Establishment of a Gemological Testing Laboratory/ Gemology Resource

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One day early last centaury gem and jewellery traders were elated!. A method to produce gems had just been discovered by French scientist August Verneuil. Just mix up ingredients needed to produce corundum and run through a flame produced by LP/O2 gas mixture¦ powders melt and forms gems in a matter of minutes!. They called it Flame fusion processes™. Ruby and sapphire thus produced were so real, so free of inclusions, yet costing only a few hundredth of a natural of the same colour and quality. People thought Oh, why do we need a natural when all the physical properties and optical properties are the same in these new synthetic rubies and sapphires. Natural gem trade collapsed within a short period. But some talked about the importance of the naturalness of a gem. They said we dont want man made things to replace our natural beauties. Gemmologists had to intervene to identify these products. They found curved growth lines and tiny gas bubbles, the types which do not exist in natural gems. This resulted in the natural gem trade slowly recovering. But it took years!!.

Some years latter another product appeared. They called it cultured rubies or cultured emerald, or created rubies or created emerald but not synthetic!!. This time it is different they said. The gems are produced exactly the way they are produced in nature, crystals! Yes crystals are forming in a solution consisting of a mixture of ingredients. They called it a Flux growth process.

The stones were even better, than Verneuils, much like Burmese rubies, slightly darkish. And the cost was much more than that of flame fusion’s because this takes several months to form a crystal like in nature, but still the cost was a fraction of its natural counterpart. This time people did not get excited as much. They said anyway it is also a synthetic. But found it to be a better stimulant. Gemmologists had another task! This time they found unusual wavy feathers formed by flux residues, and pieces of platinum that came from the crucible. It did not affect the natural gem trade very much but infact gave the trade a better simulant

Gemmologists could not rest long! Soon unusually beautiful lots and lots of blue sapphire were invading the market. They found that the colour was confined to the surface, infact only a few hundredths of a millimeter, easily observed while immersing in methylene iodide. Also there were altered inclusions due to exposure to high temperature. They said it is a surface diffusion of colour giving elements to low color natural gemstones. Before too long came diffused rubies too following the foot steps of blue sapphire, its corundum cousin. But by then every one knew how to detect them within a matter of minutes if not seconds. Before there was a huge impact on the gem trade, the matter was sorted by gemologists! The gemologists rested happily on their laurels!!

It took a while for the next bomb to hit the industry. Unusually beautiful honey colour cats eyes were flooding the market. Soon we in Sri Lanka got the information that they are highly radio active. We being the largest producer of best cats eyes, were going to be affected badly. I ran to the University of Moratuwa and borrowed a Geiger counter (I was the Chairman of NGJA then). True enough! Geiger counter which normally goes tik¦tik¦(like seconds ticking in a clock) with zircon, went into a mad cry like a machine gun firing. It was dangerous!, We announced to the world that all the cats eyes leaving our shores are tested for irradiation. We saved our day for cats eyes perhaps until another disaster strikes.

It did not take that long. Only a year or so, now lots and lots of orange sapphires and reddish-orange sapphires (similar to padmaraja) were coming out of Thailand. Industry panicked. Japanese, the largest buyer of such stones by then had sold thirty-forty thousands of such stones very recently. They recalled all the stones from the customers. Debates were going on, as to how suddenly so much of such stones came to the market when they are normally rare.

Thais were accused of a new treatment, but they denied it!. Then some gemologists of USA found that these stones have high levels of beryllium. These gemologists heat treated low quality sapphires with beryllium. Beautiful orange sapphires and padmaraja-like colours materialized!. Not only that they said some stones turned into blue sapphire colour as well!! Yes it is beryllium diffusion, they announced to the world. Thais still denied doing anything wrong, but under pressure from international trade, they said ‘yes we found quite out accidentally that when low quality sapphires were heat treated, they turned into these orange and reddish-orange colours, when unintentionally sapphire-like chrysoberyl were with them. Cat out of the bag! Then they said we do not add anything artificially, all are natural minerals, some use alumina powder in other heat treatment and it is not called diffusion, and what we doing is not real diffusion but a natural heat treatment. 

