Buying fine jewelry and gemstones? Don't be deceived by the dazzle

Gemologist Larry Azose appraises an antique diamond brooch to confirm quality and value. (KOMO photo)

If you're in the market for fine jewelry with diamonds or other gemstones, make sure you buy from an established retailer that backs up what they sell.

And be especially careful about buying from strangers or obscure sellers online. Some of that dazzle can be deceiving.

Thanks to advanced gemstone technology, what looks like a natural diamond could be a lab-created synthetic. What appear to be natural colored gemstones could be treated and color-enchanced.

As a gemstone expert, gemologist Larry Azose uses his technology to reveal the truth.

"My job is to be able to tell the people what they have," said Azose, with Gemological Consulting Services in Seattle.

Consumers and retailers pay to have Azose analyze their loose stones, precious metals and mounted jewelry pieces. The results aren't always what customers want to hear.

"We had a woman who bought a strand of amber for $600," said Azose. "Turned out it was plastic."

During our visit, Azose examined a beautiful 6.5 carat, faceted ruby. The owner wanted to know what he'd purchased.

"So you see that bubble at the top?" asked Azose, pointing to a number of small round bubbles on the magnified image of the stone. "This tells me that the stone has been treated. It was probably a really low-quality ruby and to be able to enhance the color and clarity, they filled it with glass."

Enhancing gemstones is perfectly legal, as long as the seller discloses the information.

If you're not told that a natural stone you purchased has been enhanced with glass filling, you risk having it professionally cleaned, unaware that heat during the cleaning process can shatter the glass filling, and destroy the entire stone.

What's more, the value difference between natural and glass-filled gemstones can be huge.

If that 6.5 carat ruby were truly natural, Azose says the value would be $25,000. Being glass-filled drops the value to $1,000.

Gemstone enhancing and lab-creation technology is so sophisticated, even retailers can be caught off guard.

Earlier this year, Macy's discovered the white sapphires a third party supplier sold them as natural were actually lower-value synthetics.

Macy's immediately notified customers by mail and issued exchanges and refunds.

"But you see, they stepped up and were accountable for that," said Azose.

Bottom line: don't be duped by dazzle - especially when you see jewelry posted by strangers online.

Ask these questions:

  • Has it been enhanced or treated?
  • Is it natural, or lab created?
  • Have any impurities been filled with glass?

To minimize your risk, only buy fine jewelry from established retailers, brick and mortar or online that will stand by what they sell. Ask about the refund policy. Can you get your money back, or just an in-store credit or exchange?

When you're buying diamonds, ask about certification. Who did the certification? It's common now for seller to provide a grading certificate but there are different diamond certification labs, and they don't all carry the same weight (pun intended) or credibility.

A high diamond grade issued by one grading association, may be much lower when the same stone is graded by another.

And again - there's nothing wrong with gems that are enhanced or synthetic. In fact some people prefer them. Azose says more millennials especially are buying lab-created engagement and wedding rings because gemstones grown in a lab are conflict-free and much less expensive that natural stones.

But by law, the Federal Trade Commission says all information about gemstone enhancement and treatment must be disclosed at the time of sale.

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