Fake Rubies, the FTC, and Macy’s

Corundum is the natural stone that provides us with rubies (red) and sapphires (blue).  It has historically been prized for its unique color, durability, and high value.  As long as people have sought nature’s prized jewels, there have been disreputable people trying to take advantage of customers through deceptive and unfair practices.  In jewelry this has been achieved by passing off “natural” stones (stones created by natural process that come out of the ground) as something that is simply not natural (e.g. rubies of poor quality that have been enhanced by infusion of leaded glass, or some other foreign material to make them look natural).  The disreputable dealer then sells the “treated” stones as “natural” for the price a natural stone demands while paying a fraction of the price as cost.  For everyone but the consumer, “treatments” equate to windfall profits because the consumer does not know they are not buying the real thing.

Ruby

The red above is a ruby. The blue below is a sapphire.

Sapphire

In the first ten years of the 21st century rubies ceased being freely available from Burma/Myanmar as political conditions led to sanctions.  Certain companies began taking low quality corundum from other areas, often in Africa, and after “treatment” created composite “rubies” loaded with leaded glass and other foreign material.

Report of the American Gemological Association to the FTC, September 28, 2012

According to the report of the American Gemological Association to the FTC dated September 28, 2012:

“Subsequent research by AGA members. in association with several of the world’s leading gem testing laboratories, revealed that the lead-glass became an integral part of the blended product and cannot be removed without destroying the entire “gem.”  Furthermore, the properties associated with “ruby” are no longer the same since the properties associated with lead-glass are also present and inseparable.  These are two critical differences between this product and treated rubies.

Without the lead glass, there is no “ruby” in terms of color and transparency, but with the lead glass, the physical properties are so altered that the resulting “ruby” lacks the characteristics that make “ruby” a ruby.  The fusion of these two very different materials creates something that is neither ruby nor glass, but a new type of imitation that combines properties of both, each of which is inseparable from the other-in short, a new type of “composite” (an imitation created from two or more materials being joined together in some way, to imitate a rarer, and more costly gem).  Composites can be formed from two or more parts of a genuine stone, or two or more parts of an imitation or synthetic, or from a combination of genuine and artificial.”

Additionally the AGA stated, “This new product now being sold as “treated ruby,” at inflated prices, poses a serious threat to consumers that was unknown at the time of the last FTC review more than 10 years ago.”

The AGA report to the FTC illustrated a lead glass filed ruby as follows:

Lead glass RubyLead glass filled rubies took the gemstone industry by storm in 2005.  With wholesale prices ranging from as low as $2-$15 per carat, several sectors of the industry took pre-emptive action asking labs to have stones treated in this manner clearly disclosed.  Due to the extreme extent of this treatment and concerns over durability, the AGL identifies such stones as:

Composite Ruby, with an additional comment stating: This ruby has been heavily treated Filled Rubyusing a high refractive index lead-glass to fill fractures and cavities, vastly improving the apparent clarity and potentially adding weight.  The glass may be damaged by a variety of solvents.  Stability: Good to Fair.”  The photographs here were taken by Jessica Arditi and Sun Joo Chung.

The lead-glass filling is so pervasive and there is such a close match between the refractive index of the glass and the ruby, that it is often difficult to fully recognize the extent of this treatment.  This image illustrates one of the distinctive features of composite rubies, consisting of large numbers of gas bubbles occurring within the lead glass.

FTC Regulations Require Disclosure

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has regulations to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive sales practices that are consistently violated by these lead infused “treated” stones.

§ 23.22 Disclosure of treatments to gemstones.

Section 23.22 (Disclosure of Treatments to Gemstones) provides:

It is unfair or deceptive to fail to disclose that a gemstone has been treated if:

(a) The treatment is not permanent.  The seller should disclose that the gemstone has been treated and that the treatment is or may not be permanent;

(b) The treatment creates special care requirements for the gemstone.  The seller should disclose that the gemstone has been treated and has special care requirements.  It is also recommended that the seller disclose the special care requirements to the purchaser;

(c) The treatment has a significant effect on the stone’s value.  The seller should disclose that the gemstone has been treated.

