Gem Dealers vs. Gemologists • Dogfights • Digital Devil #1

1 November 1998
By Richard W. Hughes & Ray Zajicek
Gem Dealers vs. Gemologists • Dogfights • Digital Devil #1

Digital Devil #1: The fights between gem dealers and gemologists are legendary, with each side looking down upon the other. It's truly dog against dog.

Digital Devil #1 • Dogfights • Dealers vs. Gemologists

The following is an unpublished companion to
Catfights: Enhancement Codes & Trade Wars

Single-selled yankers

There are many dealers who look upon gemological labs with a good deal of disdain and the feeling is often mutual. So often today it seems that gemologists and traders are on opposite sides. Tug, tug, pull, pull, each seems to have a different agenda.

Dealers often view gemologists as inferior beings (those who can, sell; those who can't, teach or identify). And, for their part, gemologists look upon merchants as some type of single-celled amoebae (those who understand, teach or study, while those who can't, become merchants).

We hope the following article will go some ways towards bridging this gulf, by gently (and sometimes not so gently) pointing out the problems and solutions for each camp.

Wishy washy: Labspeak

What are some examples of lab misbehavior. The propensity to issue reports (origin, ID, etc.) when they are uncertain is a big one. If a gemological lab is uncertain of an ID, they should admit it. But getting a lab to do this, or even worse, to admit to a mistake, is like convincing the Big Bad Wolf to go vegetarian. Too busy a huffin' an' a puffin'.

Another problem with labs is their tendency to attach cryptic comments to reports. Typical of the wishy-washy comments that major labs are wont to issue is the following, culled from a February 1997 report (to protect the guilty, we will not name the lab):

Comments: Although this material exhibits certain visual and internal characteristics associated with Burma (Myanmar), it is the opinion of the laboratory based on the weight of evidence that the origin would be classified as Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Just what is a buyer to make of this gibberish? It looks like a Burma, but might be from Ceylon, according to somebody, if I'm havin' a good day. Huh?

How about these lab comments issued by the same lab within days of one another in March of 1997, on two different stones:

  1. In our opinion, the sapphire is of Burmese origin.
  2. The sapphire is of Burmese origin.

Are these different identifications, or did God sit in on the second testing session? In truth, the gemologist received an A in Physics, but obviously ditched Communications 101. Translating Labspeak into English, the inclusion of the "in our opinion" statement indicates a reduced confidence level in the decision. But Je-ez! Why do we need to make a translation? What's wrong with indicating some sort of confidence level in plain English, German, Spanish, Japanese, Thai, Chinese or any other tongue that a 20th century human speaks? Give us a percentage, a scale, a bar graph, a 12-step program for peridot's sake! You're the scientists, cobble something together.

It is precisely this type of double-speak that gives gemologists a bad image amongst dealers. Such wishy-washy statements would do a Washington politician proud: "Yes I paid the hooker $50, but only because I felt sorry for her."

Ostrich gemology

The decision by Asian gem labs to limit disclosure of glass infilling to those cases where it can be detected under 10x magnification or less was certainly another questionable decision. [1] Like the three monkeys who refuse to be tainted by evil, these gemologists apparently decided that if an infilling/fracture filling can't be easily detected, it just doesn't matter. Might we recommend a similar course in identifying synthetic gems. If such labs can't identify synthetic origin under 10x, then declare it natural and go have a beer. After all, why break a sweat?

Apparently [2] these labs have confused how the enhancement affects a stone's quality with the ability to detect that effect. Bleached-impregnated jadeite (B-jade) can be some tough stuff to identify with a microscope, even at 200x, but the enhancement has a tremendous effect on appearance.


We would like to know just how a laboratory arrives at its decision on an identification, origin or grade. If we send a rock sample off to a geology lab for testing, we get back a detailed written report, not some single-sentence statement saying "granite – gray – 32.5 grams." In contrast, many gemological labs apparently believe that any data beyond weight and color will simply confuse the great unwashed.

It's not that we don't trust the labs – it's just that, like the government, we shouldn't be placed in the position of having to trust them. A fundamental tenet of science is peer review. One's decisions must be subject to examination and testing by others. But interpreting and understanding the decisions of many gemological labs is pure witchcraft – and we don't like riding a broom. So if you call yourselves scientists, leave the mind-reading to the Ouija board set. For the benefit of the paranormal-impaired like us, please print the testing data on the lab report. Leave matters of faith to the church.

Guv'erment irregulation

Unfortunately, this gibberish is not limited to a single lab, nor even to gemologists. Government regulators themselves are quite capable of coming up with their own versions of Labspeak, after close consultation with the various factions of the trade. Witness the US Government's Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling that the laser-drilling of diamond does not have to be declared to consumers because, according to the FTC's Joan Z. Bernstein: "Lasering is a common practice and not an extraordinary process… and that while lasering produces a small surface opening on a diamond, the majority of diamonds sold in the U.S. have similar surface imperfections (from other causes). Thus it appears that surface imperfections are to be expected in diamonds, unless they are described as flawless. There is no evidence that failure to disclose lasering causes substantial consumer injury." [3]

There we have it, duh. Because many diamonds might have a natural or three on the girdle, we should not worry, we repeat – NOT WORRY – that a high-tech laser has been used to extract an inclusion which would otherwise BLOW THE BEJESUS out of said diamond's clarity grade. We can see it now, as the big bad wolf lectures the three little piggies: "Just because many piggies get eaten by wolves, you shouldn't get so damned uppity. Re-laxxxxx, take a nap (and couldya pass the Tabasco before you fall asleep?)"

