My Traffic Monitor Project

I have been learning some programming for one of my new projects in my post-doc. The project involves analyzing 16S microbiome data, and in preparation, I learned unix command line, qiime, R, and python.

I wanted to post a project that I completed using python and R. I was able to do this completely from start to finish using the skills that I just learned, and I am very proud of it!

As background, I am now living in Los Angeles, and my husband is staying in Rancho Cucamonga, in the Inland Empire. I have been driving back to Rancho every Friday afternoon/evening to spend the weekend with my husband, and driving back to LA every Sunday night. This distance is approximately 60 miles, and takes approximately 1 hour door to door without any traffic. However the traffic in LA is constant and terrible, and it always seemed to be worst on Fridays when I was trying to head home. There were days when I was stuck in traffic for almost 4 hours. So I was interested in collecting traffic data for my particular commute (LA to Rancho) and the reverse commute (Rancho to LA). Of note, I live in Westwood, near the UCLA campus, so I need to drive right through the heart of LA to get out, which makes my traffic situation particularly bad.

First, I created a python script that uses urllib to import traffic data using the Google Maps API. I proveded the latitude/longitude for the points I wanted to obtain map data from (my apartment in Westwood, and our house in Rancho) to get driving distance between these two points. My script sends a urllib request (one for the commute and one for the reverse commute), and receives a response from Google Maps. The response is a JSON file that I then parsed to get the information that I wanted, in particular duration (Google provides duration in seconds), distance (provided in meters), and a "summary" for the trip provided by Google Maps. The JSON also has turn by turn directions available, but I did not collect this, as I thought it would have been difficult to analyze. So my python script pulled those pieces of data from Google Maps, performed a couple of calculations (convert seconds to minutes, convert meters to miles), then opens a csv file on my computer and appends the output to the csv file (one line for commute, one line for reverse commute).

I then created a cron job on my macbook to automate running the python script every 30 minutes, so I would get updated traffic data appended to my csv file every 30 minutes. Cron jobs only run when my computer is on and connected to the internet, so there is a significant amount of missing data, as I don't keep my laptop on all of the time. I later made a copy of my python script to run on our windows desktop at home, which is almost always on. And I set up a Windows Task Scheduler job to run on the desktop every 30 minutes (staggered from my laptop), so if both computers are on and running, you could presumably get 4 data points per hour, 15 min apart. I had some problems with windows and mac compatibility, and ended up making two separate csv files, one that my macbook appended to, and another that the windows desktop appended to.

I let the scripts run automatically for a few weeks to collect sufficient data. Below is my very messy python script. I have a lot of junk commented out from when I was messing around with it. But this code works for me, and is my first real python project.

import urllib.request
import json
from datetime import datetime
import csv
from os import system
import os
import time

ymd = datetime.now().strftime('%Y-%m-%d')
hms = datetime.now().strftime('%H:%M:%S')
day = datetime.now().strftime('%A')

# LA to Rancho

# Google Maps API URL
LA_api_url = 'https://maps.googleapis.com/maps/api/directions/json?origin=34.060675,-118.441184&destination=34.117704,-117.548024&departure_time=now&key=AIzaSyCgefVFOWLWzW4K6BngQoQgdWELwm2SlBI' # Get JSON data from Google Maps API
LA_response = urllib.request.urlopen(LA_api_url)
LA_data = json.load(LA_response)

# Get current duration of trip
LA_duration = (LA_data['routes'][0]['legs'][0]['duration_in_traffic']['value'])
# Get distance of trip (meters)
LA_dist_m = (LA_data['routes'][0]['legs'][0]['distance']['value'])
#  Get current summary name for trip
LA_desc = (LA_data['routes'][0]['summary'])

# Perform distance calculations (convert to miles)
LA_dist = round(LA_dist_m/1609.344, 2)

# Perform Time Calculations

LA_dur_min = int(LA_duration/60) #convert seconds to minutes
LA_dur_hour = int(LA_dur_min/60) #convert minutes to decimal number of hours
LA_dur_hm = LA_dur_min % 60 #convert hours to hours and minutes




# Rancho to LA

# Google Maps API URL
R_api_url = 'https://maps.googleapis.com/maps/api/directions/json?origin=34.117704,-117.548024&destination=34.060675,-118.441184&departure_time=now&key=AIzaSyCgefVFOWLWzW4K6BngQoQgdWELwm2SlBI' # Get JSON data from Google Maps API
R_response = urllib.request.urlopen(R_api_url)
R_data = json.load(R_response)

# Get current duration of trip
R_duration = (R_data['routes'][0]['legs'][0]['duration_in_traffic']['value'])
# Get distance of trip (meters)
R_dist_m = (R_data['routes'][0]['legs'][0]['distance']['value'])
#  Get current summary name for trip
R_desc = (R_data['routes'][0]['summary'])

# Perform distance calculations (convert to miles)
R_dist = round(R_dist_m/1609.344, 2)

# Perform Time Calculations
R_dur_min = int(R_duration/60) #convert seconds to minutes
R_dur_hour = int(R_dur_min/60) #convert minutes to decimal number of hours
R_dur_hm = R_dur_min % 60 #convert hours to hours and minutes



# Output
LA = ["LA to Rancho", ymd, hms, day, LA_desc, LA_duration, LA_dur_min, LA_dist]
R = ["Rancho to LA", ymd, hms, day, R_desc, R_duration, R_dur_min, R_dist]

#print(LA)
#print(R)

#print(LA_data)
#print(LA_duration)
#print(LA_desc)
#print(R_data)



with open(r"C:\Users\Oscar\Google Drive\Michel\Programming\Exercises\PycharmProjects\Traffic monitor\Traffic_Monitor_windows.csv", "a") as traffic_monitor:
    writer=csv.writer(traffic_monitor, delimiter = ",", lineterminator = '\n')
    writer.writerow(LA)
    writer.writerow(R)
    traffic_monitor.close()

# mac/linux
# /usr/local/bin/python3 "/Users/sun.m/Google Drive/Michel/Programming/Exercises/PycharmProjects/Traffic monitor/Traffic Monitor_3_4_combined.py"

# windows desktop
# C:\Users\Oscar\AppData\Local\Programs\Python\Python36-32\python.exe
# "C:\Users\Oscar\Google Drive\Michel\Programming\Exercises\PycharmProjects\Traffic monitor\Traffic Monitor_3_4_combined_windows.py"

Once I had enough data in my two csv files, I brought the data into R. I had actually learned R before I learned Python, and I like using ggplot2 to graph in R. I haven't really tried graphing in Python yet.

So in R, I imported my two csv files and used bind_rows() to get one complete dataframe.

There was a little data wrangling, including adding column headers, making the Days of the week factors, converting dates and times, and removing rows with all NAs. I had the most trouble with date time conversions. For some reason the macbook seems to have saved the dates and times differently than the windows desktop. After all of that, I was able to start plotting.

library(tidyverse)
library(TTR)
library(lubridate)

traffic1 <- read_csv("~/Google Drive/Michel/Programming/Exercises/PycharmProjects/Traffic monitor/Traffic_monitor.csv", col_names=FALSE)
traffic2 <- read_csv("~/Google Drive/Michel/Programming/Exercises/PycharmProjects/Traffic monitor/Traffic_monitor_windows.csv", col_names=FALSE)

traffic_all <- bind_rows(traffic1, traffic2)
colnames(traffic_all) <- c("Direction", "Date", "Time", "Day", "Route_Summary", "Seconds", "Minutes", "Miles")
traffic_all$Day <- factor(traffic_all$Day, levels= c("Sunday", "Monday", "Tuesday", "Wednesday", "Thursday", "Friday", "Saturday"))
traffic_all$Route_Summary <- factor(traffic_all$Route_Summary)

# converting dates and times 
mdy <- mdy(traffic_all$Date) 
ymd <- ymd(traffic_all$Date) 
mdy[is.na(mdy)] <- ymd[is.na(mdy)] # some dates are ambiguous, here we give 
traffic_all$Date <- mdy        # mdy precedence over ymd
 
#traffic_all$Time <- hms(traffic_all$Time)

# remove NA rows
traffic_all <- drop_na(traffic_all, Minutes)

summary(traffic_all)

This first plot is just geom_point scatterplot of date vs minutes in traffic. I wanted to point out that due to the nature of the cron job collection, there are missing points (the computer was not on at all times). I did not set up the script on the windows desktop until a few weeks into the project, and the desktop actually had a period of about 2 weeks where it was not connected to the internet and did not collect data. There are a couple of weeks of missing data in the end of April/beginning of May where I was at a conference in Hawaii, and no data was collected. Unfortunately, there is a disproportonately low data collection rate for Friday afternoons, as that is when I am normally driving home, and my computer is not connected to the internet at that time. But there is enough data I think to make some conclusions. Perhaps I will revisit this again in a few months when I have more data to make sure the trends hold true.

by Date.jpeg

This next graph is traffic by day of the week. I suspected that there would be a trend for more traffic on Fridays, as I always seemed to be stuck in a lot of traffic driving home. Here, I've split up the LA to Rancho commute and the reverse Rancho to LA commute. It is clear that for LA to Rancho there is a trend towards increasing length of commute from Mon to Fri, with Friday begin the longest commute. There seems to be a very interesting difference between the LA to Rancho and Rancho to LA on Fridays in particular. As expected, traffic seems to be very low in both directions on Sunday, and higher on Saturday, but still not as high as the weekdays. I do want to note that because the cron and task scheduler jobs run overnight as well, we get a disproportionate amount of low traffic values (low limit of about 60 min) in the middle of the night.

Traffic Time by Day of Week.jpeg

This next graph is one of the most interesting. This shows traffic by time of day for the two commute directions. Rancho to LA has a busy morning commute and smaller bump in the evening commute. LA to rancho has a tiny bump in the mornign commute and Huge evening commute, which is all as expected, since typically people live in the suburbs and work in the city. This graph also clearly demonstrates that the commute in the LA to Rancho direction is longer than the reverse direction. This also shows that there is a very small window of time if you are trying to drive around LA without getting stuck in traffic, maybe between 10am and 12am. (note to self, should increase the number of tick marks on the time axis)

Traffic Time by Time of Day.jpeg

The next two graphs separate out the LA to Rancho and Rancho to LA commutes, then looks at each commute direction by day of the week. There are interesting day of the week trends to be seen here. In the LA to Rancho direction, traffic is low on Sunday, and higher on Saturday. Weekdays have highest traffic, with traffic steadily increasing from Monday to Friday, with Friday having the worst traffic of the week. I wonder why this steady increase from Monday to Friday?

Traffic by Time of Day - LA.jpeg

This is the same analysis but for the Rancho to LA commute. Again, low traffic on Sunday and Saturday, with not as great a difference betwen the two weekends as in LA. The weekend traffic is also in the afternoons, rather than early morning. The traffic on the weekdays starts around 5am. Interestingly, Friday traffic is actually lower in the Rancho to LA direction, and there is not as much difference between Monday through Thursday traffic. Perhaps on Fridays everyone is heading away from the city, and not into the city. The morning rush is worse than the afternoon rush in this direction.

Traffic by Time of Day - Rancho.jpeg

Here I present the data from the previous two graphs, but in a facet grid format! I am very proud of this facet grid. This is the first time I've found a use for a facet grid outside of a tutorial! You can clearly see the trends I discussed earlier here. I think this format shows a little better the fact that Friday traffic from LA to Rancho clearly starts a little earlier than the rest of the week.

Facet Grid - Day vs Direction.jpeg

Here is the fact grid data in a different orientation. This shows better the fact that the peak traffic in the LA to Rancho direction increases steadily from Monday to Friday. Whereas the peak weekday traffic in the Rancho to LA direction actually appears to be lowest on Friday.

Facet Grid - Direction vs Day.jpeg

Here I am plotting minutes in traffic vs miles traveled. This shows that there is really no correlation between time in traffic in miles. You are not spending more time in traffic because you are driving more miles. And Google is not rerouting you to longer distance commutes to avoid traffic. Likely because the traffic simply cannot be avoided here. Interestingly, the miles traveled is surprisingly consistent, between 60 and 65 miles no matter what route Google tells you to take.

Minutes vs Miles.jpeg

This is a facet grid of minutes vs miles, basically the same information as the previous graph. Although I like facets, this one does not provide much additional information.

Facet Grid - Minutes vs Miles.jpeg

I had parsed the "summary" data from the Google Maps JSON. This is supposed to be a one or two route summary statement of the route that Google requests you take. I thought this would be interesting to see if Google reroutes you to different highways under different traffic conditions. However, the main highway from LA to Rancho is 210, and almost all of the "summary" statements just said to go on 210. I'm honestly not sure what the difference between CA-210 and I-210 E are, but they are given different labels from the Google Maps API. Probably it would have been more informative to find out which of the smaller highways Google would have routed us on (eg 405, 101, etc). I would have to look at the way the highway routes are labeled to get more information out of this.

Route Summary - LA to Rancho.jpeg

Route summary from Rancho to LA. Again, I need to look up the difference between CA-210 and I-210 to determine what this graph is reporting. I think there is data here that could be interesting, but I don't know yet.

Route Summary - Rancho to LA.jpeg

So there's a lot more data that I'm collecting through my Traffic Monitor. I'm going to keep the cron jobs going and see if I can get more data for more time points.

Some things I was thinking of looking into - maybe see if there is a relationship between traffic time and weather (eg more traffic when it is raining). Maybe look at traffic for other cities or other locations. I'm going to try to do some other projects to practice my python and R skills while I can.

