Burma Ruby Is Focus of Heated Debate

If you thought last month’s article on ruby enhancements posed a complication that can be sidestepped through simple disclosure (“Truth or Consequences: The Case for Full Disclosure of Ruby Treatment,” JCK, May 1999, p. 190), there’s more to the problem. Heat treatment with glass filling is just the tip of the ruby-enhancement iceberg. Ruby fissure “healing” might sink the ship.

Fissure healing? In some rubies, the fissures are simply glass-“filled,” also called “in-filling.” But there are others whose fissures might actually be “healed,” that is, re-crystallized and repaired during the heat-treatment process. “As far as I know, it’s a combination of both,” says Roland Naftule, American Gem Trade Association rules committee chairman and owner of Nafco Gems in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It heals and re-crystallizes. This is a very, very tiny amount that heals the fissures, but there’s also a certain amount of glass remaining in the fissure.”

The term “heal” describes this enhancement in more saleable language, but it doesn’t always best describe the treatment. Cap Beesley, president of the American Gemological Laboratories in New York and a vocal proponent of enhancement disclosure, agrees with Naftule on the process. But he thinks the term “healing” is inadequate. Says Beesley, “Healing suggests that nothing else is present.”

In fact, the borax used to protect the stone from excessive heat also acts as a flux to reduce the heat needed to treat the ruby. It’s this borax/flux that gets caught up in the re-crystallized fissures. Dr. Nataraja Sarma, a nuclear physicist and expert in heat treatment in New Bombay, India, suggests that perhaps it should be termed “repaired.”

Terms of the debate. Whether we call them “healed” or “repaired,” should these types of fissures be disclosed as a separate enhancement issue? The debate on filling vs. healing stems from a lack of scientific information as to what’s really happening during the heat-treatment process. No one has yet cut open a healed ruby to find out what is really going on, says Beesley.

Terminology aside, the question is whether this enhanced ruby should be thought to contain simply a “foreign substance,” as the American Gem Trade Association Gemstone Information Manual suggests; or, if it really is healed, whether it should be identified as synthetic ruby within the natural gem.

Tom Chatham, a leading producer of laboratory-created gems in San Francisco, thinks the debate is defined by degree. Just how much healing has been done? The reality is that borax is a flux that, at high temperatures, can dissolve ruby and allow for the two dissolving inner sides of fissures to re-crystallize and “heal.” This is typical of a synthetic process, says Chatham. Therefore, “the ruby’s rarity is diminished significantly, to whatever degree.”

Judith Osmer, who specializes in growing synthetic (“Ramaura”) ruby and owns J.O. Crystals in Long Beach, Calif., agrees. “If this is truly what’s happening, then yes, this is not a natural process,” she says. “This is happening in a laboratory, not in nature.”

Disclosure. AGTA’s Gemstone Information Manual committee discussed this enhancement dilemma at its most recent meeting, to which industry representatives were invited. AGTA does not feel there should be any distinction between the two enhancements. Its manual already contains a section on heating, which includes the statement, “Residue of foreign substances in open fissures is not visible.” Executive director Douglas Hucker says the manual addresses the issue. “We just didn’t make two separate categories,” he says.

Naftule explains that when it comes to the actual filled substance in ruby fissures, “The manual uses the words ‘foreign substance’ to refer to synthetic, or glass, or anything. Technology changes so quickly that we have to be generic in order to disclose it properly.” Says Hucker, “We’ve now changed the wording from ‘in-filling’ to ‘filling,’ basically making it more user-friendly and consolidating a few categories.” This user-friendly approach also prompted a change in the title of the manual itself, which used to be called the Gemstone Enhancement Manual (emphasis added). In its defense, AGTA is the only organization that requires its members to disclose all enhancements and has created a fairly comprehensive manual for its members to follow.

But by not disclosing “healing” as a separate category, implying that it’s only a slight technicality of the heat treatment process, is the gem and jewelry industry giving the appearance of hiding something from the consumer? Many dealers say no, insisting that the amount of synthetic material produced (if it truly is synthetic) is insignificant. “I don’t know if it’s necessary to get any more detailed,” Naftule reiterates. “You can be too picky, so it’s never good enough. We are not trying to hide anything here. There has been re-crystallization. In any case, it’s minute.”

In spite of this, selling a ruby that’s been synthetically repaired becomes “a matter of truthful disclosure, not artful deceptions,” says Chatham. “Whether necessary or not, it should be disclosed. If it were a matter of volume, the subject wouldn’t have come up.”

