A Day in the Life of a Gemologist
Discovering That the People Are as Fascinating as the Gemstones They Own
by Marty Dall

Diamonds! Rubies! Sapphires! They sparkle, mesmerize, hypnotize and enchant. They excite us with their beauty and rarity.

Diamonds - the stone at left is faceted with an undetermined cut, center is a Princess cut, at right is a Standard Round Brilliant.

What could be more exciting? Their owners, or course! Yes, the owners of these precious gems are more amazing and interesting than stones could ever be.

That's right. No matter what day it is or where you live, the most incredible thing about dealing with beautiful, rare, sparkling gemstones is the people who own them.

Don't believe me? Perhaps a few stories will convince you. As a graduate gemologist, I've had some pretty interesting experiences. For instance, after the death of her grandmother, a woman came to see me for advice. When she spoke, she was nervous and somewhat embarrassed. She told me how silly she felt. She knew she was wasting my time, but really needed help.

Then, she took an envelope from her purse and handed it to me. "Will you please just tell me these are rhinestones so I can sleep at night?" she asked. She went on to say that she had been going through her late grandmother's things, and was setting clothes aside for charity when she discovered an old hatbox. Inside were some carefully tied bundles of papers and old letters. After lifting them out she saw something catching the light at the bottom of the box. Intrigued, she carefully lifted a slip of tissue paper, and there, shining up at her, was a sparkling round stone! She was mystified by it, wondering what on Earth it was. Although she was sure it couldn't possibly be anything of value, she slowly removed the remaining contents of the box.

What were left inside, she discovered, were two other stones, all equally beautiful. These delightful and disturbing surprises had caused her many sleepless nights since. I opened the envelope and saw three small, clear, faceted stones. As a trained gemologist, I knew at once that they were not rhinestones. I smiled, realizing what a wonderful treasure she had.

Misinterpreting my expression, the woman said, "I knew they were nothing; I just had to find out for sure."

I looked up at her, smiled again, and began to examine each stone carefully. After a few minutes, I put down my loupe (10X magnifier) and placed the stones back in the envelope. I knew this woman would be thrilled with the news I had for her. Looking up, I was happy to tell her, "These are not rhinestones. In fact, they are very high-quality diamonds worth a great deal of money." I went on to say that the set was beautifully matched, making them all the more valuable and desirable.

She stood there, shocked, saying nothing.

I repeated the news, and went on to tell her that I would approximate the value at over $10,000 for all three diamonds. However, if she wanted an exact appraisal, the stones would have to be examined further.

She didn't move.

I waited, allowing the news to sink in.

Finally, her face broke out in a huge grin and she began to laugh. When she had composed herself, she started telling me about her grandmother. (She was very excited, and the words spilled out in a rush.)

She had so many questions! "Why did she have these? Grandma never had much money. Where did she get them and why were they in that hatbox? Had she forgotten them?"

We discussed several options for what this lady could do with her grandmother's diamonds, and talked about how she could wear these beautiful stones. Throughout our discussion, she continued to tell me about her grandmother. It was apparent that they had been very close.

When she left, she thanked me for my time, promised to call and floated out of the store.

I have always wondered about that woman's grandmother, and what the details were behind her story. I've asked myself the same questions the granddaughter had about this extraordinary situation. Where did the old woman get the diamonds, and why were they in that hatbox? Was she hiding them? Surely she hadn't forgotten about them. Maybe she had no idea what they were, and just dropped them into the box because they were pretty and she didn't want to throw them away. Still, it's not likely anyone would just "come across" three beautifully matched diamonds and not imagine what they were.

I guess I'll never know. Unfortunately, I never saw the granddaughter again. I don't know what she did with the diamonds. Maybe she put them in a hatbox of her own . . .

Traditionally the birthstone for September, Sapphires come in virtually every color as shown in this group of a colorless oval (14.38 cts), a blue star (8.90 cts), a dark blue emerald cut (3.90 cts), a green oval (4.57 cts), a light blue oval, a yellow oval (2.24 cts), a yellow-orange modified triangle (1.76 cts), and a pink oval (3.29 cts). Photo by John Parrish, copyright 1993 by AGTA.

Sometimes "diamond surprises" don't make people quite so happy. Case in point: a customer who presented me with her beautiful engagement ring. It was stunning--a real show-stopper, set with a very large stone. She explained that she had just gone through a nasty divorce and wanted to sell the diamond. She had brought an appraisal with her, done a year earlier, and wanted to know if the ring had gone up in value since then.

I looked at the ring. Immediately, doubts sprang into my head. I can't help it--I'm trained to be suspicious. Anyway, I agreed to examine the stone. Concerned about the diamond's authenticity, I set the ring in the gem scope to get a good look. Peering through the eyepieces, I knew at once that the stone was not a diamond. It was a beautiful imitation.

