VOL. 20 #3, Fall, 2002

Collecting African Color Change Garnets, Colored Gemstones: The Buying Guide, Collectors Corner: Hot Rocks, AGL Introduces Mini-Cert, Notable Quotes, Gem Thieves: Arizona Stripper, Gem Scams: Unique Gems Execs Arrested, In The News: Thailand Gem Scams

  Sep 29, 2002   admin


Collecting African Color Change Garnet
by Robert Genis

There have been persistent rumors the production of Madagascar color change garnet is played out. Many contend they are still finding the garnets, but the desirable colors are gone, and the new material changes from pink-brown to brown.  However, there are still a few goods presently available on the market.  The African color change garnets on the market today are from Bekily, Madagascar and Tunduru, Tanzania.  Similar material is also being produced in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). These gems change from reddish purple in incandescent to blue, green, gray in daylight. Do not expect the blue side of these stones to look like Burma or Kashmir sapphire. The blue is more synonymous with the steely colors of blue spinel or Montana sapphire. In the best cases, the color change is reminiscent of the old Brazilian alexandrite material.

According to Greg Kvichel, partner, Michael Couch and Associates, "These goods are becoming rarer.  I am unsure whether production is down or the fluid political situation in Madagascar.  During the recent contested presidential election, all exports were blocked.  All I know for sure is we are buying less than ever before, and are presently working on old stock. Finding these goods is primarily a non-mechanized form of mining.  You must remember, with a few exceptions, most of these goods are mined by natives with shovels and buckets."  Kvichel continues, "These gems are also found with chrysoberyl, corundum, and spinel."

Ideal Color Changes
Garnet is one of a few gemstones that can exhibit a color change. A color change gem is a stone that changes from one color to another color depending upon the light source. As a general rule, the Madagascar material goes from a raspberry red to a  bluish grey.  The Tanzanian material goes from a raspberry red to a teal blue color.  The red color side of these garnets is typically the strongest, and the  blue/green side is the weakest.  Until this color change garnet was recently discovered in Madagascar, there never were any blue garnets!
The color change occurs in garnet because of the atomic structure of the stone. The ultraviolet rays in sunlight or fluorescent light excite the atoms in a color change, but artificial (incandescent) light does not. As a general rule when evaluating color change gemstones, the more dramatic the color change, the more desirable the material. You do not want to use your imagination to see the color change. Ideally, you are looking for a 100% color change with two pleasing colors. In reality, you often get a lower percentage color change.  You do not want a stone that obviously "bleeds", which means you can see the two colors at the same time under a single light source.

The more vivid the colors of a color change, the more valuable the gemstone. Ideally, you want a dramatic color change with a medium tone and intense color. However, good luck finding one.  As a general guideline with African color changes, you either get a moderate color change with a light tone or a strong color change with a dark tone.  However, you must be aware these color changes with dark tones can often black out.   

Although the color change represents the majority of the value of a color change gemstone, do not forget clarity, brilliancy, cutting and finish also affect the gem's final price.

Treatment and Care
A strong attribute of garnet is that it is not normally heated or enhanced in any way.  You can purchase this stone without having to worry about the enhancement problems of many other colored gemstones on the market.  Garnet is a very durable stone that is well suited for collecting or daily wear in all forms of jewelry.

Despite the worldwide economic slowdown, color change garnets are rising in price.  According to Kvichel, " The largest color change we have ever had was 9 carats.  Today, the largest stone we have for sale is 2 carats."   Any color change over three carats is rare.  The vast majority of these goods wholesale between $80-$300 per carat.  Top gems can easily reach $400-$500 per carat and large top stones can command $1,000 per carat. Calibrated goods are available to manufacturers for $80 per carat.

The Mohs hardness of the material is 7 to 7 1/2.  The color change is probably due to high amounts of vanadium.  Garnets have a high RI (refractive index), which explains why typically they are so brilliant. Technically, they are a pyrope and spessartine combination.  Interestingly, the stones often have needle-like rutile inclusions similar to Burma ruby and sapphire.

The vast majority of these goods are cut as ovals.  Sometimes you will find other shapes such as rounds, trilliants or pears.