Below I have listed the R code for each of the plots that I tried. Some I may not have displayed in this post. I plotted everything using ggplot2.

Thank you very much for reading!

# by date
traffic_all %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Date, y=Minutes, col=Direction))+
    geom_point()

# by day of week - mean bar graph
traffic_all %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Day, y=Minutes, fill=Direction))+
    geom_bar(stat="summary", fun.y="mean", position="dodge")

# by day of week - points
traffic_all %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Day, y=Minutes, col=Direction))+
  geom_point(position = position_dodge(width=0.5))+
  ggtitle("Traffic Time by Day of Week")
  

# by time
traffic_all %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Time, y=Minutes, col=Direction))+
    geom_point()+
  ggtitle("Traffic Time by Time of Day")

# friday only by time 
traffic_all %>%
  group_by(Direction) %>% 
  filter(Day== "Friday") %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Time, y=Minutes, col=Direction))+
    geom_point()+
    ggtitle("Friday Commute")


# day of week by time, LA to Rancho 
traffic_all %>%
  filter(traffic_all$Direction == "LA to Rancho") %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Time, y=Minutes, col=Day))+
    scale_color_brewer(palette = "YlOrRd")+
    geom_point()+
    geom_line()+
   # geom_smooth(se=F)+
    ggtitle("Traffic by time of day - LA to Rancho")

   # scale_x_time(breaks=c(00:00:00, 06:00:00, 12:00:00, 18:00:00, 24:00:00), minor_breaks = waiver())


# day of week by time, Rancho to LA
traffic_all %>%
  filter(traffic_all$Direction == "Rancho to LA") %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Time, y=Minutes, col=Day))+
  scale_color_brewer(palette = "YlOrRd")+
  geom_point()+
  geom_line()+
 # geom_smooth(se=F)+
  ggtitle("Traffic by time of day - Rancho to LA")


# Facet Grid - Day vs Direction
traffic_all %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Time, y=Minutes, col=Day))+
  scale_color_brewer(palette = "YlOrRd")+
  geom_point()+
  geom_line()+
  facet_grid(Day~Direction)+
  ggtitle("Facet Grid - Day vs Direction")

# Facet Grid - Direction vs Day
traffic_all %>%
  ggplot(aes(x=Time, y=Minutes, col=Day))+
  scale_color_brewer(palette = "YlOrRd")+
  geom_point()+
  geom_line()+
  facet_grid(Direction~Day)+
  ggtitle("Facet Grid - Direction vs Day")+
  theme(legend.position="bottom")

# Facet Grid - Minutes vs Miles
  traffic_all %>%
    ggplot(aes(x=Minutes, y=Miles, col=Day))+
    scale_color_brewer(palette = "YlOrRd")+
    geom_point()+
    geom_line()+
    facet_grid(Day~Direction)+
  ggtitle("Facet Grid - Minutes vs Miles")

  
# Minutes vs Miles
  traffic_all %>%
    ggplot(aes(x=Minutes, y=Miles, col=Direction))+
    geom_point()+
    geom_line()+
    ggtitle("Minutes vs Miles")

  
# Route Summary - LA to Rancho
traffic_all %>%
  filter(traffic_all$Direction == "LA to Rancho") %>%
  ggplot(aes(x="", y=Minutes, fill=Route_Summary))+
  geom_bar(stat="identity")+
  coord_polar("y", start=0)+
  ggtitle("Route Summary - LA to Rancho")

  
# Route Summary - Rancho to LA
  traffic_all %>%
    filter(traffic_all$Direction == "Rancho to LA") %>%
    ggplot(aes(x="", y=Minutes, fill=Route_Summary))+
    geom_bar(stat="identity")+
    coord_polar("y", start=0)+
  ggtitle("Route Summary - Rancho to LA")
  
  
# Facet Grid - Route Summary 
  traffic_all %>%
    ggplot(aes(x="", y=Minutes, fill=Route_Summary))+
    geom_bar(stat="identity")+
    coord_polar("y", start=0)+
    facet_grid(Day~Direction)+
    ggtitle("Facet Grid - Route Summary")
  
  

Susemai Ink Comparisons and Wash Tests

I participated in the Susemai ink testing program, and it was a very good experience. I was grateful to be allowed to test Black Balled, Black Cat, Blue Cashmere, Red Cashmere, and Too Blue Cashmere. Unfortunately, I signed up to participate late, and those are all the ink colors that were left, so I was unable to compare the entire line of Susemai inks, but I enjoyed the ones that I did get (with the exception of Too Blue Cashmere.) 

 

My main goal in testing new inks is to find some ink that would make good pen and ink drawings with water washes. So typically, when I draw in my sketchbook, I will make a pen and ink sketch, followed by a wash with a waterbrush to make shadings in the sketch. I personally like the look of drawings where the original pen lines are crisp and permanent, but some color washes off to shade. I do not like inks that are so water soluble that the original pen lines are washed away. That is my personal style, so what I prefer in an ink for drawing may be different than what other people prefer. That said, I evaluated the Susemai inks that I obtained for their characteristics in an ink wash drawing. I drew an apple for each to keep it consistent. 

 

I concluded that the Susemai inks although intense and nicely colored, are too water soluble for my preference during a water wash. All of the ink lines are very easily washed away. If you are not interested in ink wash sketches, this would at least help you determine the waterproof-ability of these inks. None are particularly waterproof.  Hope this review helps people. 

The Stories Behind 100 Chinese Idioms - Review

Hello

Thanks to the Sinolingua book review giveaway, I received a copy of “The Stories Behind 100 Chinese Idioms.” I have not had time to read the entire book, but here I will post a review of my initial impressions and thoughts.

 

Format:

The book is 283 pages long, but the print is large and easy to read, and there are lots of line drawn illustrations throughout the book. The book is a small size, about the size of a small paperback novel, so it is easy to travel with. I’ve had it in my messenger bag for a while, so I could read it when I had time at school.

 

Text:

The book is completely bilingual. As advertised, you get 100 stories about 100 chinese idioms. Each story is presented in Chinese characters first, then immediately afterwards an English translation is presented. All titles and footnotes are presented in both Chinese and English. Each story is short – about a few paragraphs of Chinese characters amounting to a half page to a full page of text. This is followed by a half page to a full page of English text. Some stories have additional footnotes giving more explanation for historical people or places or concepts.

 

Illustrations:

Each story is illustrated with a very nicely done line drawing that depicts the story that is presented. I quite like looking at the illustrations.

 

Content:

The nice thing is that because each story is short and self contained, it is good for beginners/intermediates and those who prefer short bursts of reading. Since all of the text is presented in Chinese first, with an English translation after the Chinese, you are not tempted to read Pinyin, and can easily force yourself to read the Chinese characters without any English distractions. However, the English translation is readily available below should you need it. There is Pinyin under the Chapter titles, but there is no Pinyin in the main story text, which I like, because it gets rid of the possibility of “cheating” by reading pinyin that most bilingual books have.

 

Difficulty:

I think that complete beginners would have trouble with this book, because there are no vocabulary definitions and no pinyin. The vocabulary is not difficult, but you should probably have at least 6 months of Chinese study and be comfortable reading a half page of basic Chinese text. High level beginner students should be able to read these stories. The English translations are not word for word, but more there for help understanding the story. I would recommend supplementing with a dictionary for unknown words.

 

Conclusion:

The stories are interesting and historical. I don’t know a lot about Chinese idioms, which is why I chose to review this book, since I think I would learn quite a bit from reading it. I don’t know if they chose the 100 most famous, but the ones they chose are fairly interesting. It is much easier to understand and remember idioms if they come with a story, so this book would be helpful in understanding a lot of literary quotations and allusions in Chinese writing.

 

I would recommend this book to beginners and intermediate level students who are interested in learning the stories behind Chinese idioms. The information is well presented and is at a comprehensible level to a student with some prior study of Chinese characters. 

An Elementary Course in Scientific Chinese - Review

Hello

Thanks to the Sinolingua book review giveaway, I received a copy of “An Elementary Course in Scientific Chinese.” I have not had time to go through the entire book, but here I will post a review of my initial impressions and thoughts.

Background:

I live in the USA, but am of Chinese heritage. I’ve grown up around parents that speak Chinese, and I took some weekend Chinese school classes as a child. I did not continue Chinese education since then, but have decided to start learning on my own while I was in graduate school. I’ve done about 2 years of self study on and off, teaching myself to read characters, as I am comfortable listening and speaking. As for my science background, I have a BS in Chemistry, will be completing a PhD in immunology, and continuing to medical school this fall. I chose to review “An Elementary Course in Scientific Chinese” because I thought it would benefit my scientific and medical background.

I will be reviewing only the first book in the listening and speaking series. There was an MP3 included with my review book. I actually did not use the MP3 CD, as I used the book as a reading text rather than a listening exercise. There is a second volume of listening and speaking and two volumes of reading comprehension. I will refer you to lechuan’s review for further information on other books in the series.

Text:

The book is divided into 30 lessons. Each lesson begins with a short text written in chinese. I think that beginner-intermediate knowledge of Chinese characters is required to understand the texts, but they are not too difficult. The text discusses basic scientific concepts, and are designed to introduce the proper use of scientific vocabulary and grammar.

Vocabulary:

Followed by the text is a section on new vocabulary words. This section lists the Chinese characters, pinyin, and definition of each new vocab word in the order encountered in the text. The vocabulary that is introduced comes from physical science and chemistry concepts. Examples include vocab for carbon dioxide, steam, evaporation, radius, gravity, symmetry, laboratory, atom, celestial body, refraction, etc. There are also lessons on mathematics, technology, and machinery. Example of vocab in these lessons include: hydraulic press, compressor, formula, surface area, semiconductor, optical fiber, etc. There is a vocabulary index in the back of the book.

Grammar:

Each lesson has 1-2 pages of grammar notes. The grammar notes are useful but may be hard to understand if you have not had Chinese education with formal grammar training. Having a supplemental grammar book would be useful. There is a grammar index in the back of the book.

Exercises:

I have not done many of the exercises in the book, but it appears that they are mostly focus on grammar. Eg: complete the sentences with this particular type of construction, make sentences following the given example, rewrite sentences with this type of construction, choose the sentences that are correct, etc.

Thoughts:

I think the text is a good introduction if you are interested in learning to discuss concepts in the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, etc) and technological sciences. This book will not be very helpful if you are more interested in the biological sciences or medicine, as the vocabulary and practice texts are not geared toward biology.

I think it is a good series, provided you are the target audience. Most people will probably have little to know interest in learning scientific vocabulary and grammar. But for those that are interested in the physical sciences or technology, this is a very good elementary book.

Pleco vs Anki (vs Skritter) comparison: What are the best flashcard programs for studying Chinese?

What are the best flashcard programs for studying chinese? A Pleco vs Anki vs Skritter comparison

If I may expand upon my initial opinion - I've used both Anki and Pleco (and Skritter), but I have to say that I much prefer Pleco. It's so easy to make flashcards on the go from words you've looked up, or words in documents that you've saved, and Pleco's built in dictionaries allow you to switch between many Chinese-English dictionaries as well as Chinese-Chinese dictionaries if you get up to that point. And Pleco is strictly for Chinese learning, whereas Anki is more for general flashcard use, so Pleco naturally has a ton of Chinese specific functions that you won't find in Anki. It's the difference between using a tool made for Chinese vs using a tool that is made to be general. There paid add ons that allow Chinese speech for all of your cards, there is Chinese character OCR (I don't actually find it useful, but others may), there are really nice brush script type fonts, even an optional dictionary if you are interested in Chinese medicine, and a slew of other great Chinese specific tools. And I think the integration of all of the tools is excellent. You can look up words and make flashcards without ever exiting the reader for example.

 

I think that the free version of Pleco is worth downloading at least to check it out. Its available in the app store for iOS and android. The iOS version had a big update a while ago and is amazing. I think the add ons are worth purchasing, and if you want to get the flashcard module, if I'm not mistaken I think you have to purchase that. I think the free version is just the dictionary, but its been many years, so I don't quite remember, and it may have changed since I first got it.

 

Anki on the desktop is free, but if you want the iOS mobile version, last time I checked it was something like $25. I think the flashcard module in Pleco is about $15. I did not like that at least when I used it, you had to add all of the flashcards on the Anki program on the computer. And I also had some issues with syncing between devices, but that may have been ironed out. With Pleco, I do all of my flashcards on my iPhone, it is so convenient to take around and study during the short 5 min breaks you find throughout the day. You can add and change flashcards on the go, which I don't think you can do with Anki.

 

I think the only reason I would consider Anki is if you HAVE to have a desktop app to go with your mobile app. And to be honest, I think it is easier and more convenient to have all your flashcards on one device (my iPhone). I've never felt limited not having a desktop app with Pleco. I felt annoyed being forced to build my flashcard deck on the desktop in Anki, even though I tend not to study on the desktop, but rather on the go on my phone. And flashcard making is much more automated in Pleco than it is in Anki.

 

Skritter also has a computer interface as well as a mobile app. I like Skritter, and you can take a look at it as an option, but I would only recommend it if you are serious about learning to Write chinese characters. Otherwise, Pleco is in my opinion better and more complete. 

Imron's Chinese Text Analyzer Review

This is a series of posts from this thread at the Chinese Forums website. I think this is a good forum for people interested in tools and study aids to help in the study of Chinese, and I would highly recommend you join. My username is Kikosun. Here I have done a review of a new Chinese Text Analyzer, and I highly recommend you take a look at it.


