Merchants selling rubies, black diamonds and blue sapphires are convincing military personnel that they are buying high quality gems worth much more in the states.
“When they discover the truth, they are just heartbroken,” said Barry Belenke, gemologist at Zerbe Jewelers in downtown Colorado Springs.
It’s the oldest scam in the book, he said, merchants passing off synthetic sapphires or Cortez dyed to look like emeralds sold as real gemstones. The gemstones he sees, brought in by military personnel returning from the war zone, are fake, synthetic, heavily treated or badly cut. Typically, military personnel are buying the loose gems for a few dollars per carat. But some have spent thousands of dollars on the worthless gems.
“All that glitters is not gold,” Belenke said.
Every time an Army unit returns to Colorado Springs from their deployment to Afghanistan Julie Nash, independent jewelry appraiser with Anton Nash, gets dozens of phone calls. It’s been like that since the war in Afghanistan started in 2001.
“I’ve seen glass-filled rubies that are probably mined in Africa, filled in Bangkok and then find their way to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border,” she said.
The glass-filled rubies are worthless. In fact, if they come into contact with a household cleaning solution, like vinegar, they will disintegrate. She wouldn’t buy a ruby in Afghanistan even as a souvenir gift, she said.
The Colorado Springs Better Business Bureau issued an alert about the gem scam to warn area military personnel and their families. It is a problem that has been reported on gemologists’ websites and blogs across the country.
“We are urging people who have family members stationed overseas, specifically in Afghanistan, to alert their spouses of the scam and refuse to purchase gem stones from unknown sources,” said Katie Carrol, BBB spokeswoman.
Afghanistan does produce excellent gemstones, Nash said. That could be why military personnel believe they are buying the real thing. The country is known to gemstone buyers for its emeralds, aqua marines and tourmaline.
But, when a buyer does not know what to look for, it spells trouble, said Janice Zerbe, owner of Zerbe Jewelers. Some military personnel are returning with low-quality tourmaline “that looks brownish,” she said. One solider spent $1,000 on gemstones that were worthless, she said.
“They think they are buying an investment,” Zerbe said. “It’s fine to buy a souvenir over there, but they should not think they are getting a deal on loose gems.”
Nash said all of the quality gemstones in Afghanistan are in a longstanding pipeline of gem buyers and dealers. Military personnel are not likely to encounter quality loose gems for sale in store villages or markets.
“Just don’t do it,” she said. “It would be like me investing in oil drilling tools – I know nothing about oil drilling tools.”