Emeralds in Colombia

Real or fake, that is the question. In Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, phony green gems are as plentiful as coffee beans. Though Colombia produces some 65 per cent of the world’s emeralds, not all of them are legit.

At the base of Monserrate cable car, tucked away behind local handicrafts and junky souvenirs, there’s a jewelry shop selling big, beautiful emeralds. Staff members give me a quick history lesson about emerald mining and show me the process of polishing the stone.

“How do I tell a real from a fake?” I ask a saleswoman anxiously.

I quickly learn that buying high-quality emeralds is not as clear-cut as you might think. Here are a few things to consider before buying Colombian gems as souvenirs:

*Step 1: Look at the quality of the emerald. The darker the color, the better the quality.

*Step 2: Look at the brightness. Bright is best.

*Step 3: Look at the purity. Purity is the natural imperfection. According to the experts, you want natural impurities in the stone — look for bubbles and little scratches, known as “garden.” When there are imperfections, you know the emerald is real.

The saleswoman whips out a photochromic filter. She tells me this is another great way to tell the authenticity of an emerald. She tells me to put the monacle-like device to my eye like a magnifying glass. “Watch,” she says, “the real emerald will change color.”

She places two huge emeralds on a silk fabric and asks me to identify the fake. I look at both closely, evaluating their color, brightness and purity. I take a final glance before making my selection. “Um, that one?” I guess, pointing to a dark, sparkling emerald. If this were a game show, a buzzer would have gone off, an imaginary audience would boo. Wrong answer.

With a pair of tweezers, she plucks the real emerald. It’s a dazzling four carats worth a whopping $36,000. That’s US dollars, not pesos. I balk. I’m looking to buy a nice (but cheap) souvenir. This one is just a wee bit out of my price range.

The saleswoman directs me to one of the main emerald areas in Bogotá (located at Carrera 6 between Calles 12 and 13). It’s lined with hundreds of jewelry stores selling emeralds of all price ranges and qualities. Since I like to haggle, she also recommends the emerald street market (at the corner of Av. Jimenez and Carrera 7) for cheaper but maybe not so real emeralds.

Lonely Planet calls this market a “trap for the uninitiated.” The guidebook warns travelers: “Unless you’re an expert in emeralds it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be ripped off. Haggle hard and consider only purchasing as a cheap souvenir.”

Lonely Planet has it right. Even armed with the tools of the trade, this untrained eye still can’t tell the real emeralds from the fake. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from buying. I drop $40 US on a cute pair of sparkling stud earrings.

Real or fake, I can’t say for sure; my earlobes can’t tell the difference.