Friday, 2 October 2015


Fakery. What is it? Can you handle the truth?

First of all I'm going to waffle on at some length about beads, which may or may not be of any interest or use to you, but it works really well as an analogy to so many other things, so bear with me.

A US company, Fire Mountain Gems, one of the largest/most popular websites for buying beads online was found to have "small print" where it admitted that most of its "gemstone" beads were fake. Hardly earth-shattering news (no news at all to me) but created quite the stir in the online craft sales world. People using their products having to change a LOT of titles and descriptions on Etsy, for example, and eat a fair bit of crow too.

You see, a LOT of Americans are deluded into thinking that if they "Buy American" they are buying American. Not only is this hardly ever the case, it's of no advantage anyway, as Americans are every bit as likely to sell you a fake as all the nasty brown or slant-eyed people. More so. I have experience of this.

I've been in this rather strange bead world for 25 years. Just like you know your "real" job inside out, I know this stuff. If you put a bead on the table in front of me, 9 times out of 10 I can tell you what it's made of without even touching it. Actually I could usually do that 25 years ago, because I'm a fast learner and in any case, I already had over 20 years of mineral geek experience before I got into beads. I got my first quartz geode from my grandfather when I was about 8 and we've had a long and happy relationship, me and rocks.

Oh yes, I'm still learning. We all are. Even mineralogists with PhDs can be "caught out" or unable to be sure without doing tests. But when I ordered (once, and NEVER AGAIN) from FMG, a strand of beads that weren't even the right size (and got no reply from customer service about any of this, I might add) I knew right away that it wasn't what it claimed to be. It wasn't obsidian.

I subscribe to two totally different schools of thought on this.

1. Don't tell lies..
2. If you like a thing, the details don't matter.

Remember those two. It isn't hard to reconcile them, but you can't just ignore the matter either.

When you order obsidian, which is called obsidian, because you want obsidian, and you are expecting obsidian, and you don't get obsidian, that's not right. So although, apparently, this has been going on for YEARS (which is why so many people who re-sell this stuff are shitting themselves regarding honesty in advertising) and has not caused their business any harm, as far as I can see, it's enough for me to be annoyed/amused/tell other people/never darken their doors again.

Not a problem for me as an honest seller though, is it?

Yep. People are so USED to the fake stuff that a) they often don't understand prices when you offer them the real thing, they also b) now expect the same stuff as the fake they are used to.

This leaves me with two issues.

1. I have to describe things in a rather long-winded manner so they can even FIND it. ("Light blue magnesite, often referred to as turquoise, and sometimes wrongly called howlite".......)

2. When they get real black onyx they are upset that it isn't black.

I have actually resorted to stocking dyed tiger's eye to offer a choice, nobody likes the natural stuff. Natural. Yeah. Read on.

It is tempting to just call it by the fake name and be done with it, and in many ways I don't blame general retailers who do. When I see a box of small tumbled stones in a gift shop marked as "crystals" (which they are not) and then "onyx" (which is isn't) I smile and shrug. Give the punters what they are used to. When I make cheap earrings with a small bead just as part of a design, I just call it what they expect it to be/what it looks like and don't even bat an eyelid, frankly. At those prices I don't lose sleep over it. If I sell the more expensive ones where the stone is the thing, I am scrupulously honest, which many are not. Feel free to argue over that. Anyway, this distinction is standard in the trade. Bite me.

But wholesalers shouldn't dick about like that, not the suppliers to the trade. They should know better.

As a small bead business I'm in this weird in-between position of trying to appeal to those who know exactly what they mean, as well as those who don't, because they all pay the same.

You see, honesty isn't straightforward.

I sometimes get emails that ask me if an item is natural. It's not that simple, it's not always a straight answer.

What do they mean by natural?

No, it's not obvious. I like to think it means "did it come out of the ground like that" which is always no.

This is what raw tiger's eye looks like.

If you saw that lying around somewhere, you wouldn't look at it twice. That's natural, that's genuine. Do you want it? If I took a small chunk and drilled a hole in it, is that a good bead for you? Of course not.

By the time I sell it to you, it looks like this:

Is that natural?

It's not dyed, it's not heat-treated, and it's not irradiated, so in 3 ways it is natural. But it is cut, polished, drilled, and possibly stabilized (not in this case) because otherwise it may disintegrate when you cut, polished, or drilled it.