The main market for these goods are collectors or jewelry consumers who want something different. Kvichel states, "Many people want something different than ruby, sapphire, or emerald.  For these clients, color change garnets fit the bill perfectly.  Plus, color change garnets are more exciting than most other stones."

Color change garnets are one of the rarest and most fascinating gemstones. The color change can be intense and more dramatic than the color change of top quality alexandrite, which can sell for tens of thousands per carat. Color change garnets are a true bargain at these price levels.  This is a smart stone to collect if you have limited funds or are simply obsessed with owning every type of colored change gemstone.

Book Review

Colored Gemstones: The Buying Guide
by Antoinette Matlins
Gemstone Press, Woodstock, Vermont
180 pages, 2001,  $16.95

"Natural emeralds, rubies, and sapphires-that is, gems not subjected to any type of artificial treatment or enhancement-have never been rarer than they are today."

Antoinette Matlins is a top diamond and colored gemstone writer and consumer advocate.

Matlins states the four C's of colored gemstones are color, color, color and color.  Matlins believes major gemstones must have beauty, durability and rarity. She argues tsavorite may become the emerald, spinel the ruby and Paraiba the blue sapphire of the twenty-first century.   She discusses how tsavorite over two carats is rarer than an emerald, yet worth about 1/10 the price of an emerald.  A more precise statement is a top gem two carat tsavorite sells for about 20%-30% of the price of a gem quality emerald.

She maintains darker gemstone colors are not always preferred in the gem world. Regarding clarity, she says inclusions in Burma ruby and Colombian emerald may not negatively affect value, but instead are vital for positive identification and proof of origin. 

Her best section is "Colorful Choices in Colored Gemstones." She discusses salient points about many gemstones and creates a unique wearability index.   Despite hardness, many stones are brittle due to the stress from which they were formed. For example, although emeralds are 7.5 in hardness, their wearability is fair to good.  Garnets are 6.5-7.5 in hardness, while their wearability is good to very good.  Matlins also describes how you must know a colored gemstone's specific gravity, because a one carat diamond will look larger than a one carat ruby.

One part deals with gem alternatives based solely on color.  Based upon your finances, this can assist you in buying less expensive and less known gemstones as substitutes for the "Big Three."

A superb section is "A Guide to Gemstone Treatments."  You can easily learn about the frequency, stability, care required and types of treatments used on most gemstones.  One chart illustrates the premiums for unheated vs. heated gemstones. She also describes gemstones that are not normally enhanced.

Another section deals with synthetic gems. Matlins gives tips on how to recognize simulated and composite stones. Also, the author lists misnomers that are often used to improperly market gemstones, for example,  balas ruby is actually spinel.

Matlins contends if you are going to buy an expensive colored gemstone, you must buy a stone with a  report from a major lab   She states fine and rare quality gems can trade for prices much higher than the prices in her book, but they must be graded by the AGL or the AGTA lab to confirm quality.  I understand how an AGL document would confirm quality but the AGTA grading report cannot accomplish this task.  For example, an AGTA report might simply say Burma-no heat.  It will not tell you if it is a good or a bad Burma, unlike the AGL which grades gemstones in a linear and numerical manner.  I wish she would update the AGL grading report from 1993.  Perhaps some day the GIA will incorporate their colored gemstone grading system into a grading report.

She touches on labs and color theory, but misstates the GIA has developed a colored grading system based upon the Color Master. The machine never really worked and has not been sold for many years.  Of course, the new GIA grading system is based upon the GemSet plastic color samples.

A large section of the book includes prices from The Guide.  I find many of her prices obsolete.  For example, she states top gem one carat Paraiba tourmaline can sell for $2,000-$4,000 per carat.  Yes, I remember those days but they are long gone.

I found it unusual there were no cushion shapes represented in her classical gemstone shapes illustrations.  However, she does have photographs of cushion shape stones in her color photo section, which is well done.

Gemology Consultants
Matlins promotes the use of gemology consultants as a neutral third party in purchasing fine gems and jewelry.  She explains how to find a reputable jeweler for privates. 

The author is hard on internet auctions and internet dealers with bogus appraisals and fraudulent lab reports. If you want to buy something on the internet,  perhaps her best advice is to consult with a major lab as an independent third party.

