Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Being an American living in Thailand certainly has made life interesting. The ever changing gem world virtually revolves around this magical land. I love shopping the wide variety of gem markets here for the fun, adventure and great bargains. Traveling is a great way to learn and when it comes to gemstones and jewelry there is likely no better place to absorb information naturally than here.

All the best things in life are better when shared with another. I have such great fun when someone comes to visit with me here. Several friends that I have met thru gemology forums and thru my business of selling gems and jewelry have come here to share the adventure. I get a kick out of playing the tour guide and traveling companion, so much that I now am inviting anyone interested in gemstones and jewelry to come and be a part of it with me. I vow to keep our expenses low and any fee that I need to charge to be humble.
I have outlined several packages below so you can get an idea of what we can do together, however, there is no standard routine, it is all up to what we decide upon together. The options are more than I can type as well so the outline of packages is simply for information and ideas.

First and foremost, I am a husband to a beautiful Thai lady and a Daddy to six great children. We all speak at least American English and the Thai language. We live in a remote and rural village in the mountains of Chiang Rai. Everyone here knows us and is always delighted to see our visitors. Expect to be the center of attention at times. These folks are very playful and soon you will understand why this country is fondly nicknamed LOS, the Land Of Smiles.

I am also a metalsmith, I make modern jewelry by ancient techniques in Sterling Silver and 18k yellow gold. I do not consider myself to be a master in these arts but I am happy to show you what I have learned. My instructor is Thai and he is indeed a master so I am very grateful to have sat with him. Initial demonsrations are free, of course, and lessons are $10 per hour while I supply the materials.

In addition to making jewelry I am also a gemologist. Understanding gemstones is a very important feature of this business. Naturally I am willing to share identification techniques and offer guidance in the selection of gems in the markets, no additional charge.

Here are some locations and options. All charges include transportation to and from, lodging where applicable and a little something for me. Food, shopping and massage are separate, of course.

A.) The northern most point of Thailand, the Burmese/Thailand border town of Mae Sai is a 50 minute drive from my house. I prefer to drive my own car to get there but we could also take a couple of buses or rent a driver with a pick up. There we will find a wide variety of gemstones primarily from Burma. Synthetics are rampant so it is buyer beware. Tons, and I do mean tons, of jade in the form of cabochons, bangles, carvings and rough stone will be everywhere. The hard to find gem Maw Sit Sit will be there in quanity. Plenty of Spinel and Mong Shu Ruby. The rough stone market will offer unpredictable bargains. Hundreds of stone cutters and carvers live there as well as many metal smiths. I have been shopping this market and visiting this town for over ten years and am always happy to see my regular vendors and friends there.

Option #1.) We leave early in the morning so we arrive in time to get there by 9AM or so. Thais believe that the morning sales are lucky so they will slash prices, even below cost, to sell us something early. By their belief this lucky sale will help them sell all day long. You tell me what you want to see and that will determine the days activities. We can stay until the shops close if we have the endurance, foot massage is available in the street market at dusk. At the end of the day we can return to Chiang Rai.
Cost for the day trip is $70 for the first person and $10 for an additional person. For another $60 we can spend the night in a hotel and continue our fun there the whole next day.

Option #2.) We arrive there in the late afternoon and check into a hotel. There will be a little time for late shopping then when morning comes we will be fresh and ready to start hunting for lucky morning sales. Cost for the day and a half trip is $105. At the end of the day we can return to Chiang Rai.

B.) A trip to the stars, the Burmese/Thailand border town of Mae Sot is a 3 day minimum trip and I prefer to make it a four day adventure. We leave early morning and travel by taxi, bus and van, arriving in the small town by early evening and check into a hotel. The next day we will see a wide variety of shops selling gems and stones, especially Burmese Star Sapphires and Rubies. Lots of Maw Sit Sit carvings and quite a bit of jade will be there. Rare Trapiche Sapphires will be there as well as faceted stones including Mogok ruby, and rare specimens. There are large shops full of glass cases and then some shops are so quaint that there are no display counters, vendors goods are spread out on the floor which is where we will sit to look and buy. While anywhere in the gem market area, vendors on foot will approach us, often with a single stone for sale. If one is not careful the street vendors will surround them and walking away will become a difficult option. We should stay together and I will be in charge of crowd control. Often the second day is when the best buys are made if we restrain ourselves a little the first day. When they see us again the price we had offered and they had refused the previuos day is then generally accepted. I have also been shopping this market for many years and am well known there as well. For those especially interested in seeing the culture of these earthy folks I can arrange a visit to one of their homes. This four day trip will cost $280 for the first person and $70 for an additional person. Another option that I have not yet calculated would be to drive there in my car or a rental. It would be about the same amount of time but more freedom and more expense as well.

