GemNotes

JEWELRY’S CARIBBEAN CRUSADER LOVES TO PLAY THE GOOD COP ROLE

Robert James got mad and decided he wasn’t going to take it any more.

He got mad at jewelers who sold gray market goods.

He got mad at phony pricing.

And he got mad at jewelers who didn’t know the difference between a tourmaline and a topaz.

So he opened his own business, named it the Caribbean Gemological Institute and, while still on the good side of his 40th birthday, set out to clean up the jewelry business. His basic turf: the industry in the region surrounding the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamian Islands and the Straits of Florida.

Today, four years later, he can point to some solid achievements. His Guide to Caribbean Jewelry and Gemstones has become a valuable and widely circulated shopping service for consumers, principally the many thousands of tourists who flock into the area each year. His gem institute has “certified” jewelry stores in 20 markets throughout his region; each member business promises to abide by tough ethical standards in representing and pricing its merchandise. His monthly consumer newsletter, Jewels of the Caribbean, pulls no punches in identifying shady business practices and people and stores whose competence and ethics James questions. Its folksy – and often blunt – letters-to-the-editor column turns on a lot of readers (and riles some others). And James has built enough of a reputation with the big cruise lines that he can sway their choice of which jewelers to promote and which to bypass in their publicity to passengers.

In other areas success is more mixed. In spite of his best efforts, James still is a relatively small fish in a big sea. Partly this is his own choice; he wants to be independent and limited funds make it hard to break into a bigger role. Partly it’s because he lacks support for his efforts. Many jewelers like cutting corners and have no plans to stop. Also, in most of the island communities, government support is critical if good-business laws are to be enforced – and such support, with a few notable exceptions, is missing.

James also has a weakness as well as strength in an area that is one of his most important, both professionally and financially: the issuing of certificates. Last year the CGI issued more than 7,000 Insurance Replacement Certificates for merchandise sold by member stores. The strength of the document is in its identification of the merchandise; its potential weakness is the dollar replacement value.

“The price is something I’m not really happy about but the stores want it,” says James. CGI appraisers – James himself and two staff gemologists – reach a price by establishing a reasonable cost figure for an item and then keystoning it. The cost figure is set largely by working with manufacturers’ invoices when the CGI staffer is familiar with the company and by working with The Guide from Gemworld International.

James defends the blanket keystone markup by saying it’s really only a fair guide to price. “There’s always going to be a difference on price” from one retailer to the next, he says, noting that on a $1,000 cost item, one jeweler may charge $1,400 and another $2,300. He argues it’s up to the consumer to shop for the best price.

Misrepresentation of price is another matter. Any member store using phony price-off deals is likely to be kicked out and lose its CGI Certified Jeweler standing. It’s the same with any misrepresentation of quality. All gemstones must have correct ID and weight; all metals must be correctly stamped. “When one of my gemologists puts a grade on a stone, he must be prepared to go to court to defend it if necessary,” says James.

He means what he says. When one major retailer threatened him over a disputed grading a couple of years ago, James sank a big chunk of his capital in preparing for a court case. But when the retailer discovered CGI was prepared to go all the way, says James, it settled the matter out of court.

Porter to president: Robert James started at the bottom in the jewelry business, as a porter in the Zale store in Denton, Tex. He moved up quickly, in both jewelry and gemology, collecting along the way a Graduate Gemologist diploma from GIA and a Certified Gemologist AGS title when working at a member store in Florida. He plans to sit for his Fellow of the [British] Gemmological Association title this summer; he’s already a member of the association.

An interview with Amsterdam Sauer in New York City gave him his first real taste for the beauty of colored gemstones and his introduction to Caribbean jewelry retailing at an Amsterdam Sauer store in St. Thomas. It was while working in St. Martin a few years later, for Colombian Emeralds International, that he got the urge that would lead to the creation of the Caribbean Gemological Institute. “I was frustrated,” he recalls. “So many jewelers we competed with were using phony prices. And there were so many gray market watches. It was killing the authorized dealers.”

The frustration led to his publication of his first Guide to Caribbean Jewelry and Gemstones in 1992. It was well received by cruise lines and travel agents doing business in the region and soon got a big boost when Visa became a sponsor. According to James, Visa’s highest merchandise return rate is on jewelry purchased in the Caribbean, so it was eager to lessen this problem through consumer education. AT&T later joined as a second sponsor. Both Visa and AT&T take two pages in the booklet to spell out their services.

The Guide, in addition to some down-to-earth product information and advice on how to avoid phony deals, lists all CGI member jewelers.

The 10 worst: James seems to get his biggest kicks when playing the role of ethics watchdog. He does his homework. If he thinks an item isn’t what it’s promoted to be, quite often he’ll buy it on a mystery shopping trip. If a store offers a “best comparable value” claim, he’ll shop the competition to see what it really is selling and at what quality and price. Once he’s sure of his facts, he revs up his computer and issues a “consumer alert” giving all the details of his work, including offending store names. The practice has made him very unpopular with some jewelers, but he says he doesn’t care. “Integrity,” he says, “is never for sale.”

