Today we have the pleasure to welcome a gem dealer turned writer and novelist.
He has been in the trade ever since the late 70’s and has toured the world in search for your favourite gems and their secrets for decades.
It is in 2003 that he delivers his bestselling book Secret of the Gem trade and now have the pleasure to learn more about him and his path,
Today we welcome Richard W. Wise,
Here is Richard Wise in Hong Kong while on the hunt for pearls and jade in the early 90's - Photo Credits: Richard Wise
AsiaLounges: First of all thank you very much for being with us today. Can you tell us more about you? Who are you Richard W. Wise
Richard W. Wise: I’m just a guy with a lot of curiosity who is often dissatisfied with perceived wisdom.
AsiaLounges: I know we already had that conversation on the phone a few months back but, could you tell us more about your “birth” to the trade? Was it a family story or passion that came to be?
Richard W. Wise: I was not born into the trade. I came into it quite by accident. After a stint in the U. S. Coast Guard, followed by college undergraduate and grad school, I spent the best part of the 70s as a professional community organizer, I was badly in need of a break and a new direction in my life. So, I began working at a small craft shop down the street from my New Bedford apartment.
Gemstones have fascinated me since I was a kid. When I saw that the goldsmith worked with them, I decided against potting and signed on to jewelry making. A few months later, January 1978, the craft shop went bankrupt. I had worked, briefly, for Ross-Simons Jewelers in Barrington, Rhode Island and I thought I understood enough about how that business ran to make goldsmithing a reasonably profitable business. That’s how it began
AsiaLounges: Further to the last question, what made you feel the need to write? How was Secrets of the Gem Trade born? What was the idea behind the book?
Richard W. Wise: We moved the shop to the village of Padanaram in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. I began researching—I wanted to learn all I could about gemstones. The books taught me many things, but nothing about the thing I was most interested in learning, the judgement of quality. On this subject the books were mostly silent. I asked the dealers but they were curiously unforthcoming. I wondered why. Did they really not know or was it that they were simply not going to tell me? Later, I realized, it was a little bit of both. In a number of cases it was simply the lack of the proper vocabulary.
I was frustrated and I decided that I would somehow discover the secrets of quality and connoisseurship. So, I started traveling to the source(s). First Bangkok, then Brazil and East Africa, etcetera. I love traveling.
I wrote the first draft of my first article on my 40th birthday sitting on a dock overlooking the lagoon on Manihi Island in the Tuamotu Archipelago. I had spent half the previous day at a black pearl farm. The thought hit me, I could get out of the New England winter, travel to exotic places, write articles and eventually turn those into a book. I wrote maybe thirty articles for magazines from Gems & Gemology to Colored Stone. I was Gemology Columnist for National Jeweler and a Contributing Editor to Gemkey and Gem Market News. It took 20 enjoyable years of travel, buying and study. Secrets Of the Gem Trade, The Connoisseur’s Guide To Precious Gemstones is the result.
Manihi Island pearl farm, Tuamoutu Archipelago, 350 miles north of Tahiti - Photo Credits: Richard Wise
AsiaLounges: I understand that you started as a trader and that your work allowed you to visit some of peculiar gem mining areas. Out of all the places that you have visited for work, which one was your favourite and, provided it is not the same, what is the most memorable or peculiar moment you have encountered in your career?
Richard W. Wise: I guess I’d have to say the Mogok Valley of Burma. I made my first trip there in the early 90s. The area had been closed to westerners since the dictatorship of Ne Win in 1962. Mogok is one of, if not the oldest gem producing area on earth. It was like taking a step back in time. I recall a lapidary cutting a perfect carat sized ruby, working on a jam-peg style machine with a foot pedal and buffalo horn head. Illustrations of the appropriate cutting angles were engraved on the side of the horn. The technology ran the gamut from the ancient twinloons, their slender primitive cranes sticking up into the air, to modern washing plants. We toured both hardrock and alluvial mines and it was a rare treat to actually trade in, perhaps, the oldest market on earth.
