Perhaps the most important thing about shopping for gems is being informed. There is so much junk out there cleverly disguised as valuable material, that you need to have a "good eye" to pick out only the best. You need to be trained in what to look for, so that you can recognize quality and avoid being fooled.
The problem is: How to get educated. First let me say that this type of education has a price, and one way or the other, you're going to have to pay it. Possible routes include:
- buying and reading books on how to identify and purchase gemstones
- "apprenticing" yourself to a more knowledgeable person
- taking gem identification courses
- going to gem shows
All routes involve making mistakes. I don't think there is anyone anywhere who has purchased gems who, when they got home and examined things more closely, didn't have the following mixed reaction:
- a) "I really got a GREAT deal on these!"
- b) "Wow, this really was expensive but so worth it"
- c) "Boy, did I get taken on this!"
We all want to maximize a, keep b under control, and minimize c. And that only comes with experience.
Surprisingly, going to gem shows can be very educational. Think of it: Say you want to learn about pearls. I would estimate, conservatively, that I personally saw at least several hundred thousand pearls at the Tucson show. Most were in strands, so many strands that they formed continuous foot-high mounds atop eight-foot-long tables in pearl dealers' booths. Other pearls were so expensive they were sold one at a time. They sat in little rows inside the jewelry cases. Still others were in fabulous finished necklaces, with diamond-encrusted gemstone pendants.
The pearls at the Tucson shows came in all colors, from dyed greens, through satiny whites, to the great oriental blacks, purple-blacks, green-blacks and deep golds. Under the same roof, you could buy a costume pearl strand for $10, and several booths over, you could buy a Tahitian pearl strand for $10,000.
You can turn this bounty into a learning experience. First, I would suggest reading up on your subject, be it freshwater pearls, or Tahitian pearls, or just pearls in general. Learn the basic terms by which pearls are graded so that you come across as someone who's really interested, not just a gawker.
Then scope out the booths carrying the items you want to learn about and stop by when the dealers are not busy. It's not fair to take up a dealer's time if you're not planning to buy and there is someone else at the booth who does. However, if things are slow at that moment and the dealer seems to be staring off into space, you can approach. (The best time for this kind of educational conversation might be in the late afternoon, when the show is winding down for the day. Don't try this on opening day or when the booth is crowded with buyers. I would suggest starting at the more modestly-priced pearls, or the smaller dealers, to begin with. You might get the brush-off from the more exclusive dealers).
Start off by admiring their wares. Ask if they could show you a strand/pearl, and when they do, ask them to tell you about it. Where is it from? Is the color natural? What is the shape? Start asking good questions to show you've got some background knowledge. If you make/design your own jewelry, it's OK to tell them. That shows that someday you might become a customer, if not that day.
One thing that I always do is ask the dealer to pick out the finest pearl or strand from among the selection he puts in front of me. Then I ask him/her to tell me why they picked it, while I look at their choice. This really helps me to actually see what the books are talking about when they discuss luster and color. I try to learn as much as I can in a few minutes, and the instant someone else approaches the booth, I thank the dealer, and leave (unless, of course, I'm planning to buy something). Before I walk off though, I always ask for that dealer's card, and make a notation on the back--It will help me find that dealer again if I plan to buy from him in the future.
Then I take that knowledge I've acquired and start looking at other pearls in other booths. If you do this, you will begin to notice how much the quality and price varies from dealer to dealer. After a couple of days of looking at pearls, I start getting a better idea of what is quality and value, and what's not. I also will be gathering cards from the dealers whose pearls impress me.
After you've gone to a few shows and actually purchased some pearls, you'll know enough to be able to stop at a booth, compliment the exhibitor on his pearls and actually begin to engage in the type of conversation that professionals do. But even if you're at a gem show for a weekend, I guarantee that you can still pick up a lot of firsthand information about pearls by using this approach.
The same is true of gemstones. Say you've read about some of the more uncommon gems such as paraiba tourmalines (which are a natural neon aqua color), or demantoid garnets, or color-change alexandrites--A gem show is the ideal place where you can see the real thing close up. Again, pick a smaller dealer who might not be busy and strike up a conversation about his stones. Make sure you've read enough to be able to either make an informed comment or ask a good question, and usually that's enough to get the dealer started talking.
The third area that gem shows are excellent learning labs for is if you're interested in expanding your understanding about cuts. Master gem cutters come to these shows, and again, if they're not busy, they love showing off their work. While you're admiring it, you will soon realize that you're viewing some of the most unusual and spectacular gems in the world, as well as seeing some truly unique and artistic cutting styles. Many of these gems are actually affordable, and well worth the investment.
The key is to begin to really look, and listen. It's amazing how much you'll learn. And when you actually buy, make sure it's from a dealer whom you have come to admire and trust. That's the best way to ensure that you get top quality for your money.