C.) Faceted gemstones and so much more, the world famous location of Chanthaburi. Said to be the heart of the worlds gem trade, this richest area of Thailand is loaded with options. The primary item for sale will be faceted gems. Treatments abound but you will see few synthetics. Not the place to buy Jade or Burmese stars.

Option #1.) Plan to spend at least four days on this trip. Once we arrive here in the afternoon from an overnite journey, we will check in to a hotel and then stroll the market. Shops are everywhere, gem dealers and stone cutters are more popular here than virtually anywhere in the world. The second and third day we will let them come to us as we sit at a desk in an air conditioned room. The gems will be carried to us for our inspection by employees of large dealers. We can work at our own pace and will likely eat our lunch at the same desk since it will seem that there is no way we can walk away from this stream of gemstones. We can take time out of these two days to visit the homes of stone cutters and gem treaters that I know. We can also shop for gem tools and equipment and we can visit the rough stone market for unusual finds from all over the world. Total cost for this trip is $320 and $70 for an additional person.

Option #2.) After a few days of this I would recommend we hit the beach! Not far away we will find a gorgeous beach known primarily only to Thai people. Expect attention. Spend the night. About $90 for this diversion.

D.) Bangkok! Much too many options to type out for this 12 million population city. We can discuss this one in person.

I could go on and on but these outlined give you the idea. I also want to stress that any of you are welcome to come here and have lunch with me and my family anytime! We will parade you around the village and I will take you out for a cold drink on a hot day. You get this far and you have earned it! There are lots of things to see that are not gem or jewelry related too. Let me know what you like and I will take it from there. Happy trails, Lee

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Precious gems versus semi-precious gems, the clear difference.

This top picture shows the girls at 3 weeks. I am pleased they are not identical as I can tell them apart easily by the hair. Aumpika's hair is a little bit lighter color, slightly red and is finer compared to Alishia's thick black hair. Aumpika on the right, Alishia on the left in this picture. Plus Aumpika's face is rounder and she is darker skinned. Alishia has a more oval face and very light skin. I have cancelled my plan of having their names tattooed onto their foreheads.
First day back home.

All three girls have what they want.
10 hours before delivery, somehow we knew it was our last chance to take this picture.

I am absolutely the luckiest guy I know and I am serious. My sweetheart of a wife had previously went out of her way to give me three great sons and a wonderful daughter. Since I waited until the age that most guys are already grandfathers before I decided to get married, the four children gave me tremendous satisfaction.
Even though I never voiced it but after three boys in a row, I secretly wanted another daughter, actually I really wanted a pair of twins, and most deeply but certainly never spoken, I wanted a pair of twin daughters.

My mother was the first love of my life and she was a twin daughter. How I admired my grandfather for raising those two daughters of his on his farm in rural Ohio, a beautiful life's journey.
Out of the blue on a bright autumn day while I was rushing to get ready to go to town my wife stopped me in the driveway of our farm in Ohio and began to whisper magic to me....another baby was coming. Tears of joy came quickly and I had to straighten up even more quickly before the boys noticed their daddy crying.

We readied ourselves for a trip back to Thailand as all of our children have been born there. The rural village we live in is full of family members and they have always made us feel very comfortable with each child. When May and I went in for her first check up with the doctor I asked only one question, 'did she think it may be twins?' and the doctor said no, it was just one baby and we could do ultrasound if we wanted to explore further. I have heard ultrasound is disturbing to babies so I let the idea go.
At eight months and May being almost the same size as our house, I asked again. This time the doctor found two heartbeats, one on each side and what felt like two heads, both pointing down. May and I both broke into tears as this was the happiest news there could have been for us.
That night we watched a movie and it happened to have a pair of Siamese twin girls in it, joined at the hip. I became a bit nervous but I just laughed with the boys and agreed with them that those twins were very beautiful.
Within another couple of days, and we told no one of our new secret, May's water broke in the middle of the night from one baby kicking around. Unlike when the previous baby broke her water and she insisted we first run errands, shop and then take a leisurely buffet lunch before taking our sweet ole time getting to the hospital, she said that we had to go NOW and I had to drive FAST. The roads were empty so we flew the 10 miles into town and they rushed her to delivery.
Within the hour the first daughter was born, I was relieved to see she was not physically joined to her twin and her appearance was that of a perfect baby. Only 10-15 more nervous minutes later and her twin sister appeared and she was also absolutely gorgeous. Within an hour and a half after we arrived at the hospital, I was holding an exhausted woman over the age of 40 that had completed the entire delivery of twins AND pushing out the afterbirth on her own power with no drugs and virtually no help from anyone. The doctor and nurses were in awe and requested to be informed of the exact yoga program that she had practiced daily during pregnancy. I am so proud of her.
The girls each have beautiful dark hair and perfect facial features, long elegant fingers and long legs. Both have good weight for twins, over two kilos each, nearly 10 pounds together, and were both fully developed so they did not need to stay in an incubator like many twins. We left the hospital with the doctors blessings after each girl passed all the test and showed that they could each make a dent in the huge supply of mother's milk that had come in like clockwork once they started nursing.
All of the family, seemingly all of the whole village here in Thailand, is so excited about this amazing new addition to our family. We are so very thankful and Leo's expression in the first picture sums up my feelings exactly.
It is my ultimate pleasure to introduce to you, the two newest of my precious gems collection, Alishia Maylee Little and Aumpika Wakanda Little. Warm regards, Lee

