A jewellers guide to buying gemstones abroad
At some point in the early days of a jeweller’s creative and professional journey, the issue of sourcing gemstones is bound to arise. Perhaps, having previously bought online, or at one of the UK’s rock and gem shows, you are now planning to travel abroad to one of the world’s gem trading hubs to hunt down the perfect gemstones for your next design.
Where to begin, though? Luckily, gemmologist, photographer and author, Kim Rix, has some advice for students taking their first buying trip abroad.
The most important message? Know Before You Go. Doing your research is the best thing you can do to get the best out of your trip and avoid making unfortunate mistakes. Here are a few questions you need to ask before you set foot on foreign soil.
How can I spot a fake?
It’s one thing to end up with a fake gemstone as an individual consumer but as a jewellery business you have a huge legal and moral responsibility to your customers. And don’t forget your reputation is on the line as well!
The only way you can be 100% sure that your gemstones are genuine is by having them tested at a reputable gem lab. That said, there are ways of spotting the more obvious fakes that will enable you to focus your purchasing efforts.
One of the best things you can do is equip yourself with a 10X jeweller’s loupe, which will enable you to see whether the stone has inclusions. Most genuine gemstones contain inclusions, so beware of flawless stones (especially at a low price). Bubbles are a type of inclusion, common to natural and cheap synthetic gems. The presence of tiny, perfectly rounded air bubbles can be a sign of glass.
You should also be careful of lesser value gemstones masquerading as higher-value stones, or gems with misleading names. For example, iolite is sometimes sold with the name ‘water sapphire’ despite not being a sapphire at all.
Gemstone treatment is not necessarily a problem, as long as the seller is upfront about the treatment the gemstone has undergone. Watch out for composite ‘rubies’ and ‘sapphires’ which are made when the fractures in poor quality corundum are filled with glass. You don’t want to find your purchases crumbling, cracking or melting as you try to set them!
If you are spending a considerable sum of money, don’t be afraid to ask to have a gemstone tested before purchase. In fact, the very act of asking can deter some sleazy, good for nothing swindlers – an honest trader should be happy to accompany you to a laboratory for testing before purchase. A refusal is a red flag.
Am I going to the right country?
Combining your gem buying trip with a family holiday can be a good way to save money. Just remember to factor in travel within your destination – you don’t want to have to spend the best part of a day on a bus travelling from your hotel to the market, shops or museums.
Check that your chosen destination is the best place to buy what you’re after. Some countries are known for mining certain gemstones but this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the best deals there. Major gem trading and processing hubs like Bangkok and Jaipur are generally a better bet, as there is a huge amount of choice.
As a jewellery designer, you’ll be looking for loose stones, but check the rules before you leave. It’s forbidden to take raw uncut gemstones out of Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Myanmar, for example.
Where should I buy my gemstones?
You’ll usually find good deals at the gem markets. Visiting a gem market is a great adventure, but be prepared for the hustle and bustle! Be aware of local customs and remember that you may need to negotiate without a common language.
Annual gem shows e.g. the show in Tucson in Arizona, USA, are also a great place to see heaps of stones and get some inspiration. Many shows are vast, requiring stamina and a game plan. Again, it comes down to research. Decide what you want to see and set yourself a budget. Don’t forget to factor in the duties you’ll have to pay at the airport on your return to the UK.
How do I decide what gemstones to buy?
As a creative, you may well find inspiration in a gemstone’s colour, pattern or symbolism. Don’t forget to factor in practicality, too. You will need to give your customers advice on how to wear and look after the jewellery you create for them. If someone is looking for a ring to wear every day, you want to know enough about gemstones to steer them away from softer, more fragile stones like fluorite, apatite and moonstone.
For country-specific advice, local know-how and step-by-step guides to buying gemstones with confidence, check out the Gemstone Detective series at https://www.gemstonedetective.com/
Thanks to Kim Rix aka the Gemstone Detective for this guest blog post. Kim has written a series of pocket travel guides to help you feel more confident when purchasing gemstones and jewellery around the world. The Gemstone Detective series is aimed at tourists wanting to purchase a souvenir on holiday but has also proved a big hit with jewellery designers, especially those just starting out in the industry so do take a look