Emerald Filling Case Goes to Court

By Whitney Sielaff

The last time you bought or sold an emerald, the odds are substantial that you participated in an illegal transaction. I do not write this lightly. The infraction, one of which the majority of you are likely unaware, is as serious and more pervasive than false discounting claims or gold underkarating.

National Jeweler began looking closely into the colored stone market about half a year ago after we received reports of veteran gem dealers being duped into buying undisclosed treated stones. My thought at the time was that if the specialists themselves aren’t safe, where does that leave the jeweler, for whom worrying about gems is only one of a legion of daily concerns?

As our research has progressed, I miserably find that the pendulum of my focus has traveled full swing through the market, from one disreputable or illegal practice to another and encompassing each of the "big three" gems.

Under the new Federal Trade Commission jewelry trade guides, cooking sapphires and emeralds to improve their color does not require disclosure. As I’ve written on this page before, however, National Jeweler and many others believe this is an unethical position and one that could lead to image problems for our industry. More malignant is the nondisclosure of ruby fracture-filling, which some believe could involve more than half of today’s ruby market.

Now we come to emeralds. Ruby dealers can bring to the table a reasonable argument that filling of their goods is a byproduct of heating and often does not greatly affect appearance anyway. But the nature of emerald treatment allows for no such claim. In this case, it truly seems that misrepresentation is the primary objective.

This isn’t about oiling. One of the oldest-known common gemstone treatments, oiling is known about by nearly everyone, from miners to consumers. It’s expected and accepted. But a newer practice that has evolved over the past decade or so, originally meant to improve on the oiling process, remains cloaked in a veil of deviously contrived ignorance.

Among dealers it’s referred to as the "Opticon" process, for the best-known of the substances used in the treatment. And like other treatments, though legitimate and benign when used in its intended manner, it has developed into a problem of scandalous proportions through the actions of those who would use it to deceive.

The basic details of the emerald filling process itself are quite simple. Treaters vacuum-pack the fractures of an emerald with Opticon or a similar resin. Then they seal the viscous substance into the stone by adding a hardener that solidifies the resin near the surface into a sealant. The finished emerald becomes comparable to a corked bottle.

Much more astonishing is the complex web of nuances and variations this simple process has spawned. Filling frequently occurs as early as at the mining level. The international diamond trade has rendered it an infraction punishable by expulsion from the world’s bourses to fracture-fill diamonds in the rough. Treatment is reversed and eliminated in cutting. Thus it is patently obvious that the objective of treating stones in the rough is to deceive the buyer.

With emeralds, however, trusted sources estimate that some 90% are treated as early as at the mines themselves. In South America, it’s not uncommon for miners to fill emeralds with anything on hand, from high-grade Opticon to crank case oil. The cheaper the better. Worse, fillers may be dyed green to make them less perceptible. With so many other trading levels for these stones to pass through on their way to the you and your customers, then, it’s not surprising when experts estimate the likely magnitude of the treatment’s usage to be monumental.

According to C.R. "Cap" Beesley of New York’s Gemcorp, a nonprofit educational group, "the size of the problem is beyond belief." After the recent high-profile case of the fracture-filled ruby necklace sold without disclosure at Sotheby’s, the auction houses opened their colored stone lots to Gemcorp for inspection. Beesley says 70% to 80% of the emeralds accompanied by lab grading reports had been subjected to Opticon-type filling and sealing. Incredibly, however, he adds, the treatment was not listed on even a single certificate.

This lack of certificate notification points up one of the gravest issues concerning the treatment: even the experts appear to remain in the dark. Scientists at the Gemological Institute of America report that study is in progress. But no claims have been made as yet for proven knowledge of such critical details as the treatment’s permanence or its effect on stone durability.

Most labs are even unwilling to specify what type of filling particular emeralds have undergone. GIA’s stance, a legitimate one, is that it is often impossible to tell for certain what type of filling has been used if it is sealed within a stone and thus inaccessible. To do so arguably would be merely guesswork.

What’s more, however, it’s quite possible and indeed not unusual for grading experts to miss all together that an emerald has been treated. Even Beesley, for whom fuller understanding and disclosure of colored stone treatments has become a personal crusade, admits that Opticon-type treatment can sometimes pass by him undetected. For those with experience in spotting the frequently cryptic properties that flag the treatment, he says, perhaps about half of treated emeralds are detectable.

Where does that leave you? Should you be worried? As I write, a jeweler is codefendant in a Washington, D.C., case over a filled emerald gone bad. Basically, a customer bought from him for $14,500 a 3.65-carat emerald bezel-set in a ring. After fractures in the stone started to become readily perceptible, the consumer sued the jeweler, the independent appraiser of the stone and her insurance company.

We’ll report on the details of this case after its outcome. Already, however, it’s apparent that our industry is an undeniable loser. The sad truth is that, while most gem treatments should be great blessings to our trade, greatly expanding our assortment of highly attractive material, they instead seem poised to seriously damage us. Instead of being up front, too many of those dealing in these treated goods, either through ignorance or outright dishonesty, are choosing illegally not to disclose.

And with emerald filling taking one step further into public scrutiny, the time bomb of undisclosed gemstone treatment smolders ever closer to explosion. Right now, technology makes it possible for anyone with $1000 to invest in a vacuum pump and a $20, eight-ounce bottle of resin and hardener—enough to treat hundreds of stones—to set up as a filler. So don’t expect the practice to be curbed.

Dealer-level movement toward greater disclosure is progressing painfully slowly. National Jeweler, however, plans to help bring gemstone treatment issues to the surface using educational opportunities such as the conference program of our Miller Freeman sister, the JA International Jewelry Show.

At the current July show, we’ve arranged for Beesley’s Gemcorp to publicly discuss big three treatments. And we plan to follow up soon with panel discussions involving a broader spectrum of interests. With little discussion of these issues—possibly the most contentious and ominous facing our industry today—occurring elsewhere, it’s in your interest to attend.