Gemmologists and traders said that they couldnt be duped with it. Bangkok lost their reputation while the debate was on., International traders stopped trading with them. Lapidaries had to suspend work, no materials were coming in to Thailand for cutting!!. Thais cried foul and begged to their parliament to intervene and declare that they are not doing anything unethical.  No, they could not go on, finally they admitted that what was discovered accidentally, has been put in to practice surreptitiously. They were forced to accept that it was a case of diffusion even if natural chrysoberyl is used along with low quality sapphires. International gem trade community wanted them to declare their treatment. They agreed and in about two years, trade came back to normalcy. Beryllium diffusion came to be known as bulk diffusion because the layer of diffusion was much deeper than that of surface diffusion, sometimes the whole stone. Subsequently gemologists decided to call it lattice diffusion. So the trade became enriched with a lot of beautiful gems known as lattice diffused sapphires. This time it was not easy for gemologists, it took month after month. Identification of stones was easy under microscope, if the whole stone is not

coloured in to the core. But if whole body was coloured be level had to be detected and took about US$ 500 or more. Many people including gemologists came to know about LIBS (Laser Induced Breakdown Spectrometry), LA-ICP-MS (Laser Ablated Inductively Coupled Mass Spectrometry, SIMS (Secondary Ion mass Spectrometry) and many other analytical techniques hitherto used for the elemental analysis in chemistry can also be used in the detection of beryllium up to  5 ppma level. So when you have a perfect beautiful padmaraja, you need a certificate, why? It may be lattice diffused!! So it may cost US$ 500-1000 per test. A stone which is full of colour to the core, under microscope will tell you, it is heated due to altered inclusions, but to see if the Be content is higher than normal, you have to go for high tech analytical methods. Now how did we, the Sri Lankan attack this problem?.

We got all the heat treaters to register with the NGJA and also declare that hey do not engage in Be diffusion, and if they do they will declare it to be so. Then we declared to the international community that all the stones are channeled through NGJA and we assure that there is no provision for foul play. This was a crude way doing things, but we had no alternative. We had to scare the heat treaters telling them that we would cancel their trading licenses if they are dishonest. We had to do it that way because whole country did not have a LIBS, LA-ICP-Ms or SIMS!! We regard ourselves as one of the leading gem producers in the world for many decades and we have resources to go for a few more decades. But no proper lab yet !! Anyway thanks to many gemologists the world over we breathed a sigh of relief, our padmaraja and sapphire industry was saved once more!!

No not for long!. Then a problem exclusive to Sri Lanka came up. Now nice blue sapphires were being produced by a heat treater in Ratnapura. Unlike something international trade had never seen before, too good to be just heat treated they said. Another diffusion process? they suspected. They tested the stones and found that there is a pale blue to near colorless layer closely following the girdle outline. In some gemstones, a much deeper rim of light blue surrounding a deep blue core was seen. The interface between the core and the rim was undulating and delineated by a white line. They suspected foul play.

But the heat treater vouched that he did not add anything other than alumina powder and he uses a electric furnace. The gemologists were baffled!! At the request of the renowned gemologists of GIA heat treated samples were exclusively sent directly to them. Well! , they found the same thing again! This time they were invited to Sri Lanka to witness treatment before, during and after. They held a conference in Colombo afterward and disclosed that they saw no additions being done to the crucible except alumina powder and gemstones. They went back with the samples and tested them and saw the same pale to white ring again. But they announced that it may be a treatment special to the treater but there is no diffusion. So we escaped again!!.

How long can we go on like this? Until our resources are over in 20 ..30¦40 years? Are we going to abandon our gem and jewellery trade after we exhaust our resources? Are we not going to look for gems in other countries such as Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar?

They have so much of gems left. Madagascar will beat them all. They have just touched the tip of the iceberg! They have just started mining at a rate during the last 5-10 years. The whole country is full of gems. Everything that you know, you name, they have it. Diamond, emerald (we never had them), ruby, sapphire, alexandrite, cats eye, and gold no other country can come close to them.  Three years ago, they established a gem laboratory with the help of GIA and World Bank grant. We are still groping in the dark!!