One high-priority gripe concerns “mainland” U.S. jewelers who, says James, tell regular customers who bought jewelry during an island vacation that they got taken. Either the item they bought isn’t what it was represented to be or the price they paid is much too high. James concedes there are cheats at work in the Caribbean, but says there also are many in the U.S. who knock a vacation purchase just to make a sale for themselves. Last year, for example, he got so angry that he published a list of “The Top 10 worst U.S. jewelry appraisals of island merchandise.” One very well-known U.S. jeweler was furious and embarrassed that his store name appeared on the list – until he found out that his store had indeed blown the appraisal.

This in-your-face type of reporting can bring a few wrong-doers to heel. But James is moving into a mellower mood; he now believes he can do more good stressing the positive rather than the negative. Thus in recent letters he stresses the virtues embraced by the FTC Guides for the Jewelry Industry and proposes solutions to the “problem” of U.S. appraisals of goods bought in the islands. He’s also just launched a new newsletter called Jewelry Consumer.

James wants to sell bulk lots of the new letter to smaller jewelers – in the islands and in the U.S. – who can’t afford their own newsletters or enough advertising to alert their present and potential customers about shady jewelry dealings. He wants these jewelers to use the letter as their own mailer to customers. The first edition, published in March, had stories on “the truth about discount jewelers – are their prices really 60% off?” and the damage an authorized dealer suffers when a competitor sells unauthorized gray market goods.

A GEM ID QUIZ KIT FOR WINDOWS

You can test your gem identification skills with a new computer software package from Adamas Gemological Laboratory, Brookline, Mass.

Called the Adamas Advantage Gem Identification Quiz Kit for Windows, the software is designed to help everyone from students studying for their GG or FGA diplomas to long-time gemologists or appraisers who want to keep up with the science. The software features a seemingly infinite, random series of true-false and multiple-choice questions based on a database already established for the Adamas Advantage Gem Identification Kit for Windows (see JCK, October 1994, pp. 134-135).

Martin Haske of Adamas says Quiz Kit covers more than 520 gemstone varieties and poses questions on topics such as color, transparency, long- and shortwave fluorescence, specific gravity, cutting styles, fracture, luster, phenomena and refractive index. You select the subject matter, range of difficulty and other variables.

A sample quiz question:

“A refractometer, when used properly with a mono-chromatic light source, may yield a refractive index value for the monoclinic biaxial gemstone orthoclase, of:

a. 1.509 b. 1.527 c. 1.540 d. 1.519 e. b and d

Answer: e. According to our references, the biaxial gemstone orthoclase has an alpha range of between 1.518-1.529, a beta range of between 1.522-1.533 and a gamma range of between 1.522-1.539. Additional information on orthoclase may be found in: Color Encyclopedia of Gemstones, by Joel Arem, p. 93; Gems by Webster, 4th Ed., p. 188; Encyclopedia of Minerals, 2nd Ed., by Roberts, Campbell, Rapp, p. 629.”

How did you do?

Haske says that of those taking the test at an “expert level” during the Tucson gem and minerals shows, only Dr. Frederick H. Pough, a consulting mineralogist and gemologist based in Reno, Nev., scored 10 out of 10. Other FGAs taking the test averaged six out of 10.

The software costs $69.95 plus shipping and handling and is available from the GIA Bookstore, (310) 829-2991, and Adamas Gemological Laboratory, (617) 935-5430.

LASER PROCESS USED TO ENGRAVE GEMS

Peering forth from two side-by-side cubic zirconias are the images of George Washington and Bill Clinton, respectively. You blink and look again, but they are still there, beaming at you benignly from the flashing facets.

Engraving Technologies, based in Roseland, N.J., could just as easily portray your own face, your favorite pet, a zodiac sign or practically any other image your heart desires. The patent-pending process of transferring such images to the surface of gemstones (or precious metals, wood, leather, plastic, etc.) is called “decorative indicia.” It employs computer and laser technology to selectively vaporize minute surface areas of the material chosen. Engraving Technologies then uses its own confidential coloring process to increase the contrast of the image and the gemstone; for instance, a black background or gold leaf inlay might be used. Joel Rosenwasser, president of the company, says much of the choice in contrast is up to the consumer. Some customers prefer much subtler images.

The procedure is breathtakingly fast. Carving Washington’s face and Clinton’s image each took about 5 seconds. Images on more three-dimensional surfaces, such as the controlled florentine in the gold rings pictured here, take about 40 seconds. Imagine how long a regular engraver would need to complete a similar pattern!