Filled with colored glass? Sarma reportedly has examined hundreds of kilos of heat-treated Burmese rubies. He suggests that heat treaters are now using colored glass to fill fractures. “Melted borax forms a glassy goo that wets ruby and fills the cracks, but it is colorless and crystallizes under the right conditions. Usually, [Mong Hsu] rubies are filled with borax that melts into cracks at high temperature and when cooled can be detected as a powdery layer at the edge of the crack. But mix [the borax] with silica, sodium carbonate, and chromium, cook it at 1,350 [degrees], and it forms red glass. [This filling] is not easily detected, except by X-ray or X-ray fluorescence.”

Iceberg, dead ahead!

Reflections on ‘Luminaires’

Award-winning gem carver Michael Dyber of Ledge Studio in Rumney, N.H., is drilling into a new area of design with polished tubular passageways called Luminaires. Known mostly for his “Dyber Optic Dishes,” concave bowls polished in flat facets, the innovative designer now combines them with these thin, straight tubes. Resembling polished bars of light, the tubes travel from one optic dish to another, traversing the stone in various directions. The reflective patterns created by the combination of dishes and Luminaires make for multiple geometric internal displays.

Dyber continually moves forward with his carving expertise. His background is jewelry design and sculpting; gem carving remains his passion. But being at the leading edge of his craft, Dyber spends as much time developing new designs as he does at the carving bench, if not more. He often builds the tools used to create his gem art. Creating new designs is an ongoing source of excitement, as even the artist never knows exactly how the reflected carvings will appear. You can see more of Dyber’s work at

The term “healing” is more saleable, but it’s not the best description of the treatment.

North Carolina Emeralds: A Follow-Up Report

In April, we reported on James “Jamie” Hill’s exciting discovery of gem-quality emeralds on farmland in Hiddenite, N.C. The find capped a 10-year search by the 35-year-old prospector, who said, “I knew I’d hit it some day.”

Problem is, he doesn’t know what to do next. “I’ve just been too busy with the media,” said a bewildered Hill during a reporter’s recent visit, as he looked into the enormous hole he dug to find his first pocket of gems. About 3,000 carats of gem-quality emerald crystals have been recovered and now sit in the glass-covered boxes he uses to show off his discovery.

A 21/2-hour drive west of Raleigh-Durham in the rolling foothills of the Brushy Mountains, Hiddenite (population 400) is not much more than a blinking light in the road. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in gemstones. The residents of Hiddenite have been finding gems there for more than a century. The area is known historically for gem crystals, mostly quartz, but also for emerald, aquamarine, apatite, calcite, rutile, and, of course, hiddenite. The rare chrome green spodumene is named after the mineralogist who helped record its discovery, William Hidden.

In 1879, Hidden and a young George Kunz were sent to the area by Thomas Edison to search out platinum for use as needles for Edison’s new invention, the phonograph. A local farmer named P.L. Warren gave a few emeralds and some other, more unusual green crystals to Hidden, who in turn sent the unidentified crystals to Dr. Lawrence Smith in Cincinnati. Smith classified them as green spodumene and labeled them hiddenite. Since then, prospecting in the area has yielded thousands of carats of gems and mineral specimens.

The 1-acre strategy. Hill’s mine is located on about 100 acres of land bordering the north side of the South Yadkin River and Falls. The family purchased the property three years ago at auction at Jamie Hill’s insistence. He felt certain that this was where the emeralds would be found.

This wasn’t just a hunch. Hill and everyone else in the area knew that this land, the site of the old Rist mine, produced emeralds. In the 1970s it was a state park where you could dig for $3 a day and keep what you found. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see the potholes of miners from the past 100 years who had found emeralds and moved on.

Once the purchase was completed, Hill mapped out his prospecting strategy. To begin his search, Hill marked off a 1-acre plot near the northwest corner of the property. He planned to go deeper than anyone had gone before and begin by scraping off the top layers of dirt of the entire acre. But with limited cash, Hill first had to persuade a friend to purchase a 93,000-lb. track-hoe. “I wanted to first remove the top 10 ft. off this first acre, just to see where we were going to go,” Hill remembers, looking out across the hole. “But I didn’t get that far.” In only the first 100 ft., Hill hit pay dirt.