There is a type of snobbery about "natural" but there's no real understanding of what it means. Got that? It's not the opposite of fake, that's for sure.

Here's a natural diamond.

Want that? You wouldn't turn it down right? Of course not. You could sell it, or have it cut, polished etc.

I don't get involved with diamonds, for several reasons, not least the human cost. But if you like the look of them you can get other stones that look the same for a fraction of the price. Only an expert with a good
loupe could tell the difference. So why buy a diamond? 

Because they are valuable? Says who? De Beers? They set the prices, using all sorts of sneaky ways, too big a topic for here (look it up).

I DO get involved in other precious gemstones. The system is quite different with no stranglehold on it by price fixers. I'm just starting to sell a range of more "valuable" stuff because colour therapy, right? I have all sorts on my desk here in a box that says "gems for design work". I'm working on it when I get time. Then I have to decide prices. Based on what?

OK, see if you can tell me what this is:

Holding it in your hand won't help. It looks just like that in real life, only much smaller.

How much is is worth? If you needed to buy it, what would a sensible price be?

$1? $1000?

You have no idea. I do because I paid for it, and I am good at markup.

If I told you what material it is would that help? Why?

Do you like it?

If not, it's worth nothing.

If you like it, what is it worth to you? Why?

Think about all that for a few minutes.

A thing is worth whatever the person who wants it is willing to pay for it. Their reason for wanting it can vary though. People sometimes want things for the strangest reasons. They think they like it. But 3 months ago they wouldn't have looked twice at it. Now it's fashionable, not only do they want it they are totally "SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY" about it. People are really weird. I don't mind. I make living out of giving them what they want.

So, let's say you wanted that little pendant up there because it's pretty, and you know it's affordable because I don't do truly high end, what difference does it make what it's made of? Hmm?

If I say it's tanzanite (it isn't) and you pay for it expecting tanzanite, and it turns out to be glass (it isn't) what changed? What's wrong with it? You liked it. You liked it enough to pay a given price for it, and it still looks the same. What if I tell you it's one of a kind. The only one like it, anywhere? (This part is actually the truth). Does that make a difference? You just got new information about it. What happened?

You were lied to. OK. Well, that's unethical, obviously. You could probably get a chargeback on your credit card based on that alone. VISA support claims for "item not as described". So, you would get a refund. End of problem. Done. Unless you bear grudges. And if you were sensible you'd not shop THERE again.

But I thought you liked it.......

We get a lot of people buy stuff because they are into crystal magic or crystal healing. I never ever sell anything as "healing". I'm seriously thinking of doing so though, seeing as placebo is now increasingly recognized as valid in high places and ethics committees. I mean, the whole thing can be argued (endlessly). I'm still undecided in several aspects of that whole issue. But during these discussions when I am asked "is it natural" (depends what you mean) and then is it genuine (also problematic) I discover the reason these folk need to know is because it won't "work" if it isn't.

Wait a minute here. You are a practitioner of this, and you can't tell by the vibes given off if it's "genuine" or not?

That's very encouraging. I'll sign right up for your services.

Before this turns into a book about minerals, I'll just recap a few bits:

1. Experts can usually tell just by looking, while crystal magic practitioners can't.
2. If it requires a lab test to decide what it is, then choosing by appearances may be enough, unless you value things by how fashionable they are.
3. The word fake is a tricksy word.

Let us now use what we learned to discuss other things.

Easy one. Food.

If it looks like cheese, and sort of tastes like cheese, then it's cheese, right?

If you like it anyway, what difference does it make what it's called? If it said cheese would that be a problem? Does knowing it is not cheese present a problem? Why?

Oh, I see you are getting the hang of this!

Could you tell if it was cheese or fake if you tasted it?

Fake meaning what exactly here?

OK......I hope you have really "got" all of this, because tomorrow we're going to apply it to something else, something we all look at every day.


  1. I was trying for 20 minutes to post a comment via my iPad - no dice. I think it all boils down to having more money than brains. I don't care where a piece came from, I don't care if it is "natural - authentic - real". I care if the piece, the article of clothing or accessory is appealing to me. I will never understand the mentality of buying an article in order to be a walking advertisement. Chelsea emeralds - I love them. I prefer them over the mined variety - the colour is gorgeous. By the way, if you run across any star ruby beads? Let me know, I have taken a huge liking to them and the price of the "natural - authentic - real" variety gives me a cold sweat.

    1. The fake ones are still over a dollar each!