A sit-down with a Graduate Gemologist

Konrad 1Kristin Freeman’s set-up of equipment in her lab. Displaying (l-r) the polariscope, refractometer and microscope.When describing the jewelry industry to a lay person, we tend to think more art and fashion, focusing primarily on the incredible jewelry we see in different stores and fashion lines. We forget the foundation of this industry is science. Minerals, alloys, metals and all the different materials we come in contact with on a daily basis are the heart and soul.

Art, fashion and jewelers’ creativity are byproducts of science. Graduate Gemologists (G.G.) are integral to the gemstone world because of science. They observe and define chemical structure and composition of gemstones so customers can have disclosure, clarity and knowledge of what they are purchasing. 

I sat down with Kristin Freeman from Darling Imports, who received her G.G. from the Gemological Institute of America in 2015. We discussed the importance of G.G.s as the scientists of gemology, why she got her degree, and important issues she sees as the industry continues to grow and evolve.

Konrad Darling: In your own words, how would you describe the role of a Graduate Gemologist?

Kristin Freeman: To me, it’s someone who has been trained in the scientific steps to separate different gemstone materials with accuracy and efficiency. We examine the chemical structure and makeup of various gemstones scientifically without focusing solely on the value of them.

Konrad 2Using the refractometer. Determines the refractive index (R.I.) of a stone. This sample measured between 1.62-1.64. This indicates a possibility of a tourmaline. KD: So what was the process you went through to become a G.G.?

KF: Well, I actually spent time on GIA’s campus in Carlsbad, but there are also online classes and then you attend the various workshops they offer to complete the identification labs.

KD: Some of these labs are offered at various trade shows too, correct?

KF: Yes, I believe they are offered at JCK, Tucson, and even the SJTA Show in Atlanta. There might be other open labs, but those are fairly common.

KD: Since you actually attended campus, how long did you spend there to complete the course?

KF: It was a six month program. First eight weeks was purely focused on diamonds, like how to identify natural versus synthetics, grading, and of course color. The rest of it we spent the majority of our time on all the different color gemstones.

KD: So you’re spending a great deal on color gemstones then?

KF: For sure. Since there’s so many out there, you’re going to be spending a lot more time examining those because of the different options. We probably spent around 4 of the 6 months focused on color gems.

KD: What sort of equipment are you using when performing a gemstone identification?

KF: There are three main ones I used in school and still use today: refractometer, polariscope and microscope. I start with the refractometer to determine the subject stone’s refractive index, or R.I. Every gem group, species and variety has its own separate R.I.. As an example, that means each variety of the garnet group, like tsavorite, spessartite, rhodolite, etc., will have a different R.I. That is why R.I. is the starting point, helps narrow the options. The polariscope determines a stone’s optic nature, if it’s single or double refractive. Finally, I use a microscope to look for inclusions and growth patterns to determine natural or synthetic or possible treatments.

Konrad 3The polariscope helps determine the optic nature of a stone, single or double refractive. The cross seen here is the uniaxial optic figure. Since there is an optic figure present, we know it’s double refractive. Since tourmaline is double refractive it remains a possibility.

KD: How would you describe your overall experience?

KF: I enjoyed it a lot! Being on campus was really neat because you got to experience things in person that you might not be able to online. Especially because the collection of stones GIA has on campus is incredible. It was a hands-on education for sure, basically Instagram central with all the beautiful stuff!

KD: Hopefully it helped get your followers up! So what was one of the coolest stones you saw?

KF: Probably a hiddenite spodumene, which is really cool because the green color is so rare for spodumene that it looked like a nice quality tourmaline. Most people only know about the pink color of spodumene which is kunzite, so to see something that rare was incredible.

KD: Now that we’ve talked about your experience, what makes being a G.G. so important for this industry?

KF: The biggest thing is gaining a wealth of knowledge in a condensed format. That really helped jumpstart my career moving into the jewelry industry and helping me feel prepared. It also gives you a great deal of credibility having that title, because everyone knows the respectability that comes with it. There’s a baseline understanding of recognizing what being a G.G. means in this industry. I also found it created a great networking experience. You meet people in your classes that you continue to develop relationships with while being in the jewelry community.

KD: Is it important enough you recommend stores should have someone on staff?

