Lead Glass-Filled and "Composite" Ruby
It has become almost a rite of passage during the holiday selling season that we see the obligatory national news story that draws consumer attention, often unflattering, to the products that we sell. This year was no exception, beginning with the Good Morning America consumer report that aired on November 4th, titled "Real Deal."
The televised report focused on the sales, in major outlets, of glass-filled rubies, referred to in the report as "composite rubies." In a nutshell, what the report suggested was that the consumer was purchasing "ruby" jewelry with the assumption that it was the "real deal," but were not being informed as to the nature of the treatments or the characteristics of the material, nor were they being counseled on the special care requirements associated with this material. While those of us in the jewelry industry may bemoan the inevitability of these reports that always seem to come to light at this time of year, it is undeniable that this report illustrates a serious shortcoming on the part of the industry to reliably and regularly disclose the pertinent facts regarding treatment throughout the market chain and ultimately to the consumer. Complete and accurate disclosure of all gemstone treatments has long been the hallmark of AGTA members and it is high time we re-focus on how necessary the culture of "full disclosure" is in order for us to maintain the integrity of our products.
The presence of glass-like substances in fissures and cavities has been around for decades, and used in a variety of materials. As early as the 1980's, the gemological community began reporting on the presence of silica glass as a residue of the high temperature heating of corundum being applied to improve the gemstone's appearance and to heal existing fractures, most notably in ruby from Mong Hsu, Myanmar. In this instance, industry proponents generally agreed that the glassy residue was a by-product of the fracture healing process.
Fast forward to 2004 and we see the introduction of a high lead content glass as filler in ruby. Three notable differences distinguish the high lead glass filler from the silica glass used in earlier treatments. The first is that the high lead glass has optical properties much closer to that of ruby, thereby markedly increasing its effectiveness in masking the fissures and cavities in the ruby.
The second significant difference is that, unlike the earlier treatments, which combined silica glass and extremely high temperatures that actually resulted in healing of existing fissures, these new glass-filled rubies employ much lower temperatures which allow the chemicals to fuse in the fissures in a glassy form but do not result in any re-crystallization of the host ruby.
Clearly, these new high lead content glass materials are being used to conceal existing fractures and cavities and, in some cases, to act as a bonding agent for many pieces of ruby to be "glued" together as a single unit. These assembled materials are the so-called "composite ruby," a description that seems to be gaining traction and referenced in the Good Morning America show. Actually, the term "composite ruby" may be itself misleading in that it implies that this material is indeed ruby. These assembled materials, in which disparate pieces of corundum are essentially glued together with the glass bonding agent (the composite ruby) should not be represented ethically as "ruby" at all.
The closest comparison (analogous) I have been able to come up with is particle board, a building material that looks like wood, but is really a composite of sawdust bonded with glue and shaped into boards. In reality, these "composite rubies" are nothing more than a composite material (or assembled material), part corundum, part glass, glued together and fashioned into a gemstone (ruby) look-alike. These are not rubies.
The third, and perhaps most critical, distinction is that the lead glass-filled rubies and so called "composite rubies" exhibit serious stability issues. The glass used to infill the fractures can be easily leached out during the manufacturing or repair process and are even subject to degradation when exposed to many common household chemicals.
The AGTA Code of Ethics requires that all gemstone treatments be disclosed to the purchaser. Furthermore, this disclosure is a requirement of the Federal Trade Commission and failure to do so can result enforcement actions by the FTC, litigation and class action lawsuits. Since the reasonably recent introduction of these lead glass-filled rubies into the market, our office has seen dozens of examples in which the material was sold either without any disclosure or with entirely inappropriate disclosure information, such as:
None of these statements fulfill the requirements for disclosure of these lead glass rubies or the assembled "composite" rubies material.
- "All rubies are treated."
- "Many gemstones are treated to improve color or clarity, ask your sales associate for further information."
- "All of our gemstones are 'E.'"
- "Unless otherwise stated, all of our gemstones are treated in manners considered acceptable in the trade."
On the wholesale level, the only acceptable disclosure of these lead glass-filled rubies is the use of the Code "F" for filled (see the Gemstone Information Manual), and in lieu of that, plain written language that informs the purchaser that the ruby has been filled with lead glass. NO OTHER code is acceptable and no general statement regarding the treatments is acceptable.
The enhancement Code for the "composite materials" is "ASBL" or, as in the case above, a clear statement referring to the assembled nature of the "ruby" (see Figure 1). In each case, these disclosure codes must be accompanied by a printed statement referencing the Gemstone Information Manual and should make reference to the special care requirements.
When working with a consumer, the retail jeweler is responsible for delivering the same information, preferably in writing, but the use of codes is not acceptable. Retailers must demand clear and precise disclosure information from their suppliers. When working with retail clients, plain language should be used to describe the nature of the lead glass-filled nature of the material and special care requirements are mandatory (see Figure 2).
Plain Language Statement
"This red stone is composed of pieces of red corundum (ruby) bonded together with glass to imitate the appearance of natural ruby. This stone should not be subjected to heat or caustic solutions during repair procedures and the wearer should avoid subjecting it to common household chemicals."
It was apparent when watching the Good Morning America segment that the sales associate was clearly unaware and/or untrained as to the characteristics of this material. The obvious question is how far up the market chain this lack of awareness extends. Retail sales professionals are responsible for disclosing the accurate nature of these materials to their clients. But even with the benefit of the best training, sales associates cannot properly inform their clients if this has not been done up the supply chain. Company buyers rely upon suppliers, who rely upon manufacturers who rely upon gemstone dealers to deliver accurate information, the full disclosure of any gemstone treatment, and the true nature of the material they are buying. This isn't just an AGTA requirement; it is a requirement of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Guidelines for the Jewelry Industry. Failure to disclose, at any point along the chain, is not only unfair to our customers, it is the surest way for our gemstones, and our industry, to end up time and time again on consumer expose pieces such as we saw on Good Morning America.
The American Gem Trade Association is a not-for-profit Association serving the natural colored gemstone and cultured pearl industry since 1981. The AGTA serves the industry as "The Authority In Color" and has its headquarter office in Dallas, Texas.