The blind jewelry designer: ‘Scam’ or ‘buyers’ remorse’? | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022


The lab is modest—a workbench, really—tucked into the home office of a sparsely furnished Ortigas condo. High-tech equipment and gemstones adorn its surface.

The sole concession to opulence in the room is a massive red leather chair. “My throne,” Ana Cristina Zuluaga calls it.

Her husband Daniel Bautista maneuvers the small space easily. He handles the equipment, tools in a gemologist’s trade, and ostensibly demonstrates why he believes a Presidium gem tester’s assessments shouldn’t be enough to “destroy” a business—their business.

“This should only be the starting point of an investigation as to what a gemstone is,” says Bautista. “It’s not precise.”

The tester has been a tool in a controversy centered on the pair.

A community of homegrown jewelers and jewelry aficionados had exposed on Instagram in the first week of March what the couple’s clients have largely considered an egregious scam.

Zuluaga and Bautista are being accused of allegedly defrauding clients of money with misrepresented jewelry on their online shop, The Collection, or The Blind Designer. They have since rebranded as The Collection of Rogues (@the_collection_of_rogues).

They established the business in 2020 after Bautista found himself jobless because of the pandemic, according to a BusinessWorld feature that has been taken down from the site.

Laundry list

Zuluaga professes to suffer from a laundry list of ailments. Among them are Behcet’s disease and Stargardt disease, which render her more or less legally blind, ergo the moniker.

Regardless, she still managed to dabble in jewelry design abroad for years, according to the same BusinessWorld story. Bautista, on the one hand, is something of a self-taught gemologist.

The Collection offered seemingly artfully crafted pieces, with the duo attesting to gem and metal caliber, original concepts and ethically sourced materials.

But from late February to early March, a number of their clients approached Vera Juan (@verametals), a smith, for aid in verifying the legitimacy of their purchases.

Juan is a fixture in the local Instagram jewelry scene. A third-generation smith, she’s been in the practice for four years.


On March 1, she streamed the first in a series of three Instagram Lives, where she tested pieces from The Collection sent to her by suspicious clients.

The pieces in question for this debut were a pair of earrings set with candy apple red partschinites and Yves Klein-blue sapphires. Juan tested them with a Presidium.


“It’s glass,” was her verdict. The earrings had sold for P25,000.

The buyer, Carey Valenzuela, said she had already heard that Zuluaga and Bautista were allegedly peddling fakes even before her orders arrived. She also bought a cocktail ring for P35,000. But in the chaos, the couple had neglected to send it to her, promising instead a reimbursement. Other clients who had similarly solicited refunds (19, by Bautista’s estimate) were understandably uneasy.

Then, a Facebook account under the name of Zuluaga’s daughter had marked the woman’s passing two days before. Condolences came pouring in. At the time, there had been no way of knowing if the reports of her death were true. The Collection’s Instagram had been deleted, as had Zuluaga’s personal account (@theblinddesigner). The Collection’s Facebook account has been silent since March 1.

Undeterred, Valenzuela, with other clients, decided to head straight to the couple’s condo.

‘Talk to my lawyer’

Among them, Lance Chua was adamant in receiving his refund in person. He bought a pair of sapphire earrings (P14,000). It failed an analysis by his regular jeweler. Valenzuela recounts, “When he (Bautista) saw us, he said, ‘Talk to my lawyer,’ and walked away.” Bautista says he did not want to engage with them as they were “demanding an instant refund.”

It was at the condo that the group found out from an administrator and security guard that Zuluaga was not dead. A Facebook post from Zuluaga the next day confirmed it.

However, one of the couple’s clients says she was told Zuluaga had died, through a text from the same number Zuluaga had used to do business with her just the day before.

She reached out to Bautista to offer condolences. “Since he didn’t outright deny it … I assumed that she was dead and he knew,” she says.

The client is both a doctor and jewelry designer. She got her own tester and subjected her purchases to scrutiny. They did not pass muster.

They had been hacked, the couple told Lifestyle, hence the silence. The Facebook account announcing Zuluaga’s death was not her daughter’s. They maintain having no knowledge of who was behind the hacking, nor of who had sent the doctor the message. Zuluaga says she had been advised not to use the number again.

As for the doctor’s condolences: “I didn’t know what they were talking about. I thought it was her (Zuluaga’s) illness or something,” Bautista says.

‘Negligence of buyer’

On March 14, The Collection’s Instagram was revived. The account was set to private. The couple had deleted several posts and addressed what they called a “smear campaign” against them.