The book contains very useful information and accurate assessments of the colored gemstone market, but it also cries out for a more current updating.  Despite these problems, it remains an excellent reference with explicit, easily understood details about colored gemstones.

You can purchase this book on-line in our bookstore.

Collectors Corner

Hot Rocks
Fancy Sapphire

The New Age or Astrological market is keeping unheated fancy sapphire colors in demand.  Individuals buy gemstones according to their birth planet and current planetary periods or cycles. The hot stones are yellows, blues, pinks, color changes and purples.   Many people are buying ungraded fancy sapphires from dealers who are claiming the goods are "no or low" heat.  Remember, make sure you have a grading report from an independent lab when buying an important fancy colored sapphire. Heated fancy colored sapphires are weak.

Burma Spinel
Burma's currency, the kyat, has plummeted to new all-time lows on the black market.  It has fallen  to a level of 1,300 to the dollar and the bottom is still nowhere in sight. As the kyat plummets, prices are skyrocketing.  According to Colored Stone Magazine (July-August, 2002), Burma spinel prices are rising because of limited supply and strong consumer demand. The prices of gem red spinels are currently over $1,000 per carat in Burma.  Only one or two five carat spinels are found every year.  The "electric red"  two carat Nanyar or Nayar material is fetching $2,000 per carat wholesale.  Hot pinks and flame oranges are practically non-existent.

Star Blue Sapphire
According to Colored Stone Magazine (September-October, 2002), fine Ceylon star blue sapphire has risen 30% in price the last six months. The reason is when these stones are heated and the silk removed, the heated blue sapphire is worth double the price of the star.  New wholesale prices for one to three carat stars are $750-$1200 per carat.  Naturally, Burma blue stars are rarer and trade for higher prices.

Bellagio Features Faberge
The skill and master craftsmanship of Russian artist Faberge will be on display at the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas through January, 2003.
  Some of the nearly 200 objects on display in the exhibit, Faberge: Treasures from the Kremlin, have never before left Russia. Others are on loan from three private collectors. Many are in the United States for the first time.  All of Faberge's eggs contain surprises hidden within the eggs. The exhibit offers a glimpse into Imperial Russia and includes a section in which you can touch the rare jewels and stones. The Russian treasures entered the country on private climate-controlled planes, then were escorted by police and Bellagio security into Nevada.  Fifty-two Imperial eggs have been accounted for worldwide. With 10, the Kremlin owns the largest collection.

AGL Introduces Mini-Cert

Although the full American Gemological Laboratories (AGL) Colored Stone Grading Report is a vital document when buying/selling an expensive colored gemstone, does is make sense to pay a $330+ lab fee for a $1,000 or less gemstone?  Many people decide this surcharge is too expensive and buy/sell these stones without reports.  In order to remedy this reality, the AGL has recently issued a new Colored Stone Report or Mini-Cert.   This is similar to what the GIA does with the GIA Diamond Dossier® vs. the GIA Diamond Grading Report. I recently submitted 1 0unheated Burma fancy colored sapphire to the AGL.  If you send in 10 stones, the price is $150 each  plus AGL shipping and handling.  The actual physical size is 1/2 of the full grading report or 5 1/2 x 4 1/2 instead of 11 x 8 1/2 . You can contact AGL at 580 Fifth Avenue, Suite 706, New York, NY or  call 1-212-704-0727. Although not as extensive as the full grading report, you still receive a great deal of information.  You even get the image of the gemstone.  Numerical numbers are not given for these Mini-Certs.  The stones I submitted ranged from Fancy Intense to Light in color. The date and document number are found in the top section.  The identification section describes the gemstone as natural, gives a general color description, the type of gemstone and the country of origin. The shape and size of the stone are identified.  The depth measurement is how deep the stone measures in mm's.  Instead of a Color Scan, a gem's primary and sometimes secondary color is given.  In this example, the primary color is pink and the secondary purple. Tone is also given in a general description instead of an exact tonal number.  In the example below, the tone  is light to medium or ranges from 35-50.  The clarity is also given in a general range. For example, the clarity of the 1.63 is MI.  The cutting and finish grades are also given in general terms rather than exact numbers. Under Comments, the first statement reflects the Pastel Collection.  This gives the reader an accurate description of the goods.  Most importantly are the following comments which signify the goods are Burma without heat or clarity enhancement.  Now collectors with limited funds can have an affordable independent verification of the most vital aspects of a stone.  This new  document fills an obvious market need.


