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Red ruby alert: Major stores selling gems 'filled with glass'

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By Jeff Rossen and Charlie McLravy

It's July, and if you have a birthday this month, the ruby is your birthstone. Rubies have been called the "king of gems," symbolizing strength, power and love. And they don't come cheap.

You can buy them at just about every major department store. But a Rossen Reports investigation found that some of the "rubies" in those display cases may actually be filled with cheap glass. 

With hidden cameras rolling, the Rossen Reports team went shopping for ruby jewelry at New York City-area outlets of four major retailers, joined by Antoinette Matlins, professional gemologist and author of "Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide." The team bought ruby rings at Lord & Taylor, Macy's and Littman Jewelers, and a ruby pendant at JCPenney, paying thousands of dollars.

The ring from Macy's, for example, had a $1,200 price tag. Asked if the ruby was natural, the Macy's saleswoman said: "It is real. It is natural."

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At Littman Jewelers, when asked "Is this a real ruby?" the saleswoman responded similarly: "Oh absolutely. Absolutely."

When asked about a ring on display, the Lord & Taylor salesman first said, “They did something like remove the inclusions and then filled it with lead glass." But then he later said, "They're real rubies. It's a real ruby." And when asked if it was a natural ruby, he said "yes."

And the JCPenney saleswoman called the item we purchased a "ruby lead-glass pendant." But when asked if the ruby was real, she said, "It's a genuine ruby."

“These are not real rubies; period!” Matlins told NBC News, calling them impostors.  

The Rossen team had all four pieces of jewelry they purchased analyzed by two independent labs.

“All four gems we tested contain high contents of lead glass,” said Christopher Smith, president of American Gemological Labs in New York City.

Gary Smith, master gemologist appraiser at Pennsylvania Gem Lab, also found high amounts of lead glass.

"Ninety percent glass, it's almost all glass," Smith said while examining one of the purchased rings under a microscope. "This is fish tank gravel that's been modified."

"Fish tank gravel?" Rossen asked.

"Yeah, that's what I call it," Smith affirmed. He went on to explain that lead-glass rubies are not found naturally in the earth, but are instead made using a combination of low-quality corundum, the mineral found in ruby, which is then infused with high amounts of lead glass. The mixture is heated at high temperatures and then cooled, cut and polished. Smith says these lead-glass stones lack the durability and value of genuine rubies. 

Smith said that the $1,200 ring from Macy's was worth only about half that price because lead-glass rubies can be found for less than $20 per karat wholesale.

While the Federal Trade Commission is not investigating these stores, the agency says it's "unfair or deceptive" to tell consumers stones like the ones the Rossen team purchased are "natural" rubies.

Under a microscope, rubies containing lead glass reveal a telltale sign: air bubbles trapped inside. "There's never air bubbles in a natural ruby," Smith said.  

Smith demonstrated another difference between natural rubies and ones containing lead glass by putting samples of both in what he called "a cleaning solution that you would find at any jewelers." When he pulled them out of the solution, the natural ruby looked beautiful, but the other one was visibly damaged. Smith explained that the lead glass in that ruby had started to eat away, leaving behind a honeycomb pattern of unattractive white lines across the stone. "If you left it alone long enough, it would literally fall apart," he said.

Smith advised consumers in the market for rubies to have jewelry they've purchased appraised by a qualified gemologist. And to demand a refund if they learn the ring or pendant they bought is something other than what it was sold as.

Matlins added: “It breaks my heart, because ruby is one of the most valuable and most precious and most durable of all the gemstones. And these are the exact opposite. They are not rare, they are not valuable, and they are not durable.”

The stores all say full disclosure is company policy and they do mark lead-glass rubies with tags, and some mention it online. But after the Rossen Reports investigation, Littman Jewelers and Macy's told NBC News they're retraining their sales associates. And both JCPenney and Lord & Taylor are now offering refunds for dissatisfied customers. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for JCPenney said: “…there was never any intention to mislead the consumer. Glass-filled rubies are a new product to JCPenney that were introduced this spring. Given its unique qualities, the sales associate was likely under the impression that the pendant was a genuine stone because it was incorrectly labeled in our system. Moving forward, JCPenney will be removing any references to "genuine" from these tags and updating the description so that customers and associates clearly understand the nature of this enhanced gemstone.”

Macy’s told NBC News: “Almost all of the ruby merchandise sold in Macy's Fine Jewelry department has a base of the mineral corundum and is lead-glass filled. In addition, some have been heated to improve appearance. Macy’s does not carry synthetic lab-created rubies that are sold by some other retailers. We have signs in Macy’s precious and semi-precious gemstone departments informing our customers that gemstones may have been treated and may require special care.”

A company spokesperson for Lord & Taylor said: “Our commitment remains to our customers. Lord & Taylor will fully refund any EFFY jewelry purchase made at our stores if a customer is less than fully satisfied.”

EFFY, one of the makers of lead-glass rubies, told NBC News their rubies meet all FTC guidelines, and said they will work to improve disclosures. A company representative added further: “What should not be overlooked is protecting the interest of the consumer, who should be aware that the ruby they are purchasing has been filled with lead glass, and that they should follow special care instruction, mainly to not expose their stone to chemicals and household detergents, so as to maintain the appearance of the stone through its lifetime.”

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