The hole that constitutes the emerald “mine” is 30 ft. wide and 12 ft. deep. Hill had been following a rolling hard rock at about a 12-ft. depth that eventually uncovered a vein of mica and quartz. “I followed the vein,” he says. “I knew it was there.” The vein dipped into the hard rock. Hill followed. Breaking just 1 ft. through the rock, Hill uncovered the pocket, about 2 ft. wide by 4 ft. long. It was filled with mud, mica—and emeralds.

This one pocket has yielded some 3,000 carats of material, some small, but mostly large crystals, averaging perhaps 15 cts. apiece. The larger crystals are impressive, weighing roughly 70 to 80 cts., with transparent cuttable areas having expected yields of 20% to 30%.

The quality of the gems is reminiscent of good-quality, moderately included Brazilian clarity and medium to medium-dark slightly bluish-green Chivor or Gachala Colombian color. There were numerous color-zoned crystals, some showing perpendicular stripes, with two appearing colorless in the center with a green rind.

Hill hired Manuel Marcial de Gomar, owner of Emeralds International in Key West, Fla., to cut his emeralds. Hill had met de Gomar when visiting the Keys to see the emeralds from the Spanish shipwreck Atocha. De Gomar has faceted two gems, the 3.40-ct. Heart of Carolina and the 3.37-ct. Princess of Carolina. He has also polished a small cabochon. So far, these are the only cut gems.

Are there more emeralds to be found? We’ll know only after Hill resumes digging. “I hope to get started again soon, but I don’t know where to begin,” he says, a bit overwhelmed. Hill has spent not only a lifetime but also a lifetime’s worth of savings trying to find these emeralds. “I’m faced with moving a mountain by myself,” he says. That “mountain” is not just the emerald mine. It’s also finances. Heavily in debt, Hill has been supported in his quest by family and friends. First they have to do a little business. Then it’s back to more mining—and some of this country’s most beautiful gems.

North American Beauties: Tourmaline

Our “North American Beauties” series highlights the native gemstones of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. This month we look at tourmaline from Maine, California, and a recently discovered site in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Two of the most important North American colored gem mines are situated at opposite corners of the lower 48 states. The tourmaline mines of Maine and Southern California have yet to rival those of Brazil in quantity. But they’ve given up some of the finest-quality tourmalines in the world. A new mine in a remote stretch of northwest Canada may hold potential as well.

Maine. Mount Mica, opened in 1822 in the hillsides of Oxford County near the town of South Paris, Maine, is the oldest operating gem mine in the United States. Tourmaline, Maine’s state gem, occurs in medium dark saturated green, blue-green, and blue, along with some pink and watermelon colors. Mount Mica produces mainly greens and blue-greens, with only an occasional pink. But there are literally hundreds of smaller outcrops elsewhere in Maine that produce more pink and bi-colors.

Mining at Mount Mica takes place on less than 15 acres of a potential 135-acre range. The open-pit mine is operated by a small crew of the Plumbago Mining Corp. Phil McCrillis, general manager of Plumbago Mining, is a fourth-generation miner of Mount Mica tourmaline. In 1972, his father, Dean, discovered the Plumbago Mountain deposit in Newry, possibly the most productive tourmaline site in the state. The Newry mines, especially back in the ’70s, produced fine pinks and mint greens. The finest watermelon tourmalines were also found on Plumbago Mountain. Significant tourmalines from Newry include flawless green gems as large as 50 cts. and reds as large as 100 cts.

However, the cold Maine climate limits the number of days available for mining. In April, McCrillis reported that “Everything is frozen right now, so nothing is happening. Not until after ‘the mud season,’ the beginning of June, will we attempt to mine. Weather permitting, we will have about 120 days of mining. An average mine run will produce about 10-20% cuttable material. There are occasions when you will not find anything all summer. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Tourmaline pockets occur and disappear.” Important gems from Mount Mica include the flawless, blue-green 256-ct. emerald cut pictured below.

As for enhancements, it’s possible to heat-treat the pinks to reduce or eliminate any brownish tints. But there’s almost no need for it, according to McCrillis. He and his team do find some “cranberry and raspberry color pinks” with only slight traces of brown. While some of the darker greens and blues can be heated to make them lighter in color, that rarely occurs. None have been irradiated.

The Berry Mine near the town of Poland is an old mine that has just recently been reopened. Operated by Stephen Welch, it produces bluish-greens and blues.