Buying in Mogok, Burma (Now Myanmar) - Photo Credits: Richard Wise
AsiaLounges: I have been in the trade for about a decade, between AsiaLounges and past occupations and, for as far as I can remember I have been hearing traders and labs argue about a variety of topics… Whether it is colour types, treatments disclosure or origin there was always something to argue about. Now, a rather new phenomenon is coming up, end buyers are requesting specific lab reports or, in certain cases multiple lab reports. In your opinion, why is this happening and what should the trade as a whole do to regain the end buyers trust? Can you give us an historical account these events have occurred?
Richard W. Wise: In two words, trade secrecy. When I started out, “nobody told nobody nothin.” On my first trip to Bangkok I bought a lot of sapphires. Most were heat treated, but the dealers I purchased from never bothered to reveal that. In the end, smart people simply grew tired of being bamboozled. There was also the problem of methodology and standards.
The last few important gems I sold, had certificates from GIA, AGL, SSEF and Gueblin. Nowadays, I guess Lotus would be added to the mix. Why? because one lab’s “no treatment” was another’s “undetermined” or worse. This was particularly true of clarity grading in emerald. There’s one hell of a price differential between “none” and “minor” when it comes to treatment levels.
Imagine you just sold a ruby for 1.5 million. You paid your source. A couple of months later the buyer decides to get an SSEF certificate and it disagrees with the others and he demands a refund. When it comes to tip toeing along the top tier of the profession, any discrepancies are best revealed and dealt with upfront.
How can we talk about emeralds without showcasing the mines, here, Richard Wise in an emerald mine in Colombia - Photo Credits: Ron Ringsrud
AsiaLounges: Both as a gem dealer and a writer you have participated in a number of trade shows. We are seeing today, COVID didn’t help either, that most shows are getting emptier by the day. In your opinion, why is this happening and what should we do to give them a second life? Should we even do it? If not, what will, in your opinion replace them in the long run?
Richard W. Wise: No idea! Haven’t attended a trade show since 2016 and that was to sell the second edition of my book, Secrets Of The Gem Trade. The shows looked pretty healthy at that time.
AsiaLounges: Both in our trade and in others, transparency, eco friendliness and ethical / fair trade have been on everybody’s mind and lips. What do these words mean to you? Are they, to you, yet another marketing gimmick that’ll lose traction in time or a real powerful and needed wake up call?
Richard W. Wise: Gem mining tears up the countryside. That’s a simple fact. I’ve visited mines in Burma, Thailand, Australia, Vietnam, Brazil, Colombia, Tanzania and Kenya. Often, when a big strike happened, independent miners by the thousands descended on a particular area, uprooted the flora, turned over the topsoil, burned the trees and totally wrecked the area.
Whether sourcing is a marketing gimmick depends mainly on the host country and only secondarily on the miners. Most strikes are small and worked by, mostly poor, independent miners. These folks haven’t neither the incentive nor the resources to restore a large mined out area. So, it’s really up to the country. If the local politicians don’t act, regulate and tax. This, of course, brings along it’s own set of problems; security and the prevention of unregulated wildcatting and underground trading, but without governmental action the rape will continue.
Opal Mining in Queensland Outback, Australia - Photo Credits: Richard Wise
AsiaLounges: Back in your trading days, what was your favourite gem and why? What made it so special in your eyes? When I first began traveling, my favourite gem was the one I was researching and buying at the time.
Richard W. Wise: I started with sapphire and ruby on my first trip to Bangkok, moved on to tourmaline, topaz and aquamarine on my first trip to Brazil and got very involved with colored sapphire and the rainbow hues of garnet in East Africa. In the end, my first love is blue sapphire. The subtle nuances of blue are just particularly pleasing to my eye.
On the road to trade in Tanzania - Photo Credits : Richard Wise
AsiaLounges: We are slowly reaching the end of this interview and I’d like to ask you to give three advice to the young generation that would like to follow in your footsteps as well as three books that you believe are mandatory to have should one wish to get in the trade?
Richard W. Wise: 1. Study, learn as much as you can. The industry has traditionally functioned on ignorance. Knowledge is power, it will give you an important leg up. 2. Visit sources, the perspective you get is invaluable. 3. Keep your word and pay your bills on time, every time. The gem trade is an ancient business and much of it functions on trust. A dealer’s most important asset is his reputation.
AsiaLounges: Thank you very much Richard for being with us today, I am convinced that our readers, the Loungers, have enjoyed this interview as much as we did enjoy writing these lines.
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