6 Rules for Avoiding Ripoffs and Finding a Great Stone at a Good Price

Are there great bargains in gemstones on the internet, as many people claim? Or it as risky as the tourist who buys gems on the street in Bangkok, hoping to sell them at a profit back home, only to find out he's bought worthless glass?

The simple answer is that some buyers of gemstones on the internet do get ripped off, or at the very least, get less than they paid for. But at the same time, experienced buyers routinely find excellent buys - perhaps not the fantastic bargains that some claim, but choice and value that far exceed what they can find in retail outlets where they live.

So what do you need to know to buy gemstone online? Do you need to be a gemologist in order to tell the fake stones from the real? What about all the gem treatments that people talk about -- heating and "cooking" of gems? How can you tell whether a gem has been treated? Or does it really matter?

Here are 6 rules that will help you become a successful buyer. Follow them faithfully and your chances of finding excellent values in gemstones online will be as good as the experienced buyers who had to learn the hard way.

1. Know why you're buying

There are 3 main reasons why people buy gemstones - because they are collectors, or because they are investors, or because they want a lovely stone to set in a piece of jewelry.

If you're an investor, you want a gemstone that will appreciate in value so you can sell it for a profit later. Our advice: don't even think about buying an investment-grade gemstone on the internet. The stones that appreciate most are rare stones, and rare stones are expensive (we're talking tens of thousands of dollars). Find reputable dealers near your home and establish a business relationship. Insist on lab certifications to protect your investment. And good luck. As much as we love gemstones, we think we'll stick with mutual funds for our retirement.

If you're a collector, you might want to buy stones on the internet. There are many reasons to collect gems, just like collecting cars or stamps. A collector might aim for breadth in his collection, and try to collect samples of all the different varieties of gemstones. Or he might focus on one gem and collect sapphires from all the different regions where they're mined (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Madagascar, Tanzania, etc.). The possibilities are endless.

The collector usually has a shopping list, so the internet is a very good way for him to locate items for his collection from many different dealers. Of course if he is looking for very rare items, he becomes more like the gem investor - as soon there are very large amounts of money on the line, the rules change. Then he's better off dealing in person with dealers near his home.

Finally, we have the most typical buyer - someone who is looking for a very nice stone to have set in a custom piece of jewelry. This includes craftspeople who are making jewelry, either for their friends or as a small business. If you're willing to spend a little time, you can find a tremendous choice of gems and many excellents values online. But you need have some idea of what you want. If you don't make a list of requirements you'll be overwhelmed by the variety of gemstones, colors and shapes. You need to focus on specific gems and educate yourself about the specific kind of stone you want to buy.

2. Know what you want

So what do you want this gemstone for? A ring? A pendant? Earrings? It's an important question because some gemstones are suitable for some "applications" but not for others. Every gemstone has a hardness rating (on a scale of 1 to 10). Some stones are very hard (like diamond, ruby and sapphire) and some are quite soft (like opal, sphene and fluorite). Softer stones are not suitable for rings, because rings typically take a lot of knocks and scrapes. But softer stones are fine for pendants or pins or earrings, where they are less likely to be damaged.

Next, think about your preference for gem type, color, shape and size. If you have your heart set on a sapphire, that makes your search easier. But if you know only that you want a brilliant red-orange stone for a pendant, you want to narrow your search to a group of gems, such as citrine, fire opal and garnet.

Finally, decide how much you're willing to spend. Attractive natural gems come in all price ranges, from $5 to thousands. You're not going to find a nice sapphire or ruby for $5, but you can find many beautiful stones in the garnet and quartz families, for example, for very affordable prices (under $25).

The key to a successful buy is getting the best possible stone for the best price. It's all about value.

But it's not just about buying the best possible sapphire, for example, that you can buy for $300. The fact is, the sapphire that meets that description might not be the right thing for you at all. The best sapphire for $300, based on gemological critieria, might be only 1/4 of a carat! But you may be looking for a stone of at least 1 carat for a ring. So it's a question of what you can find that meets all your criteria. The gemological critieria are actually only one factor in this buying decision. You need to buy the best stone for you.

3. Know who you're buying from

Five years ago it was hard to find online gemstone dealers. Now there are thousands of them. Who can you trust? Who has the best prices? Who ships reliably? Who has a fair return policy?

