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Gem-A November conference wins high appreciation among international gemologists

15 december 2022

After a hiatus of three years, Gem-A – the Gemmological Association of Great Britain organized its annual conference during the first weekend of November. Unlike previous conferences, the lecture program was reduced to a single day – November 6 – comprising several presentations of a commercial character. On November 7, three workshops were held.

What is Gem-A? If there is a "foremost authority in gemology," it is Gem-A – the Gemmological Association of Great Britain.

Gem-A is the most veteran gemological organization in the world. Its academic journal, "The Journal of Gemmollogy," predates its only counterpart, GIA's Gems & Gemology. Several years ago, I worked with Gem-A's former CEO, James Riley, to save the Journal from certain death and revive it. I brought the current editor, Brendan Laurs, on board and helped make the journal commercially viable.

There is a consensus that Gem-A's teaching programs and courses outshine any others available in the market. Gem-A's science is solid, and the courses' curricula are outstanding.

I've been to several Gem-A conferences and events in the past. What struck me at this conference was that it offered less actual gemological content and that three out of the eight presentations carried a commercial character, in one degree or another.

Jade - China's gift to the world

Running through the program, Richard (Dick) Hughes of Lotus Gemology opened the talk series with a presentation named "Jade: China's gift to the world" was a sleek and smooth presentation about jade. Hughes is an eminent author of several books and over 150 articles on ruby, sapphire, jade, spinel, and other precious stones. He traveled to more than 60 countries in search of knowledge about gems.

But Hughes' talk was very much a pitch for his latest book. He may be forgiven as, in his own words, Hughes says that "An understanding of jade is not limited to the technical or exacting; it also incorporates a feeling for the cultural, textural, and ephemeral qualities that make the study of this gem unlike any other in the world of gemstones. It is our heartfelt hope that this volume will not just fill the 'traditional gemological' gap but will open readers' eyes to a world beyond. Because jade is so much more. "

Still, since there was no workshop planned about jade for the next day, I'd expected Hughes to talk more about how to identify jade, especially when it comes in colors and from sources that even well-trained gemmologists are unfamiliar with, and about the problem of terminology.

The newly-elected President of Gem-A, the American gemologist Richard Drucker, noted in his summary at the end of the one-day conference that he, too, had never before heard of "mutton-fat jade," a white variety of jade.

Those who missed Hughes' talk can hear him speak at the upcoming conference of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers that will take place during the Tucson Gem shows in Tucson, Arizona, USA, in February 2023. 

Maxime Gulje FGA, of Amsterdam, the Netherlands: 

“It was great to attend the Gem-A Conference again; the last time was in 2018. The conference was a one-day affair instead of two days, making it a little more intensive.

One of the main reasons I like to attend this conference is the high quality of the speakers, all experienced and highly respected professionals in the field of gemology. It is an excellent opportunity to get so many interesting lectures in one day and have a conversation with them. Again I was not disappointed. As I am a colored gemstone lover, the lectures about jade by Richard Hughes, peridot by Joanna Hardy, and tourmaline found in Mozambique by Federico Pezzotta caught my attention, and they were all fascinating. Also, the lecture by Prof.Dr. H. Albert Gilg, about the analysis of gemstones in late medieval crowns was very interesting. I was sorry that he had to speed up his lecture; it was evident that 45 minutes was far too short. It was also an excellent opportunity to meet again with other gemologists, network, and make new friends. Altogether it was very inspiring, and I am happy and proud to take part in this event.” 

Peridot: past, present, and future

Next was Joanna Hardy, a seasoned lecturer and well-published author on gemstones and jewelry with a presentation on "Peridot: past, present, and future." Hardy reviewed peridot's history, its sources throughout history, as well as peridots in royal jewelry and famous jewels by, among others, Cartier, René Lalique, and René Boivin.

Hardy's presentation was followed by a video of Fuli Gems, a gemstone that operates a very promising peridot mine in China. With Fuli being the conference's platinum sponsor, Gem-A may have felt it necessary to give Fuli such a prominent advertising slot and opportunity. However, dialing back the commercial 'in-your-face' promo, it could have been shown elegantly at a different moment during the conference or at the Gala dinner and not in sequence to Hardy's talk.

Two eminent scientists

The following two speakers of the morning program brought us back to gemology per se, presented by two eminent scientists.

Dr. Federico Pezzotta, who has a rare variety of beryl named after him, gave a fascinating talk about tourmaline varieties from Mavuco, Mozambique. While Pezotta did mention that he is invested in the mine location, his talk focused entirely on the geological and gemological features of the Paraiba-type tourmaline from this mine location.

Next was Professor Dr. H. Albert Gilg, an economic geologist at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Gilg, an easy-going and unassuming man, gave a passionate and humorous account of his and his team's efforts to research the gemstones set in medieval crowns and try to assess their true identity. These projects were often conducted under challenging circumstances, and the on-site use of advanced equipment such as Raman spectroscopy and x-ray often proved tough. Several of the participants we spoke to deemed Gilg's presentation the highlight of the day.

Robert Weldon

There is probably no other as versatile a gemstone photographer active than Robert Weldon. While Robert is currently Director of GIA's Richard T. Liddicoat Library on GIA's campus in Carlsbad, California, throughout his career and extensive travels, Robert has taken photographs of rough and polished gemstones. In his talk, Robert showed a series of his favorite shots and related the stories that go with them. 

