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Gem Lessons with the Godfather

dedicated to his memory, by Diana McLeod

If you haven't read the last story, I suggest you start by reading "MEETING THE GODFATHER" - found in the Travel Story Archives - and select that tale. It will give you the story of my introduction to my gem teacher.

The most important lesson I learned at the Godfather's shop was how to rate stones. This is a lesson that takes time and practice. The Godfather would bring out packets of stones (often borrowed from other, wealthier shops, I think) and we would spread them out on white paper. We would rate them from best to worst. The principle of rating the stones is the same as it always is - color, cut, clarity and carats. It is a principle that is easy to say, but hard to achieve until you have spent time with the stones.

Each stone has rules about its color. Peridot is not good when it is very dark. It should be bright- the brighter the better. Too much yellow is also bad. On the other hand, the best color of Amethyst is dark. African stones with deep, saturated color have more value than lighter stones from Brazil. But they should still be clear, not opaque or cloudy.

To complicate matters, there is the cutting. A well cut stone is superior to a poorly cut one. A stone that is too shallow doesn't refract the light properly, so you can see straight through it. Sometimes, the stone is cut too deep. If that happens, it may look fabulous all by itself, but it is impossible to set in an attractive manner. Many first time buyers buy stones that are cut too deep, because they may exhibit extra brilliance. In the Indian trade, they are referred to as "Qutab Minar" stones (the Qutab Minar being a monumentally tall tower spire in Delhi.) There are also stones that are rejected because the cutting was done badly. Facets that are obviously off center will also diminish value.

Lastly, there is the clarity factor. Stones with inclusions (little fissures, lines, cloudiness, air pockets, pieces of carbon, crystals of another mineral, etc.) are less desirable. Some stones are loaded with inclusions, and it is hard to find examples without them. Other stones should never display inclusions. Inclusions in Emeralds are to be expected. Inclusions in Blue Topaz are never tolerated.

Then there is the fourth factor - the one the Godfather always emphasized - the fire. If a stone has no fire, it is not good. Fire is the most important quality. A stone with brilliant fire and questionable cutting is more valuable than one with perfect cutting and no fire.

All of these factors work together when you are rating stones and matching pairs. Choices have to be based on a balance of these elements. I worked for hours to get it right. I would line up the stones, as carefully as I could, and the Godfather would wait patiently. Then he would show me why one choice was better (or worse) than another. It took lots and lots of practice before my ratings were approved without making changes. We spent hours and hours on this single task, and those lessons have stood by me ever since. Even today, as I sort stones, I still ask myself- "what would Godfather say?"

Godfather would occasionally come up with very interesting teaching techniques. One of my favorites was the Lapis Rosary. He made me a "rosary" of lapis lazuli beads, some of which were dyed, and some of which were natural. It was my job to do the rosary, announcing "dyed" or "natural" as I counted each bead. This was not an easy task! It is hard to tell by eye. But there is something of a dull quality to the dyed lapis. It does not have quite the same luster that the all natural beads do. Around and around and around that rosary I went, trying to get it right. It took a lot of time, but I finally got it.

The next phase of my training involved my very own "undercover" mission. The news around town was that somebody in Bangkok was producing excellent ruby doublets, and passing them off as the real thing. A doublet is a two part "stone" with a genuine natural stone top over a manufactured base. The piece is made by cementing the two layers together. When you look at the top of the stone, it can be nearly impossible to tell a well made doublet from a clean stone. You must examine the side of the stone to be sure. This is one of many reasons why Tradewinds designs and produces our own gold jewelry. We do not buy colored stones pre-set. (except for Opals and Pearls) Not only do we reap a price advantage that we can pass on to our customers, but we can guard against doublets and synthetics in this way.

The Godfather got his hands on one of these doublets. The top was real ruby, and the bottom was garnet. It was so well done that you could only see the line at a certain angle and using certain types of lighting. Indirect daylight was best. It was easier to see with the naked eye than with the loupe (magnifier), but it took a great deal of practice before I could see it easily. I carried the stone with me for days, and practiced with it again and again.

Finally, I was ready for my "exam". The Godfather told me to go to various jewelry stores in Kathmandu. He gave me a list. I was told to pretend to be an innocent tourist. I would show them the "ruby", telling them that I purchased it in Bangkok. I was to tell them I wanted another one "just like it" to make earrings with. My "mission" was to discover which of the stores on my list had the real thing, and which had the doublets.

This was a lot of fun! Acting like a clueless tourist was a riot, and the prices quoted at some of the stores were beyond belief. Everyone carefully tilted my stone, looking for the doublet line, while pretending to be inspecting the cutting. I am sure that all of them knew it was a doublet. Nobody told me the truth about my stone. People at the honest shops didn't want to hurt my feelings, and the dishonest ones saw an opportunity to fleece me again. It was very interesting to watch the salesmen at work. There was only one who quoted me a reasonable tourist price for a real ruby. In order to match the depth of color in the doublet, he had to match it with a very valuable gemstone. The price was the highest that I was quoted, but it was the best. If I had been an ignorant tourist, I would have happily bought another doublet, instead of paying for the real deal. In the tourist gem trade, it is hard to be honest, because your competition isn't.

The only difficulty I had with my assignment was that I needed decent light in order to see the doublet line. Gem shops use very narrow focused lights, which are not good for this problem. At two of the shops, I had to take the suspected doublets outside to use the daylight. The salespeople got nervous, especially when I kept tilting the stones. I kept talking about the colors not matching perfectly, and pretended that I just couldn't easily hold it upright in my palm. I told them that the guide from my "tour group" advised me to look at stones in different lights, in order to make sure they matched.

Afterward, I returned to the shop and produced my findings. I am pleased to say I was right on every count. When I told Godfather some of the prices I was quoted, and some of the B.S. I had listened to, we both had a good laugh. Ever since then, whenever I want to have some fun, I wander into one of these shops and get the salesmen started....

Thanks for reading! Next time, I will write about a close encounter with priceless treasures from the Nepalese Royal Crown jewels!

Diana McLeod

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