In one hand, I am holding a mesmerising dark-blue gemstone that seems to change colour when the light catches it; sometimes it’s deep navy and then with a slight movement it takes on violet hues. In the other hand I have my credit card, poised and primed, ready to make that alluring stone mine.
I am in Bangkok, one of the gemstone capitals of the world, but also a city where an inexperienced collector and their money are easily parted. I come across the blue gemstone in a sort of showroom, rather than a shop, which I read about online. Cut and uncut gems sit on velvet-lined shelves and in drawers, and glittering pieces of jewellery hang from displays, begging to be tried on.
Despite the opulence, it’s the sort of place that could disappear overnight, a hidden-away set of rooms behind buzzers and bells in a mixed-use building.
So, common sense prevails. The Tanzanite, for that is what it is, goes back in the display case and my credit card goes back in my purse, while I get some expert advice.
Scores of holidaymakers succumb to the temptation to buy jewellery and gemstones while visiting Asia, wooed by the lure of a bargain, or caught in the web of a persuasive sales pitch.
Dublin gemmologist Carol Clarke often finds herself at the other end of the process, having to deliver the bad news that the "Burmese ruby" picked up for a song is in fact coloured glass, or the glittering diamond is a synthetic lookalike, or a substandard stone, despite the "certificate" accompanying it. The deception usually comes to light when the purchaser wants to have the stone set, or the piece valued for insurance purposes, on their return home.
Sad and sorry tales
Clarke, who is Ireland’s first elected Fellow of the Institute of Registered Jewellery Valuers in London, has a litany of sad and sorry tales about gems bought abroad, and it’s not just Asia where problems arise.
“I had a woman in last week who had bought what she thought was a beautiful diamond in Antwerp, with all the fancy certs to go with it, but it turned out to be a clarity-enhanced diamond; she was told nothing about that. And it has a huge crack running through the centre and is about to split in two. She is now trying to get her money back.
“I have had a lot of cases of people buying supposed-to-be sapphires in Dubai that are synthetic sapphires, worth about one-tenth of the price.”
Clarke mentions a diamond tennis bracelet a customer paid €16,000 for while on holiday in Tunisia. "It had been repaired, badly, and the diamonds were really poor quality; I valued it at €6,000 at a push."
Another client pursued a court case in New York in relation to a faulty diamond purchased there; it eventually settled on the steps of the court.
Certificates not matching the stones they accompany seems to be a recurring problem. "I would say there are lots of people walking around Ireland now with diamonds that do not match their certs, but they don't know," Clarke says.
But I'm not deterred in my search for a perfect Tanzanite. In fact, the adventure is just beginning. Clarke puts me in touch with Emma Gregory, an Irishwoman from Skerries, Co Dublin, who has a jewellery manufacturing business in Bangkok.
Together with her husband Greg Boudah, Gregory runs a factory that makes pieces for big brand-name jewellery companies in the US, Europe and Australia.
She's bound by confidentiality clauses not to mention the names of the companies she works with, but it wouldn't be unusual, she says, to see pieces her company has made being worn by celebrities on the red carpet at events such as the Golden Globes and the MTV awards. She has spotted her company's work on Jennifer Lopez, Rita Ora and Eva Longoria, among others.
Interest in gems
Gregory lived in Tanzania in her teens – her father worked for ESB International on a World Bank project there – and came home to Dublin to study economics at Trinity. She has also lived and worked in Colorado and Belgium, but it wasn't until she came to live in Bangkok nine years ago that the now 35-year-old had the opportunity to turn her interest in gems and jewellery into a career, by enrolling for a course of study at the Gemmological Institute of America.
"They have schools in the major gem capitals – Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong, Bangkok," Gregory explains.
She and her husband Greg Boudah, also a gemmologist, set up their business four years ago and now have 20 Thai employees. In the main, they make pieces that have been designed by in-house designers with big brand retailers.
But Gregory has just started designing her own range, an elegant, beautifully crafted range of pieces sold under her label, She Adorns (sheadorns.com). Laser-cut mother-of-pearl and hand-selected, microscopically set black and white diamonds and pink sapphires feature predominantly in the collection, a selection of which is on sale at Carol Clarke's shop in Royal Hibernian Way, just off Grafton Street in Dublin.
When I meet Gregory, in the resident's lounge of a major Bangkok city centre hotel, the first thing she asks is if I will change places with her, so that she can have a seat with a wall behind her. It's a security precaution she always takes, she explains, when she is carrying gemstones, and she's brought some to show me. They are lustrous beauties that make me instantly covetous. But what I don't know is that some of them are fakes, very good ones, and among the latest to come on the market in Thailand. Gregory keeps tabs on them, and buys some, to keep abreast of developments, so she knows what the latest and best fakes look like.
“This business is glamorous at the customer end, but if you step right back to where I am [as a gem buyer], there are a lot of crooks here and an awful lot of dirty dealing,” she says.
So, should we just cross gem buying off the shopping list when it comes to travelling to the Far East?
“Just ensure you get a cert, not issued by the shop, but from one of the big labs. If it’s an expensive stone, there should be a cert; just make sure it matches up on the size and dimensions. If it’s a diamond, it will be plotted, they map them. So get your loupe out and have a good look.”
The international labs that issue gem certificates that Gregory recommends looking for include GIA, AGS, EGL, HRD, IGI and AIGS, but be aware that these too can be forged.
Buying from a reputable retailer can bring peace of mind, but you will pay accordingly. Taking expert advice can also reduce the possibility of ending up with a fake. My tanzanite, it turns out, was real, but if I’d handed over my credit card, I’d most certainly have been paying over the odds for it.
“I didn’t set out to provide a gemstone and jewellery consultancy service for Irish people visiting Thailand,” Gregory tells me. “But lately I’m doing so much of it anyway – doing custom designs and buying stones for regular customers – I am happy to provide the service.”
Gregory will source gems, visit retailers to assess a potential purchase on the customer’s behalf, and design pieces to order. At the moment, the trend for rose gold is continuing, she says, and morganite, a pink beryl named after the financier and gem collector JP Morgan, is a good gem to match with it.
“At its best, it’s pink, and peachy, and goes so well with rose gold.”
Fine gems such as emeralds, rubies and sapphires are becoming more popular, she says, and consequently more expensive. Geometric shapes are in favour.
“No soft lines, it’s all hard edges at the moment.”
Jewellery, just like cars, drops in value the moment you wear it out of the shop, but is there anything, other than cumbersome gold ingots, which don’t offer much in the way of accessorising, that might be a good investment?
“Spinel. They’ve become very popular with the collectors, and it’s a gorgeous stone.”