Ethically-sourced sapphires and fair dealings.
December 6, 2009 6:12 AM   Subscribe

Are certificates of origin for sapphires a scam? Is my jeweler going to overcharge me for a sapphire, and should I get one online instead of through him?

I'm trying to get a custom sapphire engagement ring made. My beloved has picked out a ring from Brilliant Earth which she likes, both for the design (which I'm using for inspiration) and for their ethical origin materials. As far as I can tell, their claims for their sapphires are based on them coming from Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka's strict worker-rights laws and ecological preservation practices.

I'm thinking that it's reasonable to conclude that "Ceylon" sapphires, from Sri Lanka, are about as ethically-sourced as it gets. I brought this up with a jeweler I'm working with, and he said he doubted his sapphire supplier could produce certificates of origin, and that the whole concept was more or less a ruse because you just can't trace a sapphire's origin in this market.

I'm also concerned about getting a fair price. For my price range of ~$500, he estimated that a round-cut mined sapphire would be around 0.75-1 carat. But online it looks like they're in the $200 range or cheaper, for larger Ceylon stones with the same cut and with a bright color (which is supposed to be more expensive).

Is the jeweler just shining me on because he can't get ethical sapphires? Is it rude or foolish at this point (he's already ordered some in for me to look at, which should be arriving soon) to tell him I'd like to buy one elsewhere (from a presumably non-scamming website) and bring it in to be set?

I'm aware of lab-created sapphires, and am pretty sure I don't want one. For private responses: (previously)
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Your jeweler is right that these things are very easy to fake. Stones can pass through a lot of hands on their way from Sri Lanka to your front door, and so there's no way to be absolutely sure that someone didn't just mock up a document that lies about its origins. Your jeweler should be able to get Ceylon sapphires easily, though -- they're very common and the most highly prized, because they're the most beautiful.

The thing about jewelers is that you should think about them the way you think about doctors or accountants. If you have a bad gut feeling about one, even if there's nothing tangible you can put your finger on, then don't give them your money. You need to find someone you can trust to build a good working relationship with. Local jewelers who have been in your area for a long time are a good place to look. Anyone who's been at a fixed location for a long time is someone who does good, honest business.

I'd like to stress this: on the retail end of things, the vast majority of independent jewelers are honest people who want to build a lifelong relationship with you. It's really mostly at the mine/DeBeers end that things are shady. When shopping online, know your dealer. Be sure you're buying from a reputable vendor.

And given that, I'd like to strongly encourage you to re-think your stance on lab stones. Not only are you getting a real sapphire, and one that didn't require exploiting anyone or guns or tanks or anything like that, but you're also getting something that is WAY more environmentally responsible (mining is a disaster of both human and planetary proportions), and if you get it through a company like Chatham, a large enough stone can carry with it a lifetime guarantee. Even emeralds. Find a jeweler who will warranty a natural emerald against damage, and I'll eat your underwear.

I understand that there's a kind of "but that's kind of fake" reaction most people have, but bear in mind all of those positives, and bear in mind that it's a real stone and that most companies offer flawed versions of their stones to make them look not quite so impossibly awesome.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:05 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

What about getting an artificial Sapphire? It's the exact same chemical composition.
posted by delmoi at 7:35 AM on December 6, 2009

But online it looks like they're in the $200 range or cheaper, for larger Ceylon stones with the same cut and with a bright color (which is supposed to be more expensive).

Sapphires are commonly heat-treated to make their color more even and darker. This "enhancement" does not need to be disclosed, it's considered "standard practice" like oiling emeralds. Sri Lanka has (IMO) the most beautiful natural sapphires in the world, even the lighter ones have a sort of fire which is quite spectacular (which is diminished when they're heated.) As your jeweler if his price is for an unenhanced sapphire.

Meaningful certificates are indeed difficult to come by. Gem sellers are known to each other by their reputations, not because of a paper trail.
posted by desuetude at 8:51 AM on December 6, 2009

I have bought sapphires and rubies (and other stones) in Sri Lanka from the government guaranteed gemstone trading centre. The stones a guaranteed to be what they say they are or the dealer loses his licence. That said, there is no guarantee that they are mined ethically.

I'm thinking that it's reasonable to conclude that "Ceylon" sapphires, from Sri Lanka, are about as ethically-sourced as it gets.

Actually, Australian sapphires are probably the most ethically sourced as they have to abide by stringent environmental guidelines and the miners themselves are just like you and me (ie: not slave labour, not underpaid etc.)

Google Australian sapphires or have a look at this mob.
posted by Kerasia at 12:47 PM on December 6, 2009

I am not your jeweller, and I have "retired" from jewellery and yet I can't stay away from these questions because I miss it, kind of. What I liked best then was helping everyone to get what they want and be happy. So, that's the goal, right? Happy?