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Can Star Rubies be Heated?

While on the subject of rubies it seems fitting to talk about a type of ruby that we all thought was impossible only a handful of years ago....a heated star ruby with leaded glass filling in the cracks. Impossible because we believed that heat melts the very silk inclusions that cause the star, thus heating would make the star disappear. Many star sapphires and rubies are heated to clarify them of silk and remove the star then they are faceted simply because faceted rubies and sapphires were often more easy to sell than star cabochons. These days the trend is turning due to the rising demand of phenomenal gemstones.
With this information on heat melting silk away, I had always stated that my star stones were unheated. In reality that was probably actually correct but I did not know that it was even possible to be incorrect. The proof of no heat was the star, I thought.
One day while in the star gem market I ran into a vendor that had no booth but was new to the market and was simply walking around showing his box of star rubies to other vendors and some were buying. I was offered to examine them and was surprised to find no fractures in these reddish purple ruby/sapphires with nice bright, obviously natural stars. Normally speaking, star sapphires will show fractures, a few or a great many, when viewed with a loupe. Only the very expensive ones will have no fractures. These were all clear and clean.
Another odd thing was that there were often more dark inclusions on the top of the stone than on the bottom, as if the cutter had chosen the wrong side to be the table.
In natural star corundum (ruby or sapphire) the star goes all the way through the crystal so if the bottom is polished it will also show a star. This means the cutter can choose which direction is more beautiful to be the face. So why did these have worse looking faces than bottoms?
Low temperature heat with leaded glass. In all heating, lighter elements rise to the top, the black spots were lighter than ruby. These gems had been heated after they were cabbed/cut, thus the dark inclusions on the top. All the cracks and fissures were now filled with leaded glass giving the gems a near perfect appearance and more translucence. The star was still there as adequate silk remained behind at these low temperatures.
These repaired star rubies have now saturated the market. Careful examination must be made to know which you have. Sometimes you can spot a bubble in the glass with your 10x loupe and sometimes you can see the 'rivers of glass' on the surface like I described in the previous story about the leaded glass filled faceted rubies. Any time you cannot see any cracks you must be sure to examine very carefully. If there is a large sum of money on the line you should use a microscope or a high tech lab.
One vendor tried to trick me with an African Star Ruby that had been enhanced with leaded glass and happened to have the same basic color of a Burmese Mogok Star Ruby. Her price was in order, a bit low for such a beauty if indeed a Mogok but the 10x loupe quickly located an obvious bubble. When I handed it back and said 'pow mai', which means 'new heat treatment', she had trouble letting go of her dream of getting big money so easily and insisted I was mistaken and tried to put it back in my hand. I asked her if she was giving it to me as a gift and she quickly snatched it back and smiled. Saving it for another less suspecting buyer, no doubt.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Leaded Glass Filled Ruby