“The buyer has the burden of exercising due diligence. The seller cannot be made liable for such failure and negligence of the buyer,” their statement reads.

In any case, the couple expressed a willingness to offer refunds to those who would return their pieces, among other remedies.

Also revived was Zuluaga’s own Instagram, where she made a big announcement: They were moving back to Europe and would be accepting last calls for custom orders until May 19. “We’re not running away,” she said.

Meanwhile, Juan’s last stream tells another tale. On her docket was a four-piece set, all with Paraiba tourmalines, the most expensive kind.

The Collection’s Paraiba set (P35,000) was advertised as doublets, two stones of different composition pieced together to create cheaper or more handsome articles.

Juan’s assessment reveals the Paraibas registered as glass. The base stones they were attached to were quartzes.

Unlike The Collection’s other clients who are laboring to get back their money, the client for this set had not only gotten a refund; she’d been sent her orders.

The narrative surrounding Zuluaga had made it easy to “solidify” the couple’s expertise in this client’s eyes. Seeing the 2021 features by BusinessWorld and Manila Bulletin (also taken down) only cemented it further.

“When you see those things, ’di ba, that would help convince you?”

Dead ringers

Chua had likewise learned about The Collection through the articles. “I wouldn’t have bought from them if wala ’yung articles na ’yun,” he says.

After digging, the Paraiba client says dead ringers for her orders could be seen on AliExpress and Etsy for fractions of what she paid. The Paraiba set was being sold for less than P10,000, a pair of hoops she also bought for P18,000 a measly P400.

For those who doubt her evaluations, Juan says: “You can just go to any jeweler who has [a gem tester].”

Valenzuela had gone ahead, in fact, and sought confirmation from a pawnshop.

Juan says, “Wala akong nakukuha from this. I just want to protect jewelry buyers and all the legit sellers.”

And it’s not just her. The woman behind the Just Like That Gem (@justlikethatgem) Instagram, or Gem for short, is not a jeweler by trade but an enthusiast. What mostly occupies Gem’s Instagram are photos of The Collection’s work placed side by side with designs from other jewelers. “Copy catching,” she calls it.

Bautista says that items from their Valentine’s sale (where Valenzuela, Chua and the Paraiba client bought their pieces) were not, in fact, originals designed by Zuluaga in-house. They were bought from third parties. “It’s not against the law to resell,” says Zuluaga.

Or to make a profit, Bautista adds. “Just because you have buyer’s remorse because you spent more than you should have is not my fault.” Bautista stresses that they also tried to make it clear that the pieces were acquired from other vendors.

Daniel Bautista demonstrates the use of the gem tester.  —Eugene Araneta
Daniel Bautista demonstrates the use of the gem tester.—Eugene Araneta

But buyers confess that The Blind Designer was what intrigued them to begin with.

“Her (Zuluaga’s) story caught my attention. Because she is supposedly a blind designer,” Valenzuela says.

As for vetting the jewels prior to sale, Bautista says it would have been difficult to subject finished pieces through his instruments as it would entail breaking them apart. They do test raw materials for custom work, however.

“I also didn’t know how sick my wife was,” Bautista admits. Zuluaga had apparently written product information from her degenerating memory.

Joint suit filed

Gem regrets how the focus has been on Juan for the tests she streamed in early March. The couple, in fact, place the blame of their business’ collapse on Juan’s shoulders.

Juan has been advised by her lawyer to remove her livestreams from public view. Yet no official cases have been hurled at her and Gem, and Zuluaga and Bautista have expressed an incapacity to pursue any real legal reprisals.

They claim that with the upkeep of the business and Zuluaga’s ailments, they’re just about scraping by. They’re not certain either where to get the money for the refunds.

As for their own legal woes, Bautista told Lifestyle that there has been at least one joint suit filed by two clients against them.

Both Valenzuela and Chua have chosen to pursue the return and refund recourse offered by the couple on their Instagram post. Bautista directed his lawyer to carry out the transactions in his stead.

On March 22, Valenzuela got back the P35,000 for the ring she never received.

She has grown to hate the earrings, though, and expressed that the whole ordeal has soured her interest in buying jewelry online.

And this is the very crux of Juan’s rancor. “It really, really hurts the industry.” Not long after the story broke, she spotlighted 48 local smiths on Instagram. “It’s a community. We’re all just trying to make an honest living.”

Even the Paraiba client found the affair jarring. She’s acquired a cheap but serviceable gem tester—and a keener sense of skepticism.

“It’s made me more vigilant, but it also renewed my trust that there are still honest people out there. But we just have to be more careful.” INQ

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