The Gemologists Association of Sri Lanka (GASL) (of which I am a member) started its campaign for a lab about 8 years ago. I still remember our then President Mr Sherriff Rahuman made his presentation on the need of a lab, when Hon. Prof. G.L. Peiris was the chief guest at a function held at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Colombo. I forget which party professor belonged to then. He agreed that we needed a proper gem lab urgently. Nothing happened. Since then we approached the Gem trade association, TIPS(USAID) and another foreign company which certifies quality of Ceylon Tea for assistance. Failing all that we ( the trade, NJGA (I was the Chairman of NGJA then) and gemologists) met the secretary to  the treasury many years ago to convince him the need of a gem lab and to seek funds. Our budget was Rs 100 million. He agreed with us but said you put 50, I will give 50. We came back. Then I brought this matter up at one of our regular meetings of NJGJA where we discuss industry problems. I was asked whether the NGJA can put up this money

I could not agree as we had undertaken two major building projects at Ratnapura and the Head office. Then I suggested that we will get additional % from exports of gems and jewllery  for a lab fund (1/4% was already being levied as a service charge by the NGJA). The trade representatives agreed to go back to their membership and report back. At the next meeting everybody agreed they will contribute an  additional % on exports to a laboratory fund. I got the approval of the treasury to collect it as a fund without VAT. Years has passed by! Over Rs 100 million has been collected to the fund, but no lab yet!  Every one of us who was in the forefront of this matter knew that particularly in Sri Lanka such a lab cannot survive on the income of issuing certificates only. An investment of Rs 100 million, depreciation, maintenance, need of an expert to head the institution (at a much higher pay than many scientists get in Sri Lanka), lab was going to cost a lot of money to run. I thought every body including the trade, virtually agreed that even after the lab is established, we will not discontinue the % contribution for the lab. But collect it to maintain and assist the running of the lab, so that we need not have rely upon government funds for the same (we would not have received a government grant anyway).

I have heard lately that the government wants to go ahead without the involvement of the private sector, the contributors to the fund. The traders who did not agree with this have requested to stop the contribution (which has already been done), and they want their early contributions refunded.

The members of the Gemologists Association burnt a lot of midnight oil and sweated a lot to formulate the project proposal with the consultation of world renowned gemologists from overseas. I doubt very much about the survival of a laboratory, even if it is established, with its earnings alone. The government will not certainly want to provide additional funds to run the laboratory. Take the case of Gemmological Institute of Thailand(GIT) , one of the best gem laboratory in Asia if not the world, established only four years ago at cost of over US$ 1 million. It is administered by government nominees and certain members from the trade. The government funded it until it took off the ground. I reliably understand that the Thai government has decided to stop funding and the lab has been asked to be self sustained. It is fully functional now but apparently its revenue is about 10% of its expenditure. They are wondering how to manage it on their own.

So I beg the authorities, please we must not create an institute which will require the government funding to run. We do have several research institutes barely running just for the sake of keeping them opened, one in the cool climes of the hill country and another in the suburb of Colombo named after a famous foreigner residing in Sri Lanka, to name a few

All I request is that they must amicably resolve the disputes and get the trading community involved so that the influence of politics will not creep into the administration and the issue of certificates. Otherwise the international trade will not recognize and trust our certificates. The expertise required to run an institution of this magnitude will not be available to be recruited at the present government salaries. They must also discuss and restore the % levy for the laboratory fund and not be in a position like GIT finds itself in today. The very presence of a good lab which is internationally recognized will have a very valuable deterrent effect.

Its mere presence will assure the buyer that he can safely offer a higher price for a gem and get it tested in Sri Lanka itself. Otherwise when we try to get a certificate from abroad buyer will not wait that long and go to another country. There will no longer be the we dont know if this is O.K, but we have to get recognized laboratory testing-so we give less now and if it is O.K when we check, we will come back for more gems from you !!. We dont know how many millions we may have lost over many decades due to our stalling!!, but lets say Its never too late, we can have recognized laboratory and we can do business combining technology with marketing and business skills. Gem industry cannot survive without gemmologists and gemmology laboratories!!

(Author wishes to thank Rosemary Dharmaratne for editing this and adding spice to it!) 

Reproduced with king permission from the National Gem and Jewellery Authority of Sri Lanka.

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Dr Shihaan Larif
Founder Internet Stones.COM



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