A good number of years ago I walked unsuspectingly into the gem market area of Chanthaburi Thailand and saw people with piles and piles of large rubies everywhere. What were these new and plentiful gems? Many had little color for ruby and had a ghostly appearance I had never seen in a gem before. Others were top color and the prices were huge when it seemed they had just swept up after a storm of them. I did not buy any as they were far too suspect but I did meet up with a gemologist friend later that had also just witnessed the same curiosity. "Leaded glass filled" he said, "and not the kind of glass we see in flux healed rubies either"
As it turns out there were tons of ruby material in Africa that had so many fissures and cracks in it that it was basically worthless. The experienced gem treaters of Chanthaburi Thailand figured out that they could heat the severely cracked ruby with leaded glass and it was basically undetectable with gemological instruments such as refractometers, spectrometers, specific gravity readings and more. It created a somewhat marketable material especially until consumers get fed up with it and the price falls below where it is worth treating, which is a likely future event. But for now and for a good number of years yet to come, you will see beautiful glass filled rubies in places where they should not be such as in fine jewelry stores with no disclosure as to the exact nature of the enhancement. Others will and have already made it into a jewelers pickle which renders them back to a very ugly condition as the acid eats the glass.
How can we proctect ourselves from buying these short-lived beauties when we think we are buying quality rubies that will last many lifetimes? For starters, a 10x loupe can help a great deal. Often there will be bubbles in glass and that will be a huge red flag about this treatment. Not all will show bubbles with a loupe so it is not conclusive proof for no treatment, of course. Another tell tale observation with the loupe will be blue flashes. Turn the stone while looking at it with your loupe. Some leaded glass filled will show this color, natural untreated will not. One final characteristic will be slight variations in the sheen of the table, sort of like tiny wavy lines of a slightly different degree of reflection, rivers of glass. Beyond that you will need a microscope, a friend with a microscope, or a lab you can trust. The treaters know how we detect these frauds and are working to eliminate the bubbles and the blue flashes and the rivers of glass in order to create a more 'marketable' product. Buyer beware.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Flux and More Flux

Shortly after I had the flux healed ruby information under my belt I was wandering around a gemstone market and saw a very lovely ruby in a case. It was about 3 carat and a very glowing red. I asked to see it and the lady brought it out and I immediately put my 10x loupe to it. I was stunned. Inside this very red stone was very translucent clarity and well defined flux like patterns. There also appeared to be a few comforting black spots. I say comforting because we all know synthetics will be perfectly clean, no black spots and no flux fingerprints, right?
Well, I asked her calmly what the price was and she looked me straight in the eye and with a twinkle told me $500 USD. Holy cow, over a hundred a carat in this location. If this was the real McCoy it was worth way more than that but $500 is a ton of money here soooo....
I told her the price was a little high but did she have any more. Her eyes lit up again and she removed a piece of parcel paper from inside to case and unfolded it. Inside were about 100 pieces, all absolutely gorgeous. Some quick math and a quick glance at the old rubber slippers she was wearing told me I had some room to negotiate. When she wouldn't accept my much lower offer I noticed another vendor, 2 booths down getting very anxious to catch my eye. I politely made my departure for the next lady and was intercepted by a man that insisted on a word in private. He told me I was about to be scammed and he could show me where to buy the rubies that I really wanted. Off we went on foot to a small jewelry shop. Much higher scale, well dressed employees and a clean shop. He explained in Burmese what I wanted and out came the rubies. The exact same look but with an even higher price. They even demonstrated with some 'test' to prove that theirs was real and how those others must be some kind of plastic or something. Suddenly I noticed the clock and exclaimed in a lie that I was to meet my girlfriend in 5 minutes and had to run. Run I did, circling back to the ladies with the rubies.
I found the second one that had been trying to lure me over. She had the same merchandise and accepted an even lower offer than the first lady had refused. Now I had about 300 carats of something. The original lady made her way over to watch the transaction and said she would now accept my original offer. Of course I said that the offer was now lower, a little lower than what I had just paid, in fact. She accepted it with a smile after a little pleading and now I had well over 500 carats of something I knew was interesting.
I needed a second opinion or more so I took some to my local lapidary club. The president was baffled and took one to show an 'expert' he would see next month. Several months passed and she was still checking on it. I didn't want to wait longer but wanted to sell them. I had a regular route where I set up a booth in various markets so I labeled them as synthetic and put them out there. Every gem lover always noticed them and had me pull them out. I enjoyed watching them as they noticed the inclusions. Several experts took me under their wing and told me that these were not synthetics and my price of $25 a carat was ridiculously low. I insisted that I was OK with that price and they were then delighted to relieve me of some. I traveled around to various jewelers and had many adventures with them trying to figure these things out. Definitely ruby but I was seeing inclusions in the microscope that I still have not seen again to this day. After several more months and half of them sold, one jeweler knew of a lab I could mail them to. He had to know as he wanted to buy all the rest if they checked out as natural as he thought they must be.
Into the scene steps Bear Williams of Stone Group Labs. After receiving the package, Bear called me and wanted to know where I had gotten these as they were highly unusual. The surprising diagnostic was a flame fusion ruby that perhaps had been heated then cooled quickly causing it to crack, perhaps then it had been reheated with Borax flux to heal the cracks. This type of ruby had not yet been documented as far as he knew. A little more than a year later there was an alert from a major gem lab that this type of stone had been observed. Now, quite a number of years later, many experts are still selling these as naturals at well over $100 per carat. I now sell them for $5 a carat retail in my eBay store. They do make an excellent study stone, are very cool just to look at and show and also make a very stunning piece of jewelry.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Flux Healed Hmong Shu Ruby

Pictured above is a flux healed ruby crystal from Mong Shu Burma, cabochon grade. Notice the 'candy coating' of melted Borax.

