Owning precious stones has already become both a fashion statement and an economic symbol. Having a diamond or a ruby gives one a sense of pride. But with the inconsistent prices of precious stones from one store to another and the fact that the once rare and glorified stones are now sold almost anywhere, one may start to question: how will I know if the deal is right? Rama Ariadi asks a gem expert for answers.
With so many uncertainties plaguing the world economy and the increasing volatility of paper currencies in the age of interdependence, many people across the globe are turning their attention to precious and semi-precious stones as a means to safeguard their economic well-being should another global financial crisis strike again.
After all, precious gems could easily be converted into cash should the situation require. It can be traded regardless of one’s location, and the precedent set by the bank run that was triggered by the 1997/1998 Asian Financial Crisis showed how these non-traditional investments played a crucial role in keeping businesses and individuals afloat amidst the rapid depreciation of their paper currencies’ worth.
So, it isn’t too surprising to see numerous stores around the country hawking precious and semi-precious stones. In Phnom Penh’s Central Market alone, it seems like Cambodians are already well-covered in terms of choices. The well-heeled among the bunch can choose rubies and sapphires from Pailin, while the less-discerning customers and hobbyist are spoiled by choices such as the praseolite from Takeo and zircons from Ratanakiri. The choices are seemingly endless. But is it all as ideal as it sounds?
The simple answer is no. “What people don’t realise is that almost 95 percent of precious stones and gems that are circulating in Cambodia are not what they seem, if not outright fake,” said the chief gemologist for Gemological Institute of Cambodia (Gemic), Jean-Phillippe Lepage. “Although some fakes are quite easy to distinguish from genuine ones, the only way that one can be sure is by subjecting said stones to a comprehensive lab testing.”
One may dismiss this as a ploy to drum up more business. After all, this is what Gemic dabbles in. But in reality, given the advances in technology and manufacturing, it is actually very hard for a layman to distinguish the glass among the gems. Even with the one notable exception of diamonds – which is graded and certified in the most comprehensive manner – everything can be manufactured in a controlled setting. Take aluminum oxides and apply the right heat and pressure, the result is artificial corundum – the umbrella term of rubies and sapphires. Just substitute the aluminum with carbon, if the desired end result is diamond.
“The problem is, considering that both the synthetic and natural gems are made out of the same basic compounds, synthetic stones will have the same hardness, density, and refractive index,” explained Mr Lepage. “It would be very hard for an untrained eye to differentiate between manufactured corundum and the natural rubies and sapphires of Pailin.”
One of the things that separates manufactured stones from their original counterparts, continued Mr Lepage, is that natural stones may contain occlusions formed by other minerals that are trapped within the lattice structure of the stone. “Manufactured stones are made under controlled conditions, and this means that generally speaking it contains less to no occlusions,” he said.
Because of the skills required to properly analyse and determine the nature of a precious stone, prospective customers need to exercise extra caution when making purchases from precious stone sellers that offer deals that are too good to be true.
“I have seen so many instances where customers come in to get their recent purchases certified in the hopes of justifying their purchases, only to see them leave in distress,” recounted Mr Lepage. “Just like anyone who had splurged thousands of dollars in the hopes of scoring a deal of a lifetime would, if they found out that they had purchased lemons instead.”
But determining the price of a particular precious stone is not as simple as getting it certified, as subjective preferences that differ from one market to another also has an impact on the price of said stones.
“For example, Europeans prefer their sapphires that are rather light in terms of saturation, whereas Cambodian customers generally prefer a richer, more saturated blue hues,” explained Mr Lepage.
“As such, a degree of sensitivity to a particular market’s taste is also important, as what would fetch large sums of money in European markets may have lesser worth in Asia.”
Given the fact that there are many factors that come into play in determining the authenticity and value of precious stones, he continued that customers should exercise a degree of restraint before making purchases. In addition to making the purchase from a reputable seller, said Mr Lepage, customers should at least have a basic knowledge of whatever stone it is that they want to purchase.
So if a dealer offers a supposedly natural blue zircon at rock-bottom price, be aware that more often than not, it is probably a scam as natural blue zircons are rare and command sky-high prices, while most blue zircons in the market are heat-treated, and consequently, are much cheaper.
“As with everything, common sense and basic knowledge is the best defence against scams,” finished Mr Lepage.