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The Many Facets of Diamond "Enhancement"

By  Arthur Anderson

It never fails.  Somebody always tries to improve on Mother Nature.  And diamonds with their small size and great value are no exception.

Since ancient times,  jewelers,  scientists,  alchemists and sorcerers have been trying to improve the appearance and apparent value of natural diamonds.  Today high tech methods,  like laser drilling,  radiation bombardment and fracture filling,  are enlisted in the effort.  In the past,  shiny foil backings,  a drop of dye on a diamond's culet,  and other low tech tricks sufficed.  The goal of all this high and low tech wizardry is to dramatically increase a diamond's apparent value and quality.

When you consider purchasing a diamond,  it is important to know whether the gem has been treated.  Be on the look out for the misleading euphemism,  "enhanced".  A natural,  untreated diamond can be worth significantly more,  than an "enhanced" stone of the same apparent quality.  Treated diamonds are not necessarily bad.  In fact,  many treatments can make an unattractive gemstone more appealing.  But,  because treatments can affect a diamond's value and durability,  they should be fully disclosed to the consumer.

To help you better understand the modern alchemy of diamond treatments,  we created the following guide.

"Laser Zapped" Diamonds

Over the past several decades laser technology has been applied to the ancient art of diamond cutting.  Lasers are employed in shaping rough diamond crystals,  separating intractable twinned crystals,  and even removing the inclusions within a diamond.  This latter process is known as "laser drilling".

Inclusions are irregularities or small bits of foreign matter that were trapped in a diamond while it was being formed several billion years ago.  The number and size of the inclusions is an important factor in determining a diamond's clarity.  And,  a diamond's clarity grade is an important factor in determining its beauty and value.

In laser drilling a diamond a beam of high energy light is used to bore a small tunnel from the surface of the diamond to the targeted inclusion.  Then, strong acid is forced down the tunnel to bleach out or burn away the inclusion.  By selectively removing inclusions in this manner,  it is possible to significantly improve the apparent clarity of a diamond.

When first introduced,  the use of laser drilling was not adequately disclosed to consumers.  Even Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  guidelines for the jewelry industry did not require disclosure of the practice!  This lack of candor by diamond wholesalers and manufacturers brought an out cry from jewelry retailers and consumers.  Today all reputable jewelry organizations require full disclosure of laser drilling and the FTC is considering a revision of its guidelines.

The tell-tale signs of laser drilling can be easily detected with proper training.  The drilling process leaves a small tunnel from the surface of the diamond to the site of the former inclusion.  Although minute,  these tunnels can be readily seen with proper magnification and when you know what to look for.

Of course,  the technology of diamond enhancements keeps moving forward.  Now laser-drilling firms are using fracture-filling techniques  (described in the next section)  to hide the laser drill holes.

"Fractured-Filled" Diamonds

All diamonds have minute fractures and fissures.  When the fissures are large and numerous they can detract from a diamonds beauty and value.  In lower grade diamonds these fissures can give the diamond a cloudy,  whitish appearance and may be visible to the naked eye.

In the late 1980s a new process was developed to hide the fissures.  Known as "fracture filling" the process involves filling the fissures with a glass-like substance.  Although the composition of the filler is kept a secret,  it is formulated to mimic the color and optical properties of the diamond being treated.  As a result,  the fissures in a fractured-filled diamond become less visible.

One concern with all diamond treatments is the permanence of the enhancement.  Diamonds may be forever,  but glass-like fillers probably are not.  Under the heat and pressure experienced when a jewel is being cleaned or repaired,  the glass-like filler can become discolored and even breakdown.  As a result,  the fractures reappear and the beauty of the diamond is diminished.  It is important to inform anyone working on a fractured-filled diamond that the stone has been treated and needs special handling.

As with all gemstone treatments,  fracture filling should be fully and candidly disclosed to consumers.  Because fracture filling can improve the apparent clarity and value of a diamond,  consumers need to be cautious.  Unfortunately,  there have been cases of fractured treated diamonds being sold as more valuable,  natural gemstones.

Whether you are buying a diamond from a trusted local jeweler,  over the Internet,  or from a friend "in the business",  you should verify that the diamond has not been fractured filled or otherwise treated.  If you have any doubt,  have the diamond evaluated by an independent,  qualified gemologist.

"Color Bleached" Diamonds

In early 1999,  General Electric (GE)  and Lazare Kaplan Inc. (LKI)  announced a new treatment for improving the color of natural diamonds.  Although the details of the process remain a secret,  it appears to involve recreating the high temperatures and pressures that existed when diamonds first formed deep within the earth.  As a result of this treatment,  the apparent color of a diamond can be improved by several color grades.

When first introduced it was reported that the treatment was permanent and largely undetectable.  Initially,  LKI suggested that because the treatment was permanent,  disclosure to jewelers and the diamond buying public was not required.  People suspected that LKI had adopted an attitude of "If you can't catch us,  we don't have to tell you."  LKI hoped to sell the color treated stones for close to the same price as untreated diamonds.

The initial lack of disclosure with regard to these color-treated diamonds created a furore within the jewelry industry and among consumers.  As with any gemstone treatment,  whether detectable or not,  full disclosure is essential.  As a result,  LKI has agreed to engrave the girdle of each color treated diamond with the initials "GE POL".  This is a positive first step,  but offers only partial protection for consumers.  The markings on the girdle can be easily polished off by an unscrupulous seller.

To date,  there is no definitive method for detecting GE-treated diamonds.  When purchasing a diamond it is important to keep in mind that there is a possibility,  although small, that it has been color enhanced.

Consumer Beware!

You now have a good overview of the more common methods used to artificially enhance the appearance of natural diamonds.  Each of these methods can improve the beauty of less desirable stones and also make the them appear more valuable.  The challenge is to separate the treated stones from the natural,  unadulterated diamonds.  You do not want to be sold a treated stone when you are seeking a natural diamond.  Similarly,  if you choose to purchase a treated diamond,  you do not want to pay too much.

There are several helpful guidelines that will help you face this challenge:

1.  Diamond treatments are a fact of life.  Any knowledgeable seller will be happy to discuss and educate you about the various treatment processes.  If they are not,  then they are either unknowledgeable about diamonds or they are trying to deceive you.  In either,  case you do not want to do business with them.

2.  When purchasing a diamond or other expensive gemstone,  become educated about the market and comparative shop.  If you do not have the time,  hire a qualified broker who will act on your behalf and help you find the best gemstone that matches your needs and pocket book.

3.  If a diamond is being sold as untreated,  have the seller put it in writing.

4.  Conversely,  if you choose a diamond that has been treated,  have the seller document in writing the nature and extent of the treatment.  Any special care or handling required by the diamond should be noted.  In case the treatment is not permanent have the seller guarantee in writing that they will restore the diamond to its current state,  if the treatment becomes compromised.

5.  Finally,  if you have any concerns or questions about a diamond or other gemstone have it examined by an independent professional.  A qualified gemologist/appraiser can help you determine whether the diamond has been treated and give you an accurate estimate of its value.

The best protection for the jewelry consumer is education and the assistance of an independent expert.  By following the above guidelines, you will be able to avoid the traps presented by diamond treatments.

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