Dyed or Natural Gemstones? How to Tell the Difference

The Story of "Sleeping Beauty Turquoise"

When I first started working with gemstone beads, I went online and ordered some stones listed as “Sleeping Beauty turquoise” howlite. I know, I know. I was young and mercurial and didn’t really know what I was reading in that description—I just saw the Sleeping Beauty turquoise part. You might not be surprised (especially if you read jewelry trade magazines like Colored Stone) to learn that what I received in the mail was “obnoxiously-blue-and-shiny” dyed howlite. Oh, well. I should have at least had the good sense to remember you get what you pay for. Lesson learned.

Has this happened to you? If you ever buy semi precious stones, I’m sure it has at least once. It can even happen at a gem show or bead shop: you encounter a table full of unlabeled strands of stones and unless you know a lot about gems or can drag a knowledgeable someone along with you, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. And if you’re anything like me, you sometimes buy on impulse. (Did I just say “sometimes”?) The key here is to talk, talk, talk to the vendor or shop owner. Ask everything about the gemstones you have your eye on—what type are they? The properties? Are they dyed or enhanced in any way?

American Gem Trade Association's Enhancement Codes

When you order stones from a reputable dealer on their website or from their catalog, you’ll have a little extra cushion if the vendor uses the American Gem Trade Association’s Enhancement Codes to describe them. You just need to know the symbols to look for (see the chart below for a quick overview). A listing with these codes for the funky stones I bought might look like this: Blue howlite nuggets (D). Who knows, I may have still made the purchase, but at least I wouldn't have been so surprised when I received them. Another lesson I learned with that old purchase? Anything in quotation marks means “resembles,” not “the real thing.”

Short of going to gemology school, you can get a great education about stones by reading Colored Stone, a trade magazine that covers the gamut of the gemstone industry, from mining and processing to trends in jewelry design. Check out www.colored-stone.com to get a flavor of the type of in-depth articles you’ll find about the journey some of the beads in our stashes take from ground to store.  Consider subscribing to Colored Stone if you'd like this kind of detailed gemstone information sent to your home every other month. After becoming an "expert" gemologist, use your knowledge to create some amazing handmade gemstone jewelry!

Do you have a story about buying stones that weren't, well, what you expected? Or stone-buying tips for other Beading Daily readers? Share them on the website.

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Michelle M.

About Michelle M.

I was the founding editor of Beading Daily (2007-2009) and my now a freelance designer/writer/editor.  My designs have been published in Stringing, Step by Step Beads, Jewelry Gifts for the Holidays, Creative Jewelry, Beadwork, and other magazines. I enjoy stringing, bead embroidery, wirework, metal work, mixed media, beadweaving—pretty much anything that involves beads or jewelry.  I also enjoy exploring new crafts like pottery and felting.  I write a personal blog if you want to see more of my work. 16+ Free Beading Projects: A list of the free projects I created for Beading Daily. Contact Info If you have a question regarding Beading Daily, please contact customer service at beadingdaily@interweave.com or the current editor, Kristal Wick. If you'd like to contact me, you'll find my info on my website:  www.michellemach.com.  You can also follow me on Twitter at:  http://twitter.com/beadsandbooks Pictured here is a pair of earrings I made for the Spring 2010 issue of Stringing in an attempt to get over my fear of designing with the color orange!

24 thoughts on “Dyed or Natural Gemstones? How to Tell the Difference

  1. I have bought reconstituted turquoise in the past. I assume this means that someone has taken turquoise dust and bound it with some sort of resin or polymer. How close is my guess?

  2. Jayel F. you are right on. Opal doublette or triplette is a thin layer of opal over other material. Sea opal, cherry quartz, goldstone & others are all man-made glass and many sellers won’t tell you that fact. Some don’t even know themselves what they are selling; most know but just hope YOU don’t. Buy from a well established company such as Fire Mountain (no I don’t work for them, I just know they are honest in describing their stones. I learned from them that all modern “hemitite” is assumed to be synthetic, even the magnetic stuff that many sellers will tell you is genuine. It isn’t)

  3. I forgot to mention that “simulated” does not mean the same as “synthetic”. Simulated can be any material, even plastic. A bowl of green Jello can be called “simulated emerald”, so be aware of which term the seller is using. Synthetic has the same chemical properties as the real thing but should cost much less.

