Purchasing loose gemstones or jewelry while traveling is a tempting, and potentially cost-saving idea for tourists searching for a special souvenir.
When I was young, my father traveled all around the world for work, and while abroad, made it a hobby to shop for gemstones. Like many travelers who put on a novice gemologist hat, I suspect that my dad fancied the feeling of adventure as much as the savings.
And, whether due to luck or expertise, he returned home with some impressive loot: I still treasure the natural emerald studs he brought back from Colombia, full of inclusions and inner glow. There’s also the knuckle-sized loose amethyst that remains on its velvet pillow. On the other hand, we’re pretty sure that the Brazilian ruby pendant is likely a garnet, but treasure it all the same.
Why so cavalier? That’s because, unless you’re a trained gemologist, buying jewelry and loose gemstones abroad is a gamble.
Small shopkeepers won’t hesitate to misrepresent the authenticity or quality of an item. Tourists are easily bamboozled due to language barriers, unfamiliar surroundings, and customs. Additionally, synthetic stones, glass imitations, and reconstituted gems can be as difficult to spot as they are plentiful.
Here are our best tips and resources to help you avoid being ripped off, should you decide to shop for precious gems and jewelry while traveling:
Learn About Gems Before You Travel
What’s a piece of jewelry or loose gemstone worth? Well, it depends on the stone, obviously. Sure, size matters—but only once an absolute value has been established. A large ruby is worth more than a small ruby, but a small, natural ruby is worth more than a fake ruby of any size.
If you’re planning to purchase jewelry during your travels, visit a reputable local jeweler before your trip to gain an understanding of pricing and quality.
Research How Much Gems Cost Close to Home
Why do local prices matter when shopping for jewelry abroad?
Because gemstones are an international market. According to Russell Shor, a senior industry analyst with the Gemological Institute of America, it’s unrealistic to expect gems to be dirt-cheap somewhere else and expensive here.
It’s unrealistic to expect gems to be dirt-cheap somewhere else and expensive here.
Realistically, you’re probably going to save 10% sales tax. Any promises of thousands off of the valued price should raise red flags.
Ask About Reputable Retailers Abroad
Another reason to visit a local jeweler is to ask for a list of recommended retailers in the city where you’ll be traveling to.
If your jeweler doesn’t know of any, explore the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA), an organization whose members include top gemstone miners, cutters, and dealers throughout the world—as such, they’re an excellent resource for finding quality retailers abroad.
Understand the Difference Between Natural and Lab-Created Gemstones
It’s important to arm yourself with information about the differences between natural, lab-created, and imitation gemstones.
Natural stones have been mined from the earth, and have the allure of rarity. As such, they can be worth hundreds or thousands of times more than their synthetic counterparts.
Natural stones are often easily recognized due to inclusions, growth lines, and imperfections that would be difficult to create in a controlled lab setting. Alternately, any natural stone that can match a synthetic stone’s clarity would be easily identified by price.
Lab-created gemstones are chemically identical to natural gemstones. Despite being “the real thing,” some consumers dislike the extreme clarity of lab-created stones. However, others appreciate that they can be purchased for far less than their natural counterparts, and with a clear conscious—as lab created stones aren’t mined from the earth, there’s no environmental or social impact.
Whether you prefer a natural or lab created stone is totally a matter of personal preference. Should you decide to purchase a lab created gem, know that it should also be certified by a reputable organization.
Know How to Spot a Fake Gemstone
Imitation stones might look pretty for a time, but they have no value. One reason is that, unlike lab created gems, which are made of the same materials as their naturally-occurring counterparts, fake stones don’t hold up to regular wear.
Image via Magnify Supply
Your jeweler should be able to show you how to use a jeweler’s loupe, pictured above, to spot an imitation stone by looking for differences in the color, depth, and way the light shines through the gemstone.
While most fake stones are made of glass or resin, some dishonest jewelers will call a less precious stone by another name to raise the price. For example:
- “Alaskan black diamonds” are actually hematite
- “Oriental emeralds” are green sapphires
- “Mexican jade” is calcite that’s been dyed green
- “Australian rubies” are garnets
The practice of misleading buyers by calling a gemstone by another name is illegal in the US, and regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. However, such stringent requirements aren’t enforced in street-side shops overseas.
A full list of names used to mislead novice gemstone shoppers can be found in this post by Detective Kevin Coffey. (Unfortunately, there’s no mention of Brazilian rubies on the list.)