Notable Quotes

Orange County Register, August 11, 2002
"But experts say many investors are beginning to look beyond bonds to other asset classes-things like precious metals and other commodities, real estate, collectibles, even cash-to which they gave little, if any consideration during the stock obsessed 1999's."
James Kelleher

Rapaport TradeWire-August 23, 2002
"There's been a big increase in sales over $20,000.  People with high incomes are putting their money into jewelry instead of the stock market.  They want to treat themselves to feel good."
Harvey Rovinsky, president, Bernie Robbins Fine   Jewelry

Gem Thieves

Arizona Stripper In Jewel Robbery/Murder
Rick Chance, 44, of Paradise Valley, Arizona sold Empire Auto Glass and appeared in the company's television ads offering customers free restaurant meals with the purchase of a new auto windshield. Chance was described as a flashy businessman with a love of jewelry.  On August 9, 2002 a hotel maid found Chance's body. He had been shot to death and was lying face down on the floor near a bed. His wallet and the keys to his Mercedes were found in the room, but a cache of jewels reportedly worth $1 million remains missing.

A topless dancer, Brandi L. Hungerford, was  seen on a surveillance tape standing beside Chance as he checked into the Best Western Inn, Tempe, Arizona.  She was found in Tacoma, Washington and held in connection with the killing.  She is accused of first-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery. Chance met the stripper through an Internet dating service and planned to meet with her and another man to show them a collection of jewels. Brandi L. Hungerford said Robert Donald Lemke II wore a knit mask with the eyes cut out and brightly colored gloves when they robbed Rick Chance. After the robbery/murder, they fled Arizona in a blue Nissan Pathfinder and checked into the Tacoma Sheraton Hotel.  On August 13, police staked out a Tacoma apartment where Lemke intended to sell the jewelry.   Two men matching the descriptions of the apartment owner and Lemke left the building with two pit bulls in a 1998 Toyota 4Runner.  Police followed and stopped the vehicle. Considered "high risk", both men were removed at gunpoint during the busy lunch hour in downtown Tacoma. Lemke at first obeyed an order to lie on the pavement, but then jumped up and ran. He was tackled by police officers and arrested on outstanding felony warrants.  Records show that police took 26 items from the apartment, including two weapons, a German Heckler & Koch M8 and a Calico Model M-950 pistol. They also took two luxury watches, an empty Rolex box, more than $26,000 in cash (including $20,000 hidden in a black fur hat),  two large plastic bags and two Altoids cans containing marijuana, six cell phones and a computer. Also in the Tacoma apartment, police seized a note with writing and a kiss in lipstick. The note was similar to one found in a Tempe apartment reading "Brandi kissed me." 

In the stripper's Tempe apartment, police found inventory tags with Chance's business name "Image Jewelers." The inventory tags matched exactly those on jewelry from Chance's  wholesale supplier. 

Gem Scams

Gems Scam Execs Arrested
Unique Gems International was a jewelry investment scam.  The multimillion-dollar operation collapsed five years  ago.  In August, Federal authorities indicted the former president and executives on charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.  They  arrested former Gems President Enrique Pirela, along with Harry Abonde, Kazimierez Pac and Carlos Rodiles. They are accused of bilking investors out of about $90 million in the work-at-home jewelry scheme.  The defendants could collectively be sentenced to a maximum of 190 years in jail.

From September 1995 through March 1997, Unique Gems International used newspaper ads, party promotions and word-of-mouth referrals to persuade investors -- mostly Hispanics from Miami -- to buy a $3,000 kit with enough material to make 30 necklaces. The value of the kit is alleged to be worth only $100. The buyers were led to believe they would be paid  for every necklace they assembled.  In reality, the operation was a classic Ponzi scam with early investors paid with money from later investors.  During an investigation that has spread from Florida to Spain, Switzerland, England and Liechtenstein, court-appointed receiver Lewis B. Freeman has recovered about $14 million and investors have received payment of 30 cents for every $1 they invested.