  4. I bought some stones on ebay and learned not to trust the pictures and to pay close attention to the sizes. I received a few that were itsy bitsy and of no use.

  5. Thank-you so much for this information. It’s very helpful, and I will definitely refer to it in the future. There is such a price difference between the Turquoise gemstones. Now I know why. You really do get what you pay for!

  6. I used to work in a bead shop. I was always frustrated when the owners made me hang strands of goldstone, cherry “quartz”, etc. in with the gemstones. They knew they were glass but chose to “fool” their customers. I had a habit of letting the cat out of the bag when customers asked me about a stone.

    Also, be very careful about who you order from on eBay or any other auction sites. I ordered stones from a company just to check out the quality, etc. However, when I received the stones they were from a company I had already “blacklisted” on my own list. They can use any name they choose and run as many stores as they want without revealing who they really are. The stones I received were nothing like that advertised and in order to get me to remove negative feedback they offered to refund my money if I returned the stones. I refused to remove my negative feedback and still got my money back without returning the beads….they went in with the chat in my driveway.
    Educate yourself and prepare to stand up if need be. thanks and good luck!

  7. New to the beading process, thanks for the information, I see there is something new to be learned everyday, thanks so much for the tip, I see there is alot to be learned.

  8. I got caught out buying a pair of earrings this year. I bought pink moonstone earrings at a Gem Fair/exhibition assuming that traders were honest. On internet investigation it appears that there is no such thing and I probably have bought natural moonstone backed with pink paper and then a solid silver back applied over that to seal.
    I still have a pair of very pretty earrings but I paid way over the odds for them thinking I was getting something special and unusual …sigh
    Hugs from the UK and Happy Beading to all!

  9. Back in 1990 I had a similar experience with “turquoise”. I answered an ad in Rock & Gem magazine and was assured it was turquoise so I ordered a strand. This was my first buying experience. Well … it sure wasn’t turquoise and I have taken these beads to Rock & Gem shows and no one has been able to identify exactly what I got, other than turquoise colored beads. Fortunately, I didn’t pay a lot for the cheap imitation, and it opened my eyes and I’ve become much more careful since then.

  10. Really useful article, I have just a couple of trusted suppliers and always try to buy only naturally coloured stones but it is hard. I have seen the cherry quartz on sites and assumed it was at least a dyed stone – thank heavens the colour wasn’t me ! I’d be interested to know how well these enhancements last, does the dye fade / wear off, heat treated – is it forever ? Karen – http://www.lavidalerie.com

  11. I recently bought a necklace in a second hand shop. It had nice silver beads that were very tarnished, real fresh water pearls (they passed the bite test) and what looked like nice turquoise nuggets. I’m just not sure about the turquoise. I assumed the nuggets were real because I felt the other components were real. Please tell us how we can tell for sure? Thanks, Paula

  12. I was told a few years ago the Sleeping Beauty turquoise comes directly from the Sleeping Beauty Mine near Globe, Arizona. I didn’t buy any, but I wonder now, was the seller from whom you bought the stones impersonating a representative of the Sleeping Beauty Mine?

  13. I took a bracelet class at a local art studio and the stone chips we used for the bracelet were dyed – the instructor wasn’t aware they were dyed until after she bought them. Sadly, getting wet in the rain, from washing your hands or even perspiration (we never sweat, do we?) can wash the dye off these chips, so making a bracelet out of these chips was probably not such a great idea. Eventually I’ll have a teal/gold/purple beaded bracelet with clear chips:( I thought they might do for beaded window valances, but I’m afraid the sun will bleach out the color – what do you think?

  14. Jean,
    Thanks for this article – VERY NICE! May I have permission to print the whole article and laminate it for use in the store? I have people asking all the time what “enhanced” or “stabilized” mean. The folks on the forums already know one of my pet peeves are stores or vendors who mislabel stone beads.

    The AGTA chart you used is great – but – for some reason, wholesalers/vendors and bead stores who sell “mere” beads don’t seem to feel that the rules of the GEM trade (aka AGTA and the JVC among others) apply to them. Sometimes it might be excused as “ignorance” – but it’s no excuse. A customer (at any level) should be able to trust the person who is selling to them. Complicating matters is the interesting habit that the quarries in China have of naming a stone by whatever strikes their fancy, regardless of whether it’s the correct name or not.