Unbelievably, the FTC has now applied similar guidelines to enhancements of colored stones. According to possible interpretations of these guidelines, permanent enhancements no longer need to be declared to the consumer. This means that according to these government irregulators, it is now A-OK to sell surface-diffusion treated sapphires as natural. Thanks, Mom.

A buyer's ideal lab

Call us ignorant, but we think what many buyers want from a lab is the dirt. They want to know if the stone has been tampered with in any way, shape or form.

If it is an expensive ruby or sapphire, they also want to know just where their little darlin' first popped out of the ground. Today, unfortunate as it may be, origin is a fact of life in the ruby and sapphire trade.

A seller's ideal lab

Call us ignorant, but we think what many sellers want is consistency. If they take an untreated Burma ruby to one lab and get an untreated Burma birth certificate, they expect that from other major labs. When they don't, or when they get some sort of Labspeak double-talk, they get mad. Is this surprising?

What do a minority of sellers want from labs? They want the labs to simply rubber stamp whatever scam is current, a sugar-coated version of the truth.

There are also certain dealers who play both sides of the fence. We personally know of instances where dealers have taken South Sea pearls and Ceylon sapphires to Burma for sale. We could go on and on, but the fact remains that many gemologists have the crazed stare and foaming mouth of rabid dogs precisely because the teeth in their tushes are those of dealers misrepresenting goods.

A gemologist's ideal customer

As the director of a major lab once told us: "My best customer is the postman. He/she brings me business every day and never says a word." No shouting, no screaming, no lying, no attempts at bribery. Just business. Is it any wonder that he feels that way?


What can dealers do to help the situation? Start by educating gemologists about your product. Most dealers travel far more than gemologists and have access to more samples. When was the last time you gave your favorite lab or gemologist samples of something new or interesting? Try it. Help them help you.

Second, try to understand that everyone makes mistakes. When you find one, gently point it out to the lab and ask them to adjust the report. Save the smarmy "I'm smarter than you" routine for your maker when you get upstairs. There's nothing wrong with trying to catch a lab in an error – it keeps them honest. But when you've caught them, teach them how to learn from their mistake. Don't hide it from them while broadcasting it to everyone else.

And what can gemologists do? For starters, you must begin to document the reasons behind your decisions. Doing this will keep you honest. This documentation must be in plain English, not Labspeak. Second, you must start looking at dealers like human beings, not money-grubbing shylocks.

Tugging vs. pulling

Tug, tug, pull, pull. Those at opposite ends of the rope have a seeming inability to understand the other. Today, our business is perched upon the precipice. If each side does not begin to understand the needs and goals of the other, we just might find ourselves toppling over the cliff, in glorious togetherness. Tug, tug, pull, pull, let's all get on the same side of the rope before we strangle each other. Tugging, pulling, what really is the difference? East and west – gemologists and dealers – both are points on the same line.


  1. ICA Gazette (1994) First seven steps to international rules at Asian meeting. ICA Gazette, June, p. 7. return to article ]
  2. We are giving them the benefit of the doubt. return to article ]
  3. New York Diamonds (1997) FTC reaffirms policy on laser disclosure. New York Diamonds, March/April, p. 8. return to article ]


R S end dingbat

Author's Afterword

Ray Zajicek and I (RWH) wrote this article and Catfights for the ICA Gazette, to coincide with the ICA Congress in Brazil, 1997. Alas, it was rejected for being too controversial and too negative towards gemologists (I am a gemologist, last time I looked). Interestingly enough, exactly the same issues addressed by this article were the topic of a special meeting at the 1998 AGTA Tucson Gem Fair between dealers and gemologists. Thinking it was now safe to go back into the water, Ray and I resubmitted it to the ICA Gazette, where it was once again rejected. It was later published in the GemKey Magazine (Vol. 1, No. 1, Nov–Dec, pp. 52, 69). After publication, one US gemologist called and screamed at me for an hour that he “would sue me.” He never did.

Whilel at the time of writing I believed in the idea of labs publishing their testing data on their reports, I now realize that this would do nothing to stop labs from abusing certain situations. Water runs downhill and easily moves around obstacles. Both labs and dealers are adept at flowing around barriors that might get in the way. One problem is that dealers do not have the needed experience to interpret testing data. The second is that gemologists will fudge data to fit their conclusion in ways so subtle that dealers cannot argue. The result of a "data report" will be a stalemate no different than a "non-data report."

Back to top