These days there are many online gemstone companies who are honest and reliable and sell quality product. If they're not, they don't stay in business very long. Negative information travels fast in the global internet village and good companies guard their reputation as much as they do their bottom line. So selecting a reputable company is extremely important. Check the search engines for negative comments on companies you're considering - if their customers have been unhappy, you'll find plenty of references.

Here's a short list of what to look for:

* Does the dealer provide his company name, physical address, phone, fax and email? Don't deal with someone who tries to hide his identity.

* Has the dealer has been in business for at least a few years? Bad companies rarely survive that long.

* Is the dealer committed to customer satisfaction? Some dealers just want to make a sale, but real businesses want you as a long term customer. It's usually easy to tell the difference.

* Does the dealer provides photos and descriptions for each individual stone? Some dealers have stock photos and descriptions and can't be bothered to photograph every stone. Don't buy a stone without detailed information of that specific stone.

* Is the dealer forthcoming with information about gem treatments? An honest dealer will disclose all treatments. Does he provide lots of reference information so you can educate yourself about the gems he has for sale?

4. Use a safe payment method

Pay for online purchases with a payment method that offers you some consumer protection, such as a credit card or PayPal. Do not ever pay by money order or wire transfer or any method that leaves you no recourse if you are unhappy with your purchase.

5. If you can't return it, don't buy it

Your best protection in any purchase is your ability to return the item for a full refund. Buying a gemstone on the basis of a photograph and a description is not foolproof, and if you're not completely delighted with what you've bought, return it. If the dealer doesn't have a "no questions asked" return policy, buy from someone else. If the dealer stands behind his product, he's unlikely to be trying to pull any fast ones on you. His money-back guarantee mean he's very confident that you'll be happy with your purchase. Beware of unreasonable restocking fees -- anything over 5% is not really a money-back guarantee.

6. Understand the economics of the gems business

Use your economic common sense. The gemstone business is just like any other business - people buy material, they add value to it, and then they find a way to reach the market. If the seller buys a lot of material, he gets it at a lower price. If the goods have to pass through many hands before they reach the consumer, then those goods are going to be more expensive. If the dealer has a lot of expenses - high labor costs, a big marketing budget -- you're the one paying for it. Companies become successful when they are committed to their business and have many happy customers.

So what does all this wisdom mean for you? I can sum it up for you in this way:

* Buy close to the source. If you're buying on the internet, your supplier is never further away than 3 days or so by air courier. So cut out the middlemen whenever possible.

* Buy from suppliers who have a significant stock - it means they are volume buyers and have lower costs.

* Buy from a vendor who is committed to the online business. Check to see if new content is added regularily to his website, and if the gem stock is current. Don't buy a gem unless the vendor can guarantee that the specific stone is in his stock.

OK, so you're still a little worried, right? What about all those ripoffs? What about the fake stones and the heat treatments and all the technical stuff that gemologists go on about?

A large part of your problem is solved by choosing a reputable dealer. Reputable dealers don't sell fake stones. As a business strategy, it's simply stupid and risky. No one wants to put his whole business at risk for the sake of a little extra profit. Do be aware that there is a market for synthetic (i.e, lab-created) stones. In the case of a sapphire, for example, this is a not a fake stone - it's real corundum, the same stuff as a genuine sapphire - but it's not a "natural" stone. A dealer selling such a stone will always label it as "synthetic".

As far as gem treatments are concerned, assume that the gems you are buying are treated, with heat or irradiation or chemicals or a combination. For the most part, these treatments are permanent and do not affect the physical integrity of the stone. It's a fact of the gem business today that most gems are routinely treated to improve color. It's the reason why there are affordable gemstones at all in the market. If you're buying a $10,000 ruby that the seller claims is untreated, then you need to get a lab certification on that gem before you pay that kind of money. We don't recommend buying $10,000 rubies online. But when you're buying a very nice sapphire for $300, you can be fairly sure that it's a treated stone. What matters is that you find it beautiful, and that you're delighted with the the final result.

About the Author :

Ron Nash is a gem enthusiast and web entrepreneur at Gemselect http://www.gemselect.com

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