    You hit it right on the head when you advised that beaders who use stone should educate themselves. They should deal with vendors/stores that they trust and who will be happy to help them learn more.

    If a beader is selling their jewelry, they MUST know what the stones are if possible and label them appropriately. If you are selling jewelry with stones/gems, silver, gold, etc. you are technically under the rules of the AGTA and the JVC and your items MUST be labelled correctly. I have stones in the store (in the mixes, mostly) that I have no clue about what they are. On invoices, they are listed as “blue stone” “brown stone – maybe agate?”, “mixed stones” or maybe “unknown blue-brown-and-white stone”.

    Thanks for this good article.

    Deb – AZ Bead Depot

  15. I purchazed a garnet necklace. Very beautiful “stones”. Later I learned that my necklace is made from “garnet glass”. The dealer was persuade they were all natural.
    Miriam, Israel

  16. When you start buying stones, there are some things you should know. Hematite is never real, garnet, rose quartz, and black onyx are almost always dyed, and if it seems like you are getting a really great bargain, it probably isn’t what it is claimed to be. turquoise is one of the worst. I don’t buy turquoise, because the good stuff is really expensive and I won’t use “dyed” or “reconstituted” stuff.
    I test things I’m dubious about. nail polish remover will check for dye. Breaking a pearl (put it in a small plastic bag and hammer gently – just enough to shatter it) will tell you whether it is real (the tooth test helps while you are still at the shop) you might try breaking a pearl bought from a reputable supplier so you know what it should look like. Breaking a bead will also tell you is you have got stone or glass. I’ve bought amethyst and black onyx that turned out to be glass.
    Alos, educate yourself about things like “mountain jade” which is dyed limestone or something similar. cherry “quartz” things like that.

  17. I once bought many strands of turquoise beads from an ivory carver that I had known for decades. She was not only a personal friend of mine, but she had even married a shirt-tail cousin of mine and I thought she was an honest craftswoman at heart. She knew that I was doing beadwork for some First Nation Peoples in the Yukon Territory at that time and had offered her unblemished “turquoise beads” to me “because they were real.” They were fake beads.

  18. a company that advertises quite heavily in the bead magazines was having a store closing sale close to me. I had made some small purchases in the past and felt “safe” in dealing with them. to say I went overboard is probably an understatement. imagine my surprise when I got home and peeled off the price sticker on my “genuine” turquoise beads, and the “plastic coloring” came right off with the price sticker. I never did receive satisfaction from this company.
    blessings- Peggy

  19. Hematite is almost never real….? (Loris S.) Oh my… really?

    I stress out when I buy stones online. Since I know that sellers aren’t honoust of ignorant about stones, I automatically assume it is processed or fake. But I really want to buy gems with confidence and it would be nice if there would a list of sellers with a certain guaranty certificate.

  20. Excellent article!!!

    I have fallen in love with soo chow jade and keep wondering what is behind them. Are they real multicoloured semi precious stones? Are they fake? I am thinking of getting some at the next gem fair but would like to know what I am really getting.

    I got some dyed howlite at a bead store. After reading the article I am feeling disappointed with my purchase. Is howlite a stone? Does it have any value? They were soooo expensive.

  21. I recently bought some inexpensive “aquamarine” which is a dyed clear stone. When stringing them, the dye comes off in my hands. Is there any way to remove the dye, or stabilize it? I seem to remember something using white vinegar? Does anyone have experience removing a cheap dye job from gemstones?

  22. I would be interested in removing dyes as well. I bought some cheap bubble gum pink carved roses, and I wanted to take most of the dyes out. I’m currently soaking some in rubbing alcohol and water, and I’ll try the nail polish remover. I’ve been warned not to do more than one at a time to test. Some stones will dissolve in different fluids.

  23. G – Glass filled, lead glass filled Rubies,
    I have added this one myself, due to the rash of lead-glass filled rubies on the market today. I won’t buy Rubies from any seller, even if I have bought great gems from them in the past. It’s getting scary out there to buy.