Engraving Technologies also will inscribe serial numbers (or any similar concept) on the girdles of gemstones. The customer mostly determines the numbers, which can be very helpful to gem dealers, jewelers and consumers, says Rosenwasser. “A gem dealer can place his or her logo or number on a gemstone,” he says, “and this can help control and identify gems that are out on memo. Jewelers can feel comfortable knowing that if they take in returns these can be easily identified by any clerk.”

Rosenwasser says the TV home shopping industry is using this technology in its efforts to sell higher-ticket items; it helps ensure that customers do not return fakes or lesser-quality gems. The serial numbers help consumers, too, he says, because they will always be able to trace a gemstone. If they put a gem on layaway, for example, they can be sure they’re getting the same stone when they pick it up months later.

Getting a laser to respond accurately to the infinite physical and optical characteristics of different products and gemstones makes the process of transferring images very complex. If asked to engrave a gem variety which the company has never handled before, Rosenwasser requests a few samples for testing. (Laser refraction and reflection within a gemstone can easily and quickly damage it, but Rosenwasser says the firm has solved that problem).

Engraving Technologies occasionally accepts a small project with only a few gemstones, but orders typically involve a minimum 100-200 gemstones. Rosenwasser and his two partners, Todd Knichel and Jim Geswelli, are targeting volume silver, gold and gemstone manufacturers. The more a customer orders, the cheaper the price per unit will be, says Rosenwasser.

For information on prices and scheduling, contact Engraving Technologies Inc., 563 Eagle Rock Ave., Roseland, NJ 07068; (210) 364-0505.

GUIDE EXPANDS DIAMOND COVERAGE

The Guide, a diamond and colored stone pricing guide for the trade, has expanded its diamond section to a 51-page self-contained booklet that will be updated monthly. Included are separate wholesale pricing charts for rounds, pear shapes, marquises, ovals, emeralds, radiants, princess cuts, hearts, baguettes, trillions and more.

A one-year subscription to The Guide, with monthly diamond and quarterly colored stone pricing updates, is $180 in the U.S. and $250 overseas. Gemworld International Inc., 650 Dundee Rd., Suite 465, Northbrook, IL 60062; (847) 564-0555, fax (847) 564-0557.

THAI GOLDEN JUBILEE DIAMOND ON TOUR

The 545.67-ct. Golden Jubilee Diamond, the largest faceted diamond in the world, was scheduled to make its American debut at Borsheim’s in Omaha in early May (see JCK May 1996, p. 16). After that two-week exhibit closed, it was to visit Gleim the Jeweler in Palo Alto, Cal.

From the time of its discovery in South Africa’s Premier mine in 1986, this spectacular golden-brown stone has been the focus of much attention in the diamond world. The decision by a group of Thai businesses to purchase the stone and donate it to their king to celebrate his 50 years on the throne guarantees that it will remain in the spotlight. On completion of a world tour, it will be placed in a specially designed scepter and presented to King Bhumibol Adulyadej “as a constant reminder of the high regard the people of Thailand have for their Monarch and the Royal Family,” in the words of a publication prepared for the Golden Jubilee Diamond Exhibition in Bangkok last year.

The diamond weighed 755.5 cts. in its original state. De Beers, which owns the Premier mine and thus became owner of the stone, turned to Gabi Tolkowsky, the renowned Antwerp cutter, to oversee transformation of the rough into a polished diamond. He, in turn, recruited Dawie du Plessis to do the actual cutting. De Plessis, a master cutter, already had cut the Premier Rose, a 137.02-ct. pear-shaped colorless stone also found in the Premier mine.

Work began on the diamond in May 1988 and took two years

to complete. In the course of the work, Tolkowsky and his team turned to new technologies which another Tolkowsky team later used to cut the 273.85-ct. flawless Centenary diamond.

The Golden Jubilee, still unnamed at the time, had a large surface with deep cracks and many inclusions. De Plessis, who cut the diamond in what Tolkowsky calls a “modern fire-rose cushion shape,” still managed to preserve 72% of the original weight. The finished diamond is 15 cts. larger than the Cullinan I, has 55 perfectly symmetrical facets on the top, 69 below and 14 on the girdle.

The diamond lay in De Beers’ vaults until last year when it was unveiled to the public at an exhibit sponsored by the Thai Board of Investment in Bangkok. A De Beers official who attended the exhibit recalls with dismay the security worries created by the diamond’s display in a fairly flimsy building next to a major highway. But armed guards deterred any would-be thieves of the diamond, valued variously at between $4 million and $12 million.

After the exhibit closed, a group of Thai businessmen, headed by Henry Ho, a top executive of Bangkok’s Ho jewelry group and of that city’s new Jewelry Trade Center, agreed to buy the stone and present it to the king. In honor of the occasion, they chose the name Golden Jubilee. Over the past winter, the diamond has been displayed in a special showcase in the Jewelry Trade Center.