Cecile Raley Designs

What You Need to Know Before Buying Gems Overseas

What You Need to Know Before Buying Gems Overseas

A couple of weeks ago a new client asked me if “sellers from India have genuine natural gems at low cost”?  It was a strange question to pose to me I thought, since I am a gem seller and I am based in the US.  Was she trying to ask me about my competition?

Well, I tend to take questions at their face value and just try to answer them, and my answer to her is what forms the basis of this blog.

The short answer to the question as posed is yes.  Yes, sellers from India have natural gems for sale and yes, they are genuine gems.  Yes, they are at times low cost.  But this is not the whole story, as it is uninformative at best.  The better question to ask is if it is worth it for you to spend more money and to buy in the US.  My somewhat biased answer to that question is also yes, but I don’t mean that to be self-serving.  Why, then, would I say this?

  1. Consumer Protection Laws: the US, the EU and some other rich countries have enacted — and are able to enforce — an extensive set of consumer protection laws. These laws, first enacted in the 1960s, are exactly that.  They protect and favor the consumer, not the seller.  The assumption behind these laws is that the consumer is at an epistemic disadvantage.  She or he is not assumed to know as much about the product as the seller.  These laws obligate the seller to make full and truthful disclosure about the product, including risks (i.e. with toys and cleaning products) that the consumer may not anticipate.  If the seller is not truthful and can be proven wrong, the buyer can get refunded and the seller can get into big trouble.  Additionally, a buyer has protection with any PayPal, Etsy and Credit Card transaction, and this protection is again easier to enforce within the US (or EU).  
    India does not have the economic wealth to set up the necessary bureaucracy to enforce extensive consumer protection laws, and the US has no international jurisdiction to obligate sellers in other countries. While you can leave a bad review and a shop can be closed down if it's hosted by a marketplace like Etsy, nothing stops the company from reopening under a different name.  In the US, this can be more difficult.
  1. Laboratory Services: not all gem labs have the same standards, and some international labs in Bangkok, India and Sri Lanka even have the reputation of favoring the seller. This does not have to mean falsifying reports, it just means that information can be inflated, or it can be left undisclosed. Reliable labs are AGL and GIA in the US, Dunaigre in Switzerland, GRS in Switzerland and the US, among others.  Again, US, EU and also Swiss laws, are strict and enforceable, even if the standards are non-uniform.  Additionally, there are certain organizations such as the American Gem Trade Association, that can require additional standards. And last but not least, gem businesses in the US have to sign anti-terrorist agreements that prevent them from buying goods that support the terrorist trade, and they can be closed down and prosecuted for not abiding by these agreements.
  1. Related to that, some overseas sellers offer “certificates of authenticity” for their gems. I get asked if I provide these all the time.  I don’t because frankly, I don’t know what such a thing would be.  Buyers get a bill of sale, or a receipt (from Etsy, let’s say) and this provides them with the information about the gem: size, origin, treatment, dimensions, cost.  And they can request an independent laboratory certificate from GIA for instance.  What, in addition, does an in-house printed “certificate” do?  Nothing - anyone can print it from home.  It has neither additional value nor does it additionally protect the buyer. 

     

    Actual lab cert from GAL
  1. Quality Control (or selection of better quality gems): buying from a wholesaler, as opposed to a retailer, often implies that the buyer commits to a piece from a larger parcel, or an entire parcel, or a lower quality single gem (say for instance a gem with window or less desirable color, a sapphire with more zoning, a ruby that looks blackish). Many overseas sellers have to move more product than just a single stone here and there because they have often committed to a larger quantity of gems, and if they offer these cheaper than, for instance, US sellers, it makes no sense for them to curate and select the best specimens.  They may do so for more valuable material but they may correspondingly raise the price to more of a retail level because of the additional labor involved.  But in the latter case, they may not be underbidding the US market by that much in the end.
    What you can and often do save on is the customer service, however.  Labor is cheaper in many overseas countries and so it is easier to ask someone to match pieces for you, send extra photos and video. For us, by contrast, this is an expensive endeavor and hence we do not always provide that extra service.  Gems under $50 for instance, are not gems for which we want to spend the time to provide video.  But for a seller in Brazil, let’s say (just to pick a different country) where the minimum wage is $1.1 per hour, as opposed to $7.25 an hour in the US ($12 in NJ) and a $50 gem can be marketed with more manpower.

