How do I buy a used gemstone?
January 7, 2015 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to buy a used/"vintage" gem for an engagement ring. Looking at vintage rings on ebay and etsy, I have zero idea how to assess the "quality" of the stone, or how to know if it's real, or what. Is it possible for a lay person to do this? What should be my basic steps for assessing the rings or loose stones I see online?

Also, my plan is to have the stone set in a basic, placeholder ring, and then let her pick her final ring design after. Does that seem like a sound plan?!

Thank you people of metafilter.
posted by anonymous to Shopping (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I assume that you're interested in an old cut or a diamond that has already been mined (for ethical reasons)?

I would recommend buying the stone in a setting with the knowledge she can always ask for a new setting. Vintage settings are quite beautiful and she might choose to keep it in that setting.
posted by michellew at 9:50 AM on January 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

The truth is, it's a crap shoot when buying online. Even vintage gems can be manmade, because the technology has been around for a while. If manmade is okay with you -- but it should be disclosed before you buy.

First you have to decide what you want.

Diamonds are the hardest, and you can easily get those tested by anyone with a diamond tester (local jeweler).

Sapphire and ruby are the next hardest, and sapphires come in many colors besides the traditional blue hues. Ruby is the same as sapphire, but it is red.

Sapphires and rubies can be heat treated, which is sometimes acceptable (if it is disclosed to you). They can also be filled with lead glass, which is not acceptable, because that hides flaws and can make the stone shatter later on.

Emeralds make a poor choice for engagement rings because they are more fragile, and a bang can make them chip or shatter. Emeralds can be treated with oil (sometimes okay). So maybe plan on emerald buying for future presents like earrings.

So once you decide on a stone (and anything less hard than diamond, sapphire or ruby is susceptible to damage when worn every day), the next thing too look for is a guarantee. Some people will send you the stone or ring and your money is held in an escrow account until you get it appraised by your own trusted jeweler. In which case, you can decide if it's good enough for you and your fiancee.

Honestly, what I would do is go to a small independent jeweler, tell them what you want, and see what they offer. The jewelry business is built on trust, and any jeweler with his/her salt will offer you a certificate of authenticity with a piece. The only way to tell if a sapphire/ruby is real is with equipment like a spectrometer, and other tests that you as a lay person won't have access to.

Also, pawn shops sometimes have some really nice old Tiffany diamonds (and again, they have diamond testers because they don't want to buy glass).

This is an area where you can't have too much education and knowledge before you buy. So visit a lot of sites and read a lot of articles, and then find some vintage and estate sale places in your area, and see if you can get something with a certificate and appraisal (which will list the quality, size, etc.). If you look at things in person, take note of the gold: 14K or higher is a better indicator of quality (not a guarantee) because say, HSN gems are often set in 10K white gold. Platinum is going to be more expensive but I highly doubt someone would put a piece of glass in a platinum setting.

This all depends on what she wants, an old diamond or sapphire (and what color, they come in many colors) or ruby. There are other stones that might be acceptable, but due to hardness issues, would have a bulkier setting to protect the stone (i.e. tanzanite).

Old cut diamonds are not going to sparkle as much as newer cut, because they didn't have the technology to cut then they way they do nowadays, so less refraction. Tho' I do have a sapphire with old mine cut diamonds around it, they are small so not the focal piece and I don't care. Personally, I feel ring shopping should be a joint venture and you should go the route of being able to return or exchange the piece if possible.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:02 AM on January 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

My wife's engagement and wedding rings are both antiques that we found in jewellery stores. It didn't occur to us at all to shop for the stones and then have them mounted in a modern ring - that's a bit like buying a vintage chair and putting modern legs on it.

Seconding going shopping for a ring together. It's a much more reliable way to ensure that everybody is happy, and it's a lot less stressful for you. I proposed to my wife with a giant gold-painted wooden ring set with an acrylic 'diamond' the size of a tennis ball, the idea being to make it hilariously obvious that it was a placeholder. Most of the people in the restaurant seemed to enjoy the joke.
posted by pipeski at 10:07 AM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't think a lay person can assess this him/herself, and especially not online. This is because you need experience in determining the cut, clarity and color & karat of the stone which you are not trained to do.

You can try I do now I don't which sells used engagement rings with independent gemologists certificate.

