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Man-Made Diamonds Fool Gem Dealers

June 14, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Marilyn Monroe once sang that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. What would she have called moissanites?

The lab-created stones can be dead ringers for high-quality diamonds, stumping many jewelers’ instruments that tell real stones from fake.

Since the gems debuted commercially a year ago, pawnbrokers and jewelry dealers across the country have gotten swindled, paying top dollar for moissanites they believed were the genuine article.

``You learn with your own money,″ said Hampy Antonian, owner of Ritz Jewelers in Los Angeles’ downtown jewelry district.

In March, Antonian paid $1,300 for a stone that weighed less than a carat. Moissanites, a carbon crystal like diamonds, usually sell for just under one-tenth the cost of their more prestigious cousins.

Antonian showed the find to other jewelers, one of whom suspected the stone might not be a diamond. He then tested it.

``At first I felt like I was dumb,″ said Antonian, who has 15 years of experience as a jeweler. ``But these are the problems of the business.″

Moissanites occur in nature _ as green, brown or black microscopic deposits. Chemist Henri Moissan discovered them in a meteorite in Arizona’s Diablo Canyon in 1893.

In the mid-1980s, Cree Research, a Durham, N.C. company, figured out how to make moissanites for industrial use as semi-conductors, precision blades and screens for calculators and laptop computers. The azure glow in the dashboards of Volkswagen’s New Beetles comes from the stones.

The company developed a patented version of moissanites in 1995, and they appeared commercially in 1998.

Some jewelers and gemologists say they can tell moissanites right away because they have a greenish cast and show regular striations that don’t resemble normal flaws in a diamond.

``Moissanites are almost plastic-looking,″ said Dennis Dufau, a partner in Estate Jewelry Buyers of Los Angeles.

But others not as knowledgeable in gems have had less luck. Moissanites have duped pawnbrokers, for one.

``One of my stores got hit for $1,000,″ said Kyle Farson, owner of First National Pawn in High Point, N.C. ``The stone that I got was about 1.25 carats. It was in an engagement ring.″

Michael Mack, who owns First Class Pawn and Jewelry in Las Vegas, said well-dressed hockers trying to pass the stones off as real diamonds hit several stores in a city at once. They pushed the stones across the counter and called them family heirlooms, he said.

``They play the part, but we do our tests,″ Mack said.

C3, the Morrisville-based company that is the sole manufacturer and marketer of moissanites, says it wants to position the stones as gems in their own right, not diamond impostors.

The company has tried to guard against fraud by requiring dealers to make clear the stones are man-made, limiting outlets to about 130 jewelers nationwide, and requiring them to sell the stones in settings.

But Farson said he has heard of hockers getting caught with bags full of loose moissanites. ``The problem is there’s no follow-up,″ he said.

Even with few dealers, C3 ships about 18,000 carats of moissanite a year, said company spokeswoman Jessica Blue.

Blue said company officials wanted the stones to hit the market in 1997. But they put on the brakes when they realized that because moissanites conduct heat like diamonds, they can fool thermal probes used to tell the difference between real and fake diamonds.

The company developed a device to screen for moissanites and contacted the Gemological Institute of America. Some dealers have contended that the stones are merely a marketing ploy to sell the testers.

But Blue said the company’s profits from the sale of the stone far exceed the profits from the device: about $3 million in revenues from the stones vs. $160,000 for the tester in the first quarter of this year.

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