"This is going to be bad," I thought.

I asked the woman for the appraisal. Reading it, I saw that the size and shape of the described stone matched what was in my hand. However, that was where the similarities ended. This stone was not worth $18,000. Nope. This stone was a fake.

I had to tell her. I took a deep breath, and, as gently as I could, said, "I'm sorry. The stone in this ring is not a diamond."

"Impossible!" was her resounding response. "You must be mistaken."

I showed her that it was not a mistake, that indeed the stone was not a diamond. She was flabbergasted. This was a horrible shock to her. I asked if she had given her ring to anyone for any length of time during the past year. Imagine my amazement when she immediately became hysterical, shouting words and phrases that cannot be printed here . . . or anywhere else. It seems that, as a favor to her, her ex-husband had offered to have her rings cleaned about a year ago, before he left her for another woman. Evidently, cleaning them wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind! As she was leaving, the woman was screaming into her cell phone . . . evidently at her attorney. I have never heard the end of that story, either.

Yes, gemstones cause a lot of excitement. Put a little humor and irony into the mix, and all kinds of magic starts to happen. Sometimes it's not the stones themselves that excite, but the way they are worn. For example, while swapping tales about customers, a fellow gemologist shared this little jewel. (Excuse the pun.) One day, a very wealthy customer drove up in her Rolls Royce to see him about designing an exquisite diamond bracelet. This was to be an extremely elaborate and expensive piece, encrusted with diamonds and other gemstones. The consultation was extensive and time-consuming.

Suddenly, the woman looked at her watch and said she had to go. She had a pressing lunch appointment with the governor and could not be late. My associate offered to quickly clean the many glittering diamond rings on her fingers before she left, so they would be at their sparkling best for her appointment. The customer declined. But he insisted, telling her it would take only a few moments. At this, the woman hesitated and then sheepishly admitted that she would love to have the rings cleaned; however, she could not remove them. This concerned him, and he asked if they needed to be resized. She shook her head and said, "No that's not the problem." She looked a bit embarrassed and blushed. After a moment the woman said, "The diamonds are so big, they kept falling over. I got tired of it, so I Super-Glued the rings to my fingers."

Can you imagine? It's amazing, isn't it?

This blue Topaz, a rectangle barion cut (17.12 cts), was once thought to cure insomnia. Photo by John Parrish, copyright 1994 by AGTA.

The list goes on and on. Every day something new comes up. It really is incredible what people will do, and believe. Once a man came storming in to demand his money back for a blue topaz ring he had purchased five or six years earlier. The stone was badly worn and broken, and he had taken it to a jeweler in another town to have this broken topaz replaced. He said the other jeweler told him his blue topaz was a fake. He handed me the old ring and said he didn't wear fakes and wanted his money back.

I looked at the beat-up old stone and examined it carefully. It wasn't a fake. It was a real, natural topaz, and I told him so. Then I asked him what the other jeweler had done to test the authenticity of the stone. He looked me in the eye and said emphatically, "He used the rubbing test!"

Now, I was trained at the Gemological Institute of America. I know about a lot of different tests and techniques to establish what is real and what isn't, and I have never heard of "the rubbing test." When I asked him what he meant, he looked at me like I was stupid, grabbed the ring from my fingers, rubbed it vigorously on his jeans and handed it back to me. "See! It's hot!" he said.

Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that friction causes heat, does it? I had to struggle to keep from smiling. This was one of the more interesting ideas I had heard in a while, and although it was ridiculous, I couldn't blame this guy. The idea of a "rubbing test" was bogus, but there was no way he could have known that. Someone had made him believe he had been cheated, and he was furious.

I touched the stone, and it was indeed warm. "Is this the only test the other jeweler used?" I asked. The man nodded and went on to say that, if it were a natural topaz, it wouldn't have gotten hot. (Interesting idea there!) I tried to seem like I was taking him seriously. As gently as I could, I explained to this misinformed customer that it didn't matter if God had made the stone or man had made it; the chemical and structural makeup of a topaz would be the same. Therefore, any reaction to this type of test would be identical.

But be that as it may, I explained to him that "the rubbing test" was not scientific. I showed him his stone under magnification and pointed out details that only a natural topaz would have. He calmed down and talked about wanting to replace the broken stone. I gave him the best deal I could, and we refurbished the ring.

Zircons are available in red, blue, brown, yellow, orange, green and colorless; some of which are shown in this collection of the peach/brown pear shape (4.43 cts), golden oval (2.90 cts), yellow oval (3.51 cts), red trillion (4.43 cts), light blue baguette (2.45 cts), green oval (2.16 cts), oval green (2.16 cts) and light blue round (1.25 cts). Photo by John Parrish, copyright 1993 by AGTA.