Chinese Text Analyzer review:

I had the pleasure of reviewing Imron's new Chinese Text Analyzer program upon receiving  a free license courtesy of Chinese Forums. You can download the program here.

I'm an upper intermediate level self study student. I'm a heritage learner, so my spoken chinese is much better than my reading. I thought this tool would be a great asset to helping me acquire better reading skills. I planned on using it with Pleco, so this review will discuss the integration of both applications.

So I have a desktop running windows and a macbook pro running Mac OSX, and I installed the Chinese Text Analyzer on both. I used Wine to install Chinese Text Analyzer on the Mac, and there were no problems with installation. The windows installation was much easier, as the program runs natively on windows. It was fast, and I had no issues. It takes literally two button clicks to install on windows. Most of this review will be based on my experience with the program in the Windows setting.


So the first step the program recommends is for you to import a list of your known words so the text analyzer would be able to identify known and unknown words appropriately.


I use Pleco for all of my study and flashcards, so it has a complex list of all the words that I've been tested on and know. In Pleco you can define your known words however you like. I define my "known" words as words that have a score of greater than 1000 points.


So the first thing I did was figure out how to export my list of known words from Pleco into the Text Analyzer. In Pleco, I did this by going to Organize Cards, and making a New Category called "Known". I then used the search function in Organize cards to search for score >= 1000, then I batch added all the cards that came up to the Known category.


I then used the Import/Export selection, changed Export cards to "cards in categories" instead of "all cards", and selected my Known category. I exported as a text file in UTF-8, and exported words only (no definitions), as I think Text Analyzer only requires a list of words.


I think the only down side to doing it this way is that you have to do a manual search to add new cards to your Known category and manually export the known card list into Text Analyzer each time if you want to keep your known words updated. I don't know if there is an easier way of exporting your known words out of Pleco, but this way worked for me.


Anyway, I then used the File Manager in Pleco to upload the file via wifi to my computer. (I love this feature of Pleco). The exported file is just a txt file that you can then import into the Chinese Text Analyzer.


When you first install the Chinese Text Analyzer, it has a popup that says "Welcome to Chinese Text Analyzer! Before you begin you should import lists of words that you already know. Chinese Text Analyzer can read files exported by popular flashcard programs such as Pleco and Anki, or you can import words from pre-made lists of HSK vocabulary. Later on you can manually add words while you are reading Chinese content."


In this window, you can either click "Import..." or you can import words using File --> Import...


I imported my list of known words from Pleco, and it imported, but I would have liked to see a success message or something to let me know it worked ok. Rather, it just took me back to a blank screen, and I wasn't sure if anything had happened. I was able to get confirmation by going to Word Lists --> View Known and seeing a list of words there.


I then tried opening some reading practice files. By going to File --> Open, I was able to find my txt files and they open very very quickly. I was even able to shift & select an entire folder's worth of files and open them at once. Even opening 10+ files, the program was very very snappy. If you open multiple files at once, they open in individual tabs in the program which is very nice. I did try to overload the program with a bunch of longest texts I have, and it was still amazingly fast to analyze. However, I did notice that if you have more than about 7 or so tabs open, you will be unable to maneuver to the tabs on the right, since there is no way to access tabs that don't fit on the screen. I don't know how important this is, as people theoretically won't be reading 10 books at once, but I thought I would note this finding.


I am very impressed by how fast the program opens and analyzes the documents. Here are some well known novels that I've tested with their processing time in seconds  (I opened all 4 at the same time using shift & select in the file--> open box):

Journey to the West

0.14 seconds

Red Chamber

0.17 seconds

The Three Kingdoms

0.11 seconds

Water Margin

0.09 seconds

The processing time is taken from the upper left statistics window which I will describe in more depth later. It probably does vary based on your computer specs, and I have to admit my computer is pretty decked out for photo and video processing. But I imagine the program will run pretty fast on all computers, and I think the segmenting a novel in under 1 second claim is definitely true.


The default font that the program uses is ok, but not my favorite. You can go to Format --> Font, and there are a few other font options that you may like more. I'm not sure where the program gets its fonts from - if it is using pre-installed fonts on your computer, or if the program has a set of fonts that comes with it - but I went through the font options that I had, and there are quite a lot of font options that do not display Chinese characters correctly or at all (white boxes). Given that the sole purpose of this program is to display Chinese text, I think it would be really helpful if you curated the available fonts to only those that display Chinese text. I didn't go through all of the options, but in my cursory look I would say that 80-90% of the font options are not suitable for Chinese characters. Again, I'm not sure if this varies based on what fonts you have pre-installed on your computer or not.


I don't know if this is an option, but it might be nice if you could include a more brush script-y type font. I like the FZKaiTi font available as an add on in Pleco.


Now on to the statistics windows on the right side. The top window appears to have statistics for the entire document, including total number of words, total known words, percent known words, number of unique words. I noticed that the headings "Known" and "Percent Known" are used under the "Total" and "Unique" categories, and I recommend you make a clearer division between the "Total" section and the "Unique" section. Otherwise, it might look like the "Known" and "Percent Known" are duplicates, but they have different numbers.


The program also lists some character statistics and File statistics. I'm not really sure how important the File Statistics are, but I guess it doesn't hurt to have them there. I probably would never really look at it though in real usage.


One additional statistic that I think would be good to have is Number of Unknown words in a document. This way you could get an idea of how many words are left to learn for any particular text. I guess you could always calculate this yourself with number Unique minus number Known unique, but it shouldn't be hard to implement the Number of Unknown as well, which may be more helpful than the number of known words.


The bottom right window has statistics broken down for each word. For each word, it lists Frequency, % Frequency, Cumulative % Frequency, and First Occurance. I think the Frequency and % Frequency columns are the most important, especially if you want to prioritize vocabulary studying. You can very easily sort words by frequency.


I'm honestly not sure what "Cumulative % Frequency" means, and I was not able to figure it out.

I'm not sure how helpful the "First Occurrence" column is either. I haven't determined a use for it.


I did notice that if you double click anywhere in the row for a word in the bottom right window, it will automatically take you to the first occurrence of that word and will highlight all other occurrences in pink. I think an additional feature I would like to see would be a set of left right arrows so you can go to the next occurrence of the word of interest fairly easily if you are in a long document, and see each place the word is used in context. I think you can use the Edit ---> Find feature for this as well, but it would be nicely streamlined if a set of left/right arrows popped up when you double clicked a row in the word statistics window, without having a window blocking your text. Or even better, have the left and right keyboard keys move between each instance of the word.


There are three tabs on the bottom of the window to look at All words, Known words only, or Unknown words only. I have no issues with that layout. There is also a search field, which I have not used extensively. I think it only works if you type the characters. Maybe one future feature could be allowing pinyin search as well.


Now my review of the reading experience. I imported a few documents, and there were quite a few words marked in red as unknown that I already knew, perhaps I just never made Pleco cards for them. I found it very annoying to have to right click a known word and mark it as known.  I think it would be nice if there was a keyboard shortcut for marking words as known - maybe hitting the spacebar or enter key or something to make this process  easier and less intrusive on the reading experience. I just don't like having to right click and select from a text list to mark words as known, it really does take some of the flow away from reading that I think hitting a keyboard key would improve.


I'm not sure if Imron had in mind designing the Chinese Text Analyzer as just a tool to aid in picking which books/texts to read , or as a stand alone reader, or both. But I've been spending some time with it, and I find that it is very helpful in determining how appropriate a text is to your vocabulary level. This is of course assuming you update your known words list periodically which may be kind of a hassle.


However I'm not sure if I will spend most of my time doing dedicated reading on it. I have to admit that I miss having a pop up dictionary feature. I understand that Imron left this out purposefully to discourage bad habits. I'm sure over time I can get used to not having a pop up dictionary and studying the unknown words independently, but as of now I'm finding it hard to give up the crutch. I think especially in cases where not knowing a few key words in a sentence completely prevents you from understanding the meaning of the sentence. I do find it more challenging to read without a pop up dictionary, and there is somewhat of a mental block knowing that you don't have something convenient to fall back on.


One thought that I had for people who may choose to use the Chinese Text Analyzer as a dedicated reader is the fact that there is no Bookmark feature in the program. Especially for longer novel length books, it would be immensely helpful to have a bookmark feature so you don't have to find your place again if you stop reading and close the program. It may also be helpful to have an option to record notes in certain sections of the books or mark up places that you had difficulty reading and may want to go back and re-read after studying the vocabulary in that section.


Now I'll review the Export settings. I have tried the File --> Export --> To File settings. I have never tested the To Email, because I think it works through Microsoft Outlook, and I do not use Outlook.


When you go to File --> Export --> To File, a dialog box opens up with two tabs. The Document tab is first, and is sectioned into Document, Paragraph, and Word sections with "Pre" and "Post" under each section with a text box field. I actually do not know what these options do, as it was entirely unclear in the program. I think there should be a sentence or two of explanation here. I left all the fields blank, and it exported the entire document I had open with no changes. I do not know what the Pre and Post mean and what that tab is meant to do.


The second tab under Export is labeled Word List. This tab seemed much more intuitive. You can export All words, Known words, or Unknown words. I personally think that the default should be set to Unknown instead of All, as I think that is how most people will be using the program. I for one intend to use it to identify unknown words that need further study in Pleco, and I found that I very easily accidentally exported "All" words instead of "Unknown" words since All is currently the default. You can sort by Frequency, First Occurrence, or Word in ascending or descending order. I think the Frequency (Descending) as the default is appropriate for this one. You can select to export All rows, or the Top X number of rows (in case you want to just study the most frequently used 100 words in a novel for example). I think this is a very useful feature.


There are lots of fields available for export: Word, Simplified, Traditional, Simplified[Traditional], Pinyin (Tones), Pinyin (Numbers), English Definition, Sentence, Cloze Sentence, Frequency, % Frequency, Cumulative Frequency, First Occurrence. And you have the option of selecting as many fields as you want to export, so there is a lot of flexibility.


I'm not really sure what the difference between Word and Simplified is, since I exported both fields and they are the same in my test set. Perhaps it depends on what format the original document that the word came from uses. All of my texts were imported in Simplified.


Most of the other fields seem self explanatory. I'm not sure what dictionary is used, but each word has several of the most common definitions separated by "/".  My test set seemed to import fine into Microsoft Excel as a Tab delineated file. 


One very interesting part of the Chinese Text Analyzer is its ability to export Sentences where your word is found. It seems to be exporting the sentence that has the first occasion of the word. I did notice that when I exported the "Sentences" and "Cloze Sentences" fields, some of the fields exported with the previous sentence's period preceding it.  An example:

众人

。许多道[...]等,送到后山,指与路径。

Other than the leading period, it seems to parse the sentences well.  Not all of the 100 words I exported in my test set had a leading period, but the majority of them did. It may have something to do with the source document I used, so this may vary for other people, I don't know.


I also tested the export function with both the Sentences field and Cloze Sentences field exported. I am not sure why, but some of the rows imported weird into Excel. As in the Cloze sentence was cut off and put into a second row. I don't know if this has to do with tabs being in the actual text giving it problems or not.


This example was exported with the fields: Word, Simplified, Traditional, English Definition, Sentence, Cloze Sentence. You can see that the Cloze sentence got put on the second row.


/to walk/to go/to run/to move (of vehicle)/to visit/to leave/to go away/to die (euph.)/from/through/away (in compound verbs, such as 撤走)/to change (shape, form, meaning)/

楔子  张 瘟疫  洪 妖魔



楔子  张 瘟疫  洪 [...] 妖魔






This is the sentence in context of the actual text. Note that it is not an actual sentence, there are no periods (and no leading period) but it is followed by a return.

水浒传


楔子 张天师祈禳瘟疫 洪太尉误走妖魔


     纷纷五代乱离间,一旦云开复见天!草木百年新雨露,车书万里旧江山。      寻常巷陌陈罗绮,几处楼台奏管弦。天下太平无事日,莺花无限日高眠。


I think the problem occurs when there is an Enter/return at the end of the sentence that the program picks.  I haven't investigated this extensively, but I thought I would let you know there may be a slight bug with exporting of sentence fields. This of course is probably dependent on the quality of the text you are deriving the sentences from, I understand. But I think it might be worth investigating and seeing if these small issues are repeatable and can be fixed before the big release.


Overall I think the program is pretty useful and seems good. These were just some comments that I had while extensively exploring the program for a full day or so. I will try some more extensive reading using the program in the next few weeks and I'll give an update if necessary.


Thanks

Kikosun


Thanks for the comprehensive review!
 

Quote

It takes literally two button clicks to install on windows

I put in a lot of effort to make it only take two clicks! Nice to see this appreciated.
 
"I think the only down side to doing it this way is that you have to do a manual search to add new cards to your Known category and manually export the known card list into Text Analyzer each time if you want to keep your known words updated.

 
Now that you have Chinese Text Analyser set up, going forward, the alternative is to export words from Chinese Text Analyser, and then import them in to Pleco.  When you export, there is an option to automatically mark exported words as known (with the expectation that if you don't know them yet, you will after importing them to another program like Pleco) and this way the lists should stay relatively in sync.  Once every few weeks or months you could then do an export from Pleco just to catch any you had added outside of CTA.
 
 
"I imported my list of known words from Pleco, and it imported, but I would have liked to see a success message or something to let me know it worked ok. Rather, it just took me back to a blank screen, and I wasn't sure if anything had happened."
 