KF: It’s definitely useful to have someone on staff, just adds more credibility to your relationship with the customer. To me it says, ‘we have someone trained in the science of this industry and can articulate why stones are the way they are.’ Definitely helps when customers bring something in off the street and you need a relatively quick idea as to what they have or possibly trying to sell.

Konrad 4Kristin using the microscope. This will help identify inclusions, whether its synthetic or natural, or possible treatments.

KD: Speaking of customers bringing items in, what is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about jewelry when they try to get it evaluated?

KF: I would definitely say the idea that if a mounting is old, it can only be a natural stone. That can be a tricky mentality to have because synthetics have been used in jewelry for a very long time, age doesn’t make it natural. Every stone wants to tell you what it is, you just have to look for it.

KD: Let’s talk about some topics that are most common in our industry now. We’re obviously seeing an increase in gemstone treatments, such as lead-glass filling and diffusion, as pricing affordability becomes an issue. What’s some advice you can give when looking for these treatments if stores don’t have a G.G. on staff?

KF: Yeah it’s pretty important to know these are out there to start. In the case of lead-glass, specifically rubies, the first thing I would do is take a loupe and examine the surface of the stone. If you notice surface reaching fissures that have a different luster than the rest of the stone, this is an indicator. When they do lead-glass treatment and polish the stone, it’s softer than the actual corundum and is removed at a greater rate. It will have a slightly different level than the rest of the stone. Beryllium and titanium diffusion both add elements to the crystal structure of the stone to enhance the color. Titanium diffusion doesn’t penetrate as deeply into the stone so it’s easier to detect with a microscope. Beryllium is different because it has the ability to penetrate the entire stone. So that one will have to be discovered by the labs at GIA or American Gem Labs.  

Konrad 5All tests are done, it is a tourmaline! All photos courtesy of Darling Imports.KD: Any new treatments you’ve heard about?

KF: One of the most recent ones I’ve heard about is soaking rubies in dyed oil, which you can kind of see in the cracks, but it’s not anything I’ve seen in person yet, only read about.

KD: That will certainly be something to keep an eye on moving forward. We know gemstone treatments are becoming more prevalent, but something that has played a role in the color gems industry for a while are lab grown gemstones. These will continue to grow as ‘eco-friendly’ becomes more popular. What are some ways that jewelers can become more familiar with identifying lab created compared to genuine?

KF: Well there’s two types of lab created we come across, the ones that are made, marketed, sold properly as lab created and then those meant to trick the consumer. Majority of these proper lab created stones you will notice perfect calibration, perfect cutting, and just overall top quality. The ones that are made to trick the consumer will try to look as natural as possible. You may see them cut to non-calibrated sizes, be more low quality cut or native cut, and priced like its too good to be true, which usually means it is.

KD: A common example would be going to popular vacation spots and being told it’s a ‘good deal.’

KF: Right. The awesome deal on a stone you just ‘can’t pass up’ is probably because it’s not exactly what they’re saying it is. There’s no recourse because you’re not going back to buy from them anyways.

KD: Any advice or hints you can share that might help stores identify lab created color gemstones?

KF: With flame fusion synthetics, which you will see a lot in lab ruby and sapphire, the quickest way to tell is identifying the curved color banding under magnification. Natural corundum grow in a more hexagonal and angular growth pattern, so they will look different under a microscope. Using a diffused light will help spot these growth patterns under magnification as well. It also doesn’t hurt for stores to keep on hand the different varieties of synthetics, like glass, lab created, or other simulated stones just to get familiar with the colors and how they look compared to natural.

KD: To wrap this all up, what do you see as a major issue or challenge the gemstone industry will face moving forward?

KF: Non-disclosure, because it’s so important and affects the entire reputation of the industry. Like department stores that were selling rubies as treated, but not disclosing that the treatment was lead glass. Normal and accepted treatment is heat, lead glass is altering the stone composition and that’s not a normal treatment. Because that happened, now the public isn’t able to differentiate between the two. Since they just hear ‘treated,’ it causes confusion and the public needs to know and understand the difference. That’s on us. We have to disclose that information so they not only feel comfortable buying something, but also how to take care of their purchase.

Konrad Darling is the sales and marketing director for Darling Imports, a color gemstone wholesaler offering genuine and synthetics as well as lapidary services and stone identification. For more information contact Darling Imports at 800-282-8436 or www.darlingimports.com.