In The News

The Observer , England, September 1, 2002
All that glisters is not gold...

by Rob Cole

This is one of the best articles ever written about the growing problem of Thailand gem scams. The ruse swindles over 15,000 tourists a year out of millions of dollars. Beware.  The story has been reproduced exactly, including the English spelling. ED

The sting
It starts innocently enough. Having arrived in Bangkok, halfway through a six-month backpacking tour of Asia, my sister Jacky and I are eager to cram in as many sights and experiences as possible.

As we leave our hotel, a Tuk Tuk (motorbike taxi) driver pulls up alongside us and offers us a tour of Bangkok. The price is right so we jump in and head off to visit some temples. At the second or third temple, we get talking to a Thai man who tells us he is visiting his family in Bangkok. He tells us he is a lawyer living in Sydney and mentions an annual jewellery sale that occurs for one week in Bangkok. The sale is for Thai students studying abroad who can buy precious jewellery without paying a 195 per cent business tax and sell it abroad at a profit to help pay for their education. He says tourists are also allowed to take advantage of this week-long sale because the Thai government wants to encourage tourism. Thinking no more of this, we continue with our tour. The next temple we visit is the Marble Temple, home of the Lucky Buddha. As we approach the shrine a man signals to us to remove our shoes and walk over to the Buddha with him. After some kneeling and praying he begins his story. He's a businessman from Phuket who makes an annual trip to Bangkok to buy jewellery and resell it in Singapore, using the proceeds to fund his holiday.

This story strikes a chord with us. A little extra money would certainly help fund our travels. The Tuk Tuk driver offers to take us to the 'Thai Export Office', which also goes by the name of Marin Gems. The owner seems very professional. We ask him lots of questions and eventually decide on a sapphire pendant and earrings for 49,000 baht, about £670. I would like to check the internet to see if the sale is bona fide, but it is Friday afternoon and the last day of the sale. The time for action is now or never.

The alarm bells should start ringing when they tell me they want to be paid in gold instead of by credit card. But I figure it's not worthwhile for them to set up a facility to process consumer credit cards for a one-week sale when they act as a wholesaler for the rest of the year. And anyway, I'm already dreaming of the 100 per cent return I'm going to make on my little investment. My plan is to send the jewellery to my sister in London, complete with certificates of authenticity, for her to sell to a good Bond Street jeweller.

With the sale complete, we are taken on a sightseeing tour of a town four hours away (later I realise, to keep us from doing any research and discovering we've been scammed).

Next morning I wake after a night of troubled sleep feeling very uneasy. I go to an internet cafe to find out more about the sale. I ask the woman operating the cafe if she knows about it. She doesn't, but an Australian working at one of the terminals pipes up: 'Don't do it, it's a scam.' He'd been relieved of £2,000 the day before in a similar fashion. Apparently the jewellery is probably genuine, but the craftsmanship and quality of the pieces is sub-standard and they are not worth half as much as I paid for them. Funny how things look in the cold light of day.

The fight for justice
Apparently this scam is very common. My Australian buddy is optimistic that I'll be able to recoup the bulk of my losses. All I have to do is take the jewels to the tourist police and they will help me negotiate a refund from the jeweller. Simple. Though I'm about to find out that nothing in Thailand is simple.

At the police station I bump into another tourist, Paul, who had been swindled by a different shop three weeks previously. He tells me the scam has been operating for more than 20 years in much the same way. He has set up a support group (see below) to help victims. I also learn that Marin Gems has shut down and reopened as Vandee Gems.

Eventually I am seen by a police officer. He asks me where I bought my jewels. I tell him Marin Gems. He responds, 'Marin closed', then stares at me as if that's enough to prompt me to turn tail and fly back to wherever I came from. I inform him that I know Marin has re-opened as a new operation (but neglect to say the name of the new store).

At this, he walks off to look into something. I wait another 20 minutes or so and finally intercept him again. 'Okay, man, come in one hour, undercover man, you go with him to Vandee Gems to try find people who sold you jewels.' Odd, because I never told him the name of the new store. Obviously the Marin/Vandee connection is well known.

Eventually the undercover man shows up and I and about five Thai police pile into a van and head down to the shop. We pass Vandee and keep driving. Then we stop in an alley. The whole time, the cops are nattering in Thai on their mobile phones (I later learn that this was to call ahead to the store to let them know we were coming).