Added to my list of things to do.
 
 
"However, I did notice that if you have more than about 7 or so tabs open, you will be unable to maneuver to the tabs on the right, since there is no way to access tabs that don't fit on the screen."
 
Improving this is on my list of things to do.  In the meantime, you can use Ctrl-Tab and Ctrl-Shift-Tab to cycle between tabs (even those off-screen).
 
"I think it would be really helpful if you curated the available fonts to only those that display Chinese text."
 
Windows has a mechanism for doing this, however it can be a little too strict, and sometimes results in no fonts shown.  Fixing this up is on my list of things to do, but for the pre 1.0.0 releases I figured better to have too many fonts, than too little.  Remembering the last font used across sessions is also on my list of things to do.
 
 
"but it might be nice if you could include a more brush script-y type font."
 
Unfortunately, due to font licensing costs, including a nicer font is probably not really doable at this price point - at least not until there's a much higher volume of users.
 
 
"I'm not really sure how important the File Statistics are, but I guess it doesn't hurt to have them there."
 
Not really important, but possibly interesting for some people.
 
 
"I recommend you make a clearer division between the "Total" section and the "Unique" section"
 
Already on my list of things to do.
 
 
"One additional statistic that I think would be good to have is Number of Unknown words in a document."
 
Added to my list of things todo.
 
 
"I'm honestly not sure what "Cumulative % Frequency" means, and I was not able to figure it out."
 
It's similar to column 4 of the Jun Da frequency lists.  It's just the sum of all frequencies for that word and all words more frequent than it.
 
 
"I'm not sure how helpful the "First Occurrence" column is either. I haven't determined a use for it."
 
First occurrence is actually really useful for prioritising words.  For example, you can export the top 100 unknown words by frequency, and then sort them by first occurrence.  That way you can learn the most frequent words in the order that they will appear in the text you are reading.
 
"I think an additional feature I would like to see would be a set of left right arrows so you can go to the next occurrence of the word of interest fairly easily if you are in a long document, and see each place the word is used in context."
 
Double click again, and it will take you to the next instance and so on.  If you have used the Edit->Find dialog, then 'F3', 'Ctrl-G' or 'n' will take you to the next occurrence of the word without needing to have the dialog open (no shortcuts for previous words yet, that is on my list of things to do).

"there is no Bookmark feature in the program.
 
Good idea.  Added to my list of things to do.
 
 
"It may also be helpful to have an option to record notes in certain sections of the books or mark up places that you had difficulty reading and may want to go back and re-read after studying the vocabulary in that section.
 
Added as a low-priority to do item.
 
 
"Now I'll review the Export settings. I have tried the File --> Export --> To File settings. I have never tested the To Email, because I think it works through Microsoft Outlook, and I do not use Outlook."
 
The program just opens your default email application as specified by the OS.  Actually this feature is not that useful because it only works with small amounts of data, and I may end up removing it all together.
 
 
"I do not know what the Pre and Post mean and what that tab is meant to do.
 
A document has one or more paragraphs, a paragraph has one or more words.  Pre and Post allow you to add things before (Pre) or after (Post) each document, paragraph, and word during the export process.  So for example, you could set:
document pre: <html><head><title>CTA Export</title><meta charset="UTF-8"><style>.word:hover {color:red;}</style></head><body>
document post: </body></html>
paragraph pre: <p>
paragraph post: </p>
word pre: <span class="word">
word post: </span>
 
Then you'll get an html file split in to paragraphs and words, with the color changing red when you hover over a word.  Or you could just have them all empty, except have a single space for 'word post' and then you'd get a segmented file with words separated by spaces and so on.
 
 
"I think it would be nice if there was a keyboard shortcut for marking words as known"
 
Unfortunately I can't know where your eyes are looking, and I don't want the reading process to require the user to keep going next, next, next, next with arrow keys or something.  What I will probably do is make double click toggle the known/unknown status.
 
"I'm not sure if Imron had in mind designing the Chinese Text Analyzer as just a tool to aid in picking which books/texts to read , or as a stand alone reader, or both"
 
The hint is in the name: Chinese Text Analyser, not Chinese Text Reader.  I also have plans for a separate reader program, but Chinese Text Analyser can work as a basic reader.  Actually the plan has always been to develop the reader, but the reader required a segmenting engine and so I wrote that first, and thought it was useful enough to release as a standalone program in the interim.
 
 
"I have to admit that I miss having a pop up dictionary feature.
 
Popup definitions will be in the next release (0.99.3), with looked up words automatically being marked as unknown.
 
 
"but as of now I'm finding it hard to give up the crutch"
 
It might be an indication that you need to look at easier texts.  One of the design goals of CTA was to make shortcomings in your ability obvious, rather than letting you gloss over them.  The logic being that by making such things obvious, you can know what you need to focus on to improve.
 
So if there is a point of pain, then it is a possible indication of something in your learning that you need to address.  CTA will not coddle you and is meant to give you an accurate view of your real ability.
 
 
"I personally think that the default should be set to Unknown instead of All"
 
Added to my list of things to do.  Note however that currently the program will save your last choices, so once you set the list as 'Unknown' it will remember this the next time you export.
 
 
"I'm not really sure what the difference between Word and Simplified
 
Word is the actual word as it appears in the text.  If your text is all in Simplified, then Word and Simplified will be the same.  If however your text was all in Traditional, then Word and Simplified would be Traditional and Simplified respectively.
 
 
"I'm not sure what dictionary is used,"
 
Currently CEDICT, but with the possibility of supporting other dictionaries later.
 
 
"some of the fields exported with the previous sentence's period preceding it."
 
This is a bug, it should not be doing this and should stop on full-stops and/or newlines.  Can you please provide me a complete paragraph of text with the problem (or send me the source text via email), and I'll look in to it.
 
 
"You can see that the Cloze sentence got put on the second row."
 
Likewise a bug that I will look at if you send through example source text.

Thanks again for such detailed feedback. I'll try to address many of those issues in the next release. 


Thanks for responding to all my comments, Imron. 
I'm glad a lot of them have made it to your list of things to do. It seems like that list is getting really really long! 

I think I would most like to see the Bookmark feature implemented in a coming version. I'm sort of a slow reader right now, so I can only really read a few pages at a time in my short stories and such. 

 

Thanks also for explaining what the Pre and Post mean. It sounds like a pretty complicated but powerful feature. It might be nice if you had some examples of how to utilize it (like the one you gave in your post) on your website or on a help document or something. I think that this would be one of those features that gets underutilized if there isn't enough guidance on how to use it. 

 

I think your double click to mark words as known will be a good idea. I guess I'm used to keyboard shortcuts, but I see how that would be hard to implement. 

 

I'm curious what you plan to have in your future Chinese Text Reader project? Will it be significantly different from your Text Analyzer? I'm sure its probably years off, but I was just wondering. 

 

I'm emailing you separately with the complete source text that I used in my export tests. It was just a copy of Water Margin that I downloaded from somewhere. Maybe you can see if you can replicate the leading period bug and the putting the cloze sentence on the second line bug that I saw in some of the test cards. 

 

Thanks

Wedding Planning - Wedding Location and Dresses!

Hey thanks for all your comments! I know it was a lot of information I threw at you guys. 


I think I will go with Dean Sanderson, since I like him as much as the more expensive photographers. Julie- you have a really good eye. I contacted the other two you mentioned earlier (Moments that Matter and La Luna) since I also thought they looked good, but they are both fairly expensive. 


I think I am going to pick the Occidental. I haven't confirmed it yet, but they have availability on October 4, and I will try to book that. I emailed the wedding coordinator there, and they have a wedding location by a small Mayan ruin next to the ocean. I think it is a really pretty and unique setting. 


Here is a picture looking towards the small ruin



Here is a view from the other side looking towards the ocean. It is on a small cliff, so there is no real beach here though. I don't think I like the canopy, I think it looks better without. 



I guess one issue is that this location will not have shade. But I am planning on having a late afternoon wedding, maybe an hour before sunset, so it won't be direct sun. And the ceremony itself should be short, so hopefully people won't get too hot? 


Wedding dress!

I went to my first wedding dress store this weekend! I decided I like really simple dresses with a nice line. The material should be soft and flowy, and I found that I like "chiffon" the best. It seems to flow really well, and is very light. I like the dresses that are very simple, with minimal embellishment, minimal lace, etc. I like ones with a short train.I also prefer to have little cap sleeves, since I feel uncomfortable in the strapless dresses :-p 

Here are some samples of the style I like. 


http://www.maggiesottero.com/dress.aspx?style=4MC897


http://www.maggiesottero.com/dress.aspx?style=4MW791


It's so overwhelming looking at wedding dresses! It is pretty fun though. 

Depending on the style of the dress, I might wear it with a red sash around the waist, tied in the back, with the ends trailing down the back of the dress. 


You guys can feel free to help me look for similar style dresses. Nothing too elaborate or too showy though. 


In China, red is a lucky color, and wedding dresses are red, so I definitely want to incorporate some red. I haven't really thought about the invitations and bridesmaid dresses or anything yet, but I'd probably want to incorporate some red accents. Other than that I don't have anything specific in mind. I'm sure Julie will do a great job on the invitations. I'll try to make a list of people to invite, but it will probably be mostly your family and Jeremy's friends/our mutual friends. I'm expecting only my brother and parents on my side. 

Wedding planning - Riviera Maya Resorts and Attractions

Here is a list of my plans for a wedding in the Riviera Maya region of Mexico. I've narrowed down my hotel choices and listed all of the main attractions I'm interested in seeing while we are there.

Hi Janice & Julie
 

Jeremy and I are planning a wedding in the Riviera Maya region of Mexico. Hope you guys are excited!

We want to do the wedding before I go back to clinics, so we are aiming for sometime in October. I know its kind of short notice, but we should be able to do it if I can get a wedding date and venue set and a photographer booked by the end of next week, or the week after at latest. Then we will need to get invitations out as soon as possible to give people enough time to book rooms and flights. Jeremy said that Julie offered to do wedding invitations, and that would be spectacular!

So I've been looking at resorts in the Riviera Maya, and I have narrowed it down to 3 of my favorite choices. I would appreciate it if you guys could give some feedback on which you prefer. The Occidental Grand Xcaret is my first choice right now.

1. Occidental Grand Xcaret
http://www.occidentalhotels.com/resort/occidental-grand-xcaret

Pros: very close to Xcaret Park (can upgrade rooms to a package that includes unlimited access to Xcaret during your stay)
very close to Xplor Adventure Park

Good location for day trips - close to all attractions (maximum drive ~30 min)

largish hotel

40-50% off if we book within the next 35 days -  starting at ~$150 per person with promotional discount. might be able to stack discounts with group booking?

 

Cons: not on a beach (does have a man made beach on a lagoon, but does not go out to the ocean)
probably not a good snorkeling place (but can snorkel at Xcaret)

2. Now Jade
http://www.nowresorts.com/jade
http://www.amresorts.com/wedding_guides/nojrc-wedding-guide.pdf

Pros: close to Cancun Airport

close to Cancun

staff seems really well coordinated

snorkeling off shore - supposed to be close to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef

 

Cons: Farther away from some attractions (Tulum, Xel-ha, Xcaret) - not as convenient to do day trips (1hr 20 min to drive to Tulum)
30 min away from Playa Del Carmen if people want to go into the city
Location

smaller hotel, may have fewer activities

 

3. Grand Palladium
http://www.palladiumhotelgroup.com/en/riviera-maya/grand-palladium-riviera-resort-spa/

4 hotels in the same area (analogous to the Hilton we stayed at in Hawaii)
Grand Palladium Colonial
Grand Palladium Kantenah
Grand Palladium Riviera

Grand Palladium White Sand

 

Pros: Large hotel chain, has lots of activities on resort if some people prefer to stay on resort
Close to all attractions if people prefer to go off resort (maximum drive is <30 min)
Good location

Cons: Staff seems poorly organized and poorly coordinated
more expensive, starts around $225-250 per person

 

My first choice is the Occidental Grand Xcaret, since I think it combines a good location for day trips with the size of a larger hotel (not as large as Grand Palladium), but at a more reasonable price. I also like that it is so close to Xcaret, everybody that comes for the wedding would at least visit that park.

 

What are your thoughts? If there are other resorts that you are interested in, let me know as well. One other consideration that I have is whether they charge a hefty outside vendor fee for off resort wedding photographers, so some resorts may have been ruled out on that criteria.
 

 

Attractions:


I'm not sure if you can see this, but I made a google maps with points of interest flagged.
https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=znsh0TkNw2eM.k4QBQPjJQZIs&authuser=0&hl=en


 

The main attractions in the area that I picked out are:
 

Xcaret Park
http://www.xcaret.com/

~$80 ticket

Its like a theme park/cultural park built on a mayan archeological site.

