Diamonds in the Mine: An Exploration of Humanitarian Gemology

My brother’s gemology webinar last month caused me to reflect on my time as a “gemstone journalist,” which I haven’t really written about in this venue. See what you think.

What the hell was I doing?

Three years ago next month I retired at age 62. As an independent contractor for the prior twelve years I’d spent most of my client time working for Pala International, a premier wholesaler of colored gemstones in San Diego County.1 I got the job through my brother, Richard W. Hughes II, who after developing the firm’s website went on to work for a gem trade organization’s new lab nearby. My website maintenance for Pala led to editorial work for its two e-newsletters: one for gems, one for minerals.

But what the hell was I doing, taking on a subject about which I knew nothing? (I’m sure there are a few gemstone journalists who asked the same question about me…)

I had a history of working in unfamiliar fields. I learned desktop publishing on the job at Kaiser Permanente; worked on a computer game without ever being an enthusiast; helped prepare training material for power traders under deregulation in California; helped develop a disabled-accessible website for an onsite energy company. But at Pala I stepped into the shoes of my brother Richard who is a world authority on ruby and sapphire. Sure, I could handle the website, but I constantly was handed topics to cover about which I knew little, such as the irradiation of drab topaz to produce vivid blue, optical gemstone phenomena, the controversy surrounding so-called Chinese sunstone, news from Burma, the murder of a famous miner, ruby and neon tourmaline from Mozambique, and trade ethics.2

Because, in the newsletter, I also relayed the efforts by gemstone beneficiaries to give back to the mining areas,3 I was interested last month in my brother’s webinar topic, “People & Places: Journey in Humanitarian Gemology,” which was hosted by his colleague Vincent Pardieu and moderated by Justin K. Prim. I don’t need to introduce this trio; you’ll have a good idea of what they’re about after watching the webinar. All three discuss their encounters with miners and others in select gemstone-producing countries, and their stories are instructive as well as affective. Also presented are theoretical and data-driven arguments regarding trade and thought. (When I was writing for Pala, both Richard and Vincent, as well as Pala’s proprietor William Larson, were generous to me with their time and understanding, for which I’m indebted.)

If you’re interested in the subject, you should watch this. If you’re queasy around capitalism, as I am, you should watch this.

Some of the stories I had heard before, but the webinar’s moment that resonates for me is Richard declaring that colored gemstones cannot fully be appreciated if they are considered to be mere commodities. This is the slippery slope traversed by the diamond trade. I’ll let Richard explain that for himself in the webinar, but he had the audacity to critique this same diamond grading schema decades ago, and it gained him few friends. If gemstones intrinsically are works of art, as he suggests, that’s the wavelength I was on, more or less, when I wrote for Pala. What follows is a random sampling of how I let myself wander on that wavelength.

I’m purposely omitting most images here, in the hope that you’ll peruse my prose. But watch the webinar first.

Wandering the Wavelength

With “Empire of the Senses” I went afield, pitching a 2016 Met exhibition with the title “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World.” The only gem-like image available to me at e-press time was a cameo carved from ten-layered onyx, and expertly so. I saved that image for last, after name-dropping Alexander the Great, Diogenes the Cynic, Shakespeare, Buddha, Judy Collins, and Elvis Presley.

Other music artists figured in several of my news items and articles: Leonard Cohen died while I was writing an item on diamonds, so I pointed to his classic “Diamonds in the Mine”; watching Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry promos showed me how a working-class chap from a mining town had incorporated gems and jewelry in his reinvention; Lady Gaga’s crystal, mm…, habit; and DEVO’s soft-serve surprise.

With “Breathing Life Into the Inanimate: Artists Inspiring Artists” I really went to town in the e-pages of Pala Mineralis, the firm’s newsletter for mineral admirers. A creation by jewelry artist William Harper, Homage to Cy Twombly and Joseph Cornell, then on display at the Met in 2014, captured my attention, and so I wrote about it even though we rarely included jewelry in that, mm…, setting. I also discussed the notion of inspiration. Here’s how Harper replied, which I didn’t reveal at the time, but which reveals so much of his playful nature:

What a superb article…..I have no idea what your background is, but you can write an article more succinct and to the point than most “pro-art writers”, whose work is often just pseudo-academic “gibble”……I wanted to say “crap”, but I don’t really know you. If I did, “crap” would actually not be the word I would use. Thank you, really…….this is a keeper for my files.

