Something is rotten in the state of Mogok
April 23, 2010 12:19 PM   Subscribe

What's with all the cheap rubies on ebay?

I occasionally browse loose gemstones for sale on ebay, not for any particular purpose, just because I like sparkly things. I've not done it in about a year, but this time through I'm noticing a LOT of really, really, really cheap rubies. Like, a dollar for a one-carat ruby. They all claim to be "natural," too, which has me suspicious; I know that lab rubies can be sold as "genuine" but I don't know about "natural."

These aren't really top-quality rubies; the color is good, or appears to be, but the clarity is so-so at best. Most of them say they've been treated by "lead-glass filling," which I know affects the value, but does it result in a markedly off-appearance stone? Because if the effect is pretty and permanent, I might buy a few just to satisfy my internal magpie. And what the heck is "chatham diffusion?" I know that the Chatham process is one method of making lab corundum, but what's with the diffusion?

Some of these stones are obviously lab origin at best; there's no such thing as an internally flawless ruby the size of a quail's egg for fifteen dollars no matter how you slice it. So my question is, are there new treatment methods that can turn industrial-grade ruby into kind of crappy gem-quality ruby? Are they using magic photography techniques to make the rubies appear markedly less shitty than they are? Are they lying and selling lab rubies as mined stones, or are they even corundum at all? Because right now I'm just straight-up puzzled.
posted by KathrynT to Shopping (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's really, really easy to make corundum in the lab. I made a couple of really low-quality stones in high school with an oxyhydrogen torch, some firebrick and high temp cement, and some plumbing pieces from home depot. It's entirely possible some bored chem geek made these in his garage.
posted by Oktober at 12:30 PM on April 23, 2010

Response by poster: Oktober, so your hunch is that these are crappy created rubies and the sellers are either lying or else being extremely dishonest about their origin? (Although, I suppose if your bored chem geek is in Madagascar, then the "Origin: Madagascar" statement isn't really FALSE. . .)
posted by KathrynT at 12:51 PM on April 23, 2010

You can ask sellers questions on ebay. If it isn't exactly what he tells you, you can sick ebay's lawyers on him later.
posted by fatty magoo at 1:47 PM on April 23, 2010

I'm way out of date on this, but yeah, my theory is that they're probably cheaply made synthetics, either made by a hobbyist or discards from a more established lab.
posted by Oktober at 2:04 PM on April 23, 2010

Heat-treated rubies can be called "natural." You can turn brownish stones to a uniform pinkish red with heat.
posted by desuetude at 4:06 PM on April 23, 2010

Many of them are mined stones. Pretty, but essentially worthless.
posted by timeo danaos at 4:59 PM on April 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: An update: I found the answer. Or rather, I was told an answer by a guy at a rock shop, and at a sufficiently coarse level, the details all check out.

There's currently an embargo on shipping ruby from Burma to the US. Actually, there's an embargo on all sorts of things, but ruby is the relevant one here. Anyway, apparently this has created a huge grey-market opportunity. Large quantities of industrial-quality rough ruby are shipped from Burma to Thailand and Mozambique. There, it's ground into powder, melted down, and used to pull lab gems in the usual manner. These lab gems are of pretty poor quality, owing to the quantity of impurities in the source material and the lack of skill of the lab operators, but they're still rubies.

The sellers are currently skating in a hyperbolic grey area, whereby since the rubies are entirely reconstituted from mined gems with no additional ingredients, they can be sold as "treated natural rubies," but since the stone qua stone came from a lab outside Burma, they aren't subject to the embargo. None of this is currently established in law, but none of it is countermanded either. The sellers are all delicately skimming within an angstrom of fraud.
posted by KathrynT at 3:45 PM on May 25, 2010


that's... kind of awesome actually

it's both science and crime
posted by Oktober at 5:37 PM on May 25, 2010

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