Friday, 20 October 2006

Buying gemstones with a guide to all that’s good and not so good

book coverCeylon saphires
by Christopher Proudlove©
A week in some far off foreign destination beckons. But just as important as cancelling the milk and ordering the foreign currency is finding a good guide book - it can make the difference between a holiday that is good and one that's great.

If there's room in your suitcase for another guide book, I have a recommendation for all those hundreds of readers who might consider buying jewellery whilst they are abroad, either as a gift for a loved one or as an investment, taking advantage of the strong pound and seemingly cheap prices. It’s called "Gemstones Understanding Identifying Buying" by Keith Wallis, just published by the Antique Collectors' Club.

It's a great aid to anyone contemplating buying jewellery and a chapter on gemstones from around the world makes it an ideal companion for anyone about to embark on their summer holidays. One of the few ways it could be improved would be to make it pocket-sized so that it could be carried more easily through Duty Free, souk, marketplace, tourist shop or anywhere else where the locals are likely to try to persuade you to hand over your travellers cheques for trinkets that may or may not be all they appear.

Mr Wallis is a qualified gemologist who obtained his diploma as a Fellow of the Gemological Association of Great Britain in 1978. He writes concisely and is clearly well travelled himself. His stated aim is to demystify the complex and he has succeeded in producing a book that encourages the beginner not to be put off by the minefield that awaits the buyer who is unprepared - particularly when buying abroad.

The percentage of holidaymakers travelling to the United States is sure to be high and the book points out that the US is the biggest gemstone market in the world. However, it warns that the UK Trade Descriptions Act does not apply there and nor do they have an equivalent. That said, the Gemological Institute of America is a second oldest organisation of its kind and the certificates provided by its laboratories are accepted worldwide. Buy a diamond or other gem with a GIA certificate and you know you're in good hands.

Visit Niagara Falls and it might be worth a trip over the border into Canada which is now a front runner in the mining of high-quality diamonds. Emerald deposits had been discovered in the Yukon and "true blue" beryl - a stone similar to emerald - has also been found. Walking in the Rocky Mountains, you might find garnet, agate, amethyst and turquoise, whilst it is apparently also possible to find examples of mammoth ivory.

I can tell you from my own experience that the souks of Tunisia are intimidating places. Mr Wallis points out that the amber necklaces found their are fake, while the silver is not recommended, being generally low-grade. The best red coral is washed up along the shores of Tunisia and Algeria but strict controls apply to collecting and exporting it.

Thailand is probably the largest gem centre in the Far East and Bangkok has its own gemstone supermarkets but scams are common. A casual meeting with a local businessman who offers jewellery tax-free or at a special tourist rate is a con. Whilst the stones might be real, they will be of inferior quality and worth less than half what you paid for them.

A gem market in the centre of old Bangkok operates at weekends where dealers from all over the Far East meet to do business. However, this is the territory of the professional, so best advice is to stick to the supermarkets, many of which offer certification on the premises.

In Singapore, Mr Wallis's advice is to do business only with a recommended jewellery shop. The Singapore Gem Factory is a tourist attraction where cutting and polishing may be witnessed, but, again from my own experience, beware the tour guides who take you there - whether you expect it or not - and encourage you to buy even though you had no intention of doing so. They are invariably working in collusion with the factory and receive a cut of sales.

Dubbed the "land of gems", Sri Lanka offers just about every gemstone except diamond and precious opal. However, that does not mean you can take everything at face value. Mr Wallis points out that there are government-approved shops but suggests that you're unlikely to find a bargain in them. He also warns that street sellers confuse buyers by offering synthetic and simulated stones mixed up with generally low-grade real examples, so he recommends buying only from recognised outlets. Similarly, tourists to India should not buy gems from street traders.

Amazing variety

On a trip to Australia, I was keen to buy the Business Manager (Mrs P) a pair of opal earrings. I made the mistake of not doing my homework and now wish I had had the advantage of Mr Wallis's book. I can vouch for his assertion that there is an amazing variety of opal is on offer - hence the problem. They include black, white, precious and a whole range of opalised wood and polished ironstone with opal inclusions. I bought a pair of the latter assuming they were black opals. I was wrong, although the BM seems happy enough with them. Mr Wallis also asserts that you should avoid buying opals displayed in water, although it would be useful to know why.

For travellers journeying to the gold honeypots of Dubai and Qatar, Mr Wallis suggests the first thing to do is ask the price of the precious metal per gram, as it varies from day to day. When you have selected the piece you want, it is weighed and you are given the price accordingly. But you should avoid buying jewellery containing many "gemstones" as they are generally not good quality and may possibly be made from glass or paste. What's worse, there are also included in the weight of the item, which makes for very expensive glass! Silver is not of Sterling quality and is best avoided.

So-called "Saudi diamonds" are in fact quartz pebbles collected in the desert areas around Riyadh which are then cut and polished for souvenirs.

There are several fascinating places to visit in Europe too. In Belgium, Antwerp rivals Amsterdam as the diamond capital, the vast number of dealers’ shops being clustered in the Diamond District near the railway station. Tourists using Schiphol airport can buy diamonds while they wait for the next flight from traders who have concessions in the concourse. The Amsterdam Diamond Centre is open to the public and stones can also be bought there.

Simulated pearls are a popular tourist purchase on the island of Majorca. They should not be confused with cultured pearls, while Peridot, the gem variety of the olivine, is found in many of the shops throughout the Canary Islands. Mr Wallis warns that quality varies, so you should buy only the best colour, avoiding stones that are pale.

For a stay at home holidaymakers, there are few gemstones actually found in the UK. But there are some fascinating organic stones, including: Amber from North Yorkshire, jet from Whitby, Blue John and Jasper from the Peak District and, interestingly enough, slate from North Wales, which though not normally thought of as material for jewellery, can be attractive. Welsh gold from mines in Llandovery and Dolgellau is made into jewellery there, although it contains only approximately 10% of the local gold.

Sadly, the smoky or brown quartz found in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, and used to make highly attractive jewellery is nearly exhausted. The industry now uses heat-treated amethyst imported from Brazil, while in Cornwall, amethyst, smoky quartz and turquoise is found on the beaches around Lizard and carved into jewellery and ornaments.

If I might add some advice of my own, I recommend getting an official written valuation for any jewellery, purchased abroad. A member of my family, purchased some sapphires in Sri Lanka, and was then unfortunate enough to have them stolen in a burglary. Imagine the delight on the face of the insurance broker when the loss was reported to him. His automatic reaction was that the stones were no doubt worthless fakes, bought on impulse.

Imagine his dismay, then, when he was presented with a valuation, which revealed they were of particularly fine quality and worth approximately three times what they cost. The insurance company had no choice but to their full market value.

"Gemstones Understanding Identifying Buying" costs £14.95 and is available from the Antique Collectors' Club, Sandy Lane, Old Martlesham, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 4SD (telephone 01394 389950) or email

Pictures show © Keith Wallis
Top: A charming brooch modelled as a bouquet of flowers made from old sapphires from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and rubies and Keith Wallis’s informative guide book to understanding, identifying and buying gemstones

Below, left to right:

A lizard brooch dating from 1890 made from opal, diamonds and garnets

A gold brooch given by Queen
Victoria to one of her bridesmaids. The stones are turquoise, pearls and rubies

Cupid’s arrows set with rubies and diamonds, piercing a ruby-set diamond heart. This brooch dates from circa 1900

opal broochturquoise broochruby brooch

numly esn 57501-061020-492149-28

© 2006 All Rights Reserved.



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