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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Logistics for the Longer Haul: The New Normal at Cecile Raley Designs

Logistics for the Longer Haul: The New Normal at Cecile Raley Designs

I could probably make this a one-line blog: where we are at right now is where we have been over the last 6 weeks, and where we are going is “nowhere fast.” This, in any case, has been my takeaway from my latest addiction: the daily Andrew Cuomo press briefings.  

This week, Cuomo challenged New Yorkers – and I count myself as one of them – to rethink their business structure, at least for the near future.  That’s nothing new for me, because I’ve been rejigging things since week one. Here’s a back stage view of our New Normal.

For now, New York is only a paradise if you enjoy biking the empty streets.  According to the news, the mayor will open 100 miles of streets for pedestrian and bike traffic to ensure social distancing.  Reading between the (obvious) lines, that means no cars.  No cars, in turn means fewer people commuting, or going in and out of New York on business, to see Broadway shows, eat dinner, or shop.  The subways are empty and packing them back up is in nobody’s best interest right now.

Ladies & Gentlemen, The Diamond District is CLOSED

What this means for us is that New York won’t be my destination for pickups and drop offs for some time to come.  We’ve switched to working remotely, using overseas services, shipping orders in production back and forth between artisans, and personal drop offs & pick ups via car – one benefit of near-zero traffic in New Jersey!  Here’s where we are at, in order of production.

Gems: several of my vendors go to NYC once a week to check on their offices and mail out the orders (that are now down to a trickle) now that the local business is gone for the moment.  To respect social distancing ordinances, some of these vendors alternate with their staff so that the office just has one person in it on any given day, while other vendors just pay their staff to stay home and have applied for funding to cover their losses.  This means I can still get most of the gems that I want, but I need to have the vendors do some of the picking.  They all know my taste so they can send me a selection, and then I just return what I don’t want.  Some of the smaller buildings are completely shut until further notice, but the larger ones have a security guard stationed so there’s a small trickle of people going in and out.  Police cars guard the street.

Findings and Parts: bails, posts, pushbacks, jump rings, and chain are among the items I would source as needed in NY.  I’ve taken to ordering them online, mostly from the same suppliers, as they are working with a reduced staff in the back offices, not allowing any sort of foot traffic.  This means I have to stock more parts here at home.  Karen and I have made a list of things we should have on hand, and items are coming in as we speak.  But, of course, many of you are used to my getting all kinds of little specialty items.  That’s not fully operational yet, but we now have an account with Stuller, and they are up and running, including manufacturing! Feel free to check with them for any other items you’d like to see that I could use for your orders.  They ship fast and I can get anything mailed directly to my house.

CAD and Design: up and running!  I have two people working on CAD and I can offer a fairly quick turnaround time.

Castings: I’ve been doing castings for new custom orders in Australia.  The turnaround time from sending in the file to literally having it here in JC is about 8 business days.  It’s super-fast and the casting is excellent.  The hitch with this, however, is that I don’t have access to my molds, which are all at Taba. And I can’t send a mold to Australia anyway, as it’s too expensive.  Rather, I send in the CAD file to get printed "down under," and that’s an additional $30-40 per piece (and $40 for shipping so I usually combine 3 orders in one shipment).  Small pieces cost less in printing fees but there’s still some cost.  This means I am not casting any silver, and I have to be careful about small parts if I want to keep a profit margin.  Obviously, we are absorbing the additional costs right now.  Rings I can do without a problem, as well as pendants, but I’m not yet casting a lot of small parts like stud earrings. I suspect that my casting service will figure out a skeleton crew to go in and do minimal work so they can pay the rent, but given social distancing measures, they won’t be fully operational for some time.

Assembly / Jewelry work: This refers to adding jump rings, posts, bails, or soldering together chain.  Joanne and Johanna are helping with pre polish and they can do final polish also.  Assembly I have to keep simple, so for instance, adding jump rings is not an issue but soldering chain parts together for a bracelet means being super careful with not applying too much heat.  Soldering miniscule stuff is not for the uninitiated but we are slowly making it work.

Setting: Ethan is working from home but he babysits the little one during the day while his wife goes to her podiatrist’s practice.  Pierre has borrowed a microscope from someone and built himself a bench at home in the basement.  He went to NY and picked up some tools -- but not the laser.  He may get the laser machine if this keeps up, but for now it’s just sitting in his office, unemployed.

