Gemmology is an ever expanding field with new deposits being discovered and treatments to gemstones whether to enhance or deceive always throwing up new challenges. This is why we feel it is important to attend two conferences every year to keep our knowledge current. It is always great to hear first hand from your peers within the trade their experiences. Whether that’s from a gem-testing laboratory with their technical data or a jewellery historian to inspire through their passion of methods lost through the years. Not to mention catching up with old friends and making new ones.
So with this in mind we headed up to Scotland to see our dear friends at the Scottish Gemmological Association for their annual conference in Peebles at the beginning of May. Over the course of the weekend we covered a variety of subjects which touched on all the different aspects of the field of gemmology. There was something for everyone.
Karl Schmetzer talked us through the fascinating origins of the first synthetic emeralds to be produced in Germany that date as far back as 1912. The evolution of the processes we know today as hydrothermal and flux growth was long and expensive since the scientists struggled with oversaturation and the growth of tiny crystals.
Where geology meets gemmology we learnt from Dr. Çiğdem Lüle about Diaspore. A unique gemstone to her native Turkey which thanks to specific geological conditions in this one place in the world has resulted in these gem-quality crystals growing in metamorphic rock. These gems always display a colour change, showing a brownish light yellow through to brownish pink depending on your light source and have also gone through various name changes due to privatisation of the mines – Zultanite and Csarite! But we’ll be sticking to its true name - Diaspore.
An enthusiastic Rui Galopim de Carvalho took us back to the beginning of gemstone jewellery in Portugal, which was thanks to their discovery of Brazilian gem deposits. Whilst gold was first discovered in Minas Gerais in 1690 it wasn’t until later around 1725 that the first gemstone were unearthed: diamonds.. In order to mine the gold and gemstones slaves were shipped over from Africa. This was a stark reminder of the dark history of mining where the miners were forced to wear cages over their mouths to prevent them swallowing any gemstones. This new source of colour and radiance had a massive impact on the style of Portuguese jewellery with gold now taking a backseat; having been relegated to only providing the structures to support the abundant gemstones.
Hopping countries and continents we then found ourselves in India with a look behind the curation of Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection which was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum from November 2015 through to April this year. Joanna Whalley who is Senior Metals Conservator as well as lead gemmologist for temporary exhibitions led us on a visual treasure hunt through the backstreet workshops and ancient techniques she learnt about whilst working towards the opening of this magnificent exhibition. We were treated to a visual feast of details and photos of the extraordinary craftsmanship. Hearing about the intricate and ancient enamelling and gem-setting techniques I’d never come across before was when I flipped from a gemmologist to a jewellery designer and my notes then stopped being words and instead became sketches.
Switching back to the left-side of my brain we then delved deeper into the science of diamonds. Whilst only made up of one atom, Carbon, you’d think they would be quite simple to understand however there is a whole separate side of gemmological studies dedicated just to diamonds. Thomas Hainschwang gave a fascinating glimpse of the important work he has been doing within the field of coloured diamonds especially working with The Aurora Collection - the world class collection of 296 naturally coloured diamonds. These make up the Aurora Pyramid of Hope with gems ranging from 0.13ct to 2.88ct in total they weigh 267.45ct of some of the rarest natural coloured (I repeat this to emphasise that none of these have undergone any treatments to enhance the colour) diamonds in the world. Unfortunately we only get to marvel at them through glass in The Vault at the Natural History Museum in London but Thomas had the enviable job of handling and testing each and every one.
With a thirst for more diamond knowledge I then headed off to The Cocktail Bar, a fitting setting for a diamond treatment workshop held by respected diamond tutor Claire Mitchell from the Gemmological Association of Great Britain. This hands-on workshop guided us through the various treatments diamonds can undergo either to give Mother Nature a helping hand resulting in a better colour or to improve clarity. Whilst some are acceptable if fully disclosed such as a more affordable treated blue diamond, others are not only out to deceive but are unstable. It was great to see these under the microscope and to know what we are looking for - always trying to be one step ahead of the game.
Our final workshop of the conference was led by our friend Kerry Gregory who doesn’t work in a lab but instead is at the customer-coalface of gemmological testing working in the UK largest pawnbroking business. As Manager of Gemstones and Specialist Jewellery Kerry faces an infinite number of gem-set jewellery all of which need to be identified and through listening to her experience you get to a feel for her quick-fire gemmology. Whilst always backed up by proper testing sometimes you just need to see something first hand to remember it for next time. A kyanite set in a ring which before you’d have mistaken for a sapphire with a quick once over, but not once you’ve seen the distinctive broad white bands of inclusions.
What a weekend and none of it would have been possible without the amazing team at The Scottish Gemmological Association. The devotion and honour they bestow on this industry couldn’t have been more evident than in the Catriona Orr McInnes Award. An award started this year in memory of one of their inaugural members which was bestowed on Brian Jackson their previous chairman - not a dry eye in the house.
Thank you SGA and see you next year. Don’t worry we’ll practise our stripping the willow before then!