Jewelers’ Gem Labs Boosting Prestige & Priofits

A customer walks into your store and hands you a ballerina style ring with a large green center stone. “Is this a real emerald?” she asks.

You could wing it, take an “experienced” stab at the stone’s identity and answer “yes.” Or you could be more cautious and turn to your trusty laboratory equipment for an identification. That is, of course, if you have the equipment and know how to use it. The first route would put you in the company of a lot of jewelers. From a legal standpoint, however, you’d be better taking the second route.

If you don’t have the equipment, figure out how much it would cost (the chart on page 59 should help). If you have the equipment but don’t know how to use it, figure out how much a basic gemological education or hiring a gemologist would cost. Then ask yourself if the investment would pay for itself over time and possibly increase business.

Jewelers who have an in-store lab say the investment is well worth it. “It certainly does enhance the prestige of our business,” says William Effler of William Effler Jewelers, Cincinnati, Ohio. “Right away people think ‘Now here’s a knowledgeable firm.’ Financially, the lab has paid for itself through appraisal fees.”

Adds Rod Miyata of Ace of Diamonds, Los Angeles, Cal., “We use our microscope to inspect items that come in from manufacturers and those that come in for repairs; we’ve caught a few problems that way. But we also use the microscope as a selling tool.”

Once you decide to invest in tools, don’t scrimp. Nothing will frustrate you more than poor optics in a microscope, an uncalibrated scale or Leveridge gauge or a woefully scratched hemicylinder in a refractometer. “A gemologist is as good as the tools that are used,” says Miyata.

Here’s a list of tools found in labs, ranging from basic to sophisticated, with a description of what each piece does and the approximate cost.

GEMOLOGICAL LAB EQUIPMENT

Chelsea filter. This is often called the “emerald filter” because it helps to separate emeralds from other green stones. An emerald viewed through the filter appears red; other green gems do not. The tool won’t distinguish synthetic emerald from natural. Price, $40-$50.

Diamond or CZ master stones. Kits contain three or more “master color” diamonds you can compare with your diamond for an approximate color grade. The more diamonds in a set, the more it costs. CZ master sets cost less, but there’s some debate about using CZ to approximate diamond color. Price, $5,000-$10,000 for diamond masters, $300-$1,000 for CZ masters. (Note: GIA Gem Instruments will verify the color calibration of diamond master stones, but does not sell them.)

Diamond thermal conductance tester. Diamonds are extremely thermally conductive, which helps to distinguish them from CZ and other gems. With this tool, the stone in question is tested on one end with a probe that emits heat and on the other with a heat sensor. A gauge reads “Diamond” or “Not Diamond” based on the amount of conductivity detected. The instrument will not separate synthetic diamonds from natural ones. Price, $130-$600.

Electronic scale. This measures the carat weight of gemstones or gram weight of precious metals. More sophisticated scales may use attachments to determine specific gravity in gems, a standard gemological procedure to help determine identity. Price, $120-$2,000, depending on make and degree of sophistication.

Gem cloth. A lintless, synthetic fiber cloth used to rid gems and jewelry of dust and other debris. Price, $3-$5.

Leveridge gauge. This tool has a large rounded dial and helps to determine dimensions of small gems. It’s often used to determine a gem’s table percentage or pavilion depth and may be used for mounted gems as well. Some newer Leveridge gauges have digital readouts. Price, $150-$500.

Lighting (fiber optic, ultraviolet). Fiber optic lighting is used to channel powerful concentrations of light into small hard-to-reach areas. It’s often used as an alternate to the light wells that are standard in gem microscopes. Ultraviolet light boxes (longwave and shortwave) are used to differentiate some types of gemstones which have a very diagnostic reaction to the light. Price, $300-$1,000.

Loupe. This important yet inexpensive instrument provides handheld magnification (usually 10X) to help you determine such things as inclusion types, refraction and the condition of a piece. Ask for loupes that are free of chromatic and spherical aberration. Price, $25-$200.

Metals testing kit. These kits contain acidic chemicals and a scratching pad that are used to help determine the gold content of an item. Price, $200-$400.