So, your girlfriend picked out a ring she likes from Brilliant Earth, for the design and their principals. (By the way - most jewellers re-use every bit of scrap metal as smart practice, and it was all still mined once upon a time, and so that's a little hype-y on B.E.'s part. It's not like pop bottles ending up in a junk heap - nobody in the trade ever doesn't eventially send all their scrap precious metal to the smelter. They nearly always have little boxes with dust and single chain links and filings and such and they collect it over years.) That's fine, and that's their thing that they're promoting for feel-good added value - but your jeweller's not advertising that though he probably does it. He buys from a refinary, and that's where some or all of what they sell him comes from. But you could have just bought the ring from Brilliant Earth and she would have been happy and saved yourself your questions but that hasn't happened because...I don't know why and even the other question doesn't really tell exactly why... (but my years of experience tell me that guys like to be more involved and have some control over elements of major purchases...)

Brilliant Earth's prices are based on mass producing and procuring their settings and stones and offering their package and principals and guarantees - and that's all there in the price without the overhead and all the other considerations of a retail space. Your jeweller is doing custom work, with all the back and forth and myriad decisions and rent and equipment to pay for and suppliers to work with for a one-off item - with service throughout and often with service afterward included, like sizing and tipping or tightening prongs or re-plating or polishing. Custom work = custom prices, and individualized product and service. It's a good thing. Either you buy into all Brilliant Earth has to offer, or trust your jeweller and please stop agonizing, especially because in the range your looking at, there's not a huge margin for profit and the very, very small premium you pay for working face to face with an actual human is something you can't really put an actual value on. In fact, your jeweller's time is his greatest expense. You can work with him and trust and have a great experience if you'll let yourself. If you don't trust him, then move on quickly please and spare yourselves the agony. As I recall, the keystone markup in retail mass-produced jewellery was about 3.65 at a major jewellery chain here in Toronto. It's actually less for custom and estate, at least where I worked.

The thing is, ethical sources aside, you really need to just see a stone and like it. Sapphires, heat-treated or otherwise, have inclusions and secondary colours and tones and more lustre than sparkle. They are just corundum, and that's watch faces and sandpaper and stuff like that - pretty ones are sapphires; red ones are rubies, other ones have other fancy names. I lived through a pink sapphire phase a few years ago, and I'm only just now recovering from that. They're very nearly all heat-treated in the range you're looking in, most are pretty, nice sources are nice - but in the scheme, this one stone does not a huge difference make, really - it just matters to you two. So if the ethical source is the dealbreaker and you want to go with that, just do it and move forward. But, if you can get past that, because I know I'm fatigued enough from worrying about where my coffee and tee shirts and chocolate and other things in daily life stuff come from and oy, if I had to worry about every single thing... Well, we all try. And no matter where it come from:

You want to see your stone, and look at the facets to see if they're well-cut, and the stone from all angles to see if it's well-proportioned and if the colour is even all the way through it and, well, in general if you're getting a beautiful stone that you understand the value of rather than just some heat-treated corundum based on the best example pictured top-up and photoshopped on the internet.

Your jeweller will show you a range of stones to help you understand what you're getting, and that education has value - even if you get your stone from another source. Most jewellers do this to earn goodwill and to help customers make good purchases they'll be happy with. Look at the loose stones from all side, and upside down, and in all different lights (daylight, fluorescent and incandescent). Don't worry so much about carat weight - look at the size in the setting and depth and proportions. Some sapphires get their colour from having a deep stone with a low crown and large table - others will be more shallow-cut, but better colour all the way through so a higher price. The price isn't per carat across the board - it's per carat within a range of similar stones with certain qualities. Look at the facets - are they well-polished stones, with the facets all even and matched well and no open inclusions? Sapphires often get "streaky" or have "windows" - so tilt them and look at them at different angles. Good saturation and hue is more valuable than a larger carat weight.