We arrive at Vandee to find the staff waiting for us at the door. They usher us in and allow us to look around. The store is identical to Marin (even down to the fish tanks). I ask to go upstairs. I know this is where the scam takes place. Despite the words 'Whole sale Upstairs' written on the landing, they insist that upstairs is only used for storage. The police inform me that we cannot go up without a warrant. Fortunately there is a mirror on the landing of the stairs. In the reflection I see the same woman who was working at Marin during my fateful visit. I inform the police of this, but they say we must leave.

That night I meet up with Paul and some other victims of the scam. There are about 20 of us in all. Paul has managed to get an appointment for us to see the head of the national tourist police. It takes two hours by boat, bus and taxi to reach the tourist police central office only to be told that we are wasting our time. They end up simply corralling us all into police vans and sending us back up to the tourist police office in Bangkok.

I notice that we are being tailed on our boat cruise by a series of shady-looking men. I get pictures of most of them, which finally prompts them to give up the chase. I am starting to see just how deep this thing goes.

Undeterred, Paul manages to get a meeting with the Minister of Tourism at the National Assembly. We arrive at the parliament building at 9 am and at 11.30 am we are ushered into the boardroom. Around the table are seated about 35 Thai men whose sole function seems to be mumbling to each other, smiling and shuffling papers.

Paul addresses the group, but no one is listening. Even the Minister chats away to one of his subordinates as Paul presents our case. Suddenly the door opens, and the press (five cameras in all and various reporters) stream in though the door. The Minister gives a 10-minute speech in Thai. No translation is provided. The meeting is over and we leave not really knowing what happened.

Several pointless visits to the tourist police later, I finally manage to squeeze out of the police officer that the only thing I can do is to prove that the two stores are the same by either identifying an employee of both stores or proving that the ownership is the same.

The counter-attack
We are on our own. Nobody is interested in helping us. Paul introduces me to Andy and Travers, two Britons who were scammed by the same store. They have some video footage of their first visit to Marin Gems. Together we come up with a plan of action: to smuggle a camera into Vandee and get some conclusive photographic evidence to prove that they are one and the same operation.
Travers rigs up a concealed camera and microphone hooked up to a mini-disc player in his bag. Putting on dark glasses and a baseball cap, he goes to Vandee Gems and gets the shot we need of one of the employees already captured on film in Marin.

Now it's time to present our evidence to our friends at the gem store and, if necessary, take it to the police. But first we must find a Tuk Tuk and initiate the whole scam process to prove it's the same set up.

We are lucky enough to be picked up right outside our hotel. A Tuk Tuk driver (who I recognise from a photo provided by a fellow victim of Marin Gems) pulls up and offers us a tour of Bangkok for 10 baht a head. We set off but I realise that in my haste, I've left my jewellery in my hotel room. So I pretend I've forgotten my camera film and we drive back to the hotel to pick it up.

I find the package where my receipt, certificate and jewellery are. Only problem is, my jewellery has gone. After a frenzied romp around the room throwing everything all over the place I realise that it really has gone. I am not sure how it was stolen - perhaps at the tourist police, perhaps at the hotel. I am on the verge of going completely insane.

I pull myself together. The show must go on. If only for the sake of my two English friends who have lost about £6,500 between them.

So we head out to the 'Lucky Buddha'. Actually, it is only one of about 20 'Lucky Buddhas' at minor temples that the gem shops use as places to spring the scam. We approach the Buddha, and sure enough, along comes a well-dressed businessman from Phuket - same guy, same shirt, same line used on me a month ago. He sends us off to Vandee Gems.

We present our case to them and explain that we are happy to negotiate. The shopkeeper explains that his boss is away and that we should go to the police. He tells us that he has a right to protect his business. Behind him, all in black, stand three guys who look like they are the means of this protection. On the way out, we notice that the fish tanks are empty. Looks like they're on the move again. So we go to the tourist police, show our evidence and demand the help of an officer to go to make an arrest at the gem shop. Eventually, a young policeman who has been reading the newspaper comes over and starts yelling at me. He is annoyed that we have ruined an otherwise quiet and pleasant day, but he is probably most annoyed because if he helps us, a corrupt superior will have his head on a plate.