Alistair McCallum of Marcus McCallum said: 

“I found Richard Hughes’ Jade talk and Federico Pezzotta’s talk on Paraiba both very informative and enjoyable. It was great to get an insight into the geological and anthropological conditions in Mozambique and to understand the challenges involved in extracting this intriguing material. I had a great chat with Federico later in the evening and feel very privileged to have had that opportunity. 

Regrettably, I didn’t get the chance to talk to Richard Hughes, but I did pick up his latest book, which I am looking forward to reading. His talk on jade was very well put together and featured fantastic photographs. Jade is a material that is not particularly well understood in the UK for the most part. Richard’s passion and enthusiasm were contagious, and I feel that mine was not the only appetite for jade suitably whet. 

Overall the conference had a positive atmosphere, and it was wonderful to see old faces and new ones together after such a long time. It seemed to be well attended, even if it was only a one-day affair, and I was impressed by the turnout from the international community. I am looking forward to attending next year.” 

De Beers and NDC

Weldon was followed by David Fisher, principal scientist at the De Beers Group Research Centre in Maidenhead in the United Kingdom, and Lisa Levinson, head of communications and marketing for the Natural Diamond Council in the United Kingdom.

Image credit: Marian Jaén Arjona

Fisher began by presenting his company's credo, emphasizing how much good De Beers diamonds' are doing in the producing countries. He then presented the Assure II program that offers the diamond and jewelry industry and trade an overview of instruments that can be used to screen for synthetic diamonds. The list was extensive, but Fisher applied parameters of judgment that could only lead to one conclusion: only the De Beers technology is credible and encompassing. That may be so, but it turned the talk into a sales pitch.

Image credit: Marian Jaén Arjona

Lisa Levinson is a great presenter and gave a well-prepared and fluent presentation on "Consumer attitudes to natural diamonds." She also began her talk by emphasizing the contribution De Beers is making to the economies of the countries it is active in, particularly Botswana. She mentioned the choice of actress Lily James as NDC's ambassador contrary to De Beers, as its first global ambassador. Levinson noted that De Beers is the most significant contributor to the NDC, conveniently ignoring that until very recently, the largest diamond miner in the world, ALROSA, was one of the NDC's chief financial sources.

Sia Ackerlund, FGA, a gemologist and appraiser at Pantbanken in Stockholm, Sweden, was highly positive about the conference”. 

“I've been coming to the Gem-A conference for the past 15 years or so, and it is vital for me to go every year, both to stay educated on industry news and new gem/industry discoveries but also to build both business and personal relationships with other gemologists and people in the industry. The first couple of years I attended the conference, I came over on my own, knowing no one. And now, many of the people I have met at the conference over the years I now consider dear friends for life. 

It is such a warm and open "community" with many amazing people who are the best in their field attending the Gem-A conference; I get blown away every year. 

There is always a very nice variety of topics and speakers, making sure that there is something of interest for every participant.  

"I enjoyed all the talks:). I had a colleague with me who had never been to the conference before, and she was ecstatic.

I thought both the De Beers and NDC talks were great. I understand that the speakers have their viewpoints, so I simply pick the pieces that I find helpful. I don't really appreciate it when it gets sales oriented, but I understand that the speakers want to promote their business too, so I don't mind. I also enjoyed the diversity of the speakers this year. It's always nice to have a balance between "hard core" gemmology, with more science, and "vanilla."

It would be very interesting to have some more critical speakers too. I would like to see a debate on synthetics with both sides, maybe like a panel debate, even though I understand that someone from the "pro-synthetic" side would find it quite difficult. I find that it is one of the critical issues in the market today that the people who sell synthetic diamonds sell them as "real" diamonds and thus confuse the customers.

I don't really care about synthetics and think there's a market for both natural and synthetics. But it's the current greed of people buying cheap synthetic diamonds and selling them as real diamonds to unexpecting consumers that I find atrocious. No one ever called a synthetic ruby a real ruby, so why would you call a synthetic diamond "real?" There is such a powerful public relations machine around synthetic diamonds today, so I see a lot of customers who buy them without proper disclosure of what a synthetic diamond actually is. I would like to listen to CIBJO synthetic diamond committee members and hear their thoughts on the subject.” 

Levinson then ventured into the talk she had been asked to give and did that very well. It would have been a great talk to give to retailers at a trade show, as retailers need to understand what consumers think about diamonds and how they can sell diamonds better and more successfully. But while there were some retail jewelers in the room, the audience was foremost an audience of predominantly Gem-A trained gemologists who came to learn more about the 'in and outs' of gemstones. I, therefore, had hoped for a talk that would take the audience's character into account and not a vanilla-flavored promotional talk about diamonds that, ultimately, can easily be found, in one form or another, online. Personally, I'd been looking forward to hearing how the NDC does its research, what the numbers and figures are, how it applies the results of its findings, and how it measures the success rate of its campaigns against the investments made.

Richard Drucker of the Gem Guide gave an excellent, detailed overview of current trends in the colored gemstone markets, supply and demand, and price development.

After Drucker concluded his talk, Gem-A CEO Alan Hart presented Drucker as the newly elected Gem-A President and consequently asked Drucker to deliver the conference's closing words.

I left the conference feeling that the organizers could have done a much better job on the program. Many conference participants - Gem-A members and other gemologists - came from far and wide, expecting to hear about a range of topics of interest to gemologists. Some of the eight presentations did not meet those expectations. Of course, this is not the fault of the presenters, who reduced the lecture program to a single day and allowed commercial entities to participate. More effort and thought could have been invested into supplying full value to their target audience.

Overall, as quotes by participants show, the conference was well received. Let's see what Gem-A has in store for 2023!

By Ya’akov Almor for Rough&Polished