"They are surfacing in department store chains, mass-merchandisers, jewelry store chains, independent jewelers, on the Internet, on television shopping channels and at auctions," says Antoinette Matlins, a professional gemologist, board member of the Accredited Gemologists Association and author of the book, Colored Gemstones. "Almost any place that sells ruby jewelry could be misrepresenting them as rubies. There is far more on the market than anyone realizes and the trade is going to snowball if someone anyone doesn't get a handle on it ASAP."
The Gemological Institute of America -- which provided the image of glass-filled rubies (above) has also raised red flags about the practice and told Consumer Ally the group continues to push for full disclosure to consumers about what they're being sold. Just this month, the group's G&G eBriefs issued a warning to jewelers who might be asked to repair these gems. GIA, an education and research organization, says it is constantly on the lookout for these treated stones -- which not only are worth less, but must be cared for in a far different manner.
Genuine rubies are single stones routinely heat-treated to improve their color and clarity. Small surface cracks may also be filled with minute amounts of glass, accepted procedures that are typically disclosed in accompanying lab reports when stones are sold for thousands of dollars per carat.
Composite rubies, as the altered gems are known, are assembled from multiple pieces of extremely low-grade corundum (a multi-colored mineral known as ruby when red, and sapphire when occurring in other colors), fused together with colored glass. Unlike genuine rubies, a gemstone second only to diamonds in hardness, composite rubies are notoriously fragile, and have even been known to crumble apart. And while composites are often as much as 50% glass and worth no more than $10 to $30 per carat, they're often priced, marketed and sold as genuine, treated rubies in well-known stores -- a violation of U.S. Federal Trade Commission guidelines.
"There are hundreds of thousands of composite rubies on the market," Matlins tells Consumer Ally.
Composite rubies manufactured in China, Thailand, and various African countries, first began appearing on the American market in 2008, and quickly reached "disturbing" levels within a year, she says. Returning U.S. servicemen and women were an especially vulnerable group of customers, with many getting swindled on military bases while on tours of duty, thinking they were getting a great deal because of their proximity to the sources of these precious stones, such as Afghanistan.
A recent investigative report in the San Francisco Public Press based on interviews with the gemologist formerly responsible for the quality oversight and appraisal of precious gemstones at Macy's West, the San Francisco-based West Coast division of Macy's, found the store was marketing composite rubies as genuine. Matlins herself participated in an ABC Good Morning America investigation during which three out of four supposedly genuine ruby rings from major department stores (including Macy's), turned out to be composites.
Matlins says she has also seen composites being sold as genuine rubies at Bloomingdales (owned by Macy's). Although neither Macy's nor Bloomingdales responded to requests for comment for this story, Macy's released the following statement in response to the ABC report:
"Ruby gemstones sold in settings in Macy's fine jewelry department are genuine. In general, rubies are heat treated to enhance their quality and appearance. Rubies also may be fracture-filled with a glasslike substance during the heating process to improve the overall quality of the stone. We have signs in our precious and semi-precious gemstone display cases to inform customers that gemstones may have been treated and may require special care. Rubies sold at Macy's are of excellent quality and represent an outstanding value for our customers."
"I firmly believe it is not dishonesty or a lack of integrity, it is a lack of knowledge. There are so few retailers who have even heard of composite rubies," Matlins says. "The problem I have with Macy's is that is that they have been told their rubies are composite and they continue to sell them [as genuine], and that I do not understand. It's outrageous."
That situation is compounded by the widespread perception that treated and composite rubies are one and the same -- which they aren't. The former is a single, genuine stone subject to industry-approved cosmetic procedures, while the latter, according to The World Jewellery Confederation are "artificial products composed of two or more, previously separate, parts or layers assembled by bonding or other artificial methods."
But most jewelers aren't trained to spot composites, and they buy from dealers who don't realize what they are selling either, which is why composites have managed to permeate jewelry display cases across the country without raising alarm bells.
"Very few jewelers have the skills to determine what they are selling," Matlins said. "They are not gemologists. They are merchants who sell based upon what they have been told, and most dealers don't know either. It's all based on trust, not knowledge."
Although they look genuine to the untrained eye, the good news is that composites are relatively easy to spot with an inexpensive jewelers loupe, if you know what to look for -- surface cracks and bubbles.
Matlins also emphasized that there is "nothing wrong" with selling composite rubies, as long as they are disclosed as such and sold at an appropriate price. Composite rubies, she added, look beautiful and satisfy a ready market for so-called fashion jewelry. But until composite rubies are disclosed as such, Matlins offers the following advice:
- Only buy rubies -- or any fine gem -- from a reputable jeweler, ideally one who is a gemologist or has a gemologist on staff.
- Ask whether the ruby has been treated, and if so, what type of treatment.
- Ask whether or not any special care is required, and if so, what kind.
- Make sure to get all of this information in writing, on the sales receipt (and if told that it is a natural ruby – one that has not been treated -- get this in writing, too.)
- Verify what you have purchased by taking it to a qualified gemologist-appraiser.
The American Gemologists Association also includes members who are willing to provide free identification (which does not include an appraisal or valuation) for any consumer who suspects they may have purchased a composite ruby. Contact the AGA.