And, look at it in the setting - you're probably doing white gold in your budget, which isn't as white as platinum and its yellowish tint will highlight any greenish undertones in the stone somewhat if you don't keep it rhodium-plated regularly. Ask him to show you a new white gold ring versus an estate one, same with platinum - you'll see the difference (he may have some in for repair that he can show you for comparison). White gold isn't as pretty as platinum over time. It takes on a different patina of scratches too. People will say platinum is "softer", which isn't true. It's denser, and heavier, and takes a finer patina of little scratches so larger scratches don't show as much. White gold is "harder", but will still scratch - just not in the same way. So, a sapphire ring can get a little tired looking depending on the setting, where as a diamond will have brilliance and life and sparkle to detract a bit. Also? All rings and stones collect gunk from lotions and soaps and skin oils. All stones look prettier clean - but since they don't have great refraction, more lustre (hopefully a nice velvety kind of look) rather, sapphires really really need to be kept clean, especially underneath, for them to have any life. Just like with cars, a shiny clean old car is better than a dirty beat up new one. Think beyond the presentation into daily life, years and years and years from now. Look around you, at rings on other people, especially more mature women. Is the setting you're choosing appropriate for a forty, fifty or sixty year old hand? (Which is why I just wear a gorgeously hand-engraved wide comfort-fit platinum band only.) (Oh, and yes - don't just think about the engagement ring - what kind of wedding band is going to fit next to it if that's the choice? Will she move the ring to her other hand, or will it need a fitted band, or what? I hated dealing with lack of foresight more than anything in my retail days!) (Sorry - ranting and obsession with minutiae over.)

It's really loving what she's going to own and wear that matters. In fact, she should choose it, since it's kind of not a surprise. She doesn't need to know the price - he can show the selection to her without revealing it. Certain tones look better on the skin than others - it's one thing to look at them online, but because the setting and the skin surrounding it are something to consider, you might want to. That's the difference, forgive me, based on my experience, in the two main approaches to purchasing and selling jewellery. One school will concentrate on the item and its value - the other on the person wearing it and the whole package understanding that the romance is a part of it and nickel and diming diminishes that considerably (I'm saying it's a male vs. female thing - but I don't want to get jumped on for that). Also, think of it this way - my husband can't buy me red sweaters, because he doesn't understand that I like bluish-red, not orange-ish reds, because of my complexion and hair colour. He doesn't see the big difference, but I don't expect him to. I know the difference is subtle, but it matters to me. I could also mention comparisons between cheap cashmere and good cashmere etc. - they're subtle, and it takes time to understand such things. Give your jeweller your time and an open mind too. Nobody wants unhappy customers, really. It's just not worth it.

It is really lovely to think that all Brilliant Earth is doing is going to revolutionize jewellery-buying, and I admire the ambition and work they've put into what they're doing and holy moley what a fancy website - but truthfully, shopping locally and even considering an estate item is more earth-conscious than all that. No matter what they have to offer online, you'd be buying a pig in a poke and the value of sending money into your local economy might outweigh any harm done ethically by the locally-supplied stone's origins.

Forget a little bit about value for price, and think about beauty and romance. There are so many variables here that don't follow traditional retail rules; and if we were taking about cars or Ipods or computers I'd be right there with you holding out for the best you can get because then it's apples to apples. But here you're comparing Spartans to Fujis to Honey Crisps and throwing organic value into the mix.

But also considering you're buying an item that will be completely unique and expensive - yet have about a third of its value for your resale once it's out the door - and I spent fifteen years helping guys give up a little control when purchasing engagement rings - I'm saying that you might want to start moving yourself out of the stress of the doing and into the joy of the done.
posted by peagood at 6:53 PM on December 6, 2009 [39 favorites]

I broke my trackpad favoriting peagood's advice. Read that three times.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:54 PM on December 6, 2009

My sister (an amateur jeweler) sent us to a rock and gem show to pick out a sapphire when she made an engagement ring for us.

Although the website is very tacky, the show was amazing. Many of the dealers were retirees with rock hunting and lapidary hobbies. Most of them were very willing to talk about the origins and histories of the items that they were selling.

Just don't mention that the stone is for an engagement ring. It will inflate the price.
posted by abirae at 8:21 AM on December 7, 2009

My sister (an amateur jeweler) sent us to a rock and gem show

Incidentally, for those who are able, the annual gem show in Tucson is the largest and awesomest in the country. My father goes every year and gets most of the colored stone stock for his store that way. You can find exceedingly rare and unusual finds in Tucson. He used to bring me back amazing stuff -- hand carved wooly mammoth ivory, a pocket knife with a peterite handle, fossils, you name it. And some of those gemstones were, if anything, even more amazing.
posted by middleclasstool at 10:06 PM on December 7, 2009

She said yes! Thanks to everyone, especially Peagood, for the great advice. "Out of the stress of the doing and into the joy of the done" did become something of a mantra for me. I went with the created stone that the jeweler had to offer, and ended up with a beautiful ring that she absolutely loves. I'm so happy!
posted by lostburner at 6:51 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

STFU! That was you?!!
posted by SLC Mom at 8:00 AM on March 9, 2010

Congratulations. I'm so very happy for you, and extra props for going for the lab stone.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:13 PM on March 9, 2010

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