Know When You Go: 7 Tips for Buying Gemstones and Jewelry While Traveling

Summer is here and vacations are in full swing. If you’re tired of your kitschy souvenirs ending up in a shoebox, why not shop for something more lasting? A ruby, opal, or pearl, for example? Or jewelry made locally?

Buying Jewelry as “Souvenirs”

I love buying jewelry when I travel. I usually spend less than $150, so I don’t worry much about a ripoff. If the piece is priced so that I’ll be happy with it, even if I get it home and find out it’s treated or not genuine, then I buy it and enjoy it.

Just a few years ago, I bought a turquoise and coral bead necklace that snagged my eye from a store window in Chania on the island of Crete. The greenish blue turquoise worked well with the spongy-surfaced, light salmon color of the coral. The stones aren’t high quality, but because the design and colors had stopped me in the street, it was worth a closer look. At just over 100 Euros, it was about what I’d be willing to pay for it at a gem and jewelry show here. So I bought it. I wear it several times a week, it always garners compliments, and I enjoy it far more than a small plaster replica of the Parthenon.

buying gemstones: Retailers operating near the sources of certain gemstones often have a far broader and deeper inventory of those stones than you can get at home. Here, there is an immense selection of pearls waiting for visitors. Photo Jonathan Cheng, courtesy Rio Pearl, Hong Kong.

Retailers operating near the sources of certain gemstones often have a far broader and deeper inventory of those stones than you can get at home. Here, there is an immense selection of pearls waiting for visitors. Photo Jonathan Cheng, courtesy Rio Pearl, Hong Kong.

Buying Gemstones While Traveling

Fun jewelry is one thing, but when it comes to buying gemstones, things can be more complicated. A logical question is, with the immense international trade in gemstones, is buying gemstones in the country where they are produced better?

If you’re looking for a deal, you probably won’t find one, unless you really know the stones and are willing to look very, very hard—something you might not want to do during a vacation. If you’re looking for smaller, reasonably priced stones, you may be better buying gemstones like these at home.

However, if you want the experience of shopping for, bargaining for, and buying gemstones in the country where they are produced, then yes, it’s definitely worth it. I traveled to Brazil with a bunch of crazed rockhounds once, and they had a blast bargaining with street vendors for bags of rough. And the vendors—most of whom were teenagers—had just as much fun.

It can be worth buying gemstones overseas if you want a large selection of high-end stones because you want something spectacular. An Australian jeweler can show you dozens of staggeringly gorgeous black opals, while a local jeweler may only have one or two on hand. Regardless, you’ll want to prepare before you walk into the first jewelry store or gem house on your journey.

Gem & Jewelry Pocket Guide: A traveler’s guide to buying diamonds, colored gems, pearls, gold and platinum jewelry by Renee NewmanExpert Advice for Buying Gemstones and Jewelry

Reneé Newman, GG, a former tour director, wrote a great book for travelers who want to buy gemstones while traveling. The Gem & Jewelry Pocket Guide: A traveler’s guide to buying diamonds, colored gems, pearls, gold and platinum jewelry gives you the basics about buying gemstones. But it also tells you what to expect, what questions to ask—and the right answers to those questions. Reneé’s book enables you to bring home a souvenir you’ll treasure for the rest of your life. Here are some of her suggestions for buying gemstones and jewelry on trips.

1. Do your homework.

Crawl the Internet. Find out what stones are mined in the countries you’ll visit. Learn what qualities, treatments, colors, sizes, and shapes are common for those stones. Armed with that knowledge, ask those questions of a salesperson. If he or she gives you the right answers to questions you already know the answers to, the chances are good they’ll give you the right answers to the questions you don’t have the answers for.

Shop your hometown jewelers to get an idea of local prices. You’ll know if the prices quoted on your journey represent a good deal—or are simply too good to be true.

Check with customs. Find out what’s dutiable, and if there are any restrictions on the items you plan to buy. For a while, US Customs did not allow rubies from Myanmar to be imported.

2. Ask questions.

Is this a natural stone? How has it been treated? Is the treatment stable?

Most gemstones are treated in some way. Many of those treatments are acceptable (as long as disclosed) and stable, however, many others are more fragile or simply deceptive. (If you’re told the stone is natural, has a stable treatment, or is of a particular grade, have it put in writing. If the vendor is not willing to do that, reconsider making the purchase.)

  • What can you tell me about the cut?
  • What can you tell me about the color and clarity?
  • How does this stone compare with that one?
  • Why is this one more money?