Has some smaller Mayan ruins

Has some water rides, natural pools, underground river etc. Has dolphin and shark experiences for extra fee

Has mexican cultural performances, and large cultural show at night

 

Xel-ha Park
http://www.xelha.com/
~$80 ticket
natural inlet with great snorkeling (kind of like Hanauma Bay)
set of inlets, lagoons and cenotes, arising from the longest underground river in the world

Has Mayan ruins

snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming with dolphins, sharks, stingrays (some extra fee)
 

 

Xplor Park
http://www.xplor.travel/

~$100 ticket

ziplines, rafts, amphibious vehicles, underground river swim

more of an active, exciting park. probably not for parents

 

Tulum

I think its national park with minimal admission fee, ~$35 per group if you want a guided tour
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g150813-d153186-Reviews-Mayan_Ruins_of_Tulum-Tulum_Yucatan_Peninsula.html

walled Mayan city on a bluff facing the ocean

supposed to be a really great archeological site, one of the best preserved coastal Mayan sites (but much smaller than Chichen Itza)

beach by the ruins

 

Playa del Carmen

Popular tourist city

has a ferry to Cozumel Island

beautiful beaches
shopping district

nightlife

 

Akumal beach

small town

endangered sea turtle beach

coral reefs in protected bay, can go snorkeling, glass bottomed boat rides, etc

 

Chichen Itza
http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/world-heritage/chichen-itza/

One of the largest Mayan cities. The most visited archaeological site in Mexico

A national park, admission fee minimal ~$20, more for guided tours with transportation

densely clustered architecture in various states of preservation, also showing different styles of Mayan architecture

2-3 hr driving time from the coast 

 

I think the main attractions I am interested in seeing are Xcaret, Xel-ha, Tulum, and maybe a visit to Playa del Carmen. I would like to see Chichen Itza while I'm there, but since it is up to 3 hr away, it might not be feasible.

 

 

Transportation:

Collectivos
http://www.travelyucatan.com/collectivo.php

white vans that go up and down the coast and stop at all the main attractions along the way. run every 10-15 min. minimal fees, cheapest way to travel
 

Taxis

ask for fare prices before you get in

 

Conclusion:

This is mostly what I've done my research on. I contacted the 3 resorts above for availability in October, and should be hearing back from them shortly. I would appreciate if you have any strong opinions on those resorts, or if you have been doing your own research, you can let me know of more leads.
 

For the attractions lists, I was thinking of making a brochure with the wedding itinerary and short blurbs about all of the other attractions people may be interested in doing while they are there. I was thinking it would be nice if I had a daily plan on the back - like Jeremy and I will be going to Xel-ha on Friday to snorkel, Tulum on Sunday, etc - and let people know they are welcome to come with us if they want, or can stay on resort or do independent sightseeing things. Do you think that would be a good idea? I want guests to feel like they can come explore with us if they want, but not feel obliged to do everything I want to do.

 

Photographer:

I am looking at this guy for the wedding photographer
http://deansandersonweddings.com/

What do you think about his style? I would like to hire him for the wedding as well as do an underwater trash the dress with him. He's not cheap, but he's not the most expensive quote I've received either. I'm also leaning towards him b/c his email communication is pretty quick and reliable, and he seems on top of things.
 

Other photographer options:
http://www.bestdestinationwedding.com/reviews/c/70-photographer-reviews/

Long list of photographer reviews, doesnt really help b/c they are all rave 5 star reviews. I've contacted some, and they are way out of our budget (eg Moments that Matter, Del Sol). If you have time to look through some photographers, and if one really stands out to you, please let me know. I'm trying to find people that will do an underwater trash the dress in particular. I really really want to do that.


 

You guys are not obligated to do any research if you don't want to. But if you like planning vacations and wedding stuff, it would help me if you gave some feedback if you had the time, but don't feel obligated at all!
 

I think getting the venue and photographer booked will be a big step. Then I guess the next step is picking a wedding dress? I'll send you pictures and ideas if you want to be included!


 

Thanks

Engagement Ring buying advice and recommendations

This is my advice for someone looking to buy an engagement ring. I've done a lot of research into it, and listed what I thought are the most helpful links. This is an actual email that I sent to a friend who asked for some information.

Hi ----

I was thinking about your engagement ring for ----, so I wanted to send
you some helpful information.

The best forum that we have found for diamond and engagement ring
information is www.pricescope.com
People are really knowledgable there, and willing to help. So if you
wanted to, you could make an account and post your budget, desired
ring style, etc and people will help you get a good ring that fits in
your budget.

There is also a lot of good information there. This link is to the
Diamond Guide
http://www.pricescope.com/wiki/diamonds

They also have an engagement ring tutorial so you can get familiar
with the different styles of rings, important terminology, etc
http://www.pricescope.com/wiki/engagement-rings/engagement-rings-tutorial

I would recommend doing a little research on those forums. I think
that a 10k budget is a lot, you can get a really great ring in that
range. You may even end up spending less. Jeremy originally set a 10k
budget as well, but since we decided to go with sapphires, we are
anticipating spending about 5k for the engagement ring (stone &
setting). Diamond are more expensive, but I think you can get a really
nice diamond and setting in that budget.

I would recommend starting with a 1ct diamond, round brilliant cut.
You can go up in carat size if you feel comfortable, cut I think a 1
ct is a nice place to start. Do not look at colored diamonds or "fancy
diamonds". You cannot afford it. You should also stay above I think
the G color grade, b/c below that the diamonds start looking a little
yellow. I would check this though, bc I'm not completely sure, and the
cutoff may be different based on personal preference.

I would recommend you get the setting in platinum instead of white
gold. Platinum is more durable, and will not wear as much as white
gold. Platinum will need to be occasionally polished, but what I dont
like about white gold is that it is actually a yellow gold core that
is rhodium plated so it looks white. I don't like the idea of plated
things, and people on the forums say that the rhodium plate will wear
off as early as 6 months for some people, and the ring will show
yellowish color underneath. The rhodium plating may last for a few
years for some people with less wear on their rings. Platinum will
cost more than white gold. I would budget about 2k for a nice platinum
solitaire setting, so that leaves about 8k for the stone, which is
definitely reasonable. I do not recommend yellow gold unless you know
that is what she wants. Yellow gold has fallen out of favor, and is
not "trendy".

For ideas of ring styles, I would look at bluenile.com ,
whiteflash.com , goodoldgold.com
They have a large selection of rings, so you can look and see if there
are certain styles that would be best. I would focus on the solitaire
settings, because it is a really classic style. I'm not sure what -----
means by "vintage," if she actually wants an antique ring or something
1920s style or whatever. I would go with a solitaire if you are not
sure.

Do not buy from Tiffany & Co. Do not buy from Etsy. Tiffany is way
overpriced, and Etsy quality is questionable and often overpriced. Do
not buy from Zales or Jareds or any other mall store. Overpriced and
poor quality.

I'm not sure if there are any custom diamond cutters like there are
for colored stones. I was just thinking that the supply chain is so
tightly regulated, and diamonds are so expensive, that I doubt there
are any cutters that buy diamonds to recut. You might find a diamond
cutter if you look around, but I doubt it. However, all diamonds come
with a certification that describes how well it is cut. Cut is
actually pretty important of the 4C's, bc a lot of the brilliance and
scintillation of a diamond depends on the cut.

There are some really good custom ring makers, if you want to go the
custom route. Brian Gavin (www.briangavindiamonds.com) was one that I
was looking at for a while. Another good ring maker is Leon Mege
(www.leonmege.com). Mark Morrell (http://www.mwmjewelry.com) also does
really great custom rings and has a really great style.

If you want to order a custom ring, it will be a little more
expensive, and you will have to wait around 6 weeks for the product.
Usually the process goes like this - you contact the ring maker with a
specific idea of what you want made. They will clarify with you the
details of the ring, then make a CAD rendering of the ring and email
it to you. You can indicate changes that you want from the initial CAD
rendering, and it can go back and forth like this for a few drafts
until you are satisfied. The ring maker will then create a custom ring
mold to cast the ring in, then set the diamond in it, and you are
done.

If you want to go the custom ring route, I would make sure you know
exactly what you want. I would save some pictures of ring styles
online that you want to incorporate elements of, or draw some
preliminary sketches to show the ring maker.

I hope this is helpful. I would do a little research on pricescope.com
first, then look at some engagement ring prices and styles on the
different websites I suggested. If you feel that there is no ring
style currently in production that you think ----- would like, or you
really want to give her a one of a kind unique ring, then I would
contact some of the custom ring makers. But make sure you have an idea
of what you want before you contact them, which is why I suggest
looking at sites with a nice wide selection of rings as a preliminary
step.


When you buy the ring, make sure you get it appraised and insured. You can get insurance through an additional rider on your homeowner's insurance. Or you can get a separate jewelry insurance, which may offer more coverage. Either way you will need an independent appraisal. This is important in case of theft or loss, since it is such a big purchase.


Ok, I hope that information is helpful and not too overwhelming. If I
think of anything else, I'll send it to you later.

The Origins of Wedding Rings And Why They’re Worn On The 4th Finger Of The Left Hand

Today I found out the history and symbolism behind the tradition of wearing a wedding ring and why, in most western cultures, it’s worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, otherwise known as the ring finger.

Wedding rings today are a billion dollar sentiment of love, but no  one can really say for sure when this age old tradition actually started. Some believe that the oldest recorded exchange of wedding rings comes from ancient Egypt, about 4800 years ago. Sedges, rushes and reeds, growing alongside the well-known papyrus were twisted and braided into rings for fingers an other decorative ornaments worn by the women in those days.

The circle was the symbol of eternity, with no beginning or end, not only to the Egyptians, but many other ancient cultures. The hole in the center of the ring also had significance. It wasn’t just considered a space, but rather a gateway, or door; leading to things and events both known and unknown. To give a woman a ring signifies never-ending and immortal love.

The materials these rings were made of didn’t last very long and soon were substituted with rings made of leather, bone or ivory. The more expensive the material, the more love shown to the receiver; the value of the ring also  demonstrated the wealth of the giver.

The Roman’s also eventually adopted this tradition but with their own twist. Rather than offering a ring to a woman as a symbol of love, they awarded them as a symbol of ownership. Roman men would “claim” their woman with the giving of a ring. Roman betrothal rings were later made of iron and called “Anulus Pronubus.” They symbolized strength and permanence. It is also said that the Romans were the first to engrave their rings.

It was not until about 860 that the Christians used the ring in marriage ceremonies; even then, it was not the simple plain band as we know it. It usually was highly decorated with engraved doves, lyres, or two linked hands. The Church discouraged such rings as ‘heathenish’ and, around the 13th century, wedding and betrothal rings were considerably simplified, and given a more spiritual look which was very aptly expressed by a Bishop when he dubbed it a “symbol of the union of hearts.”

Wedding rings through different stages in history have been worn on different fingers, including the thumb, and on both the left and right hands. According to  a tradition believed to have been derived from the Romans, the wedding ring is worn on the left hand ring finger because there was thought to be a vein in the finger, referred to as the ‘Vena Amoris’ or the ‘Vein of Love’ said to be directly connected to the heart. However, scientists have shown this is actually false. Despite this, this  myth still remains regarded by many (hopeless romantics) as the number one reason rings are worn on the fourth finger.

Another theory thought to be behind the ring being placed on the left hand by Christians seems a little more plausible. Early Christian marriages had a ritual to wear the wedding ring in the third finger. As the priest recited during the binding ,”In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, he would take the ring and touch the thumb, the index finger, and the middle finger; then, while uttering “Amen”, he would place the ring on the ring finger, which sealed the marriage.

A more practically based theory is that the soft metal (traditionally gold for wedding rings) is less worn or injured on the finger of the left hand, due to most of the world being right handed.  Further, the fourth finger on the left hand is probably the second to the least used finger on a person’s hands outside of pinkies.  Pinkies being small, making a small ring with little surface area to decorate, perhaps motivated people to then place it on the next least used finger, namely the fourth finger on the left hand, which is roughly the size of the other fingers.

Bonus Facts:

  • The earliest and smallest engagement ring was given to Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII. She was two years old at the time.  Presumably the ring was given to her by Pedobear.
  • Seventeen tons of gold are made into wedding rings each year in the United States!
  • Back in the 1300’s, when people were particularly superstitious, it was believed that taking a piece of the bride’s clothing would grant the guests good luck. This lead to many guests that would literally tear cloth from the bride’s dress (which made for a very peeved bride!). So, in an attempt to stave off greedy luck-seekers, many brides began to throw items to guests that could be easily removed from her and that included her garter. Eventually, grooms began to remove the garter and tossed it to the men as a means to prevent tipsy male guests from trying to do the deed themselves. In an effort to help the women feel included, it eventually became customary for the bride to throw her bouquet at the female guests.
  • There are dozens of good-luck, bad-luck traditions followed by different cultures around the world. In Greek culture, a sugar cube is tucked into the bride’s glove to “sweeten” the marriage. For good luck, Egyptian women pinch the bride on her wedding day. The English believe a spider found in a wedding dress means good luck.Peas are thrown at Czech newlyweds instead of rice. Ancient Greeks and Romans thought the veil protected the bride from evil spirits. Brides have worn veils ever since. The groom carries the bride across the threshold to bravely protect her from evil spirits lurking below.
  • The first recorded account of a diamond engagement ring was in 1477 when King Maximilian I of Germany (1459-1519) proposed to Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482) and offered her a diamond to seal his vow. (So, men you now know who to blame!)
  • Interestingly, in many countries, even today, including Norway, Russia, Greece, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Poland, Austria, Germany,Portugal and Spain, the wedding ring in worn on the ring finger of the right hand and not the left. In Jewish tradition, the groom places the ring on the bride’s index finger, and not the “ring” finger at all.

Are diamonds really rare? Myths and misconceptions about diamonds

Are diamonds really rare? Myths and misconceptions about diamonds

Diamonds are our most popular gemstone. That hasn’t always been the case. It was only in the the last century that diamonds became regularly available. Prior to that, rubies and sapphires were the most popular gems, especially for engagement rings.

