In part two of a series examining the impact of lead glass-filled rubies on the market, we look at disclosure politics in the trade
When the Federal Trade Commission announced plans in April to revise its Guides for the Jewelry, Precious Metals, and Pewter Industries, last updated in 1996, Craig Lynch was beyond pleased. The owner of Ouellet & Lynch, a Phoenix-based consulting and appraisal firm, knows plenty of retail jewelers who’ve encountered lead glass–filled rubies sold as natural stones—and he’s eager to see the issue addressed by the authorities. (JCK explored the phenomenon in “The Ruby Ruse,” May 2012.)
Lead glass–filled rubies are “changing the perception of what ruby is—that it’s not that expensive in its true and unheated form,” explains Lynch.
To ensure the matter received the attention it deserved, Lynch and gemologist-author Antoinette Matlins visited FTC attorneys in their District of Columbia headquarters last summer. In a meeting that lasted an hour and a half, the two showed FTC officials samples of the product, along with a PowerPoint presentation that included “before” and “after” slides of the rubies reacting to common cleaning agents like lemon juice; the gems turned white and began to show cracks. “We wanted to hand them a slam dunk,” Lynch says about their mission to fine-tune the standards used to determine whether or not trade practices are deceptive, and to ultimately protect consumers from unscrupulous merchants.
In their presentation, the pair also cited real-world scenarios of consumer fraud, like the 50-something female client of Matlins who unwittingly purchased a lead glass–filled ruby and diamond pendant for $9,000—even though $1,200 would have been a more accurate reflection of the pendant’s retail value, given that the ruby was not natural.
“This is the kind of problem you have when a distinction is not made between natural and lead glass–filled ruby,” says Matlins.
While the law does dictate that treatments be disclosed, the degree to which people adhere to it is unknown. Consider the Macy’s lawsuit of 2010, Mimi Lowe v. Macy’s Inc., in which a San Francisco–based attorney filed a class action suit on behalf of customers who bought jewelry containing what they thought were natural rubies, but instead were “heavily glass-filled,” according to court documents. (Macy’s declined to speak with JCK for this article.)
These gems are clearly labeled. Some vendors, however, are not so forthcoming.
The suit came on the heels of ABC’s nationally televised 2009 exposé in which Matlins and a Good Morning America video team went undercover to shop for ruby jewelry at Macy’s stores in Jersey City, N.J., and New York City. Store employees told them they were buying “real rubies” that did not require “special care” when, in fact, they weren’t.
Now, three years later, industry labs and trade groups are coming together to educate and aid the jewelry-buying public. Lynch believes such a concerted effort will result in a better-informed population, even as it leads to more lawsuits for those who don’t get with the program. “I know dozens of jewelers who’ve had lead glass–filled rubies go through their doors,” he says. “Big lawsuits are bound to happen, and they will blindside the industry.”
When the FTC revises the Guides, the agency is likely to consider, among other points, the economic impact the changes would have on consumers buying lead glass–filled rubies, particularly in light of their prevalence in the market. At press time, FTC officials declined to speak to JCK about the impending revisions. The current Guides do not specify the exact wording merchants must use to identify lead glass–filled rubies, but they do say it is unfair or deceptive to use:
• The words real, genuine, natural, precious…or similar terms to describe any industry product that is manufactured or produced artificially
• The word gem to describe, identify, or refer to a ruby…or other industry product that does not possess the beauty, symmetry, rarity, and value necessary for qualification as a gem
If the FTC were to demand the industry clearly label lead glass–filled rubies as manufactured products, might consumers be better protected? Possibly, but industry veterans know it’s tough to get everyone on the same page. “There’s been no consistent agreement in terminology from the labs,” says Douglas Hucker, CEO of the American Gem Trade Association in Dallas. In fact, labs have called the material all kinds of things: composite, hybrid ruby, treated ruby, and a manufactured product.
To combat confusion, Hucker hopes to create a single piece of training literature containing a concise, easy-to-read definition for distribution in stores. He’s already started the process by talking to the International Colored Gemstone Association; CIBJO, the World Jewellery Confederation; and other trade groups. He maintains that universal support from all groups would give the idea teeth and go a long way toward consumer protection.
The effort to standardize a definition would also, undoubtedly, affect the value of the gems at market. “Supply and demand economics only works if there is truthful representation of the product,” says Matlins. Rubies that look the same but aren’t the same put “retailers on a very unequal playing field,” she says.
One independent jewelry designer and retailer from the Midwest learned this lesson the hard way. The onetime geologist, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from the vendor, spent $4,000 on six ruby cabochons ranging in size from 9 mm to 14 mm at the Tucson gem shows in 2009.
A photomicrograph of what the GIA calls a ruby/glass composite: a lead glass–filled ruby with so much glass that it shows pieces of ruby floating in the glass
That summer, she made three rings for two clients, two of which came back in the fall for resizing. She dropped the rings into a pickle solution, with center stones intact, as she would with any natural ruby, and was shocked to see them turn white, and then to watch one crack nearly in half when she removed it from the setting. She frantically emailed the vendor who sold her the stones, while trying to determine the root of the problem. The dealer ignored her emails; when she started phoning, assistants took three messages from her before hanging up on the fourth call. Meanwhile, a local gemologist told her what she’d bought was, in fact, lead glass–filled.
The following year, the designer didn’t make it to Tucson, but was determined to confront the seller. In 2011, she returned and marched straight to the vendor’s booth. Receipts in hand, she faced the same salesman who’d cut her the deal two years prior.
“He was belligerent,” she recalls. He agreed to replace some of the stones—with stones of a lesser quality, at a cost of $100 more to the designer. When she asked him why he didn’t tell her they were treated, he said she should have known they were not natural given the price she paid, and that “everything sold was glass-filled now.”
Ultimately, she replaced the pair of rubies with new lead glass–filled ones, discounting them by half and refunding the money to the client in an effort to salvage her reputation. The second client opted for a different type of stone altogether.
But such tales obscure the fact that honest merchants do exist. At the 2012 AGTA Tucson GemFair, the New York City–based dealer Deepam showcased trays of clearly marked “glass-filled ruby” priced at $10 a carat inside the Gem & Jewelry Exchange tent.
Meanwhile, at Jewelry Television, lead glass–filled rubies are sold frequently (109,000 units since January 2011)—with disclosure, and at fair prices. According to Mary Edleman, corporate compliance officer for the TV network, on-air hosts touch on the special care required when handling the lead glass product, as does an on-screen call-out box with a special code driving customers to the network’s website for further explanation. “We charge what they should be sold for—$9.99 to $300 in loose stones and finished jewelry,” Edleman tells JCK.
For those in need of further education, Matlins and Lynch can be found at trade shows nationwide giving free seminars on how to identify the lead glass–filled rocks.
But the fight to clearly position the material is far from over. Next up in the FTC process will be a request for public comments about the Guides, along with a timetable for responses. Industry watchdogs urge buyers to speak up—no organization except the FTC has the legislative power or authority to punish or prevent this kind of deception in the trade.