It is regrettable but true that some less-than-savory websites and stores offer jewelry that's not what it's supposed to be... Here are my 'insider tips' to avoiding jewelry ripoffs.
Word-Game #1: “LC”
There’s nothing wrong with ‘lab-created” or “synthetic” gemstones, when properly disclosed. They are chemically identical to the natural version, and often have better color and clarity. The problem arises when they’re broadly marketed as “Sapphires” or “Rubies” or similar with the notation that they’re synthetic relegated to the fine print… Or worse, presented only as an abbreviation (typically “LC” for lab created). So make sure you know that “Sapphire Ring” that says “LC Sapphire” way far down below is not a natural sapphire, nor does it carry the value of a natural Sapphire…
Word Game #2: “GP, GF, gold-over…”
Obscure word/abbreviation games also happen with precious metals. We all know what “gold-plated” means, and most understand that “Gold-filled” really means “not Gold”… which is exactly why some merchants avoid the terms. Their headline will tout jewelry “in 14K Gold” then only later refer to it as “gold-over-silver” or “GP” or “GF”… Watch out for those abbreviations. They mean you’re getting plated merchandise.
A pet peeve of mine for obvious reasons… “Majorica Pearls” are not pearls. Period. They are simulated pearls. They’re very pretty simulated pearls. They are generally of good quality, and they’re not cheap either. They’re, frankly, a good choice if you want simulated pearls: but they are not pearls. The problem is one of disclosure: Many retailers offer “majorica pearls” without the appropriate disclosure, and thus most folks buy, give and otherwise believe they’ve bought real pearls. Untrue.
Let me say up front, there is NOTHING wrong with treated or enhanced gems, when properly disclosed. The issues to consider are the permanence of the treatment, and any issues it may cause. For example, many colored pearls are dyed. This is a generally-permanent treatment and can create beautiful jewelry at an advantageous price that will retain its lovely color… so long as you know you’re buying a “dyed” pearl. Some gems, like Tanzanite, are always heat-treated and don't even show their proper color otherwise - and it's permanent once done.
But some treatments carry more concern. “Filled” diamonds have had flaws removed, but may shatter if subjected to steam-cleaning. “Oiled” emeralds look lovely, but the oil can dry out/run out over time leaving a less-beautiful (and less-valuable) stone. It is fine to buy a treated gemstone, and they often offer tremendous value. But ask about treatment and work with a store that overtly and clearly discloses such treatments.
No association membership.
Jewelry associations exist to maintain standards, ethics and help consumers feel confident in buying jewelry. Ask your jewelry store / retailer which memberships they hold. Pearls.com, for example, is a member of the Cultured Pearl Association of America, and must adhere to their standards or get kicked out. Other reputable associations for jewelers include the Jewelers Board of Trade and the American Gem Society. Member jewelers pay to be part of the association and must abide by its rules and standards. Your jeweler should display their affiliations on their site or store (for Pearls.com, our CPAA membership is noted on every page of the site in our 'about' menu), and if it’s not one of the ones mentioned above, they should explain to you the standards and requirements of membership.
Too Perfect / Too Good to Be True
No gemstone is perfect. They are creations of nature, and they ALL have flaws. Even a “flawless” diamond has flaws if put under a microscope. There is no such thing as a perfect pearl. A gem, pearl or other jewel that seems too perfect or is represented as perfect is probably not real, and the jeweler who tells you so is likely not someone you should trust.
And needless to say, when that ‘perfect’ gem comes at an unbelievable price… Don’t believe it!
Standards exist for the grading of diamonds, pearls and gems. Pearls, for example, are traditionally graded as A, AA or AAA. Below “A” grade, they are not gem quality. There is no standard/traditional grade above “AAA”. Many jewelers have super-premium terms for the best-of-the-best AAA grade pearls, and that’s fine so long as it’s clearly explained. For example, Pearls.com offers pearls from Imperial rated as "Crown Select" which represents the top 1% of AAA grade pearls.
Be leery of terminology that seems like it’s trying to create something new. Adding “+” or “-“ to gradings, using exotic-sounding terms, inventing grades like “B+”, are all likely tactics to make something seem better than it is.
What a reputable jeweler WILL do is clearly explain what each grade means. For example: http://www.pearls.com/pages/pearl-quality-guide
Wizard of Oz
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”… Reputable jewelers welcome and respect informed consumers, answer their questions, and operate on a full disclosure basis. If someone tries to derail your inquiries, tells you that your sources of information are wrong, or otherwise works off some variation of “just trust me and don’t ask questions” then you should absolutely question whether you want to engage with that firm…
Fair Return Policy
In the end, there’s no substitute for a fair return policy. And here you must also apply the test of reason… A store or jeweler who has a restrictive policy – only a week or two to return, rigorous requirements like showing a receipt years later, etc. – is quite simply telling you they’re not confident in what they sell.
But wait! Too good to be true can come into play as well: A store or jeweler that offers a lifetime no-questions-asked-no-matter-what guarantee… do you really think they plan on honoring that? Or will you find yourself facing excuses and hurdles if/when you try to invoke it?
A return policy with a reasonable time frame (30-60 days is my own benchmark when shopping), and reasonable requirements (it makes sense that a jeweler won’t warranty items that have been altered or repaired, or fully-refund brand-name items without the original box, etc.) is your best assurance you’re dealing with a reputable organization.
It probably goes without saying, but pay attention to accessibility. A reputable jeweler will be easy to contact. A website will have its toll-free phone number, email and other ways to reach them easily accessible in the navigation - usually as a 'contact us' page. A physical store will have clerks that remain for the long haul and not have you talk to a different person every time you visit... Use common sense: jewelers that don't -want- to talk to you likely have reasons for avoiding contact...