The popularity of diamonds is due primarily to the DeBeers organization. They set up the first large scale diamond mines in South Africa. Then they began one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history, convincing consumers that engagement rings should have a diamond.

With proper encouragement, the movie industry displayed their most glamorous women, draped in diamonds. They soon became a top status symbol for the rich and famous. This peaked with the Marilyn Monroe movie, Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend.

Even after winning the consumers admiration, DeBeers continued their advertising. With the discovery of diamonds in the Soviet Union, a new campaign was created to sell anniversary bands. These made good use of the small, but nice quality diamonds the Soviet Union produced.

While they have done wonderful things for the diamond industry, not everything about DeBeers is nice. As diamonds were discovered in other parts of Africa and South America, DeBeers managed to get control of the rough diamond supply. The tactics used to gain control of these rough diamond supplies are alleged to include murder and kidnapping.

DeBeers maintained monopolistic control of the diamond market for several decades. They carefully released only enough rough for current demand, while continually adjusting the degree to which the rough was made available. This caused continually escalating prices, and of course, it increased the perception of rarity. DeBeers actually mined considerably more rough diamonds than they sold and they have a large warehouse of uncut diamonds in London. As a result, they were not allowed to do business in the US, Canada, and a few other countries.

In the last couple decades of the 20th century, things began to change. Satellite technology, that was designed to find likely oil reserves, also showed the geology likely to hold diamonds. As a result, new discoveries began to multiply. Australia was one of the first developed nations to discover major diamond resources. DeBeers was able to make a deal with them do distribute all the rough, except for the very rare pink diamonds.

They also made a deal with the Soviet Union to distribute their rough diamonds. However, shortly after the break up, the Russians let their contract expire and began to sell the diamonds themselves.

The latest major diamond reserve was found in Canada. DeBeers could not make a deal with the Canadians, who are cutting and selling the stones themselves.

It is difficult to tell what the future will hold. Several sites are being explored and it is likely more diamond deposits will be found in the near future. DeBeers still controls approximately 75% to 80% of the diamond rough. The other suppliers have so far been content to sell at the same prices as DeBeers. However, if the law of supply and demand ever catches up to the diamond market, prices are likely to drop considerably. It is difficult to tell how this would play out, but DeBeers has a large inventory of uncut diamonds and would be in an excellent position for a price war.

Myths and Misconceptions

Here are some popular myths that you need to be aware of.

MYTH: Diamonds are rare.

Diamonds are the hardest material found on earth. Other than that, they hold no unique distinctions. All gem grade materials are rare, composing just a tiny fraction of the earth. However, among gems, diamonds are actually the most common. If you doubt this ask yourself; “How many women do you know that do not own at least one diamond?” Now ask the same question about other gems.

While we are still learning about the interior of the earth, current information shows that diamonds are likely the most common gem in nature. (See “Gem Formation” in our Reference Library.)

Outside the earth, diamonds are also common. A recent discover shows that some stars collapse on themselves, creating giant diamond crystals. In the constellation Centaurus, there lies a white dwarf, that has crystallized into a diamond 2,500 miles in diameter and weighing 10 billion, trillion, trillion carats.

MYTH: Diamonds are the most valuable gem.

You cannot say that one species of gem is the most valuable. To do a comparison, you need to judge gems according to size and quality. This chart is based on top quality gems in different sizes. However, note that pure red rubies are so rare there is no trade data available. The prices listed are for Burmese rubies.

Species            ½ carat        1 carat       >1 carats
Diamond        $4,300/ct    $13,600/ct    $44,500/ct
Ruby              $5,050/ct    $9,500/ct     $100,00/ct
Emerald         $5,470/ct    $9,030/ct     $23,000/ct
Sapphire      $10,000/ct    $16,000/ct    $34,000/ct
Alexandrite    $3,600/ct    $15,000/ct    $1,000,000/ct

As you can see, diamonds are very costly, but not the most expensive gem in any size. If you were to do a comparison of other qualities, the results would be similar. If you are looking to “invest in gems” you should read our article on the inner workings of the gem trade.

MYTH: Diamonds are precious.

Precious means valuable. In the 18th century a French jeweler began describing gems as either precious or semiprecious. The categories are still used in merchandising, but are frowned upon by professionals as they are nearly meaningless distinctions.

For example, garnets are considered semiprecious, but tsavorite garnets have sold for as much as $10,000 per carat. That seems pretty “precious” to me!

On the other hand, diamonds are only very valuable in their better grades and medium to large sizes. Small, low quality diamonds are available in quantity for just $1 a piece. A quick search of eBay and you will find several diamonds under $20. These are far from precious.

MYTH: Diamonds are the most brilliant gemstone.

Brilliance is determined by the cutting and the refractive index of the material. Diamonds have a very high refractive index of 2.41. Diamonds have the potential, if properly cut, to be exceptionally brilliant. However, this is nothing compared to the 2.9 RI of rutile. Not counting synthetics, there are at least 15 minerals with a higher refractive index than diamond!

MYTH: A person can make a lot of money selling diamonds.

As the Internet has continued to proliferate and GIA has established well accepted grading standards for diamonds, margins on cut diamonds have continued to be thin.

MYTH: Diamonds have more “fire” than any other gemstone.

Diamonds are know for their fire, or dispersion. This is the ability to separate white light into the color of the rainbow. Diamond has a dispersion of .044, which is quite high. However, it is a far cry from gems like rutile with a dispersion of .330!

What is a Diamond?

Diamonds are a natural mineral and they are also produced in the laboratory. Lab made diamonds are primarily used as abrasives, but they are beginning to make their way into the jewelry industry. (See “Understanding Gem Synthetics” and “Identification of Synthetic Diamonds” in our Reference Library.)

Gemologically speaking, diamonds are a mineral with a chemical composition of C, (carbon,) that crystallize in the isometric system. (See “How Gems Are Classified” in our Reference Library.)

With a hardness of 10, diamonds are the hardest substance in nature. Harder substances have been created in the laboratory, but they are extremely brittle and have no practical use. If a harder substance is ever found that does not break down so quickly, it will greatly reduce the time need to cut diamonds.

Diamonds have a refractive index of 2.41, which is very high. Being as they form in the isometric system, they do not have any birefringence or pleochroism. They have a specific gravity of 3.51 to 3.53, which is a bit more than average.

Exploring Colored Stones for Engagement Rings

Exploring Colored Stones for Engagement Rings

Jeremy and I are engaged. I've written before about what I think of the diamond industry, and the fact that De Beers has been brainwashing the entire country into believing that

  • Diamonds = Love
  • Diamonds = Committment
  • Diamonds = Forever

I like to think for myself, and I don't buy into the mass thinking that in order to get engaged, you get a diamond. Diamonds aren't even as pretty as other gemstones. Contrary to what De Beers wants you to think they aren't even Rare! Sapphires, Emeralds, and Rubies are all much rarer than diamonds. Whats more, these colored gemstones have a beauty and presence that diamonds can't match.

Emeralds are too soft and fragile to be worn as every day rings, so that takes them out of the running for engagement ring gems that are meant to last a lifetime.

But sapphires and rubies (both in the corundum family) are the second hardest gem (after diamonds). Diamonds are a 10 on the MOHs hardness scale, while sapphires and rubies are a 9. The MOHs scale is not linear, however. And its only based on the definition of hardness as the ability to scratch a softer material, which while helpful, is not the only factor in determining durability. The Mohs scale is a purely ordinal scale, so the differences between each number is not linear or logarithmic. For example, diamond (10) is 4x as hard as corundum (rubies and sapphires, 9), while corundum (9) is 2x as hard as topaz (8). So basically, the Mohs scale can be taken as scale of relative hardness.

Either way, corundum (sapphires and rubies) are hard enough for everyday wear as an engagement ring. They may be somewhat less hard than diamonds, but even diamonds can be chipped and worn down. It is surprisingly not uncommon for people to chip diamonds on the girdle, so getting a diamond does not guarantee that it is "forever."

Due to some excellent advertising, diamonds are believed to be the rarest of gemstones. But if you think about it, all of the women you know probably own at least one diamond. Diamonds are actually not very rare at all, in fact, among gemstones, diamonds are actually the most common.

The mineral corundum is fairly common, but gem quality corundum (sapphires and rubies) is quite rare, consisting of only 1% of all mineral corundum found. The most common is blue sapphire. Many people are not familiar, but sapphires can come in almost every color, including green, yellow, purple, pink, orange, etc. The red colored ones are called rubies. The pinkish orange sapphires are known as padparasha, and are highly prized, as they are only mined in one mine in Sri Lanka, and are very rare.

It may be surprising that blue sapphires are more expensive than say green or yellow sapphires, since green or yellow are more rare. But as with everything, it is not rarity that drives pricing, but demand. The highest demand is for deep blue sapphires, so these are the most prized and most expensive.

Rubies are the red variety of corundum, and are much rarer than the blue ones. Rich reds are the most prized, and a large clear red ruby will fetch a very high price.

My Engagement Ring

Personally, I like colored stones a lot better than diamonds. Colored stones are also typically cheaper than diamonds (but a high quality colored gem will still cost $1-2000 per carat). And getting a colored stone means you avoid being a shill for the diamond industry.

I am a proponent of getting what you like, not what society thinks you should get. If you like diamonds, then get diamonds. But if you like sapphires or rubies, or even topaz or something else, get that instead. You'll save a little bit of money so you can upgrade your setting or save for your future life together.

I will be getting a Sri Lankan blue sapphire that is unheated and untreated. It will be custom cut by the lapidarist Jeff White. I will be updating this blog with pictures of the stone in progress as well as the final result when it is finished. I am planning on setting the sapphire in a platinum solitaire setting. I like the Vatche Royal Crown setting. It is a 6-prong trellis style, which seems very elegant.

The Vatche Royal Crown setting I am considering. Picture this setting with a blue sapphire.&nbsp;

The Vatche Royal Crown setting I am considering. Picture this setting with a blue sapphire. 

This picture shows the 6 crossed prongs in the trellis setting nicely.&nbsp;

This picture shows the 6 crossed prongs in the trellis setting nicely. 

Do you have any opinions on sapphires vs diamonds? Which would you choose? And do you have any thoughts on designing my engagement ring?

Colored Gemstones!

Colored Gemstones

The following post is a very helpful reference for purchasing colored stones. The full thread can be found at the pricescope colored stones forum.


First of all welcome to our technicolour world! :wavey:

If you've never bought coloured gemstones before, you're in for a real ride and I'm hoping that this thread may help you on your quest for your "special" one! One thing it's important to know .......... this part of PS is frequented by gemstone lovers from vendors to collectors to enthusiasts to newbies! At the end of the day, we all have opinions/likes/dislikes but ultimately you must buy what you LOVE, not what others tell you to buy! Also, don't chase the "gemstone of the month"! Typically there are trends on this board, Mahenge Spinel for a few months, followed by Spessartite Garnets, then onto Sapphires etc., but running with the pack can be boring. Don't buy because something is flavour of the month - buy because you'll wear and love it!

Believe it or not, jewellers in your neighbourhood (with some exceptions of course) very rarely have the specialised knowledge that you'll find on this forum. If a jeweller hasn't run tests on a gem and says "that's an X stone" then my advice is to take that with a pinch of salt. In order to verify what a stone is you normally have to run a battery of tests - some can be done by jewellers such as testing the RI (Refractive Index) of a stone - sometimes can be done with mounted stones but not always - but some tests really have to be conducted by a laboratory. You wouldn't let somebody tell you you had a blood disease without a blood test would you? It's the same thing!

Why is it different from buying diamonds?

If you buy diamonds - forget everything you've learned! Buying coloured gemstones is a whole different ball game. For example, when you buy diamonds, you can evaluate performance (or get a good idea) by looking at statistics, depth, girdle, table etc and by looking at scans. You can't buy coloured gemstones purely on numbers. In fact, you've already got the tools you need - YOUR EYES! Generally speaking, coloured gemstones are valued by colour first - clarity is not such an issue (more about this later)

Colour/Cut

So, colour is king! Generally speaking the more vivid a gem appears, the more valuable it is. You will see words like "tone", "hue" and "saturation" used. A table below shows what these mean and I find this visual representation good because it's something I can remember! The table below shows the colour blue but the same is true for other colours! Interestingly, a pure stoplight red is one of the most valuable colours for a gemstone and is very rare. Finding a pure red stone is probably the most difficult search! However, you may prefer lighter tones or less saturated gemstones. If you do that's fine and lucky you because actually that means you'll be paying less! Every cloud has a silver lining!

There's a bit more about this on this link you may find interesting - it's quite basic so not to traumatic to read.

Cut:

Another word you may see when discussing colour or performance is "extinction". Extinction is basically when a gemstone has lots of "black" areas - when you move the gemstone around some parts will remain black and NOTHING you do will make that change. If a gemstone has been cut so that it has extinction, it'll always have extinction! See the photo below and here's a link that discusses it in great, easily to understand, detail.

Extinction in a gemstone. Note the areas of blackness.&nbsp;

Extinction in a gemstone. Note the areas of blackness. 

So what's a "window"? Well a window is when a gemstone has been cut (typically) very shallow. What you'll see is a part in the centre of the gemstone that appears to lighten or even lose all of its colour. In effect it's a window and you can see through it! Why's that bad? Well, it means the colour is not being reflected back to your eye so it's negatively impacting on the performance of the gemstone. Small windows can be disguised by using a setting that has a more enclosed basket under the gemstone (in effect it acts as a mirror that helps to reflect the light back to you). But be aware that not all settings will do this and not all windows will close. An example of gemstones with windows is in the photo below.

