BY MENGWEI CHEN
A commonly held secret of sapphire sales in Manhattan’s Diamond District is this: most, if not all, of the colored stones you see in stores are heat-treated, which means that they have been artificially processed at high temperatures to dissolve the rutile inclusions (silk) inside and enhance the color. The side effect that many sapphire sellers do not tell consumers is that once treated, the value of the sapphire will drop to almost zero. Some jewelers only show a natural sapphire if a customer specifically requests it.
If you Google “sapphires,” the second name that pops up is a company called The Natural Sapphire Company, an 85-year-old family jewelry business that sells natural sapphires online. Michael Arnstein, 34, took over the company from his father ten years ago, and envisioned online success in natural sapphires.
“Ninety percent of my customers come to us for engagement rings,” said Arnstein, “No one wants treated stones on a ring for marriage. They want natural things. And that’s what I do.”
Arnstein said that in his grandfather’s generation, people only sold natural stones. A popular kind of sapphire for men to wear until the 1970s was the star sapphire, which had a lot of silks intersecting inside that reflected light like stars. They used to be as cheap as $50 apiece. But as the heat-treatment became more widely used and the natural supplies of sapphires declined, jewelers treated most of the stones with rutile inclusions, including star sapphires, to purify the color and standardize the quality. Thus the natural star sapphires become rare enough to end up being sold at antique jewelry markets. In Arnstein’s inventory, a 9.31-carat blue star sapphire, barely larger than a tip of a pinky, is priced at $27,930.
According to the state law (New York General Business Law: section 349; section 229-j), sellers have the obligation to disclose to the customers whether a piece of jewelry is treated in any way, including heat-treatment, diffusion treatment, beryllium treatment, or several other methods.
Derek Parnell, a graduate gemologist from Gemological Institute of America (G.I.A.), a highly-esteemed third-party gemstone identification provider in this business, who owns Jewels by Truros, said in the article “Gemstone Treatments and Disclosure” that many sellers do not disclose information about treatments because 1) they are unaware of the law, 2) afraid of being taken advantage by competitors who do not disclose, 3) unwilling to obey the regulation, or 4) think they can get away with it by refunding if they get caught.
Issac Awad, the father of the owner of Mark Awad Diamonds, said that every piece of sapphire he sold was natural, but he could not offer certification from G.I.A.
“I can write you a receipt, saying that this is a hundred percent natural,” said Awad, “If you can prove this is wrong, I will pay you back.”
Tommay Kalabalik, G.I.A. certified gemologist at Tom’s Jewelry NY Inc., said, “Selling natural sapphires is not a big deal. Everything here is natural. I don’t waste time selling treated stones.”
Kalabalik said he only provided G.I.A. certification for diamonds. The only thing he offers for sapphires is a receipt stating that the stone is natural. Like Awad, he said a customer could send the jewelry to G.I.A. and get a refund from him if the appraiser could prove it is treated, but he would not pay for the appraisal fee.
Tatiana Hidalgo, the sales representative of Glamolir Diamonds Inc., said that her company sells both natural sapphires and treated stones, but the natural ones are much more expensive. For a natural one-carat blue sapphire white gold ring surrounded with tiny clusters of diamonds, she charges $3,000.
“You can send it to G.I.A. and get a certification, but the price will be higher,” said Hidalgo, “And you can have our gemologist write an appraisal and it’s free.”
Hidalgo said she did not know how much G.I.A. would charge, because customers seldom do that.
The minimum price for identifying a sapphire, no matter how small it is, is $120, according to Monica Salgado, a service representative of G.I.A. She said it could cost as high as $750 for identifying the origin of a 25-carat sapphire.
A sampling interview of 19 random customers in the Diamond District showed that none of them knew anything about the difference between a natural sapphire and a treated one.
One seller believes that treated stones represent a large segment of the market. Joseph, who works at Matinee Jewelry Inc. and preferred not to give his last name, has been in this business for 20 years, and admitted that he had no natural sapphires in the store. He said that is fairly common.
“Ninety percent of the sapphires in this street are heat-treated,” said Joseph, “The natural stones are very, very rare. And they are extremely expensive. Tens of thousands of dollars and more.”
Joseph said he would never bring in a piece of natural sapphire, be it large or small, unless a customer demanded it. Many of the dealers who carry them have their offices on higher floors that are not open to the public.
“Whatever the seller promises you, you have to get them down in writing,” said Joseph, “You have to let them guarantee that this is not treated, and if it is, they pay back. Otherwise anything may happen.” Joseph said he would let a customer have the natural stone appraised by a third party before paying.
Treated, untreated, one thing is for sure: discounts. Mark Awad just ended a one-week sale of sapphires for 25% off. Glamolir Diamond offers 50% sale. Tom’s Jewelry is on a 60% off. And The Natural Sapphire Company provides 5% and 10% off on limited items this month.