War of words between Thailand and AGTA goes public

For the past few months, producers of bulk diffusion-treated sapphires from Thailand have bandied about charges that U.S. labs are deliberately trying to end the flow of these controversial gems. These rumors were mostly spread by word-of-mouth and on the Internet. Now the charges have entered the public realm.

A Nov. 15 article in the Bangkok Post reports that a group of gem producers held a rally at Thailand’s Parliament claiming that gem producers are under attack by the United States, specifically naming the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA).

Kittipong Sasawatniti, described as a spokesman for the group, was quoted as saying, “The AGTA wrote to the group to demand US$500,000 to pay for its research on Thai orange sapphires. We rejected it and thus have been attacked.”

AGTA president Richard Greenwood says the statement is false: “It’s a complete misrepresentation.”

Greenwood says that the $500,000 in question was actually an AGTA fundraising effort to pay for research into these gems. A letter requesting funds for the research on bulk diffusion-treated sapphires was sent to all AGTA members this past spring, he said. In addition, AGTA vice president Jeffrey Bilgore met with members of the Thai Gem and Jewelry Trade Association, presenting them with the letter written in English and Thai along with an outline of three-step plan for assistance.

“It [the fundraising letter] was not directed at the Thai gem and jewelry community. It went to the entire AGTA membership. There has never been correspondence that strong-armed anybody,” Greenwood says. “We created a research fund. It would be helpful if the Thai Gem and Jewelry Trade Association helped with that effort.”

Greenwood adds, “They passively agreed to provide $150,000. Then began a series of outlandish e-mails back and forth, pressuring Thai Gem not to proceed.”

Bulk diffusion-treated sapphires are natural sapphires that have been repeatedly heat-treated to very high temperatures along with natural chrysoberyl. The chrysoberyl contains beryllium, which migrates during the heat treatment process into the sapphire, creating an orange-yellow color layer. This layer can be any thickness, ranging from just below the surface to all the way through the sapphire. The most common use of bulk diffusion is adding orange-yellow to a colorless sapphire, yielding a beautiful orange-yellow sapphire, or adding it to a pink sapphire to create a padparadscha-like color.

“We were the first ones to alert people at Tucson last year that [the origin of the color] was suspect,” says Douglas Hucker, AGTA executive director. “Since then, the treaters continue to claim that it’s a standard heating process and refuse to admit that it’s a diffusion process adding beryllium. There is no debate any longer.”

Hucker continues, “We’re asking for complete and accurate disclosure. That’s all. We will disclose it appropriately but in order for that to happen they need to have the material disclosed appropriately.”

The story in the Bangkok Post also notes that gem producers asked the Gems and Jewellery Institute of Thailand to certify its orange sapphires. The institute had delayed a response for five months and tended to back the AGTA, according to Kittipong.

In addition, the story notes that the orange sapphires previously had been certified by Prof. D. Gunther of the University of Basel, Switzerland, and says that on Thursday the Thai gem institute had issued a certificate for the sapphires. What the story doesn’t mention is that the sapphires were certed as “heat-treated” only—not “diffusion treated.”

Kittipong also claims in the story that the “accusation” and the delay in Thai certification caused about $115 million in damages to his group as well as the unemployment of tens of thousands of laborers involved in the production process.