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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Feeling the burn from hot rocks

A radiation scare hits the gem business

By Julian Gearing / Bangkok


SOME THINGS ARE JUST too good to be true. Sahabudeen Nizamudeen, an experienced gem merchant, knows this. But the Bangkok-based trader ignored his instincts -- and ended up with a consignment of dangerously radioactive stones. He is not the only victim.

In Jakarta's Gajah Mada Plaza, a jewelry store attendant pulls out two cat's-eye rings from a box. Both are health hazards. "We didn't know they were irradiated when we bought them," he says. As in Bangkok, hundreds of cat's-eye gems in a rare brown color have turned up in the Indonesian capital recently.

The way the shop assistant heard it, the stones came from a newly discovered mine in Africa. Jakarta gem expert Noni Noer scoffs at the idea. There would have been reports about a new mine before the stones appeared in the market, and she knew of none. Besides, the gems were all in the same hue -- a clear trait of having been treated. Other traders have been less suspicious, blinded perhaps by the prospect of getting a five-carat stone worth $6,000 for half the price.

Now, experts estimate that as many as 1,000 radioactive cat's-eyes may be in circulation, mostly in Asia, where they are most popular. News of the "nuked" stones has led to a spate of media reports highlighting the risk of cancer to unsuspecting consumers. Many traders insist, however, that the danger is exaggerated.

The saga began in July when Nizamudeen bought a set of 50 cat's-eyes from an Indonesian trader. Each was in a prized shade of chocolate, bisected by the characteristic light streak resembling a cat's slit pupil. The absence of flaws alerted Nizamudeen: "They were just too perfect." But he merely suspected a new type of heat treatment (stones such as rubies and sapphires are routinely "cooked" to intensify their colors -- and raise value).

To find out, Nizamudeen eventually turned to fellow trader Jeffrey Bergman, whose Gem Source company specializes in heat-treated gems. The dealers stood to make a fortune, if only they could figure out how it was done. A stone worth about $1,000 in a milky yellow color, for example, could command as much $5,000 if it is turned into a fetching golden brown.

But all conventional tests at the Bangkok Center for Gemstone Testing failed to reveal anything out of the ordinary, recalls Bergman. It was a week before anyone thought about radiation: none of the manuals suggested that chrysoberyl could be so treated. Traders apply the term cat's-eye to a range of stones showing the presence of fine, tightly packed fibers that make up the "eye." Chrysoberyl forms the most valuable variety. But with Nizamudeen's lot, nature had assistance. When testers turned on their Geiger counter, the gems sent the pointer bouncing off the dial. Says Bergman: "We all freaked out."

The center warned clients that "hot" cat's-eyes were being offered in Bangkok. Nizamudeen, who had already sold five of them, refunded his customers after informing them of the danger. That might have been the end of the story -- until a ring surfaced to destroy any idea that this might be a localized problem. Bergman had taken a Geiger counter along to the Hong Kong Jewelry Fair in September, concerned that the hot stones might have spread to other markets. Most gems tested negative. Then a visitor came by Bergman's stall with a large, 30-carat stone mounted in a man's ring. What followed prompted an international trade alert.

The ring registered radiation of 50 nanocuries per gram -- 50 times the U.S. safety limit and 25 times that for Asia. According to Banhong Wangcharoenroong of Thailand's Office of Atomic Energy for Peace, any level above two nanocuries per gram is potentially dangerous. At 50 nanocuries, he says, it could "make your skin cancerous and destroy white blood cells."

The radioactive gem scare has hurt a trade already suffering from Asia's economic slump. Though cat's-eye chrysoberyl forms a minuscule segment of the world gem market, dealers in Thailand worry that it could affect sales of other stones. Says trader Fred Mouawad: "I'm afraid people will think that gems like diamonds and rubies are radioactive too."

Irradiation has long been applied in the gem trade. Nearly 100 years ago, radioactive barium salts were already being used to turn diamonds green. These days gamma-ray tubes and linear accelerators are trained on stones such as amethyst, corundum and beryl to boost or alter their colors. Tourmaline, for example, is often converted from pale to deep pink and topaz from light to dark blue. The results usually bring a several-fold increase in profits.

Normal practice, though, has been to allow radiation to drop off to safe levels before releasing the gems. This may take a few hours, a few days or a couple of years, depending on the level of exposure. With the cat's-eyes, Bangkok gem tester Garry Du Toit believes "someone needed the money and wasn't worried about doing damage to others." The radioactive stones should have been kept in lead casing until the year 2000.

But where are the "hot" rocks coming from? Experts say the intense radioactivity suggests the cat's-eyes have been treated at a nuclear reactor. Compared to radiation from a standard gamma-ray source, "the difference is like being bombarded by ping pong balls and by steel bearings," says Thomas Moses of the Gemological Institute of America. Ken Scarratt, head of the Bangkok Center for Gemstone Testing, concurs. Sure, there are rogue traders around. More significantly, he says, signs indicate the involvement of a professional at a nuclear facility, government or private.

In Bangkok and Jakarta, accusing fingers are being pointed in both directions. Thai-based gemologists reckon the source to be in Indonesia, where many of the perilous gems have originated. Dave Deepak, deputy chairman of the Association of Indonesian Gold and Jewelry Dealers, argues the reverse is true. The hot stones have been distributed via Indonesia simply because the country is ill-equipped to deal with them, he says. There are three gem-testing laboratories in Jakarta, none of which is geared to measure radiation levels.

Still, a number of Indonesian dealers believe the gems have been zapped in their own backyard. At the government-run nuclear facility in Serpong, west of Jakarta, director Hudi Hastowo dismisses suggestions that his reactor was involved in the scam: "It is not true." The Serpong facility has been used to irradiate topaz, he says, but that was for research. And there's no way the process could have been conducted secretly by errant staff. "Our security is meticulous," Hastowo insists.

The buzz about radioactive gems has brought plenty of publicity for Scarratt's testing center, not all of it welcome. These days, the gem expert is feeling the heat from dealers worried that the media attention will scare off more customers. "Enough has been said," says a depressed Scarratt. Nonetheless, he concedes: "Any trader who receives a cat's-eye will want it checked. And it is good to tell the public because some may be in circulation."

So far, the problem has been restricted to cat's-eye chrysoberyl -- the most expensive kind. That's why whistle-blowers like Bergman believe there is no reason for panic. But attempts by officials and businessmen to gloss over the matter may prove counterproductive. The concern should be to ensure that the world knows about the danger and the gems removed from sale, Bergman argues. "If somebody turns up a year from now with cancer from wearing one of these stones, think of the damage it would cause the industry," he says. "We can't afford to keep this quiet." To do so would bring the credibility of the gem trade to rock-bottom level.

-- With reporting by Yenni Kwok / Jakarta


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