Note to § 23.22:

The disclosures outlined in this section are applicable to sellers at every level of trade, as defined in § 23.0(b) of these Guides, and they may be made at the point of sale prior to sale; except that where a jewelry product can be purchased without personally viewing the product, (e.g., direct mail catalogs, online services, televised shopping programs) disclosure should be made in the solicitation for or description of the product.

§ 23.23 Misuse of the words “ruby,” “sapphire,” “emerald,” “topaz,” “stone,” “birthstone,” “gemstone,” etc.

(a) It is unfair or deceptive to use the unqualified words “ruby,” “sapphire,” “emerald,” “topaz,” or the name of any other precious or semi-precious stone to describe any product that is not in fact a natural stone of the type described.

(b) It is unfair or deceptive to use the word “ruby,” “sapphire,” “emerald,” “topaz,” or the name of any other precious or semi-precious stone, or the word “stone,” “birthstone,” “gemstone,” or similar term to describe a laboratory-grown, laboratory-created, [manufacturer name]-created, synthetic, imitation, or simulated stone, unless such word or name is immediately preceded with equal conspicuousness by the word “laboratory-grown,” “laboratory-created,” “[manufacturer name]-created,” “synthetic,” or by the word “imitation” or “simulated,” so as to disclose clearly the nature of the product and the fact it is not a natural gemstone.

Note to paragraph (b): The use of the word “faux” to describe a laboratory-created or imitation stone is not an adequate disclosure that the stone is not natural.

(c) It is unfair or deceptive to use the word “laboratory-grown,” “laboratory-created,” “[manufacturer name]-created,” or “synthetic” with the name of any natural stone to describe any industry product unless such industry product has essentially the same optical, physical, and chemical properties as the stone named.

§ 23.24 Misuse of the words “real,” “genuine,” “natural,” “precious,” etc.

It is unfair or deceptive to use the word “real,” “genuine,” “natural,” “precious,” “semi-precious,” or similar terms to describe any industry product that is manufactured or produced artificially.

Treated Rubies have Lower Value and Require Special Care

According to numerous experts in the field, these composite rubies have a significantly lower value, some as low as $5 to $20 per carat, require special care, and are no longer as durable.  Again, the American Gemological report states “…selling this product as ruby when the most important physical characteristics associated with ruby-its toughness, hardness and overall durability, ranking it next to diamond in terms of these characteristics-is not present in this new product.  These composites are not only less durable, they are very fragile.”

The refractive index (RI) relates to how light moves through and between the ruby and the glass.  The RI of lead glass is almost a perfect match of the ruby, that is, as light moves through the stone, you cannot see where the stone ends and the glass begins.  The RI of the lead glass conceals the fissures/ fractures making it impossible to discern how great a risk there is in normal wear.

Another interesting aspect is that the filler lead glass cannot be removed without destroying the stones structural cohesiveness.  In addition, the lead glass increases the weight and it is not possible to determine the actual weight of the ruby portion. But, the lead glass is softer and thus the composite or treated ruby is less durable, more fragile and more vulnerable to cracking, chipping, breaking than a natural ruby.

The highly respected Gemological Institute of America (GIA) refers to these lead glass rubies as “a manufactured product” while the AGA refers to them as “composites”.  Whatever you call them they are not the same as a ruby that comes out of the ground, and under the FTC requirements, the truth about them should be disclosed.

Macy’s Failure to Disclose

But, sadly for consumers, the truth is not disclosed.  Good Morning America did an undercover purchase of rubies at Macy’s and found sales people touting composite stones as real, and getting real ruby prices for them.  KPIX Channel 5 in San Francisco purchased rubies at Macy’s and found the same thing, false rubies sold as real with no disclaimers.

Appraisal

For many reasons, including insurance, it is sound practice to have jewelry appraised.  If you bought a ruby at Macy’s as featured in the Good Morning America report and wish to get it appraised, you should do so at a reputable appraiser, such as the American Gemological Association.  Below is a report on a ruby from November 9, 2007:

Ruby brief

Proposed Class Action vs. Macy’s

The Brandi Law Firm is representing people who bought ruby jewelry at Macy’s in California in a proposed class action pending in San Francisco Superior Court before the Hon. John Munter. (San Francisco Superior Court No. CGC 10-495868).