Windowing in a gemstone. Note the very pale area in the middle of the gem that you can "see through"

Windowing in a gemstone. Note the very pale area in the middle of the gem that you can "see through"

Often I see somebody say "should I buy this and then have it recut"? My advise is always not to unless you (a) really know what you're doing or (b) have been in touch with a cutter who has evaluated the stone and thinks a recut may be possible. This is a skill in itself and not for the faint hearted. If you do recut a stone, please be aware that it may dramatically alter the stones appearance and it may not be for the best! Also bear in mind, some of the most valuable gemstones on earth have been cut to preserve weight and so may be windowed but don't be put off buying them because you could be missing out on a real bargain!

Should I buy a "precision" cut gemstone or a "native" cut one and what's the difference? Well, this is a personal preference. Precision cut gemstones are exactly what they say on the tin and they will be cut to maximise performance. If you will only settle for perfection then this is the route for you! However, precision cut gemstones are a smaller portion of what's available on the market. The majority of coloured gemstones are not cut to precision. You will sometimes see these termed as "native" cut stones. This terminology can sound derogatory but think of it as meaning "not precision". There are native cut stones and then native cut stones! Some are cut so wonkily that you'll need to balance on one leg and tilt you head to one side with one eye closed to make the gemstone look straight! Clearly the value in such a gem will be less than one that is more pleasing to the eye. There are a large number of collectors who don't mind buying native cut stones because there are some quite beautiful ones. The most important thing is that you buy what YOU love and what appeals to you. Precision cut or native cut it doesn't matter!

Inclusions

Inclusions can be a good thing (believe it or not)! They can sometimes verify that you've got a natural gemstone and not a synthetic or lab created gem. However, there's a difference between a few inclusions and then inclusions that take over the whole stone and affect the overall beauty! "silk" is a really good example of this. Some gemstones have rutile type inclusions that make the gem look silky or hazy. It can, in some gems, make them glow incredibly! In other cases it can make a gem look murky and in need of a good clean! Unfortunately, you can't clean out internal inclusions so don't make the mistake of buying and thinking a good rub with a cloth will sort it out - it won't! Inclusions can be fascinating or they can be incredibly annoying. Again, judge what's acceptable to you.

Very few gemstones are flawless. In fact, gemstones are often listed as "types". Some gemstones are type 1, some type 2 etc. The type refers to whether they are naturally included or not. This website has a list of gemstones and what category they fall into. It's important you read this so you know what's "typical" for your chosen gem.

Durability

Surprisingly, not all gemstones are suitable for every day wear. The only ones that are considered durable enough are diamond, ruby, sapphire, alexandrite, chyrsoberyl and spinel. Most others, for one reason or another, are more prone to damage by frequent wear. Durability is not just about hardness but it's about the chemical make up of the gemstone i.e. the cleavage. If you knock some gemstones in the right place, you can split them completely in half - a bonus is you'll have a pair of earrings but it may be an expensive accident.

Make sure you research the gemstone you love. If it's lower down the MOHS scale then it's less durable and more prone to scratching, chipping and pitting. Generally, don't get gemstones near water, don't do the gardening in them, think before you change a tyre on your car and know how to clean them properly! However, if you know how to take care of your chosen gemstone then don't be frightened to buy what you like. There are many examples of people who have worn Emeralds (a softer, more brittle stone than a sapphire) for years without a problem and then others who have one for 6 months and have damaged it beyond repair.

Carat weight/Size

Is weight important? Well carat weight can certainly be important. For most gemstones, over 1ct is good. For rare gemstones such as Paraiba Tourmaline, Alexandrite, natural Rubies etc., the size of the gemstone can be phenomenally important. In more easily obtainable gemstones it's a nice to have!

Now then, we come to THE most important thing for you to know about when buying coloured gemstones! TREATMENTS!

Treatments

If you buy a Rolls Royce you expect a Rolls Royce don't you? You'd be really fed up if you found that you'd bought a Skoda in a Rolls Royce wrapping wouldn't you AND you'd paid Rolls Royce prices? Well, that's why treatments are important for you to understand. Again, this is personal. Some will accept only natural gemstones, others will accept some but not all treatments, others just don't care and want a sparkly gemstone! Who's right? Everybody! It's a personal thing again! You need to do your own research because treatments affect buying prices and values of gemstones so it's probably the key thing to deciding if you've paid a fair price.

I can't cover all treatments here but here's a few and you can always do internet searches for more information if you want to research in more detail. BE AWARE, NOT ALL TREATMENTS ARE DISCLOSED! YOU MUST ASK AND THEN VERIFY WITH A LAB REPORT IF YOU'RE BUYING AN EXPENSIVE GEMSTONE:-

Natural and untreated - gemstones are mined, cut and sold exactly as nature intended them to be! They are exactly as it says on the tin - natural. They are usually the most expensive type of gemstone and most difficult to find. Some gemstones are never or very rarely treated and so this is expected. Research your chosen gemstone to see if yours is one that is normally left alone!

Heated - Some gemstones are heated in the Earth naturally and it affects their colour, changing them from one colour to another. For example, Tanzanite is naturally a brown muddy looking gem but some, heated by the earth, comes out of the ground in a beautiful blue or purple, green or orange etc. Some gemstones are heated routinely and this is accepted. So, for example, if Tanzanite comes out of the ground brown, it's heated by man and becomes a gorgeous blue. 90% of all Tanzanite is heated in this way so it doesn't affect the price. Other gemstones like Ruby for example, is heated to improve appearance by lightening and making inclusions less visible. A heated gemstone (with the exception of gems that are nearly always heated) will be expensive but not as expensive as a natural untreated gemstone.

Oiling - Most commonly you see this term used when discussing Emeralds. Oiling goes back to Egyptian times and it's a way of infusing inclusions in Emeralds ("jardin") with an oil to make them less visible and the gem more beautiful. There are different types of oils and if you buy an Emerald in particular it's useful to know what oil or treatment has been applied because oil can dry out and make need to be re-done.

Now we come onto those treatments that are a bit more contraversial!

Fracture filling/Dyeing - Some gemstones have their inclusions filled. This treatment is not necessarily stable and putting a gemstone into a sonic cleaner can cause the gemstone to spit out the treatment leaving you with a very very ugly gemstone. Rubies and sapphires are often filled with glass, lead, and are even sometimes dyed. Is this acceptable? Well, again it's personal preference. This does affect the value/worth of the gem and therefore if you buy a gem that's been treated in this way, please make sure that you're not paying too much.

Irradiation - Some gemstones are irradiated to improve/change colour or appearance. For some it affects value (for example a coloured diamond) for others it doesn't i.e. some tourmalines are irradiated. Leaving aside coloured diamonds for a minute, in some cases this treatment isn't detectable but it is stable.

Beryllium or Lattice Diffusion - Years ago, it was discovered that adding an element into the heating process with the gemstones could actually change the colour of the gem to make it far more pleasing to look at. When this process first hit the market it only covered the surface of the gemstone so if you chipped the stone, you would see a different colour underneath! Technology has moved on and now diffusion goes right through the gemstone so even if it were to be cut, you'd see the same colour throughout. Is this a natural gemstone? Well, yes but it's a natural gemstone that has been artificially changed by man so that it's more acceptable. Typically these stones don't have much value but can look very beautiful. If you're looking for a cheap sapphire (for example) then some of the loveliest most affordable colours are diffused. Please be aware that these will not be heirloom pieces and so you shouldn't pay much for these.

Coatings - Gemstones like Topaz are commonly coated. You can find some diamonds that have been coated also. The problem with coatings are that if you scratch the gem, the coating will come off. It's not too much of a problem if you've bought an inexpensive topaz but imagine if you've bought a pink diamond thinking it's natural, scratch it and then off comes the colour!? Not good.

Verifying what you've bought

Unfortunately there are quite a few gem sellers who will not disclose treatments and this means that you could buy a gemstone for a high price when it's actually worth less. This forum has a section that has vendors commonly used by frequent posters on this board and they're named on there because they are honest sellers (some of whom frequent this board) so if you're really worried then look at what they have to offer before venturing into the world of sharks that is Ebay!

For coloured gemstones, lab reports are valuable because they will verify that you have (a) bought the gemstone you thought you were buying and not a synthetic (b) the size (c) sometimes colour will be graded (d) location if it can be proved and if you've asked for that to be included. What a lab report won't do is put a value on your gemstone. Generally speaking if you're in the US, AGL is the lab to go to for coloured gemstones. In Europe it's either Gubelin, GRS or AIGS.

So, do some research but remember, buy what you like and what's right for you might not be right for the next person but will be loved by others! Happy gemstone buying!

I'm sure I've missed some key points so follow posters, please jump in and add info!

The De Beers Diamond Cartel

The Diamond Cartel

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History

De Beers is a private cartel of companies that dominates the entire diamond supply from mining to manufacturing to shops. De Beers was founded in 1888 by Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman. In its heyday, De Beers was active and dominant in every category of diamond mining and manufacture. They utilized open pit, underground, large scale alluvial, coastal, and deep sea mining in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Canada. The company had essentially a global monopoly on the diamond industry for many decades. This lead to many allegations of price fixing and antitrust behavior that were undoubtedly true.

Cecil Rhodes got swept up in the diamond rush of 1871 in South Africa, and began buying up land claims of small mining operators. With additional British funding support, he was able to eventually become the sold owner of all diamond mining operations in South Africa.

In 1889, Rhodes negotiated with the London Diamond Syndicate, who agreed to purchase fixed amounts of diamonds at an agreed upon price. This strategic plan regulated diamond output and maintained diamond prices in London. By controlling all supply, De Beers maintained complete control of diamond prices, and could maintain them at an artificially high price level. Cecil Rhodes died in 1902, when De Beers controlled 90% of the world's diamond production.

Also in 1902, the Cullinan Mine was discovered in South Africa. This new large diamond source threatened to weaken the De Beers monopoly. The new Cullian Mine was able to produce as many diamonds as all of the De Beers mines combined, and also yielded the largest diamond ever discovered (the Cullinan Diamond, now part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom).

Ernest Oppenheimer, a major force in the Cullinan Mine venture, took over chairmanship of De Beers in 1927, finally absorbing the Cullinan Mine into the De Beers fold. Oppenheimer understood the core principle of controlling the supply chain that precipitated De Beer's success, and continued running the diamond cartel with that principle in mind.

"Common sense tells us that the only way to increase the value of diamonds is to make them scarce, that is to reduce production." - Ernest Oppenheimer, 1910

Monopoly

De Beers has been using its dominant position to manipulate the international diamond market throughout the 20th century. The company has been able to successfully pressure independent producers to join its diamond monopoly. When producers refuse to join the cartel, De Beers would simply flood their local market with diamonds to drive down the price of competitor diamonds to an unsustainable level, forcing the competitor to join or go bankrupt.

De Beers additionally will purchase diamonds from other manufacturers and stockpile them in further efforts to control supply.

Changes in Business Model

After decades of control, the De Beers monopoly has begun to weaken. New diamond mines were discovered in Russia, Canada, and Australia, and these producers have decided together to distribute their diamonds outside of the De Beers cartel.

Additionally, increasing public awareness of "blood diamonds" has forced De Beers to change their business tactics to avoid bad publicity. The De Beers monopoly that was over 90% up until the 1980s has fallen to around 50% as of 2012.

The De Beers Family

The De Beers Family of Companies is involved in most parts of the diamond value chain. Companies are as follows:

  • De Beers Canada – mining

  • De Beers Consolidated Mines – mining

  • De Beers Diamond Jewellers – retail

  • Debswana – mining

  • Diamdel – trading

  • Diamond Trading Company – trading

  • Diamond Trading Company Botswana – trading

  • Diamond Trading Company South Africa – trading

  • Element Six – Advanced Materials / industrial diamonds

  • Forevermark – retail

  • Namdeb – mining

  • Namibia Diamond Trading Company – trading

De Beers is involved in every step of the supply chain from mining to trading to the retail sale of diamonds and diamond jewelry.

Advertising

De Beers has over the last century been highly successful in manipulating consumer demand for diamonds. Its most effective marketing strategy has been the marketing of diamonds as a symbol of love and commitment.

A copywriter coined the famous line "A diamond is forever" in 1947, which has been named the Best Advertising Slogan of the 20th Century. The ad campaign is regarded as one of the most successful in history and changed the general public’s perception of diamonds. No longer were diamonds seen as a gem reserved only for Royalty and the highest of society, they came to represent love, affection and faithfulness.

The Diamond solitaire is now pretty much synonymous with engagement rings&nbsp;

The Diamond solitaire is now pretty much synonymous with engagement rings 

The "A diamond is forever" campaign greatly increased consumer demand for diamond engagement rings, especially large diamond solitaires. The prevailing fashion at the time was a single large diamond. However, De Beers had recently acquired mines in Russia that produced smaller diamonds less than 0.25 carats.

Faced with the problem that large diamonds were selling, but smaller diamonds were doing comparatively poorer, De Beers came up with other advertising campaigns designed to sell more diamonds, in particular the small "accent diamond." They began marketing the "eternity ring" in the 1960s. This is thin precious metal band with a continuous line of similar sized small diamonds along the circumference. The Eternity ring was marketed as symbolizing never ending love.