Odds and Ends: Ring sizing, small repairs, and any items that require low heat solder form a cluster of things that need to get done on nearly a weekly basis. Those items require the above named laser machine, which costs over 20K and nobody I know has one at home.  Laser machines don’t like traveling either, as they are sensitive to being jiggled around.  Another challenge is some of the chemical treatments required, i.e. rhodium plating.  You need a license for that stuff because those are environmental contaminants unfortunately.  But asking around and exchanging information with others in my industry yielded one shop that’s partially functioning with a larger home bench and equipment in Staten Island.  This is a medium sized shop doing mostly CAD, but the owner goes to NY once a week to pick up mail, do some casting, laser soldering and plating.  So what I’m doing is collecting a few items as they come in and then putting them together as one shipment so he doesn’t go in for just one thing.  I’ve given him a couple of medium to large orders to complete with casting.  He’s good friends with Pierre and they coordinate brief stops in NY so Pierre can set.

Other than that, yours truly drives the orders around as needed, and you can’t imagine how lovely it is to drive around these days with practically no cars on the road! On the nice and warm spring days, I get to hang out on Johanna’s stoop or outside Joanne’s ground floor window, or last Saturday, in Pierre’s garden (6 feet apart), fulfilling my need for social contact, seeing my friends, and encouraging them to keep going, as they encourage me.

The Diamond District, During COVID-19
A Very Empty 47th Street
Times Square, All Lit Up For an Audience of Zero
A Very Empty Times Square
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Buckle Up; It's Going to Be a Bumpy Ride...

Buckle Up; It's Going to Be a Bumpy Ride...

COVID-19 and the International Gem Business

As the world continues to be on pause, I’ve checked in with everyone overseas to find out how my vendors and friends are doing.  My What’s App is constantly chirping with news from everywhere as people are home, bored and facing an uncertain future as gems are, after all, a luxury product.  Here’s the summary:

Africa

Antsirabe, Madagascar. Everyone is under stay at home orders. As my friend and supplier Gael put it to me: “All things stop. No customer, no work!! Very hard.” He’s also devastated because he had a sponsor to take him to the second largest mineral show in the world, Saint Marie Aux Mines in France, which is now cancelled.  Many of the mineral dealers sent their freight out earlier this year and that freight will now sit who knows where in France, racking up storage fees that nobody can pay.  

Meanwhile, the locals are allowed to go out between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. to shop for essentials only.  Not everyone behaves but most people respect it.  As you can imagine, things like masks and latex gloves are not available.  Hand sanitizer is not something they are familiar with, and hospitals are not free.  You have to pay and if you don’t you will be turned away.  Testing is either rare or non-existent.  Whatever happens there in terms of the virus will just happen since the stay at home orders are only going to slow the inevitable.  Remember that in the US and in Europe, we are slowing the spread because we are preventing overcrowding in hospitals and improving treatment and testing.  That strategy makes little sense when there’s no testing and not much treatment.

Arusha, Tanzania. The situation there is much the same. Moustache, our broker, has no work.  Nobody can come into the country to buy gems.  Mining etc. is at a total standstill.  His daughter Brenda whose college we pay for is home with her grandma, waiting for things to start back up.

Nairobi, Kenya.  The same story, again, except there is slightly better availability of medical care and testing. My friend Doreen, who works at the University of Nairobi, told me that the University is closed for the rest of the term with online teaching only.  But, as you can imagine, that only works if you have a computer, or a phone, and can pay for the necessary internet connection.  So it’s not working well.  Doreen and her little boy went to her village in Meru.  She said she did get a paycheck and she’s hoping she will get another.  In the village, Doreen doesn’t have electricity but she’s away from the congestion of Nairobi and thus in a much safer place.

Europe

Frankfurt, Germany. My “little” sister (turning 40 next year) is recovering from her brush with COVID-19, getting sick leave and sick pay.  She’s pleased that she had it, “now that’s done with,” she says, and she feels safer.  Papa is at home in his house with a garden, for him it’s business as usual.  He’s home most of the time as he’s turning 80 this year.  He works in the garden, makes marmalade and bakes cake, uses his home trainer for 60 minutes and then the sauna on occasion.  He told me that at the local supermarket, where he goes once a week, the rule is that each person needs to use a shopping cart for distancing.  And they make 50 carts available, the rest are chained up.  So if there’s no cart, you wait outside, social distancing.  That way, you don’t need to count shoppers at the entrance.  He bought masks at home depot and has extra (because he’s that kind of guy).  

