It’s a gem of a life Coming of Age as a Gemologist
In 2002, sitting at my computer terminal, on a recently redeveloped formerly Soviet Airstrip, in what was East Germany, I made a decision that would change the course of my life. I would abandon the comfy life of an engineering Project Manager, and travel to Asia and study to become a gemologist. Already, having left my native New York 3 years prior to move to Germany, I was conflicted about what lay ahead, but ultimately, there was a deep burning desire to explore the unknown world, and in a sense return to my roots.
Gemology and world exploration are not things that come to the mind of most children growing up in Queens, New York (the largest, most culturally diverse, and perhaps most suburban borough of New York City). Most people were content to dream of a local life. Although only a bridge away from Manhattan (and 15kms away from my house), people in Queens refer to trips into Manhattan as “going into the city,” suggesting some magical and mysterious far away land. In truth, my parents never really enjoyed cities, and preferred life out in the field, camping, and of course, looking for stones. Through I don’t remember, I have photographic proof attesting to the fact that I spent my 1st birthday in a fossil quarry somewhere in southern Colorado – the happy smile visible on my face as evidence to my true calling.
That would not be the last trip – thankfully many more came – nearly every summer vacation was spent traveling in our camper, exploring nature, and visiting sites to collect minerals around the USA. The passion my parents had for these trips was boundless, and I remember the excitement and impatience I had before these trips, and the wonderful feelings I had after a long day of working in an open pit yielded some miracle from nature. The monetary value of these finds was essentially unimportant to us. What was of value was having these beautiful crystals minerals, and fossils – each with a story of us unearthing them and bringing them home as trophies to the days labors.
Upon making the decision to get into stones – I went full force, moving to Bangkok and taking the 6 month GIA course to become a gemologist. This move would be only the first part of my journey, and Bangkok only a launching pad to places remote, harsh, and hot, yet teaming with the excitement of fresh gem finds, and of course local gemstone gossip. Over the next few years I would travel deep into remote mining areas and crowded third world cities throughout Asia and Africa - all in search of bright pretty stones. And this continues today. Sometimes I spend time looking at endless lines of brokers showing me cut stones, and sometimes I am digging for them myself in some muddy pit. Either way, the thrill and pleasure of finding a treasure is hard to beat. It always brings me back to my childhood, finding crystals with my parents.
My first major trek after completing my GIA course was actually only a few hours outside of Bangkok, to Chantaburi, Thailand. Chantaburi is Thailand’s major gemstone cutting town. Originally, Chantaburi sat atop large deposits of rubies. The cutting center popped up there to cut and polish all the stones coming out of the local mines. Today these mines are near depleted, but the factories remained, and thus the trading center remained.
Chanthaburi is a great place for a gemologist to start the adventure of gem hunting and, helped to get me accustomed to the business side of gems. Here, desks are placed all over the downtown, in numerous trading halls that line the city streets. Thousands of buyers from Bangkok descend on the town, as well as thousands of brokers and sellers. My first trip there I was unsure what to do, and sat at a table with a friend. Within minutes I was surrounded by brokers opening bags of small commercial sapphires and rubies in front of me. What to do? Make offers? Politely decline? I decided to take the best course of action – make offers on small items and move slowly. In time, this lead to greater purchases, and a greater understanding of how the business works.
Much of the adventure in finding stones goes beyond the gems themselves. Here I am, someone from a large first world city, spending time in remote place, eating unique foods, and interacting with humble people in their austere living conditions. I spend much of 2009 in Sierra Leone, West Africa, a place known for diamonds, and of course, a bad history of exploitation. Today, Sierra Leone is free, and most mining is done by small groups of locals in their villages. I spent 6 months in eastern Sierra Leone, working on a mining project where we brought some modern machinery into the jungle to help out a few of these work groups be more productive. What struck me the most was how easily I adapted to living with them in the jungle, and how candid and open people were. Days were spent working, and nights spent telling equal part war stories and diamonds stories. It’s in these moments when I appreciate how through gems I was able to connect to people in a universal way. It’s not only humbling, but it gives a great appreciation for what gems can do to enrich the lives of local people in the third world. Too often we hear about big corporations and gems, but in fact most of the stones I work with are found and mined by independent miners and sold by independent brokers. These stones have a direct impact on the people’s lives that find and trade them – they also have great stories attached to them.
I am a strong believer that each stone has a story. I feel that when people wear gems, knowing their stone’s story greatly helps in adding to its appreciation. My work today involves not only buying gems but buying on order for personal clients, and building jewelry pieces to match the stones that I find. Having an appreciation not only for the rarity of the gem that the person wears, but also for where it came from, and the journey it made, makes for a truly personal connection to the piece, and a value beyond just monetary.
These days most of my journeys are back through Asia, with a special love for the gems of Myanmar (Burma). I have dedicated quite a bit of time traveling there, hunting out rare Burmese sapphires, spinels, peridots, and of course jade. Just reopened to foreign visitors since this September, after years of limited access, I will be visiting the famed mining area of Mogok, in northern Myanmar. Gems from Mogok are renown throughout the world as being of the greatest quality, and I look forward to meeting with the locals who work tirelessly in their gem hunts. Of special interest to me are the gems known as spinel, which is gaining popularity because of its wonderful range of colors, and incomparable sparkle.
As a Gemologist, I get to see the world through stones as my profession, but everyone can share in this experience. By learning about the gems and jewelry pieces that they own, and gaining an understanding about the history, mining locals, folk lore and work involved in finding them, consumer can develop not only an appreciate for gems, but can connect with the pieces that they own and will own in the future.