it’s pretty prominent.” Also look for whitish-appearing needle-like inclusions parallel to each other – though these can be hard to see – and a greenish, grayish, or light-yellowish appearance. (C3 is putting a lower priority on efforts to make the product “more colorless.”) Another clue is that moissanite doesn’t fluoresce in ultraviolet light.

One warning: The reason moissanite is a formidable fake is that it fools the standard methods of detecting cubic zirconia. You can’t read through it, it won’t fog when you breathe on it, and it fools a thermal tester, the standard CZ-spotting device.

There’s a rash of moissanite detectors on the market, including one from moissanite’s manufacturer, C3 (see “Building a Cheaper Moiss-Trap,” August 1998, p. 124). The company recently lowered the device’s much-balked-at $525 price tag to $490, citing “production efficiencies.” C3 sold 500 units last year.