Hannover, Germany. Jochen from Jentsch minerals, my travel buddy, is at home, taking daily 6 mile walks with his Labrador.  Business is flat because most of his money comes from resale.  Pretty much all of the shows this year are or will be cancelled because by definition, they are mass gatherings.  And he’s not going to travel even if the ban lifts some time this year.  At 75, with diabetes, he belongs to a risk group and prefers to wait for a vaccine or at least better treatment options.  This sucks for me but it is obviously the right thing to do. We sometimes talk with the camera on, his hair and beard are growing wild, he looks like Santa Claus right now.

Moscow, Russia. An interesting situation is unfolding there with the government finally admitting that they have a problem.  My friend and supplier S. tells me that the wait for ambulances to get into the hospital is 9 hours.  A YouTube video was circulating in Russia showing how many ambulances are waiting in line.  https://youtu.be/d0VkYHcdIzo. The inhabitants are allowed outside within 100 meters of their homes, driving is not permitted except with special permission from the government, and you can walk outside only to get essential goods or walk the dog.  S. is getting requests for orders for high end material but obviously he can’t supply right now.  Russia is a complicated place when it comes to business.  The details are best left unsaid (insofar as I know them anyway), but S. has hunted for elk and gone fishing, and I know he has vodka, so he says he’ll be ok for a few months.  

The Far East.

Bangkok, Thailand. The trading centers are all closed, people under quarantine at home, business slowing to a halt. But some sources tell me that building owners are demanding rent and threatening to cancel leases, which is bad for the smaller businesses.  There are many fears that trade will not go back to normal anytime soon.  Nomad’s for instance has closed all of its offices (including New York), and they are not shipping out anything.  Cutting factories are closed, and even some of the material that is cut is not shipping out.

Hong Kong.  Some limited production there, but very limited from what I’m told.

Singapore. Lockdown, quarantine for everyone coming in (two weeks in a hotel, just like China and many other places) and only residents allowed.  My friend there is huddled up in her apartment in a high rise, waiting for things to change.  Testing and contact tracing are working well over there but like in every rich country, there is a poorer subculture of international workers living in poorer conditions, and for them life is not so easy.

And what about yours truly and co?

We are in the same position as a few weeks ago.  I have inventory, and I can get additional inventory from Dudley Blauwet, who is pretty much the only one shipping because he has access to his inventory.  Dudley usually supplies to jewelry stores and those are pretty much closed, so he’s taking naps for the first time in his life and learning how not to be in overdrive.  All the gem shows are cancelled for now – the earliest possibility for him to vend will be in August, and even that’s in the stars for now.  My friend Brett Kosnar (also in Colorado) is doing some recutting for me, his orders have otherwise dwindled, just like Dudley’s.  

I am doing some casting in Australia of all places.  Karen is working from home, cataloging our photos of finished jewelry and working on an extensive inspiration page with detailed information.  The catalog is also getting an overhaul.  Brandy is making CADs and I just sent four custom orders to Australia a week ago for printing and casting.  They should ship out this week.  Johanna can do the polish, Joanne and Johanna can do some soldering.  Supplies are available through Rio Grande and Stuller just announced that they will start shipping again, albeit only finished product, while supplies last.  Their supply chain, like most others, has crashed.  

My missing links are rhodium plating for white gold – I can order from Rio but the basic setup with the solution is about 1K.  And I can’t do ring sizing because that’s done via laser solder.  The three people I know with a laser machine are all stuck at home and their laser is in New York.  Pierre, my setter, told me yesterday that he now has a bench setup at home as someone had an extra microscope that he could borrow (they cost 3K so you don’t want to buy one for just a few weeks).  He went to his office building last week, which is open, but no employees are allowed inside.  Since he’s self-employed and has no employees, he can enter his office, but he said he’s not going in for 2-3 small laser jobs because, like almost everyone, he’s driving rather than taking the subway, which is expensive with tolls and parking.  

The only thing we all love about this situation over here is the lack of traffic.  I can take my bike out and practice clipping in and out of the pedals without fear of getting run over (yesterday, I clipped out too late while stopping and kissed the asphalt in a parking lot – today I’m taking the day off, tending to my battle wound below the knee, and writing this blog).

My trainer Sebaj Adele, a 40-year cycling veteran, is probably bored stiff!  But with his gym closed, he’s patiently making do with his only trainee, sailing smoothly ahead, while the lumpier me, with mismatched biking gear, breathlessly follows the pro like an imprinted duckling.

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