When I first started looking into gemology and the gemstone industry I couldn't help but notice the topic of Flux Treated Rubies. It was being treated as a new topic however, it may have been going on for several years by then.
What does this term, flux treated, mean? First off, flux is an additive used to help melt a substance at a lower temp than it would without it. We use flux when we solder plumbing pipes or weld steel. In silver and goldsmithing I use flux to help melt my alloys as well as to solder my pieces. The flux I use is simple Borax, not surprisingly, the flux used to treat rubies is often the same.
Coincidentally I built a home 45 minutes from the border of Burma where the rough Ruby material used in flux heated rubies was entering Thailand. The rough was from an area called Mong Shu. It was bluish/purple and badly cracked. Most of it had been unsellable thus far.
Borax had been found to reduce the thermal shock of heating stones, in other words, if you would sprinkle some of this white powder onto your rough stones before you heated them you would have less broken and cracked stones. This knowledge lead to a miraculous discovery. When you added Borax to your severely fractured Mong Shu rough and heated it to near melting point, your rough was no longer fractured!! Plus the blue/purple color had change to a beautiful ruby red!!
Now this was huge, not only because Mong Shu had lots of this rough but because little fine ruby had been found anywhere for a long time. Ruby with great color and no feathers/cracks was very rare.
How did it have no cracks? The flux melted, like it always does, and ran down into the cracks. Here it caused the ruby material on each side of the crack to melt and stick together, very similar to welding/soldering. Now the cracks were 'healed' turning a material from being fragile to being even more durable than a common ruby as they often have some feathers/weak points.
So then the labs had to come up with terms for this in their reports and in my opinion did a poor job of communicating. Some like to call this ruby that melted and welded together, 'synthetic ruby'. That may be scientifically accurate but is misleading to most people as it sounds like a man made ruby was added when it was not. Any natural ruby that has melted can be defined as a synthetic ruby. Others said there was a 'glass filling in the cracks' which is also misleading in my opinion as most of us would understand that to mean the cracks were still there but were now filled with the same thing we make windows out of. Later somebody said 'flux healed' and that seems much more easy to understand.
For years dealers complained about the process as it was certainly more than simple heat treatment but they could not stop the industry from accepting it. The truth was, they were beautiful, durable and still rare. Those are the three things that make a gemstone a 'gem'.
Now I see that the worlds most sought after Ruby rough, Burmese Mogok, is also heated with Borax. The price only seems to be affected at the very top end nowadays. One dealer friend here in Thailand was trying to buy a 2.5 carat ruby from another for $15,000 US dollars but the owner said he was giong to hold out for $25,000. I asked whether or not it was unheated Mogok, the answer was no, flux healed Mong Shu.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's good to be back home again

After a 9 day journey out of the country and away from my family and my home, hey, it's good to be back home again!
I actually have two homes, one is a farm in the great state of Ohio and the other is in a remote mountain village in the exotic kingdom of Thailand. It all started when I ate a vegetarian meal in a small quiet restaurant around the corner from the temple in Thailand. There I met a lady that changed my life, I quickly married her and we started making babies. I came from a great family but she had a better family than I had ever witnessed, even better than the Waltons. No way I could drag her away to Ohio and leave her there, we had to have two homes. I seriously considered selling the farm in Ohio that I had always planned on never selling but in the interest of our children she would not consider it.
So that put me here in Thailand starting a family and building a new house without a job. I had to make visa runs, leave the country for a moment only to step back in and be granted a new length of stay. It was during these visa runs that I noticed gemstones for the first time. The first time because mainly I was a farmer and a construction worker, I never had considered jewelry for any reason though I had stockpiled silver and gold for years due to not trusting the economy and bank. Now jewelry and gemstones is my livelihood. I am now a Registered Gemologist, a silver and goldsmith, a Power Seller on eBay and a beginning seller on Etsy. The silver and gold is being hand hammered one piece at a time into custom made pieces of fine jewelry.