    Now, does this mean you should not buy internationally?   No it doesn’t.  I do as well, although I have reliable sources with whom I do a lot of business and they know my taste.  I also do not pre-pay for these goods as that is not standard in the wholesale market.  As all sales are final, I pay after inspection, not before, and I have the right of refusal if the goods are not what I expected.  As you can imagine, this requires a degree of trust, however, and can only be sustained with an ongoing relationship that involves quantity purchases.

    Secondly, if you are an informed consumer, you will be able to judge photos better, ask the right questions (i.e. is there window?), request extra photos, or a certificate from a reliable lab that you have researched.  And that’s the point at which tables can be turned – if you are a very educated buyer and you are willing to spend more money on repeat business, I think you can benefit from buying internationally.  However, for a less educated buyer who just wants a few smaller gems, I do not recommend this as the most logical option.
A recently acquired mixed color/quality parcel of tanzanite

 

Jochen and I, sorting out a parcel, on location in Antisirabe

 

Here are some newly listed (and carefully sorted and curated) gems in the shop:

 

Spinel Pears from Nigeria

 

Ombre Benitoite

 

Paraiba
Brazilian Paraiba Tourmaline
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Travel During a Pandemic: How I Got Around the Denver Shows Safely

Travel During a Pandemic: How I Got Around the Denver Shows Safely

Travel certainly has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in certain respects, this has been for the better.  While my heart goes out to the travel and restaurant industries, I don’t miss the long security lines at Newark Airport or the packed flights –- my flight was about 80% full but I was given a 24-hour warning from the airline in case I preferred a different flight.  Kudos to United Airlines for cleaning all planes between flights (no more hurriedly swapping out passengers from one flight to the next within the same half hour and finding the trash from whoever had your spot an hour ago stuffed into your seat pocket.)  

Social distancing was urged everywhere in Newark and in Denver.  I appreciated the zrero-tolerance-but-still-friendly announcements about masks: you'll get a first warning, then a second warning, & if there is a third infraction, you will be reported to the Captain with the possibility of being denied a future flight. And while the sealed snack pack with pretzels, water and a cookie was a bit skimpy, it was announced well ahead of time that there would not be meals for purchase in-flight but that Newark airport had availability of touch-free shopping, should you wish to stock up beforehand. Additional advantages and time-savers were 1) the lack of waiting on the runway at Newark Airport and 2) we boarded back to front/deboarded front to back, 6 rows at a time.  It’s amazing what kind of congestion among people, cars, and planes we were willing to find acceptable pre-pandemic, just for the sake of saving some money!

My hotel experience has changed as well.  I booked Woolley’s for the first time because it was within walking distance to the show and I liked that it was both four star and independently owned.  Room service, as it was, is now gone thanks to COVID, but everything you could want or need was available upon request.  Towels, trash bags, extra coffee pods, soap, shampoo, etc... all were delivered to your door within minutes.  Breakfast was “grab and go” and barely above McDonald’s standards: McMuffin-esque egg with sausage and drippy cheese, a piece of fruit and a coffee.  That was a real downer for me since I’m a big breakfast person and one of my factors in hotel choices is a well-rounded, all-inclusive breakfast with fresh items and omelets made to order – something Woolley’s is actually known for, in normal times. Nothing that comes out of a carton for me!  If they can cook dinner and offer room service for dinner as well as provide generously spaced out hotel restaurant service, what makes breakfast such a problem?  But I let it go.  Instead, upon discovery of only dried milk packets for my morning coffee (a total no no for me and a reason to avoid any Holiday Inn), I went to my Amazon app and ordered a Prime Delivery: a couple of hours later, my fridge was stocked with fresh turkey, cheese, bread, salad, almond milk, seltzer and a couple of treats for me.  Delivery was to my door, contact-free.  

