Asia may be home to some of the world’s largest gem trading hubs, but the fears of fakes and fraud can be a massive deterrent for visitors trying to buy precious stones while traveling around the area. Nevertheless, gemologists agree that if travelers are cautious, there is nothing to worry about, and follow some simple tips on how to distinguish real stones from phonies.
There are hundreds of different gemstones in the world. Even though the classification between “precious” and “semiprecious” stones tends to be a grey area, both are called “gems” or “gemstones” when used in jewelry. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires are commonly regarded as precious stones, while all the rest are semiprecious.
Thailand, Hong Kong and Jaipur in India are three of Asia’s key gem trading centers.
Jaipur is India’s hub for the sale of gems, which are sold at kiosks, stores and street markets throughout its Old City area.
While Jaipur’s gem trade mainly focuses on lower end stones, Hong Kong is No. 1 location for expensive gems in the region, including “million-dollar-plus jade and ruby pieces.” Why is Hong Kong so? Tax-free shopping makes it an attractive tourist destination, contributing more than US$ 1 billion a year to its gemstone export trade. Thailand, meanwhile, is one of the world’s top colored gemstone cutting and trading centers, exporting in excess of US$600 million worth of gems a year. Bangkok’s Silom neighborhood in particular is home to hundreds of gem traders, while the town of Chanthaburi in southeast Thailand is a major center for stone cutting and boasts a big weekend gem market.
Most of the gems sold in these three centers are imported from other parts of the world. The leading sources of colored gemstones, such as rubies, jade, emeralds and sapphires, are Brazil, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Tanzania. Among the main producers of diamonds are Russia, Australia, Canada, South Africa and Botswana.
As Thailand, India and Hong Kong are major gem export centers, they offer tourists better value on stones than they would find in their home countries, which are most likely at the end of the supply chain.
But do it wisely and don’t get scammed! The golden rule, especially when buying expensive stones, is to have them assessed for quality and authenticity at a reliable gem analysis laboratory before purchase. These include the Gubelin Gem Lab in Hong Kong, Jaipur’s International Gem Testing Laboratory and Bangkok’s GIA and AIGS. Gem analysis reports often cost less than US$100 and can be completed within 2-3 days. While some glass imitation gems can be spotted easily due to unnaturally-bright colors and small bubbles inside the stone, sophisticated fakes can only be identified by a gemologist.
The very act of asking to do a lab analysis on a gem would help flush out unreliable traders. However, lab reports are not always feasible due to time constraints for tourists, or perhaps the cost may be prohibitive when buying cheaper gems. If lack of time is the problem, then buyers wanting an expensive stone should hire a consultant from a gem analysis lab to provide on-the-spot advice.
Never let a commission-hungry tuk-tuk driver take you to buy jewelry (that same rule applies to tailored clothing) and, it may seem like common sense, but never buy anything expensive directly off the street. It would be like buying a Rolex from the trunk of a car and expecting it to be real—not going to happen. Don’t trust tour guides and taxi drivers is the message. Avoid dealing with gem traders recommended by a tour guide, a taxi driver or a tout. These people normally get paid hefty commissions to bring you into an unreliable gem shop.
Next, real diamonds’ color should be stronger when you look at it from the back, instead from the front. Fake gemstones often have shadowing (double lines) along each of their cuts. Real ones don’t. When assessing diamonds, a real stone’s color should be stronger when you look at it from the back. Fake diamonds tend to have brighter colors when you look at them from the front. Don’t be afraid to ask to see the gemologists for their qualifications when in doubt.
Try to be learned on the topic. Pick up some basic terms relating to gems, particularly the type of stone you’re interested in, and use them in conversation with a seller to show you’re not an easy mark. If you have done some basic research about a particular gem you will be able to ask the seller about things like its cut, color, clarity and source.
Untrustworthy gem shops often have very big product ranges, trying to distract you with their variety. Reliable shops typically have smaller ranges. Also try to to compare prices and sale tactics. If you want to shop for gems by yourself, make sure you visit several different stores to compare prices and also to note the behavior and sale tactics of the staff in each shop. You will start to identify patterns of behavior, which will help you avoid being scammed.
Before you travel to a city to buy gems, research reviews of shops online to find the best-regarded traders. When in doubt, pick a shop staffed by trained gemologists with qualifications from GIA or other renowned institutes. Ask to see their qualifications.
Blood Diamond is not only a movie but also a reality. These “conflict diamonds” – a term coined by the United Nations in the 1990s – are mined in areas controlled by illegitimate forces and then used to fund military actions against the internationally recognized government, ultimately leading to great suffering by civilians. So also see if the jeweller can also provide proof of this if you are looking at ethical options.
The best thing to remember is that if a deal seems too good to be true, it is. When you’re in a store, the number one thing is feeling comfortable with the venue and sales staff. If you don’t feel comfortable, leave. Make sure the shop is well-lit and clean, with a digital scale, large, white paper mat for showing pieces, tweezers and a loupe—which is a handheld magnifier for inspecting the jewelry. These are signs of a quality jeweler.
Happy gem shopping and be safe!
Check out my related post: Do you like Jade?