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Simulated, Synthetic Stones Fill Demand For Affordable Jewelry

February 7, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ The ancient Egyptians created them. King Tut’s tomb was adorned with them. Even the Duchess of Windsor secretly kept them.

Simulated stones have a long and colorful history in the jewelry world, imitating the rare and beautiful gems that took nature years to produce.

Most people prefer the real thing, but affordable look-alikes, including lab-grown synthetics, have found a comfortable niche in the gem industry. That’s all right with purveyors of fine jewels so long as they’re not passed off as the genuine article.

``Fakes and phonies are as ancient as gems themselves,″ said Antoinette Matlins, a gem expert and author of ``Jewelry and Gems: The Buying Guide.″

Matlins says counterfeiting was going on 2,000 years ago, although technological advances have made it tougher to detect today.

While simulated stones have been around for centuries _ Egyptians created imitation turquoise and adorned old Tut’s tomb with blue glass ``gems″ _ commercial production of synthetic precious gemstones didn’t come about until the turn of this century.

Scientists have made great strides in creating stones that so closely resemble the real thing that some dealers have been fooled at one time or another. They’ve also figured out ways to greatly enhance the look of real gems, like fracture filling, a relatively new process in which a liquid glass is used to fill in surface cracks in diamonds and colored gemstones.

``What normally happens, when you have a brand new technique or treatment (in jewelry production), there’s a lag time between the introduction of the product and awareness,″ by the overall industry, Matlins said.

She said it’s often during that time that unscrupulous individuals will try to take advantage of reputable dealers, claiming for instance, that a well-made synthetic ruby is a rare and expensive natural ruby. When cubic zirconias were introduced, a few dealers mistook them for real diamonds, she added.

``The vast majority (of jewelry dealers) are honest. But the vast majority are not gemologists so they can buy into a deception unknowingly,″ Matlins said.

It’s important, therefore, for consumers to make all major purchases contingent upon verification by gem-testing labs like the Gemological Institute of America. Some jewelers may have had the tests conducted already.

The labs can tell, for example, natural gems from synthetics, which have similar physical and chemical properties to genuine stones. They also will note carat weight or flaw grades and can distinguish a similarly colored semiprecious stone from a precious gem, like a green tsavorite from an emerald, or a red spinel from a ruby.

The Federal Trade Commission requires jewelry merchants to disclose if a stone is simulated or synthetic, as well as whether a natural stone has been treated to make it look more expensive. If the process is reversible, that too must be disclosed.

Joel Windman, general counsel of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee in New York, an industry watchdog group, says there have been few complaints about synthetic or simulated stones being misrepresented as the real thing.

But gem experts say that’s because it sometimes takes years to uncover. This is especially true in estate and antique jewelry.

Matlins notes some age-old techniques used to imitate or enhance the real thing, such as: dyeing, waxing or smoking poor quality stones to make them look richer; setting colored foil behind a colorless stone; or creating composite stones by fusing two or three stones together, called ``doublets″ and ``triplets.″

Sometimes the owners of these pieces were unaware of the deception.

``It may have happened where someone may have lost a stone in an engagement ring and had it replaced with a cheaper imitation and didn’t tell anyone,″ said Simon Teakle, head of Christie’s U.S. jewelry division.

He said fakes have been discovered on occasion among genuine pieces about to be sold at estate auctions.

In fact, Matlins recalls how prior to bidding at an auction in Geneva several years back, one auction house discovered that a strand of pearls belonging to the Duchess of Windsor was actually a fake.

``You can have a piece of jewelry that looks glamorous and it’s a wonderful piece of jewelry ... yet it does not have to be real. There’s some exquisite costume jewelry,″ Teakle said.

To be sure, if affordability or uniqueness is what you want, simulated and synthetic gems may be a good alternative.

Most pieces cost only a fraction of the real thing. A one-carat cubic zirconia tennis bracelet set in 14 karat gold might go for around $100, about a tenth of what genuine diamonds might cost.

``If it’s well cut and mounted in a nice setting, the average person can’t tell the difference with the naked eye,″ said Matlins.

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