Microscope. A microscope is a must-have item for any serious jeweler, appraiser or gemologist. Binocular microscopes (which show an item in 3-D) are the tool used most often by professionals. They help to determine such factors as gem characteristics, their size and location, and the condition of an item. Price, $1,000-$6,000.

Polariscope. This tool beams light through two polarizing filters to determine quickly whether a gem is singly or doubly refractive, effectively separating a variety of gems. Price, $180-$500.

Reference library. This one’s up to you. You can make it as large and complete as you possibly can or limit it just to the books, articles and other reference material you are most comfortable using.

Refractometer. This and a microscope are the main arsenal of gem-testing equipment. It measures the refractive index of most gems that have refractive indices between 1.34 and 1.69. (The RIs of diamond and most diamond imitations are over the limits of the refractometer.) Price, $350-$500.

Specific gravity liquids. A kit contains two to four heavy liquids. The approximate specific gravity of a gem is determined by whether it floats or sinks (and if the latter, how fast it sinks) in a given liquid. Price, $100-$200, depending on the number of bottles purchased.

Spectroscope. Each gem species and variety has a unique spectroscopic pattern. This makes the spectroscope another important instrument for identifying gem material. Price, from under $100 for some handheld models to more than $2,000 for more sophisticated models.

Gem tweezers. Turn to these when you want a fuller view of an item or don’t want to get fingerprints on it. Price, $10-$25.

Ultrasonic cleaner. This cleaner uses high liquid vibration to loosen debris such as soap and dirt from certain types of jewelry. It’s not recommended for fragile gems such as opals, emeralds and turquoise (which can be cleaned with a soft toothbrush). Price, $100-$400.

New vs. used: “Buyer beware” applies to used gem equipment as much as any other preowned items. You can find good deals in classified ads in trade journals or newspapers, but it’s best if you are familiar with the equipment so you can judge working condition and overall performance. Recalibrating a delicate gemological instrument can be very costly, and warranties may no longer be valid.

Take your time testing any equipment you want to buy and obtain advice from someone who is very knowledgeable about gemological instruments.

Conclusion: Should you build your own lab?

A lab isn’t essential for every jeweler or every branch of a chain store. Budget constraints will require you to weigh lab costs against those of other projects that you may consider to be more important.

But remember that jewelers, gemologists and appraisers face ever-increasing challenges. New synthetic materials, gem treatments and other “tricks of the trade,” if undetected, could cost you as much as establishing a small testing lab. And while a lab won’t offer a sure-fire answer to every problem, it will add some certainty and prestige. Properly managed, it also can become a valuable profit center.– Robert Weldon

KRAFT”S JEWELRY: ‘WELL WORTH IT’

Gem labs are as integral a part of jewelry stores in rural areas as in bustling urban centers these days. Consider Kraft’s Jewelry in Sheridan, Wyo. (population 12,000), the only jeweler with a gem lab for some 150 miles. (That’s the distance to Billings, Mont., the nearest big city.)

Richard Kraft started the store in 1961. He earned a graduate gemologist diploma from the Gemological Institute of America and added a gem lab about 25 years ago. Today, the store is run by his sons Steve and Thomas, also a graduate gemologist.

“Dad built his reputation on training, on knowing what he was doing,” says Steve Kraft. “The gem lab was an important part of that. People came because they trusted him. No one else in the area had a gem lab then, and that is still the case today.”

The lab is used primarily for insurance appraisals. However, sometimes a customer will bring in a piece of jewelry for an evaluation. “The usual case is someone thinks the red stone in Great Aunt Mary’s ring is a ruby, but it turns out to be synthetic,” says Kraft.

It also works the other way. A woman once brought in a brooch she inherited from her mother. She assumed it was costume – covered with rhinestones and cheap glass – but she wanted an idea of its value anyway before giving it to her granddaughter. The lab determined the brooch had a blue star sapphire the size of a nickel surrounded by diamond baguettes set in platinum. “When we told her it was worth $20,000 to $25,000, she almost died,” says Kraft. “She couldn’t believe it.” She kept the brooch.

