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Is Blue Topaz Illegal?

The Kay Jewelers store on West 34th Street in New York carries blue sapphire, tanzanite, and aquamarine. What you won’t find in this store, however, is a single blue topaz. And you won’t find any blue topaz in any of the other 1,332 Sterling Jewelers stores across the country either.

That’s because the nation’s largest specialty jewelry retailer recalled blue topaz from all of its stores in June 2007.

The action was in response to a May 24 certified letter that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent to major jewelry retailers across the country, including Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney, alerting them to the fact that the NRC requires irradiation facilities and importers of neutron-irradiated topaz to be licensed. The letter, signed by Robert O’Connell, also asked retailers to send the NRC a list of their topaz suppliers and to inform the NRC whether the blue topaz they carried was treated by electrons or neutrons. They were given 30 days to respond.

According to NRC regulations, neutron-irradiated blue topaz can only be imported and sold into this market by someone who is licensed to do so by the NRC. The holder of this “Exempt Distribution License” can sell the material freely to retailers or consumers. No additional license or control is required for possession or sale after the initial import or release in the U.S. The catch is that there currently aren’t any exempt distribution license holders. Therefore most blue topaz on the market has not been imported in compliance with government regulations.

“When we learned that our suppliers were not in compliance, we investigated the regulations,” says Sterling Jewelers marketing director David Bouffard. “In June, when we realized that our suppliers were going to require more time to come into compliance, we removed all irradiated gemstones from our stores.”

The reaction of retailers, manufacturers, and industry associations to the NRC letter has varied. Most are still trying to determine what the NRC’s new aggressive stance means for sales of blue topaz jewelry in the U.S. J.C. Penney has also stopped selling blue topaz in response to the letter.

At the Zales Jewelers store next to Kay’s on West 34th Street, blue topaz jewelry is still available. “We are aware of this issue but to my knowledge we did not get a letter,” says David Sternblitz, Zale Corporation vice president. “It’s premature to lay out our response. We’ve joined the Jewelers Vigilance Committee task force on the issue. We do have a vendor code of conduct that requires our vendors to comply with the law but my understanding is that there are no health issues so I think we should wait to meet with the NRC to understand the issue better.”

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