The Ruby Ruse: How Jewelers Can Avoid the Lead Glass–Filled Gems

What happens when undisclosed lead glass–filled rubies enter the market? Here’s how retailers can avoid disastrous results.

Within the past year, Leo Anglo, the general manager of Vincent’s Jewelers in St. Louis, has seen so many customers carrying rubies through his doors that a rush on the classic gems appears to be in full swing.

There was the colonel in the Armed Forces who brought in eight oval-shape rubies he’d bought from an Army and Air Force Exchange Service–approved vendor in Afghanistan for about $600 a carat ($5,000 total), and the woman who’d paid $1,700 for a 0.75 ct. ruby in a 14k gold mounting at a national department store.

The problem? Neither client had been told the stones were lead glass–filled and required special care. Anglo had the unenviable task of delivering the bad news: The stones weren’t worth anywhere near what the customers had paid for them. In the case of the colonel, the rubies were worth about $1,000 retail—80 percent less than he paid, and far less than what he was promised they were worth.

Meanwhile, the woman with the ring learned her ruby was lead glass–filled when she took the ring to another ­jeweler to be resized. It was damaged beyond repair; the department store where she bought the original gem replaced the ring, but it was the replacement stone—another lead glass–filled ruby—that she brought to Anglo for a value assessment.

As he does with all suspect rubies, Anglo placed the woman’s stone under a Hanneman filter ($80.95 at Kassoy Jewelry Supply) fitted with a ruby slide that revealed bright blue flashes of color—the telltale signs of a lead glass–filled gem. He sent it to a lab just to be sure.

After all, Anglo had been down this road before. “Since we’re buying secondhand merchandise like crazy, we have to have a way to test the stones or else we’re not putting them in the case,” he says.

Rough Mozambique rubies
The same rubies after being filled with lead glass

Most rubies undergo heat treatment, either in the rough or after polishing, to enhance or improve color and quality. Often the rubies are heated with compounds such as borax to heal open cracks or fissures. These practices are commonplace and widely accepted, and do not affect the day-to-day handling of stones. For example, household products don’t harm them, and bench jewelers know how to handle them properly during routine manufacturing and repair. 

Although lead glass material is easily identifiable—gas bubbles and flashes of blue are the giveaways—the gems in question, sometimes referred to as “composite rubies,” are frequently sold undisclosed. “Identification is not the issue,” Shane McClure, GIA’s director of West Coast Identification Services, told attendees at the GIA GemFest in Basel in March. “Disclosure is the real problem.”

Gemologist/author Antoinette Matlins has seen that problem firsthand on the jewelry show circuit. In Las Vegas last year, Matlins stopped by a booth packed with customers to peruse the finished jewelry. She inspected trays of ruby-set gold styles with stones that looked Burmese in origin that the dealer described as untreated and natural. Matlins, however, had her suspicions. Loupe in hand, she pointed out the gas bubbles and blue flashes to the vendor, who reluctantly revealed the rocks were lead glass–filled and required special care.

“The designs were very pretty,” says Matlins, “but none of the retailers were asking about treatments.”

Lead glass–filled rubies have an altered chemical makeup that makes them extremely vulnerable to damage. For example, their surfaces turn white when exposed to substances as common as lemon juice, let alone bench jeweler solvents. When sellers don’t disclose the treatment, they’re breaking the law, and buyers take the hit.

And because composites are appearing in the market with greater frequency, jewelers need to be extra vigilant about how to identify and handle the material to avoid ruined reputations and economic loss. Christopher Smith, president and chief gemologist of American Gemological Laboratories in New York City, says composite samples come into his lab with regularity today, whereas he saw just a handful annually a few years ago.

In Columbia, Mo., L.C. Betz, the owner of L.C. Betz & Associates, tells customers who bring in commercial-grade ruby jewels that stones must come out of their settings before repairs can begin. “I say that I’m a ­jeweler, not a gemologist, and I’m not going to take any risks,” Betz says. He also has a gemologist inspect potential buys from the public and avoids buying commercial qualities for stock. “You have to cover your own backside,” he says.

A GIA report tells all: “A manufactured product consisting of lead glass and ruby…unstable to high temperatures and to chemical agents.”

According to AGL’s Smith, more and more estate pieces set with composite rubies promoted as unheated Burmese material are surfacing in the market. “It’s one of the most disturbing developments we’ve seen,” he says. “Ten-plus carat composite rubies set in antique jewelry are being sold without declaration. Now composites aren’t just a low-cost alternative for consumers—this is much more overt; people are taking out the original stones and replacing them with composites on purpose to mislead.”

To avoid scenarios like this, Patrick Hopman, co-president of Hopman Jewelers in Elkhart, Ind., sells rubies of only one carat or more in size accompanied by a certification from an accredited lab. “Just because something is old doesn’t mean that it’s real,” he says. Hopman will buy color from the public, but if the stone doesn’t have a certificate from a lab, he pays less for it because he’ll then have to pay for his own lab cert if he hopes to resell the gem.

At Blue Diamond in Jefferson City, Mo., president Mary Kempker doesn’t buy any colored stones from the public. “We don’t have the equipment to buy safely, and it costs $70 a pop to have a stone tested by a lab.”

Benjamin Hakimi, president of the New York Gemstone Association and president of Colorline, a New York City gem wholesaler, once had to come to the rescue of a high-end Madison Avenue retailer and New York City–based bench jeweler; the latter had dropped a customer’s 15 ct. off-round cushion-cut ruby into the pickle solution for a resizing job from the merchant. The stone developed “lines and cracks” and all but fell apart, Hakimi says.

It turned out the customer—who was not told the ruby was lead glass–filled at the time of purchase—had bought the ring in the Caribbean for nearly $15,000. “The store was relieved that it wasn’t their fault,” says Hakimi, who issued a letter to the customer stating that if the gem was not purchased as a natural ruby, it should have been disclosed for being lead glass–filled. “I supplied her with all of the lab reports and samples, and got a certificate from AGL saying it was a composite ruby and lead glass–filled.”

One surefire way to lessen or eliminate liabilities is to heed Federal Trade Commission regulations, press suppliers for full disclosure, and tell customers exactly what they’re buying at the time of purchase. If not, retailers could get sued—by customers, or by competitors under the Lanham Trademark Act, which regulates unfair competition—or make themselves vulnerable to legal action by local and state authorities and the FTC.

“Retailers are completely liable,” says Cecilia Gardner, president and CEO of the ­Jewelers ­Vigilance Committee. In December 2011, JVC was one of six industry groups that jointly published a consumer ­advisory warning about undisclosed lead glass–filled rubies in the market.

On its website, JVC told members of the industry that lead glass–filled rubies were “a different species altogether from a ‘ruby’?” and could contain “more glass than precious stone,” making them far less valuable than traditionally heated natural rubies of similar sizes, colors, and shapes. “These highly treated gemstones may not be even considered gems under the current definitions in the FTC Guides,” adds Gardner.

Which isn’t to suggest that lead glass–filled rubies don’t have a place in the market. Because of the shortage caused by the ban on importing Burmese rubies, composites are a valid option when disclosed—and priced—properly. But as with many treatments, buyers beware.

“This material is the most abundant ruby product in the market today—it eclipses everything else out there—and it’s not always being represented properly,” Smith says of the lead glass–filled rubies. “This could completely change the dynamic for the ruby market and its future.”

More on colored stones on
+ Beautiful Lies: The Slippery Slope of Gem Treatment
+ True Color: This Season’s Coolest Jewels
+ Colored Stone Age

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