Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why I Don’t Like Setting Customer’s Stones

I often get asked by customers if I would be willing to set their stones.  These days, I mostly turn them down.  And I find that many other Etsyans do the same.  You may find this strange, but for the jeweler, there really are only downsides.

For me, the first set of issues arises because I’ve not actually seen the stone.  I rarely make my own settings, so I have to rely on what’s commercially available.  The customer’s stone may have odd dimensions or prove too deep.  It may have an internal fissure that could open up.  When I buy stones I try to avoid this but sometimes it isn’t until the setter actually sees the gem that I find out it can’t be set.  From pictures alone, there’s no sure way to judge ahead of time that the stone will work.
The next set of issues concerns the gem type.  Some gems are too soft or fragile to work for certain designs.  Even when I own the gem, I rarely agree to do custom jewelry with apatite, kyanite, or Mexican fire opal for instance.  I don’t want to disappoint expectations. 
Also, some stones are hard to replace.  They have unusual shapes or colors, so if they do crack I cannot find anything like it.  If it’s my own stone, then I’ll just use something else in my design.  And if it’s a custom order with my own stone, then the order goes bust (which is sad but not the end of the world).  But if the stone belongs to the customer, not only do I have to cancel the order, I also have to replace the stone out of my own funds.  And what if I can’t?   There’s not even a plan B for that case.
Third, what if a crack or fissure that was present in the stone all along but not noticed becomes more prominent after the stone is set, and the customer claims it was not there before.  This sort of thing is hard to prove.  Sometimes an inclusion becomes bigger from the pressure of setting.  Is this considered a broken stone?  Who will judge? 

In the industry, lost or broken stones are everyone’s worst fear.  The other day, I went to visit my friend the diamond cutter and found him crawling on the floor of his tiny office, combing the every corner with a 1-inch brush, looking for a small pink diamond.  “It’s only worth $50,” he said, “but if I can’t find it then it will be worth a lot more.”  For, a lost or broken stone can suddenly gain sentimental value, or the customer paid a lot more than he should have, or he is just not being truthful, and so now the person who lost or broke it has to pay more than he should.  On 47th, this happens a lot.  (Two days later, the stone was found, by the way, but a lost or broken stone can cost a person their business.)
You see, the main problem is that there’s no insurance – no affordable insurance anyway – for that kind of thing.  Because anyone can claim anything about the value of a stone, including “it belonged to my grandmother,” and then stone is simply irreplaceable even if it’s a fake (I’ve seen this happen, too).  No amount of money will make it right.  Meanwhile, the setter only charges a few dollars for his labor, so he might have to work a day, a week, a month, or a year to try to make up for the loss.  At which point you have to ask yourself why he should have wanted to work with an irreplaceable stone to begin with.
And that, alas, is where I find myself.  I’m not really in this to get rich, I make a little on the side, I enjoy what I do, and that’s it.  I do this for fun.  But I certainly don’t want to lose money, and I don’t want to have to sweat bullets when I take on an order, for fear something could go wrong.  So, no customer’s stones for me.  Nor do I blame anyone else for not wanting to set them.

What, then, is my advice to a customer?  You have a number of options: you can just buy finished jewelry.  You can buy a stone from the person who will make the jewelry for you.  They have to guarantee it (I certainly do), but they will also know what they’re doing, their offer will be at a much lower risk to them.  And the stone won’t have sentimental value – yet.  Lastly, you can go to a more expensive jewelry store, a larger jeweler perhaps, and ask them if they’re willing to guarantee it.  Often even they don’t, and if they do it’s expensive, but it will also lower your risk.  So if a gem is very valuable to you, that’s the best option.

Friday, January 13, 2012

How to Heat a Zircon

My friend Anya and I were buying some stones at a gem dealer friend’s house last weekend.  When we got there, we saw some rosy colored gems on his desk and I asked what they were.  “Zircons”, he said. “I just heated them.”

“Huh?”  I didn’t know heating could be this low tech.  Because we were standing in his home office, and he didn’t have any particular equipment that suggested whatever fancy heating process I was imagining.  So he demonstrated.  Anya took the pix.
But first, a little background: many gems on the market today are heated.  Heating can do a number of things.

1.      Change the color: amethyst can be heated to “turn into” citrine.
2.      Brighten or lighten the color: brown zircons can be turned white.
3.      Deepen the color: light colored Ceylon sapphires can be made cornflower blue.
4.      Melt inclusions: rubies can look cleaner, though not crisper (heating lessens the brilliance).
Gems react to temperatures in various ways.  An aqua can be subjected to low heat to drive away the greens, but when subjected to high heat, it cracks.  Many aquas suffer that fate during the heating process when it isn’t done with care.  Sapphires can be subjected to low and high heat.  But for high heat, they have to be packed in borax, which can seep into the stone and leave trace bubbles (and that’s also how you know a sapphire has been subjected to high heat).  A sapphire subjected to high heat can sometimes be called “glass filled” but that’s not the same as “lead glass filled”.  The latter is done to rubies and is not considered an acceptable form of treatment.  It devalues a gem considerably more than any other form of treatment and should always be disclosed.

In general, gentle heat (low heat) is a more acceptable form of treatment than high heat.  But it isn’t always permanent.  Again it depends on the stone.  When sapphires are heated, the treatment is permanent.  But I’ve seen lemon quartz turn white over time. 

There are also stones that don’t do anything when you heat them.  The garnet family and for now, spinels belong into that family.  I’m very proud of those stones.  J

But let’s get back to “our” zircons.  My gem dealer friend J. (who also sells me the Mahenge spinels, by the way), placed a set of dark brown stones straight onto the burner of his little camping cooker.  Then he turned the heat on low and we sat there and waited.  After a couple of minutes, maybe 3 or 4, no more, the stones started to brighten up.  You could literally see them change color over the next 2-3 minutes.  They turned into a nice rosy pink, and some into more of a champagne color.  J. explained that the effects are not all equal, some stones transform into champagne, some more into pink.  And if you leave them on long enough, they turn white.  But we took the stones off the burner before that.  First, J. turned the burner off, then he placed the stones one by one on a tray to cool them, using his tweezers.  They have to cool down slowly and naturally, otherwise they can crack. 
You can see the results in our pix.  Pretty neat, isn’t it?

Zircons before Heating

Zircons After a Few Minutes

Zircons after Heating