“That’s what makes this fun and makes having the lab well worth it,” says Kraft.

Also worth it, says Kraft, is the role the lab plays in the store’s reputation as a professional jeweler and the trust it creates among customers. “That’s important in a small town like ours,” says Kraft.

– William George Shuster

BUILDING A GEMOLOGICAL LABORATORY
Save this checklist and use it to decide which pieces of equipment you will need to build your gem lab, to compare prices and to track how much you’re spending.

Approximate Price (Low) Approximate Price (High)
BASIC GEMSTONE IDENTIFICATION
Refractometer $350 $500
Specific gravity liquids $100 $200
Loupe $25 $200
Tweezers $10 $25
Gem cloth $3 $5
Microscope $1,000 $6,000
Ultraviolet light $200 $500
Subtotal $1,688 $7,430
GEM IDENTIFICATION, MEASUREMENT AND APPRAISAL
CZ master stones $300 $1,000
Polariscope $180 $500
Chelsea filter $40 $50
Electronic scale $120 $2,000
Leveridge gauge $150 $500
Spectroscope $70 $2,000
Metals testing $200 $400
Subtotal $1,060 $6,450
GEM IDENTIFICATION, MEASUREMENT, APPRAISAL, SERVICE
Ultrasonic cleaner $100 $400
Reference library $25 $5,000
Fiber optic light $300 $1,000
Diamond tester $130 $600
Subtotal $555 $7,000
TOTAL $3,303 $20,880

BOLENDER’S FINE JEWELERS: AMONG THE FIRST, THEN AND NOW

No need to ask Bolender’s Fine Jewelers if a gem lab is good for business. The store’s lab has been credited with boosting the store’s business and reputation for 43 years.

Then-owner William Bolender, one of the first graduate gemologists of the Gemological Institute of America, opened one of the first labs accredited by the American Gem Society in 1953. “It was appropriate then [to have the lab] and it still is, to ensure you’re buying and selling things right,” says current co-owner Jim Dennis, GG, CG. He runs the business with his brother, Richard, a master goldsmith.

Bolender’s is still the only gem lab in its market and often gets referrals from other jewelers. Operating costs are minimal, excluding the salary of a graduate gemologist who helps Dennis with the lab and also does double duty selling jewelry. Annual upkeep is only a few hundred dollars. There are no requirements for periodic inspection of gem lab equipment, says Dennis, but it’s a good idea to do so on your own.

To set up the lab today would probably cost $20,000 to $25,000, he says. But the cost would be worth it because “our lab has enhanced our reputation tremendously over the years,” he says.

Bolender’s doesn’t mention the gem lab in its advertising (“too many words clutter ads,” Dennis says). But word of mouth, in-store signs and a mention in the store’s new site on the Internet international computer network keep it fresh in consumers’ minds.

– William George Shuster

WAYNE JEWELERS: CATERING TO THE AFFLUENT

A gem lab is a real plus for the Wayne Jewelers & Silversmiths store in Ardmore, Pa., a well-to-do community on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

“It brings in clientele we wouldn’t normally attract,” says Michael Brooks, store manager. The lab isn’t part of the store’s advertising. “But word of mouth travels quickly among people here with nice jewelry.”

The jewelry brought to Linda Kummerer, the store’s gemologist, is as different as the expectations of customers. In mall stores, customers accept the fees for appraisals and the time required to do them without question, says Brooks. But affluent customers who bring their jewelry to Wayne Jewelers & Silversmiths want the appraisal done within an hour and are surprised at the cost ($50 an hour). “We explain that a graduate gemologist is as much a professional and does as specialized a job as a doctor or an attorney, and then they agree,” he says.

The 11-year-old store set up the lab six years ago at a cost of $7,000 to $10,000. One reason for the decision was that some customers felt uneasy about leaving a piece of jewelry to be sent off-premises for an appraisal. Another reason was the large number of appraisals being sent outside and the need for them to be done more quickly. “It was better to start a lab of our own,” says Brooks.