You can try blue nile which has loose diamonds but not used I don't think. Use them as a pricing guide for approximate wholesale prices for the same cut/clarity/color/karat. It's a great resource for negotiating later.

I found this website very helpful in learning about stones. I went from 0-Full Knowledge quickly.

For old mine cut (european cut) diamonds I would suggest this retailer based in Toronto. I have been to their store a few times and the diamonds are basically as pictured and described and they give the c/c/c/k rating and price online too. They weren't terribly flexible on price (a few hundred dollars, better if you pay in cash vs. credit) but they might have styles you would like.

FWIW I find old european cut diamonds ("old mine cut") absolutely gorgeous, they have just the right amount of fire and brilliance vs. current day round cuts (bleck) which are all sparkly princess tiara-y.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:12 AM on January 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Most of the "too good to be true" deals on ebay are just that - the stones may be authentic but are of low quality, and it really isn't something a layperson can judge. I agree that the best guarantee of quality is going to an established brick-and-mortar dealer with a good reputation. That said, if you don't have easy access to a big-city jeweler, and are using the web to browse, I have been happy with several (smallish) purchases from Peter Suchy jewelers, they specialize in vintage/antique gems, and they seem to list most of their stock on ebay. They are not cheap but they have a lot of interesting jewelry. FWIW they mostly sell mounted stones, some in original settings, others in settings they've made.
posted by mr vino at 10:16 AM on January 7, 2015

If you're going to go this route you might want to just get a vintage ring. I would definitely go shopping together!

I have a vingtage ring and it was really really fun to go shopping for it. Shortly after getting engaged we took a day to go wander in the area of town with all the antique shops. I did a little research ahead of time (both online and solo shopping) so I had a little bit of an idea of what I liked but mostly we just played around with all the rings we could find until we found one we both liked. I'm still really happy with the ring. I get tons of compliments. Best part is that even with resizing it was only a couple hundred bucks (looking at that Cynthia Findlay link I found a lot of similar rings and it looks like we could have paid 10x more at least).

St. Peepsburg is right - old mine cut (also called miner cut) are amazing. I have a friend who has one that she inherited and it's exquisite.
posted by radioamy at 10:17 AM on January 7, 2015

It's common practice to propose with a placeholder ring then find a ring together.

I'd also vote that the settings for vintage rings are what makes the beautiful. Not sure of your budget but Brilliant Earth has lots of vintage rings and they are certified.

In addition, if you're just trying to not buy a new real gem for environmental or other reasons, don't rule out CZs. My ring is hand-cut CZs and they're beautiful. They are free from defects and inclusions and so bright!
posted by Crystalinne at 10:26 AM on January 7, 2015

Pawn shops or check out the estate jewelry section of your local jewelry shop. Avoid franchises, but go to an independently owned one, they often buy estate jewelry, prices of these rings are often cheaper, and if you don't find one you like they'll reset the stones using the gold into something you do like. .
posted by wwax at 10:55 AM on January 7, 2015

My wife and I spent a while looking at rings on Brilliant Earth, then she narrowed it down to a couple and I got her one of those.
posted by Slinga at 11:00 AM on January 7, 2015

It's absolutely impossible for a layperson to really know what they're looking at. Cubic Zirconia will fool the untrained eye*. Most colored gemstones today are irradiated to increase their color - even though a large portion of the stones will be ruined by the process, enough become more colorful to justify the process. (A faintly colored stone is considered inferior to both white and richly colored stones; richly colored stones are highest prized, in all cases I can think of.) Detecting this irradiation treatment requires a microscope (IIRC, there are inclusion patterns that tend to occur with irradiation.)

Fake (that is, synthetic) rubies are so good that it became profitable to make them in the lab and ship them to shills in remote villages in India and Burma, who sold them downstream again.

I have a beautiful cognac diamond. I am absolutely certain it was irradiated, because otherwise it would have cost 4x as much. But it might be real. And it was a gift from my parents, who owned a jewelry store.

* My father the jeweler taught me to use a magic marker. A diamond has a somewhat scaly surface at the molecular level, and liquids will "wet" it, while a CZ is more likely to cleave on a perfect face, presenting nowhere for the water to grab - so the ink will coalesce into a droplet or droplets. This is best seen with a magnifying glass, but good vision can detect it.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:05 PM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

i bought a 4-digit stone here for a friend. ethical and professional.
posted by FauxScot at 6:21 PM on January 7, 2015

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