Yet I wasn’t really writing about the stones; I was inspired by them. For more inspiration, see this teaser for Harper’s retrospective, held last year at the Cleveland Institute of Art:

My lengthy “Avarice and Alienation: Jewels of the Romanoffs” was the result of a chance encounter with an Associated Press report of Americans on a 1929 shopping spree—for the Russian Crown Jewels. Using only contemporary newspaper articles I astounded myself at how imperial riches could be offered to the highest bidder, over and over again, from 1917 on. My favorite passage shows how art is in the eye of the beholder, in this case a New York Times editorial writer who cares a lot that a peasant might touch treasure but little that the USSR was in the midst of a famine (even as the USA was providing aid):

These jewels have a heightened lustre and brilliance in the contrasting setting they give to the plain, drab, indifferent Bolshevistic régime with which they are now associated. Communist officials handle them with an unconcerned air and with hands that do not itch though they tremble [quoting reporter Walter Duranty] “ever so little” over the crown of the Emperor. A Russian peasant in his smock holds for the moment a sceptre that has lost all but its innate beauty and power. Workmen sit down to their lunch in the midst of this surpassing spectacle with no more avaricious wish—even if this one comes into their thoughts—than that those stones might be commanded to be made bread. And the Soviet head of the jewel commission with careless gesture tosses into its place the “most wonderful and historic stone civilization has known,” the diamond that hung before the throne of Akbar the Great, Mogul of Hindustan, under whose mild rule (ending in 1630) India was as well governed as France, Spain, Italy, Germany or Russia. To Akbar every ruby of price was “the magnificent ruby.” To the Communist the most magnificent seems to have become the commonplace.

Then, as now, property could be valued over human life, as exhibited by the reaction to multiple Black Lives Matter explosions. Then, as now, an imperial powerhouse like Akbar could be favorably compared with seemingly benign powers, all of whom would engage in a second world war (the editorial being dated August 28, 1922), which led to the stranglehold the military-industrial-legislative complex has held over U.S. presidents, “mild,” “kinder and gentler,” or not so.

“An expression of helplessness”

And since I’m being polemical, I should note that, as I was writing this, I finally finished Naomi Wolf’s Outrages, about which I wrote in February. In the book’s afterword, Anna Camilleri, now an academic in English at Eton College, notes that maps of sexual orientation laws, posted by ILGA, indicate that several of the countries mentioned in the webinar continue to criminalize consensual sex between adults. How to respond?

Richard actually touched on this in the webinar when he commented on the folly of international sanctions of Burma, under military rule that began in 1962. To wit, see this “Burma Bit” that I included in Pala’s February 2010 newsletter:

Institute for Security & Development Policy: A report examines European sanctions against Burma. The report concludes that the sanctioning of gemstones from Burma, for example, is responsible for the reduction of economic development of the country’s middle class. Sample quotes: “[S]anctioning of products from Myanmar has created perverse effects….” “Sanctions are essentially an expression of helplessness” and sanctioning “has reduced to almost zero the possibility for the EU to influence the government in Myanmar…. By the same token, it has strengthened other actors to influence Myanmar.”

So, sanctioning countries because of their governments is shortsighted. Richard has written for decades in depth on this subject. Start with this—and you’ll recognize another sort of map (or chart) from the webinar.

Header image:
Young boy along the
Muhuwesi River, Tanzania
with a handful of gems,
photographed by
Richard W. Hughes

  1. Gemstone and mineral aficionados know Pala as a mining district in northern San Diego County. Pala also has a Native American history.
  2. After writing this I read that there’s a term of art for what I was experiencing—imposter syndrome—as explained by a student of Christopher Dickey, who died on July 16. I only read Dickey’s first book, With the Contras, which I think can be read as the Dispatches (Michael Herr’s classic about Vietnam) for a new generation, even though it was released only nine years later.
  3. See, for instance, “Giving Back in Africa,” published in the Mar 2014 edition of Palagems Reflective Index, our monthly e-newsletter. See also two articles posted four months before I left Pala: “Graff Gives Back” and “GIA Gives Back”—the latter article about a pilot project in Tanzania, which Vincent and Richard mention in the webinar.

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