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The very human quest to capture the natural lure of gemstones

21 May 2018

Gemstones hold a very special place in the human psyche. Their allure is hard to define and harder to explain but it seems that it is one of the characteristics that raise humanity above the animal kingdom. This was an observation made by Christ during the Sermon on the Mount when he referred to casting ‘pearls before swine’. In Renaissance England the word ‘flower’ was synonymous with ‘jewel’. To strike a more contemporary note, it was Aldous Huxley who maintained that gemstones held a numinous, vision-inducing power, writing that ‘[t]he ruby or the emerald is like the transparent fruit which the Mystic sees encrusting the rocks and the architecture of the visionary world’. Fruits and flowers are quick to fade but gemstones are enduring, the closest we get to a sense of perpetual beauty in the natural world. The best of them are very rare. All of this conspires to make them covetable and consequently the finest are exceedingly valuable.

It is hardly surprising, then, that attempts have been made to simulate precious stones, usually with the intent to deceive. In almost any age but our own fraudsters had to make do with simulants. All manner of white stones including topaz, rock crystal and zircon have been cut like diamonds to achieve the same scintillating effect. White, red and green glass has been fobbed off as the finest water-white diamonds, pigeon-blood rubies and jungle-green emeralds. Only with the march of science came the hope of manufacturing the gemstones we now called synthetics. More often than not these are chemically identical to the natural stones and they have most of the same physical properties. However, when subjected to the stringent scientific examination we call gemmology, their human origins can always be detected.

The first successful synthetic corundums – better known as rubies or sapphires – were made commercially in a furnace at 2040 degrees Celsius in the mid 1890s by Auguste Verneuil (the method is known as the Verneuil process, or flame fusion). He showed them at the World Fair of 1900. There they attracted considerable attention in the jewellery world, with Cartier and even Fabergé incorporating them into their products. They were not cheap and it seems that the magic of the real stones endured in these man-made simulants; but not for long. They began to be mass-produced, and were soon relegated to the rank of the cheap, colourful synthetics that they are.

With cheap man-made stones now freely available, stories of criminal substitutions abound. Perhaps the most sensational to have come to light in recent years is the substitution of hugely valuable gemstones with synthetics, even plain glass, that took place at the Czech Republic’s National Museum in Prague. The most notable to have been lost in this way is a 5-carat diamond and a 19-carat sapphire said to have been worth millions. The museum has also admitted that half its collection of rubies has been filched in a similar fashion.

So what should the prospective buyer do to guard against simulation and the enhancement of valuable precious stones?  The answer is always the same. Buy from a reputable source and beware of bargains at home and particularly abroad. Henry VIII was defrauded by a Milanese stone dealer who sold him an ‘emerald’ that turned out to be glass. Take care not to join the king’s gullible company and the many lesser mortals duped before and after him, even to the present day.

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