 
An Eternity Ring, with a continuous line of small diamonds

An Eternity Ring, with a continuous line of small diamonds

A Trilogy Ring, with a large diamond flanked by two medium sized diamonds&nbsp;

A Trilogy Ring, with a large diamond flanked by two medium sized diamonds 

Another ring style popularized by De Beers, the "Trilogy Ring," consists of one large diamond flanked by two smaller diamonds, meant to represent the past, present, and future of a relationship. De Beers also introduced the idea of the "Right Hand Ring," bought and worn by women as a symbol of independence. All of these advertising campaigns had a single goal - sell more diamonds.

The De Beers advertising campaigns over the last century have been overwhelmingly successful at altering public opinions of diamonds. De Beers is the only reasons diamonds are associated so strongly with engagement rings, love, and marriage.

Traditionally, plain gold bands were used for the symbol of a wedding union. But this all changed after the DeBeers "A Diamond is Forever" campaign. Now it is expected that men propose with a Diamond engagement ring, and anything different is highly uncustomary. Diamond engagement rings are not only glamorous they have a very special meaning attached to them, they symbolise commitment and the next chapter in a couple’s life, which combined with their beauty is why they are so desirable.

‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,’ a phrase and song made famous by the 1949 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in which Marilyn Monroe first performed the song, shows how deeply ingrained the idea behind diamonds has become in society. De Beers was not involved in the song, but I'm sure they were thrilled that the glamorous Marilyn Monroe was helping them promote diamonds.

Diamonds had attained a life of their own. They do not need De Beers marketing anymore because it was originally so successful, diamonds have become a societal norm. People unconsciously associate diamonds with love, women expect diamonds as engagement gifts, men are expected to buy diamonds. Diamonds have become so deeply ingrained, that the diamond is now self sustaining in our culture.

Although the De Beers monopoly has broken up, the company still retains 50% control of the diamond supply, and the De Beers legacy lives on.

Please feel free to leave comments or thoughts you have on the De Beers Diamond cartel. Does it make you want to look for diamond alternatives? My next post will be on sapphires and other gemstone alternatives for engagement rings!

Bonus Facts

  • Cecil Rhodes was the founder of the south African territory of Rhodesia, which was named after him in 1895. He was an ardent believer of British colonialism.
  • Rhodes University in South Africa is also named after Cecil Rhodes
  • The Rhodes Scholarship, a prestigious international postgraduate award for selected foreign students to study at the University of Oxford, was set up and funded by his estate

Interesting Article on Lab Synthesized Diamonds

This is a good article discussing Lab grown diamonds. It's a little dated, but still pretty good.


The ability to grow true gem-grade diamonds in a lab has been a long standing goal of science and industry, and one that has been achieved on a limited basis over the past five years.

Unfortunately most media publications are usually designed to sell articles, and thus often do not provide consumers with a true picture of the commercial reality and availability of lab-grown diamonds. Further, many sellers of diamond simulants (stones that look similar to diamond, but are not real diamond) exploit this knowledge gap as a way to deceptively sell their simulants as ''lab-grown diamonds''. As the president of a company that has been involved with both lab-grown diamonds and diamond simulants for over seven years, and having seen the confusion many of these less than factual articles have caused, I wanted to help provide customers with an industry insider assessment of what is and is not commercially available, and help educate those who are indeed looking to purchase a true lab-grown diamond. Thus, we begin a short tour of myth vs. reality in the lab-grown diamond market (circa 2007).

First and foremost, lab-grown diamonds (real diamond, but not mined) are in fact available for jewelry purchase, but on a limited basis. The significant catch though is this - when most people think of a diamond, they automatically think of white diamonds. As of October, 2007, no one is currently able to offer white (colorless) lab grown diamonds for sale on any type of production basis. Regardless of what various reporters write, the reality is only fancy color diamonds (predominantly yellow, and to a much lesser degree, pink and blue) are available.

The reason for that gap between what consumers want (white lab-grown diamonds) and what labs can deliver (mostly yellow lab-grown diamonds), is due to both commercial value and natural barriers. Lets discuss the natural barrier first - yellow diamonds are yellow because they incorporate nitrogen into their crystal structure. White diamonds are white (or clear) because they have much less nitrogen in their crystal structure. When growing diamonds, however, nitrogen is a catalyst - it significantly speeds up diamond growth, and in addition reduces defects. Thus, you can grow a 1ct (finished) yellow in roughly one week, versus growing the same size white (by restricting nitrogen) can take you 4-6 weeks (using BARS method, the default method currently). In other words, nitrogen can help you grow up to 6x as much yellow diamond as white in the same amount of production time. That''s a tough natural barrier.

The commercial barrier, is that yellow natural diamonds are worth much more than white natural diamonds. In nature, there are roughly 10,000 whites for every fancy yellow. Thus, fancy yellows command a much higher price per carat. Lab grown diamonds typically sell at a discount but are still pegged to their natural counterparts, and since yellow diamonds are worth more than whites, the absolute selling price for lab grown yellows is higher than what the market will pay for lab grown whites.

Now, if you combine the fact that labs can grow yellows much more quickly and easily than whites, and that yellow diamonds (lab grown and natural) further command higher prices than whites, you can see you have a severe dis-incentive to produce white diamonds with the current technology. White diamonds can and have been produced by labs (we have some sample photos on our website) but they are not price competitive with natural white diamonds at this time. Hence, a very big reason for why there are currently no white diamonds available for commercial sale.

These fundamental reasons are typically not explained in most published articles about lab grown diamonds, and many articles typically leave the reader with the exact opposite impression, that white lab grown diamonds are plentiful and cheap (remember the $5/ct quote from Wired magazine?). Various unethical simulant (CZ) makers have utilized this confusion to deceptively advertise their imitation diamonds as being "flawless man-made diamonds", "perfect lab-grown diamonds", etc. all for the low price of $100/ct. And based on emails we''ve received from customers, people have been tricked into buying plain CZ, after being told it was a ''lab grown white diamond'' and having seen articles discussing the advent of lab-grown diamonds being available.

There are two easy ways to avoid being suckered into unethical advertising like that. First of all, the price. To cut a 1ct finished diamond, you need between 2-3 carats of rough diamond to start. Cutters charge by the carat for their cutting work, and $100-$150/ct is a common rate. That means even if the diamond material were free, a seller would still have to charge at least $200-$450/ct just to break even on the cutting cost. And obviously, the lab grown material is not free and the seller would like to make a profit instead of break even, so if you see a seller selling ''cultured diamonds'' or ''man-made diamonds'' for less than several hundred dollars per carat, you can be assured it is not real lab grown diamond, regardless of what claims they make. Currently, lab-grown yellow diamonds are selling for around $4,000/ct. And remember, yellows are produced up to 6x faster than whites, so you are unlikely to see lab grown white diamonds selling for much less than that in the future unless someone figures out a much faster way to grow diamond.

The second way to protect yourself, for lab-grown diamonds of any size (i.e. .30ct and higher), is to only buy a lab-grown diamond that comes with a certificate from an independent lab. Just like natural diamonds, virtually all major gem labs now offer grading reports for lab grown diamonds (including, as of this year, the GIA). They are basically the same reports as they issue for natural diamonds, but with the origin listed as "lab-grown". If there is no certificate with a ''man-made diamond'' of any real size (i.e. .30ct or larger), and the seller declines to provide one when asked, then you can also be pretty sure its a simulant being called a lab-grown diamond.

Checking for the price and the grading certificate can ensure you are dealing with an ethical seller of lab-grown diamonds. We''ve seen many a customers whose hopes were dashed after we explained that the $150 pair of ''man-made diamond'' earrings they bought were in fact nothing more than deceptively advertised CZ. Don''t fall into that trap.

Another common myth about lab-grown diamonds is that all lab grown diamonds are ''perfect'' or flawless. As noted, the current default technology for growing diamonds (BARS method) is simply replicating the high-pressure and high-temperature present under the earth, and doing it above ground (sometimes with additional catalyst to lower the necessary temperature/pressure required). And just as diamonds from under the earth have flaws, diamonds grown above the earth also have flaws. It is a more correct analogy to think of growing diamonds (using current technology) as diamond-farming, rather than diamond manufacturing. Just like farming, you plant a seed, and try to optimize the growth conditions, but you no more get a perfect diamond than a farmer always gets a perfect tomato. In fact, sometimes after a week is up, the chamber is opened and no diamond has grown at all...so it is no where near the ''push a button, out pops a perfect diamond'' that many people think. Similarly, labs cannot customize how the diamond grows to be a specified shape (i.e. pear or emerald cut) - you get what you get, and cut to optimize the yield of each crystal.

That being said, it is true that most lab grown diamonds (especially yellow diamonds) are slightly harder than their equivalent natural diamonds. In yellows, this is due to the nitrogen being more perfectly dispersed, and Carbon-Nitrogen bonds are slightly stronger than Carbon-Carbon bonds. This is also one way labs with Raman equipment can detect man-made versus natural yellows - in yellow naturals, nitrogen is clumped, versus it is quite evenly dispersed in lab-grown yellow diamonds.

The next myth - lab grown diamonds can always be produced, so their prices will continue to drop vs. a natural diamonds will keep going up. Currently, gem grade, lab-grown diamonds are in fact substantially rarer than natural diamonds if you compare yearly production. While white diamonds are being mined in tens of millions of carats per year, lab grown whites are virtually non-existent except for research samples, and yellow lab grown diamond production is measured in thousands of carats. And because growing lab diamonds is still hard, prices for lab grown diamonds have slowly gone up, not down because there is only so much production available even as demand has increased due to public awareness.

One more reality about lab grown diamonds - size. Currently, most diamond growth chambers are unable to grow larger than 3ct piece of rough (sometimes 4ct) and thus, after cutting, most lab grown diamonds are 1.5ct or smaller (frequently smaller after accounting for flaws being cut out). The reason for this is that in order to grow a diamond using the standard HPHT (high pressure, high temperature) technology, you have to place an area under extremely high pressure and temperature. The larger the area you are trying to maintain these extreme conditions, the harder it gets..exponentially harder, in fact, because the pressure at the center is magnified due to leverage. The parts applying the pressure themselves have a limited lifespan, as they will eventually crack and fail, and require constant replacement. Thus, most labs have not tried to go beyond the 3ct size growth chamber as it does get exponentially harder to maintain the same pressure for a larger area, and that is one reason why no one is offering 6ct finished yellow diamonds for sale.

With the reality check done, we''ll end this article on a positive note - even with all the problems, costs and issues that still hamper lab-grown diamond production, colored lab-grown diamonds do offer people the ability to own and wear extremely high-end, fancy color, real diamonds at a fraction of the natural price. We''ll emphasize that these are still real diamonds - chemically, optically, physically, and of course will pass any test for being diamond (since it is diamond, the place where it was grown is the difference). Most lab grown colored diamonds are vivid in color, meaning they are among the most valuable color grades as compared to natural colored diamonds. For example, one of the first lab-grown diamonds we ever sold was graded a ''fancy vivid orangy yellow'', and was initially appraised as a natural diamond, valued at $65,000 by a major lab (we had informed them we were submitting a lab grown diamond btw). We then received a very panicked call the next day from the same lab, who after running a Raman analysis on it realized it was a man-made and not natural diamond (due to the nitrogen being so perfectly dispersed). We sold that same diamond for $3500. Similarly, most of our pink lab-grown diamonds also grade fancy vivid pink, and if they were mined instead of lab-grown, could sell for as high as $150,000/carat...we sell them for around $5,000/ct, but unfortunately due to low supply (production difficulties) are sold out most of the year. Nevertheless, the lucky few customers who do buy a lab-grown pink have a lot of fun walking into their neighborhood jewelry store and seeing the jaws drop. It is also usually the first time their jeweler has seen a real lab-grown diamond in person, again due to the relative rarity of true lab-grown diamonds. They are very beautiful and leave most natural fancy color diamonds (who are normally less intensively colored) looking pretty bland by comparison.

Technology continues to improve, and hopefully over the next few years, there will be additional breakthroughs in lab grown diamond technology. One of the most promising areas is growing diamonds by mimicking how they (theoretically) grow in outer space. This is by using ultra-low pressure, plasma and high temperature, often called plasma vapor deposition. Because it does not require the high pressure, chamber sizes are much larger and in theory, much larger pieces of diamond can be grown. Conditions are more controllable as well, due to the diamond growing by in a more nano-technology like environment (carbon-rich gas is shredded at the molecular level, and the carbon atoms then reassemble on the diamond seed below). The trade off is the machines to do this often run between $500,000-$800,000 each, and a host of additional problems not present in high pressure growth regimes come into play in this new growth environment..but hopefully in the future these will offer a new method for growing lab-grown diamonds.

Now that you are armed with industry insider knowledge, you''ll be able to readily avoid the scams that so many unethical diamond simulant sellers use by playing on the publics (and even the medias) ignorance of the realities of man-made diamonds. Hopefully, you''ll also realize that the constant claims that DeBeer''s or other forces are to blame for the lack of lab-grown white diamonds are not true (there are in fact real natural and commercial barriers to it). Finally, you''ll hopefully have an appreciation for the hard work and effort that many scientists have put into turning the former dream of lab grown diamonds into reality on your finger, even if it still has many constraints as to what types, sizes and colors of lab-grown diamonds are available.

Less P. Wright is the president of http://BetterThanDiamond.com an industry leader in white diamond simulants using lab-grown, amorphous diamond coatings, and its subsidiary, http://TakaraDiamonds.com the first to offer true lab grown diamonds to the public via the web. He is a recipient of the Gemological Institute of America''s diamond certificate.

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Less_Wright