The pool was closed, and thankfully this was announced on the website or I would have been pretty disappointed.  But the gym was open, by appointment only, with frequent cleaning. Special key provided and gloves required.  So all in all, a very good experience as far as safety from contagion.  Even if I was a worrywart, I would have said I felt safe. But I’m more of a “calculated risk” person and so the better description from my point of view was that I estimated the risk of getting sick as very low, and therefore acceptable for travel, and I found my estimations to be better than expected.  My restaurant experience was the same (25% occupancy for indoors in Colorado, and lots of space), otherwise I just walked everywhere except for one Uber to the other gem show.  Mask compliance was as high as NYC in my anecdotal experience.  And NYC has the highest compliance rate in the US.

At the gem show itself, the booths had double the amount of space between them, and everyone I know (and really everyone there period), was extremely conscientious including temperature checks at the entrance and crowd control.  My Benitoite supplier did private appointments only and immediately upon entering asked what my comfort level was in terms of having some chips, or getting a coffee, space between us etc.  Since I expect to travel to Germany in a few days and need to protect my mom and not risk any positive COVID test, I was grateful that I was asked.  The only downside for the vendor in terms of my wearing the mask was that he’s hard of hearing, and since COVID he has realized his extreme reliance on reading lips in addition to listening.  We agreed that with 6 feet of separation, I would lower my mask when I spoke and he would not so I was safe in terms of travel to Germany.  We also kept the window open for ventilation.  

Aside: This fall, my significant other has started teaching again at Tufts.  He’s one of perhaps 15% of their professors who teach in-class, so he is in an empty building, teaches 20 students in a lecture hall, and gets tested weekly.  Because many of his students are foreign but residing in the US, I ordered him some masks with a cut out window so they can see his lips.  I saw on Etsy that those are marketed for those who are hard of hearing.  I’m going to suggest those to my vendor.  International students, by the way, were largely not readmitted to the US if they left before COVID.  Maybe none of them were but I am not sure.

For a little appendix (blogs are only supposed to be one page long), here’s the travel experience of my friend Jochen who was in Tanzania last week to source minerals. Jochen is 75 and has diabetes as a result of spinal meningitis contracted about a decade ago. So he has to always calculate risk, COVID or no. He certainly can’t be stuck in a hospital somewhere in Africa where, sadly, there are few to no respirators.  

But he also has the travel bug and he loves his rocks, so when Tanzania decided to be one of the very few countries open to any traveler, because as the president “explained”, there’s no COVID-19 in Tanzania, Jochen started to evaluate his risk.  Obviously, Tanzania has just as many or as few COVID-19 cases as the rest of Africa, despite what anyone says.  Granted, considering the shorter life expectancy of 60-65 in Tanzania with less obesity and less smoking as well, there’s also a chance of seeing fewer obvious cases.  Testing doesn’t really exist there, so when all is said and done,  it may sadly have to be measured by an increase in death rates as opposed to an increase in positive tests.  80% of COVID deaths are in people over 65 years old, so my very simple math says that Tanzania should see way fewer deaths than the US and perhaps not a marked increase of deaths over other current diseases, of which there are plenty there.

That said, a 75-year-old German with diabetes has no less, but perhaps even more risk of contracting COVID in Tanzania, so he has to think differently from (a) public announcements and (b) the average younger person’s point of view.  And he did.  Jochen decided that his trip should be no longer than the minimum incubation period so that he would not end up sick in Tanzania: 3 days.  He took a young and healthy travel buddy with him, traveled business class for extra space, refused all room service in the hotel which was occupied by 4 people total (easy social distancing).  He shopped for two days in a specially rented room in the newly established trade building – the only place where wholesale gem trading is now allowed.  He brought a box of masks for anyone who came near him, and only his broker was allowed in the room – with mask.  Moustache, the broker, laughed about it at first (no COVID, you know…) but as Jochen made clear, “no mask”, “no deal”, and therefore “no brokerage fee” was in the end very convincing, especially after months and months without any foreign buyers.  

Jochen wore safety goggles (so no minute particles would get into his eyes and he wouldn’t be tempted to touch his eyes either,) he wore an N3 mask, and he sanitized frequently.  He was rewarded with several hundred very nice specimens and a negative COVID test in Germany so he returned happy!  But he’s quarantining for a few more days just in case...  Tanzanian sellers were probably over the moon that someone came to buy, and Jochen now has new stuff for the Munich show in October. I guess one just has to want it badly enough so one will find a way!  Perhaps not a general rule to follow, but I’m so glad it worked out for him. 

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