The end of the road
I am at the end of my tether and spend my time concocting murderous fantasies. Travers and Andy, however, use their day a little more productively: they take our evidence to a man at the Ministry of Internal Trade.

He sends them to the Royal Thai police who send them to Interpol, where, finally, a woman seems very eager to help with our case. She asks for all of our evidence on disk and for a report of our entire experience.

At last we are getting somewhere. But the next time Travers and Andy contact Interpol, they learn that their woman has fallen mysteriously ill and will not be back at the office for some time. They tell us to go to the tourist police.

At the police station, Andy presents the case to the officer in charge, who promptly leaves the office. There are about 20 staff milling about watching TV, reading newspapers, chatting or taking a nap. Two tourists sit at the help desk waiting for service. No one is helping them. An elderly British couple walk into the office. They were scammed by Vandee Gems six days previously. They have their gems and are awaiting a negotiator who is supposed to arrive at 4 pm.

At 4 pm, they go to speak with an officer. He calls the shop, hangs up and reports: 'Vandee closed.'

This time, I feel defeated once and for all. I have no patience, no jewels and I am heading home in two months. I just can't allow this to keep wrecking my trip.

That night, as I am walking down the street, I run into a couple of members of our group. Our numbers have been dwindling over the last few days. Most people have either gone home or moved on. Everybody has hit the same brick walls. The scammers and their protectors have been running this racket for 20 years. They have seen everything. All bases are covered.

Some people get some money back, but most are ping-ponged between various corrupt authorities and well-protected gem-stores until they are frustrated into submission. In the end we all leave, and the next crop of foreigners walks into the snare to be spat out into the bewildering sea of frustration until they too turn tail and run.

One of the guys I meet is Rainer, a German, who has been pursuing his case with lawyers for over a month. He has hit every obstacle. He has been followed, he has been beaten up outside the gem shop while the tourist police watched from across the street and someone broke into his room stealing his bag, his passport, his jewels, his ticket home and his credit card. He is going home bitter and defeated.
I've bought my ticket to Kathmandu. I can't let this thing ruin my trip any longer. This is just the way Thailand is. Take it or leave it.

I came here to experience and learn about new cultures. The only thing I've learnt is just how corrupt a country can be when you scratch beneath the surface. Perhaps this is a valuable life lesson, but certainly not one I expected to learn when I arrived in 'Amazing Thailand'.

The support group
The Thai Gem Scam Group was set up by scam victims Paul Gillis and Sundeet Mukherji earlier this year. In the four months since their website went online they have taken up the cases of 131 people who lost on average $2,610 (£1,690) each, and have got a partial refund for 28 of them.

Paul says: 'If you have got the gems and the shop is still open you stand a good chance of getting 70 per cent back. Otherwise you're stuffed.' The group estimates that 15,000 people per year fall for the scam.

The victims
Alexandra Standen spent 144,000 baht (£2,210) on three different diamond and sapphire sets in 2000, she reported that the tourist police did not offer any support. 'They talked about us in Thai to the men from the gem shop and laughed at us. [I've] encountered many other tourists who have been tricked in this way... some of whom have returned to the shop for a refund, and have been treated in a very threatening way.'
Paul Murphy paid out 192,000 baht (£2,950): 'The police did not care or do anything about the matter.

A member of the TAT [Tourism Authority of Thailand] staff walked out of the police station and kicked a cabinet and said that the whole place was so dirty he would have to leave.
We spoke to people whose lives were threatened, and a Japanese girl who was assaulted at the store, and nothing was done by the police.'

The response
Chris Lee, head of marketing, Tourism Authority of Thailand in London, said: "Ninety-nine per cent of the complaints we receive are from tourists who have been ripped off by gem scams. It is a serious problem and the Thai government treats it very seriously, which is why the Jewel Fest Club campaign was launched. If tourists want to buy any jewellery they should look for the Jewel Fest Club sign in jewellers which denotes that the jewels are checked for quality and means tourists can get their money back if they are not happy with their purchase. The majority of Thais are very honest and nice people, but tourists must remember to put their common sense hat on when they go shopping."