The lab is a two-person operation – one does the technical work, one does the pricing. Appraisals (primarily insurance, though some estate) account for about 90% of the lab’s workload. It’s used also to spot-check gemstones provided by vendors and to verify diamond grading by wholesalers. (“We grade more strictly,” notes Brooks.)

– William George Shuster

FOLEY’S JEWELERS: COMFORT FOR CUSTOMERS

A gem lab provides a competitive edge for Foley’s Jewelers, a four-store group headquartered in Wilmington, Del.

When David Mazar began the store and lab in 1981, he was one of only three graduate gemologists in the state and one of only two gem labs (the other was at the other end of the state). “It gave us a unique position,” he says.

Fifteen years later, the situation hasn’t changed much. There are only about a dozen GGs in Delaware and just two or three labs. Even though there’s not much competition, Foley’s promotes the lab actively, including a mention in the opening of an hour-long call-in radio talk show that Mazar does daily.

Mazar says the lab has definitely helped business. “Without it, we would be less able to compete, and our reputation with customers would be decidedly less,” he says.

It also reinforces the jeweler’s professional and ethical reputation. “People like knowing we don’t go outside [for appraisals and identification work], that there is a trained professional here and that we do objective appraisals,” says Mazar, a GG who operates the lab. Indeed, he is so committed to assuring clients of the lab’s unbiased work that he’ll pay another trained professional to check any of his appraisal work questioned by a client. That rarely happens, but the guarantee is an added selling point. “It comforts people that we are that confident,” he says.

There can be some minor drawbacks to a gem lab. Mazar enjoys seeing very fine gold, diamond and platinum pieces that are kept in safety deposit boxes in banks. But after his evaluation, “they go back into those boxes where their beauty can’t be appreciated.” He also has had to tell people who inherited a piece they thought was valuable that the stones aren’t genuine. “That can be painful,” he says.

Foley’s lab does appraisal work for insurance companies, pawn shops and bank trusts, but its main use is what Mazar calls quality analysis of diamonds. “The advent of fine synthetics and imitations has increased the importance of a gem lab and gemological knowledge,” he says. For example, a customer recently brought in a synthetic Sumitomo diamond for appraisal. “I could tell from her body language that she was expecting a high appraisal,” he says. After he told her it wasn’t a natural diamond, she said thank you, took the stone and left – probably to go to a less informed jeweler without the gemological knowledge or gem lab equipment.

– William George Shuster

MARY HALTOM JEWELERS: MARKETING & INVENTORY

The gem lab of Mary Haltom Jewelers in Ft. Worth, Tex., is a busy place. But while most gem labs are busy handling appraisals, this one is a center for marketing, sales training and inventory selection.

Haltom, who opened the store and lab in 1983, says it’s important for jewelers to know not only what a gem is but also quality differences and how they justify price differences. Her gemologist, Helen Cross, evaluates diamonds and colored stones before they are shown to customers and then works with salespeople so they can make accurate presentations to customers. “That’s a great help,” says Haltom. “We don’t overdo the technical aspects, but we want to answer customers’ questions as best we can.”

Haltom uses the lab also in selecting stones used in making the store’s one-of-a-kind designs (Cross is a designer as well as a gemologist).

In addition, the lab is central to quality control. Merchandise is checked when it arrives at the store, and anything that’s unacceptable is returned immediately (“something that avoids a lot of headaches later,” says Haltom).

The lab does do some appraisal work (including some for a major department store and referrals from other jewelers). But Haltom describes appraisals as a minor part of the lab’s work.

Even though Haltom mentions the lab in advertising and on while-you-wait telephone messages, she says it doesn’t provide a particular competitive advantage because other local jewelers have labs, too. Nor would not having a lab significantly reduce business, she says, because her family has been in the jewelry trade for many years and is well-known in the area. But having a gem lab and skilled gemologist in the store does give customers an extra level of confidence “and one more reason to come here,” she says.

Haltom says her lab cost about $5,000 to set up more than 10 years ago and would certainly cost more today. But whatever the cost, “it’s only a small percentage of the cost to do business and is well worth it.”

– William George Shuster