The salesperson should be able to explain how cut, color, and clarity affect the price of the stone, and should be able to explain—and show you–the range of colors and clarities available for that type of gemstone.

The salespeople should also be willing and able to point out the weaknesses and strengths of the stone or jewelry you’re looking at. They should be able to explain that a diamond with a very thick girdle and a high crown looks smaller for its weight, and that while another is better cut, it will have a higher per carat price. “You’re looking for someone who can talk about the stones and can show you what they’re talking about,” says Renée Newman.

Ask if you can look at the stone through a microscope. In some countries, a loupe may be your only option, so be sure to buy your own fully corrected 10X loupe before you go on your trip and learn how to use it correctly. Using a loupe is not difficult, but not as easy as you think. Not only that, but find out what you’re looking for in terms of dangerous inclusions.

3. Always shop around.

Don’t buy something at the first place, especially if you’re looking for something specific—a jade cab of a certain size and color, a cushion-cut yellow sapphire. Ask questions, take your time, and be patient.

About recommendations: Your local tour guide or hotel, who may get kickbacks from certain shops, may not have your best interests at heart. While buying a shawls in Istanbul, I noticed my guide was quietly off to the side getting her reward in the form of a shawl herself. I may have been able to negotiate a better price on the shawls had I gone into the shop on my own.

Which brings us to the next point…

4. Ask for a better price.

Bargaining in many countries is appropriate. If you are shopping around–and say as much—before heading for the door, the price may begin to drop. Buying more than one of something can provide you some leverage, too. But be aware of the vendor, the item, and the culture, and be aware of how you ask. Brazilian street stone dealers and craft fair vendors revel in dickering over prices. However, a fellow traveler on a trip to Venice spent almost an hour fingering lace tablecloths. She finally offered an insulting low price for the cloth she’d decided on. The vendor screamed us out of the shop and down the street.

tips for buying gemstones and jewelry while traveling

Buying gemstones and jewelry on an overseas trip can be a lot of fun. You can see qualities and designs that you may not see at your local jewelry store. It’s a great opportunity to compare selections before you buy. Photo Jonathan Cheng, courtesy Rio Pearl, Hong Kong.

5. Be Sensible.

You’ll probably get what you pay for. You’re not going to find a flawless natural ruby for $20 at a street vendor’s stall. I have brooches made of pot metal that I bought at a street fair in Brazil because I loved the designs.

However, if you go into a high-end jewelry store you have a right to demand and get more guarantees of quality. (In writing, of course. And be sure you know how to return it for a refund if you get it home and find out it isn’t what you were told. Putting it on your credit card will allow you to enlist the credit card company’s help in any dispute as well.)

Buy stones produced locally. In Antwerp, buy a diamond as a souvenir of a famous diamond cutting center. Shop for Larimar, a stone mined in the Dominican Republic, while on a cruise in the Caribbean; for rubies in Thailand; and opals in Australia. (I’m waiting for a trip to Australia to buy a spectacular yellow sapphire.) You’re looking for something you can’t get at home.

6. Make your choices in awareness.

This is a personal opinion. Don’t deny yourself something you love, even if you think you could do better elsewhere or if the price is a bit high. (A bit. I’m not saying let yourself be gouged.)

I have a colorful, multi-strand, glass and plastic bead necklace I bought at an upscale hotel gift shop on a game reserve in Africa. There was no competition for miles. I knew when I bought the necklace that it was overpriced. (It was $60 and probably double what it should have been at the time.) But I knew I couldn’t get something similar at home, and had not seen anything like it on our trip. It was exactly what I wanted. So I bought it.

On the other hand, I have a very sweet, well-carved cameo that I bought from a tray of thousands in Florence. A fellow traveler tried to talk me into waiting until we got to Rome where I might get a better price. (It was $8 in a sterling frame.) I didn’t listen, I’m glad to say, because even after all these years in the jewelry industry, I’ve never seen it’s like.

7. Carry it with you.

Don’t ship it, and don’t put it in your suitcase. Keep your jewelry and gemstones in your carry-on luggage. And don’t let the nice merchant ship it for you. It may never arrive or, when it does, the stones may not be what you bought.

Do your homework, shop around, get guarantees, and be sensible when buying gemstones and jewelry on vacation. You can bring home a lasting souvenir of your trip that won’t end up in a shoebox.

For more information about buying gemstones overseas, see Reneé Newman’s book, Gem & Jewelry Pocket Guide: A traveler’s guide to buying diamonds, colored gems, pearls, gold and platinum jewelry.


Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.

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