For all of the mines in the area, Maine tourmaline is still hard to come by. Just ask retail jeweler Matt Eggleston of Fairbanks, Frost & Lowe in Freeport, Maine. Even though he’s located near the mines, trying to match earrings and a pendant may take a year or more. “If you see one you like, don’t pass it up,” says Eggleston. “Buy it now. You may never see another one like it.”

John Bradshaw of Coast to Coast Rare Stones, in Nashua, N.H., a partner with McCrillis, notes that there’s not enough tourmaline to supply the mass market. That makes it an excellent purchase for the independent jeweler who wants a unique gem made in America.

California. Southern California tourmalines were discovered in the late 1800s. Most of the mines there are now inactive. Of those still operating, the two most important are the Stewart Lithia Mine on the Pala Indian reservation and the Himalaya Mine, south of Pala at Mesa Grande.

The Stewart Lithia Mine is especially famous for its bright pink crystals. The Queen Mine, also at Pala, has produced large amounts of pink carving-grade tourmaline for more than a century. According to Gabriel Mattice of Pala International in Fallbrook, Calif., in 1972 the Queen produced the now-famous “blue caps,” mineral specimens of a saturated dark reddish-pink topped by a layer of dark intense blue. The Pala Chief and other smaller mines have produced small amounts of pink and other colors, plus numerous gem beryls and gem spodumene (including the very first kunzite).

The Himalaya Mine is famous for dark purplish red tones, flawless bi-colors of pink and green, and intact crystal specimens. In its heyday during the first decade of this century, the facet-grade material was cut and polished in the United States. Like the yield from the Queen mine, the carving grade material from the Himalaya Mine ended up in China. The Chinese Dowager Empress was fond of carved tourmaline. What we see today in older Chinese pink tourmaline carvings are stones from the Queen and Himalaya mines circa 1902 to 1910.

The Mesa Grande pegmatites have produced well over 100 tons of gems this century. In fact, the Himalaya Mine was considered the most important source of tourmaline in the world until the 1960s, when Brazil uncovered tourmalines in Minas Gerais. Since then, the Himalaya has been mined sporadically, with occasional success.

Now, Richard Schull of Out of Our Mines in Santa Rosa, Calif., has joined with Chris Rose of High Desert Gems of Reno, Nev., and Dean Web of Pan Geo Minerals in Sebastopol, Calif., to lease two claims and buy one of the three Himalaya claims from Pala International. The team is currently finding small pockets of bi-color and green material with little trouble. Schull says that while they have had only limited access so far, they have already hit some productive pockets and are finding good gem crystals, even on the floor of some tunnels.

“We’ve pulled out 150 to 200 lbs. of tourmaline just in the past two months,” says Schull. Two kilos, roughly 10,000 cts., were gem grade, with raspberry and hot pinks, along with some green tourmaline and a few other minerals, including morganite. There were some unusual gems as well, including rock crystal quartz filled with blue tourmaline needles.

Schull will concentrate on faceting the gem material while Rose focuses on rough and mineral specimens. Web manufactures beads. Calibrated goods for accent material will soon be available for jewelry designers.

Northwest Territories, Canada. Since the 1994 discovery of gem-quality tourmaline near O’Grady Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada, limited exploration has outlined an area that has potential for hosting a large deposit of gem-quality tourmaline. The mining area is in the Canadian Rockies, as far north as Alaska and close to the Yukon, about 730 kilometers west of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories.

“A friend of mine found it,” says Brad Wilson, a geologist, gemologist, gem cutter, and climbing consultant in Kingston, Ontario. “Researchers for the Canadian Natural History Museum were investigating pegmatites in the area. Mark Mother, a grad student, was the one who actually recognized the tourmaline in 1995. I staked claims in ’96.” Wilson’s “Stargazer” claim is remote, 50 miles from the nearest road and inaccessible by car. So far, he hasn’t spent much time there mining.

Most of the material is pink and pinkish-red of cabochon grade. The material that Wilson has literally carried out so far was collected off the surface or dug from small holes. Average-sized cut gems weigh 1.5 cts. “More will exist if we can break into fresh pockets,” Wilson predicts. “The potential is there. I’ve seen evidence of pockets several meters across. The largest crystals found have ranged from 4 x 6 cm to 5 x 10 cm.”

Wilson sees reason for enthusiasm. “It’s huge!” he says. “Eighty meters in thickness by a kilometer long with pockets all throughout. If I could only drive to it…”

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