However, no need to memorize them all. Just remember that real sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds are called just that—without the need for modifiers in their names. Anything else is likely a fake.
Be Aware of Jewelry Scams When You’re There
A common jewelry scam in Thailand is where pushy tuk-tuk drivers will take you to a “friend’s” jewelry store without your permission.
These jewelry stores often appear more like jeweler’s workshops, and tourists will be led through multiple rooms where they can observe precious stones being cut, polished, and set to give a feeling of authenticity.
Then, tourists will be taken to a showroom, where case after case of loose stones is presented at rock-bottom prices. This is when the salespeople start up their pitches, promising that the gemstones or jewelry can be resold for up to ten-times their asking price once the tourists return home.
Of course, it’s a scam—one that works because they’re betting you won’t be returning anytime soon. You can check out how the scam looks in action, and hear one traveler’s experience, in the video below:
Scams aren’t limited to precious gemstone sales in Southeast Asia. Just recently, I was walking down Fifth Avenue, the major shopping street for tourists in Playa del Carmen, when I spotted a shop teeming with amber jewelry.
Necklaces made from fist-size chunks of polished amber were hung from the walls, labeled with an average price of 25,000 pesos, or $1400 USD.
After watching me browse, the shop owner told me that she had a bag of amber jewelry that was the same quality, but available for much less—5000 pesos per item. Sure enough, the necklaces looked identical.
When I asked why the steep discount, the shopkeeper told me it was because they were set to be shipped to Mexico City at five that evening. So, if I wanted to take advantage of a great deal, I had to act quickly. I opted to pass.
How can you avoid being taken for a ride when shopping for gemstones? Follow these rules:
Only shop at reputable venues. You should never buy anything expensive directly off the street. It would be like buying a Rolex from the trunk of a car and expecting it to be real—not going to happen.
Make sure the staff makes you feel comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable, leave. Make sure the shop is well-lit and clean, with a digital scale, large, white paper mat for showing pieces, tweezers and a loupe—these are signs of a quality jeweler.
If a deal seems too good to be true, it is. Realistically, it makes no sense for anyone, whether in a developing nation or a First World country, to sell a $50,000 gemstone for a fraction of the price when reputable jewelers will pay what it’s really worth.
Don’t purchase gemstones in hopes of selling them for more. Only buy gemstones or jewelry because you’ve fallen in love with the item, never for the purpose of an “investment.”
Keep an Eye Out for Jewelry Bait-And-Switch Scams
A jeweler might recognize that you have a discerning eye and aren’t likely to fall for colored glass or resin. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re out of tricks.
Watch out for bait-and-switch tactics like offering to box up an item in the back room, where it can easily be swapped for an inferior but identical product. If you’re buying a ring that needs resizing, it’s best practice to watch the jeweler resize it in front of you.
If You Do Decide to Buy Jewelry While Abroad
If you think you’ve found the real thing and want a second opinion, get any details (materials used, color of the stones, carat weight) on a formal invoice or company letterhead—not a handwritten notepad.
Also, don’t forget to ask about returns or service issues; a reputable retailer will want to build a strong relationship for any referrals or in case of a return trip.
Finally, if a lab report does accompany a diamond or gemstone, insist on one from a reputable independent laboratory, such as the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) or American Gemological Society (AGS).
Bottom Line on Buying Gemstones When Abroad
Shopping for jewelry and gemstones while traveling isn’t always a bad experience. Markets are becoming more global, especially with mass-produced jewelry. So if you visit such local places as boutiques, cultural centers, and artisan shops, you just might find something you wouldn’t be able to get at home.
Just remember to think clearly, critically, and without emotion when you do your shopping, as we tend to be less on guard while vacationing than we would be at home. What sounds like an unbelievably good deal almost always ends up in disappointment for the buyer.
Have realistic expectations. Good-quality, real rubies and blue sapphires, which are the sort of kissing cousins of the gem world, are expensive because they are increasingly rare, and buying those, or any other jewel, isn't for innocents abroad.
Also, don’t allow yourself to be pressured by the promise of a “once in a lifetime deal” or claims that gemstones are being offered at wholesale prices. If the store sees hundreds of thousands of travelers a year, it isn’t “wholesale.”
Finally, remember not to confuse jewelry with your investment portfolio. Only purchase an item if you really love it, not because you think you’ll be able to sell it for a profit.
The admonition "if it's too good to be true, it probably is" might be time-worn, but for the novice gemstone shopper who is out of his or her depth, it's worth its weight in gold.
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