How Should Labs Treat Treatments?

It is telling that the first meeting of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses Consumer Confidence committee did not address synthetics—the subject of much recent media attention—but rather the arguably touchier topic of high-pressure/high-temperature (HPHT) treatments.

Among the less-than-comforting facts acknowledged by the leading gem labs in the meeting at the DDC board room:

  • In some stones, the treatment was detected in one pass through the Gemological Institute of America and missed in another.

  • In some stones the treatment is so difficult to detect, the labs now write “origin of color undetermined” on the report.

  • The number of treatable stones is growing, including more lower-clarity diamonds. For years, it was difficult to treat highly included stones because they broke under pressure.

  • The labs have seen evidence of “double treatments,” in which treaters use laser drilling or other methods to obscure signs of HPHT.

Despite all this, the labs stressed that the “vast majority” of treated stones are detectable—but they couldn’t estimate how many are un detectable, for the simple reason that they can’t detect them. But since treatable stones make up 1% to 2% of world diamond production, the hard-to-detect ones will likely always be a small minority of a small minority.

“In very rare cases, there are these anomalies,” noted Tom Moses, vice president of GIA’s Gem Trade Lab. He said GIA was “pouring millions” into HPHT research and has a database of some 15,000 stones, although it’s not always possible to keep up with the changes in science. “As with every other area, such as computer viruses or computer hacking, the minute someone develops a patch for something, people find a way around it,” he noted. So there may always be stones that fool the experts. “I do not foresee 100% identification,” he said.

A call to uniform. Those attending the meeting, which was called and chaired by DDC president Jacob Banda, decided to develop a uniform standard for how labs deal with HPHT. “We want the labs to talk to each other and maintain minimum standards that we all are comfortable with,” said Jeff Fischer of the Diamond Manufacturers and Importers Association. Martin Hochbaum of the Diamond Dealers Club added, “Each lab has a different way of describing the HPHT process. How can the consumer understand what it is if the labs can’t agree on what it is?”

After the day of discussions with representatives from labs—including AGS, Antwerp’s HRD, EGL USA, GIA Gem Trade Lab, and International Gemmological Institute—the committee requested that any lab grading an HPHT stone note next to its color grade that its color was “modified,” “altered,” or “changed” by HPHT. The group wanted a neutral word like “altered” instead of “improved,” which they felt endorsed the progress. “Improvement is a marketing term,” said DMIA president Leon Cohen.

They also wanted the labs to clearly describe HPHT on the report and to laser inscribe every treated stone with the letters “HP/HT.”

“If a lab gives an HPHT diamond a certificate, but it doesn’t have an inscription, that is not okay,” said Meir Wertheim of the Israel Diamond Exchange.

While the lab representatives promised to bring these changes to their respective boards (an initial press release said the labs “agreed in principle” to the changes, but those words were later struck), it’s not clear whether all of these independent and sometimes competitive organizations would agree to the changes—particularly the biggest name, GIA.

GIA referred JCK to its current HPHT policy, which provides for laser inscriptions of HPHT stones. Peter Yantzer of the AGS Lab said the WFDB’s language “is being submitted to our board. I thought it was an excellent meeting, and we want to help face this challenge.” Mark Gershburg of EGL USA said his lab is “likely to adopt the language. We are already using something similar.” And Jerry Ehrenwald of IGI noted that the recommendations were gleaned from the language his lab is currently using.

Legitimizing HPHT. Before the committee agreed on the new language, some wanted more drastic action, arguing that the labs shouldn’t grade HPHT diamonds at all. “When you give these stones a certificate, you legitimize them,” said David Marcus of the Diamond Club West Coast.

But Moses said, “It’s not a question of legitimizing the product. It’s a question of providing clear identification.” He noted that when Lazare Kaplan and General Electric first announced they were treating stones, “They were ready to just distribute them to the trade. We were really at a crisis point. If those stones were in the marketplace, where would we be today? … In the past four or five years, we have seen more treatments for diamonds than in the past 50. If we don’t examine these diamonds, how can we detect them? The more diamonds we see, the better off we all are.”

Still, even if the lab question is settled, the trade’s treatment headaches are far from over. De Beers’ Rory More O’Ferrall, on one of his increasingly frequent trips to the United States, called for a “pan-industry initiative” to tackle the problem. “The issue of consumer confidence makes this just as important to our business as conflict diamonds,” he said. Added Fischer, “We don’t like this technology, we don’t want this technology, we want it to go away. But now that it’s here, we have to deal with it.”