Although I found this experience funny because I know the realities of identifying gems, I did feel bad that someone out there was misleading people and causing this sort of confusion. It causes distrust in the industry, and rightly so. A lot of people are afraid of being cheated because they don't really know if the stones they are buying are real or synthetic. They have to trust their jeweler.

Most of the time, this trust is well placed, but sometimes there's a problem. Here's one such example: A customer of mine--I'll call her Mrs. Jones--is quite elderly. She is a lovely woman: very polite, gracious, cheerful . . . and talkative. She lives alone and spends a great deal of time with other elderly women. They shop, lunch and sometimes travel together. When Mrs. Jones travels, she loves to take pictures and share them with others, taking care to explain every detail of the trip she can remember. She has an excellent memory, so these reports can take a long time. Yet, because she is very articulate and charming, it is always a pleasure to listen.

After a trip to Italy, she came in to see me. We talked for some time about her travels, and she regaled me with details about each stop. As she described the ornate buildings and beautiful artwork she had seen, her eyes lit up and she positively glowed. It was delightful to watch her and I was enjoying myself immensely.

Then she showed me a ring. My first instinct when I saw it was, "Uh-oh." Mrs. Jones had been to Rome and had purchased what she believed to be the most beautiful ring in the world, and she wanted me to see it. It was a very unusual piece--obviously, custom metalwork. She handed it to me, and asked if I didn't think it was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.

Well, I've seen some pretty wonderful things, but this? This was something new! I took a moment to examine the piece. The gold was obviously very pure, and was stamped 22-karat. Without testing it, I couldn't be sure; but I had no reason to doubt that the stamp was correct. The design was extraordinary. It was intricately carved and perfectly proportioned. In fact, I rarely see such wonderful artwork in a ring. But the stone! I just knew there was something fishy there. I wanted a better look, so I asked Mrs. Jones if I could put it under my gem scope for a moment. She happily agreed and continued to chatter while I did a brief exam.

You know, education is a good thing. You choose a career, you go to school and you learn about new things. Usually, this makes a positive difference in your life, as you gain knowledge about important topics, but sometimes it can be a real pain.

A variety of gemstones come in shades of blue, such as this Tanzanite cushion (29.93 cts), blue Topaz rectangle barion cut (17.12 cts), modified princess cut on octagon Aquamarine (13.11 cts), square barion cut Apatite (3.86 cts), blue fancy geometric Tourmaline(2.28 cts) and emerald cut blue Sapphire (2.03 cts) Photo by John Parrish, copyright 1993 by AGTA.

This was one of those times. When I looked through the eyepieces, I saw the telltale swirl lines and mold marks. I had guessed from the instant I saw the brilliant blue color--it was far too intense to be genuine--but I wasn't sure until that moment. It was glass! Mrs. Jones had purchased a gorgeous, 22-karat gold, incredibly designed ring, holding a piece of blue glass.

Looking into her sparkling eyes, I told Mrs. Jones this was one of the most beautiful pieces I had ever seen and that I was impressed by the uniqueness of its design. She agreed emphatically, and continued to bubble over with excitement about it. After a minute or two of listening, I asked her if anyone had told her what the stone was. She said she had never asked, and didn't care. She had just fallen in love the moment she had seen the ring, and had to have it. The type of stone meant nothing to her. After all, she went on, "I've got just about everything already."

Yes, you do, I thought.

With that, she took her ring, giggled a little more, and took off with her friends to have lunch. As I watched her leaving, it occurred to me that she was one of the happiest people I had ever met. I guess Thomas Gray was right when he said, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

So you see what I meant when I said that people are the amazing facet of this business? I have always loved gems and worked very hard to become a gemologist. I studied everything I could get my hands on, and never tired of the subject. It took a lot of time and effort, and I feel well prepared to handle the technical side of this career. However, nothing I read or studied could ever have prepared me for the entertaining and rewarding experience of dealing with the people behind the stones! What a pleasure it is to interact with creatures of such depth, brilliance and color.

I always thought it would be the gems that would make my heart race and take my breath away. And, usually, it is. However, the natural beauty of these rare and valuable stones takes second place to the sparkle and uniqueness of their owners. Every day brings something new. Just when I think I've seen it all, when I'm sure I have heard the story of a lifetime, someone comes in and tops anything I've ever heard before.

Yes, I love my work. Like most experiences in life, it hasn't gone the way I thought it would. I never dreamed I would be so entertained! People are individuals, with a thousand different perspectives and a kaleidoscope of emotion bottled up inside them. Like the gems I love, they are brilliant, fiery and surprisingly entertaining. Although I am a gemologist by trade, gemstones have only been the vehicle that has taken me to the real fun: those crazy, amazing, rare and beautiful human beings that make it all worthwhile.


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Bob Keller