Valentine's Day Threat -- Composite Rubies May Break Her Heart!
Photo courtesy of Craig Lynch, G.G., Accredited Gemologists Association. “Ruby” was dabbed with fresh lemon juice 4 times in 48 hours.
Antoinette Matlins, author of Jewelry and Gems--The Buying Guide, 7th Edition, is spearheading the efforts to alert consumers to a very serious crisis that's only now starting to rear its ugly head where anyone buying rubies or ruby jewelry is concerned. Rubies remain one of the most popular of all the precious gems and, following the recent publicity surrounding Jessica Simpson's ruby and diamond engagement ring, are likely to become even more so. A few years ago this would have been good news, but today it may spell disaster for consumers and jewelers alike because many rubies now being sold look like ruby, but sure don't act like ruby! Consumers and jewelers alike are shocked when the ruby in a piece of jewelry breaks or chips while being worn, or when substances such as lemon juice mar its beauty, permanently! Or much worse, when it is horribly -- and irreparably -- damaged by an unsuspecting jeweler doing any simple repair or alteration such as re-sizing a ring. Today rubies seem to be chipping and breaking more easily--sometimes falling out of their settings--in the course of normal wear, and jewelers working on them have seen them suddenly transformed into an ugly, cracked, near-opaque stone that bears no resemblance to a "gem"...while using the same jewelry techniques that have been used on rubies for centuries!
This isn't the typical experience one should have when wearing or working on rubies; ruby is one of the toughest and most durable of all gemstones, so why are these "new" rubies so fragile? Why is this happening now?
What's happening now is that many rubies being sold are something altogether different from what we associate with ruby because it is not really ruby! Instead, it is something made to look like a fine ruby by mixing a very low-quality corundum infused with a significant percentage of lead-glass (the mineral "corundum" is known as "ruby" only when it red and transparent). The amount of lead-glass in these stones varies, but it typically ranges from 15% to over 40%. Lead-glass is softer than other types of glass so wherever it reaches the surface of the stone--which when viewed with a microscope can be seen to occur over many areas of the stone--it can be easily scratched, chipped, or etched by substances such as lemon juice and common household cleaners.
Furthermore, these compositions of lead-glass and ruby are sold worldwide at gem and jewelry trade shows for a fraction of the cost of genuine rubies, but jewelry containing them is being sold to retailers at extremely inflated prices and then sold to consumers at prices comparable to what one would pay for a fine ruby. We've seen rings containing 2-3 carat "rubies" that are actually lead-glass/ruby compositions, surrounded by numerous tiny diamonds, being sold as "genuine" ruby, at prices over $4,000 ... when the actual price should be 1/8th that price! We've seen similar necklaces containing several of these "rubies" and tiny diamonds, priced at $8,000!
We are now seeing such jewelry pieces being sold in well-known national jewelry and department store chains, at comparable inflated prices. Even at "sale" prices of 50-70% off, they are still priced at 2-4 times what they should cost. But even worse, these composition lead-glass rubies are being sold as genuine ruby, without any warning that they are very fragile and require extreme care while being worn or if taken to a jeweler for any type of work (re-sizing, repair, or to re-set into another piece of jewelry). They are also popping up at auction, in "antique" pieces (in which the original stone has been replaced with one of these ruby look-alikes), at pawn shops, and so on.
These are being called "composites" by an increasing number of gem-testing laboratories, and some organizations such as The Accredited Gemologists Association (AGA) have taken the position, based on FTC guidelines and other sources, that these are "imitation" products because of the huge percentage of lead-glass, and that they should not be sold as genuine rubies. If they don't "act" like a ruby, lack the durability (and thus, longevity) of a ruby, and don't have the value of a ruby, how can they be sold as a ruby? Also, given the lead content, should one of these rubies fall out of a setting at home and be found by a young child and swallowed, they might pose a serious health risk.
NOTE: As rubies and other gemstones became too scarce to be affordable by anyone but the most wealthy, a variety of techniques have been used over the past 5 decades to improve the appearance of natural rubies of lesser quality and provide affordable alternatives so that more people could enjoy wearing ruby jewelry. Most rubies sold today are "treated," and priced accordingly. These lead-glass and ruby compositions should not be confused with "treated" ruby of any type, even those treated by extreme techniques in which some minor glass residues or fracture filling may be present; treated rubies are essentially "all ruby," are much more durable, and have greater value.
Anyone interested in knowing more about these stones, who might have had an unfortunate experience related to a piece of ruby jewelry, or who is concerned about having purchased one unknowingly can contact Antoinette Matlins (www.AntoinetteMatlins.com) or visit the Accredited Gemologists Association website (www.accreditedgemologists.org). Consumer complaint forms are also available on the AGA website, and can be submitted to the AGA.