Avoiding Gemological Crises

lfrederick@cahners.com

If you’re going to introduce something as easily misused as an undetectable diamond treatment, you should do so in a carefully thought-out manner that will cause the least disruption to the jewelry industry. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in the case of General Electric’s secret new decolorizing treatment for brown and yellow diamonds. In fact, the introduction of the treatment quickly spiraled into a controversy that Gemological Institute of America president William Boyajian called “the greatest gemological crisis in my 23 years at GIA” (see “Mystery Diamond Treatment Dominates GIA Symposium,” p. 92).

There’s nothing wrong with transmuting ugly diamonds into beautiful ones and profiting from the alchemy. But this treatment, unlike most, can’t be detected with even sophisticated lab equipment, and that changes the nature of it from welcome to worrisome. Worrisome because the treated stones can so easily be passed off to retailers—and thence to consumers—as untreated. Imagine what the TV magazines would do if they ever traced such a purchase. The entire industry’s image would suffer yet another damaging blow.

The first misstep in this saga occurred even before the treatment was announced last spring by Lazare Kaplan International, the only dealer that’s marketing the diamonds (through a subsidiary in Antwerp called Pegasus Overseas Limited, or POL). LKI sent the stones to GIA’s Gem Trade Lab and other labs without alerting any of them they were color-treated. The labs innocently graded and returned the stones, believing all the time they were ordinary.

This may have served to confirm GE’s boast that the treatment is undetectable, but it was disappointing behavior from a venerable firm like LKI, which has had a long and close relationship with GIA. There was no need to be less than forthcoming, especially with GIA, which stands as the scientific guardian of the industry.

Moreover, GIA was kept too much in the dark after LKI made the treatment public. GIA pressed for information but was given very little. LKI said it couldn’t reveal any details because it had signed a confidentiality agreement with GE, which fears losing the treatment to a competitor. But what prevented LKI from sending GIA stones before and after treatment, so the Gem Trade Lab could learn more on its own about the mysterious process? Why not tell how to distinguish treated stones from untreated ones? As Boyajian said, “True, the specific process is GE’s business. But the ability to identify the process and ultimately to identify diamonds treated with it is the diamond industry’s business. If diamonds are treated in any way, then the trade has a right to know—and ultimately so does the consumer.”

LKI belatedly considered the issue of potential abuse by agreeing—at GIA’s insistence—to inscribe “GE-POL” on the girdle of all treated stones, but this is a pretty weak safeguard given the ease with which any inscription can be polished off. In fact, de-inscribed stones have already turned up at GIA and quite possibly are circulating in the open market as you read this. How many more will be purged of their identification five or 10 years from now? This disturbing prospect leaves jewelers with the unpalatable choice of warning customers that the natural diamond they’re buying might in fact be treated.

How can this kind of traumatizing scenario be avoided when other new treatments, substitutes, or synthetics are discovered in the future? The example of synthetic moissanite offers a laudable example. Before the manufacturers put that product on the market, they went to GIA, showed its gemologists the stones and how they were made, and helped the institute find a detection technique. Not a single carat of moissanite was sold to the public until testing equipment was available to any jeweler who wanted it.

In health care, this kind of approach is called preventive, and there are even doctors of preventive medicine. In the jewelry industry, we need a protocol of prevention so that jewelers—and Bill Boyajian, too—can get through the next 23 years without being summoned to the jewelry ER.