Those of you that have been following us since the start have surely heard of Jeffery “Master” Bergman from Primagem, if only for his column in our pages: Introduction to Gemology.
Jeff, besides having been a kind and caring master in the trade to our teams, has a solid 40 plus year experience in the trade under his belt and is likely to be one of the most prominent, and vocal members of our merry industry.
Jeff has been lecturing countless times for the prestigious GIA Gathering in Bangkok on a variety of topics ranging from rubies and sapphire to emeralds without ever forgetting the memorable Opal talk about two three years ago which forced titans of the opal trade to bow down and publicly acknowledge their mistakes.
All in all, Jeff does no longer need introduction yet here we are, welcoming him for a long overdue interview for a Gem Dealer’s Journal.
Jeff, the floor is yours,
Jeffery "Master" Bergman is with us this week in A Gem Dealer's Journal - Photo Credit: Primagem
AsiaLounges: First of all, thank you very much “Master” for joining us today for this interview. As per usual, could you, in few words tell us who you are? Who are you Jeffery Bergman?
Jeffery Bergman: Well, as a bit of personal background, I’m the firstborn of a Russian Jewish immigrant to the USA mother, dad was of Norwegian decent, 3rd generation American, Nebraska dustbowl farm boy, I am a college dropout who still sees himself as just an old rock licker.
AsiaLounges: We are always interested in knowing how does one come to the trade and you are obviously no exception to that, how did you enter the trade? Was it a family thing? Random encounters or an old obsession of yours? Maybe something else entirely?
Jeffery Bergman: In 1970, at age 13, my dad’s US Department of Defence engineering career took us from a small town in New Hampshire to the Outback of Australia. We landed in a hot, dusty, dry, fenced in military base with a population of under 5,000, in the desert over 100 miles by dirt road to the nearest town, no tv and only one radio station; the BBC. While I loved listening to reruns of The Goon Show, I was quickly bored to tears. Mum pushed me to join the Natural History Society and attend basic lapidary classes on weekends. Second stone I ever cut, a two hour effort producing a 2 carat pear shape Andamooka opal, I soon sold for $35 profit. $17 an hour for a teenager in 1970 was big bucks. My new hobby was fun and easy work, kept my pockets full of cash, and made me really popular with the girls in high school. I got addicted. That was 49 years ago. As far as I'm concerned I'm still just doing my hobby.
AsiaLounges: What about the “rock licker” you call yourself?
Jeffery Bergman: We were about 80 miles, a rough two hour dirt track bus ride, from the Andamooka opal mines. I started going there on weekends and tried my luck as a “gouger”; old Australian outback slang for an opal miner. When you are down at the opal bearing level, the vast majority of the time, the sound from your geologists pick is “thud thud thud”. Once in a great while, you break out in a big grin when you hear “tink tink tink”, the distinctive sound of steel striking opal. As soon as you've it pried loose, a liberal application of saliva allows for an immediate assessment of the quality of your find. I know of no greater thrill than licking a freshly dug opal nobby and being the first human being to witness its beautiful fiery rainbow flashes of colours. So I am still a rock licker at heart. I also had a girlfriend in high school by the name of Alison Rock, but perhaps I should not digress.
Jeff's holding a rather serious looking Burmese rough blue sapphire - Photo Credit: U San Tun
AsiaLounges: Have you always specialised in capital gems? By the way, what are capital gems and what set them apart from the rest?
Jeffery Bergman: Capital gems is not a term I have never heard before. But I assume it means gemstones which require a large amount of capital to acquire? My lawyer wife Nadthasiri (Natalie) Bergman calls them “portable real estate”. It's a pretty good analogy considering a top-quality 3 carat pigeon blood ruby from Burma can be worth more than a luxury condominium unit in Bangkok.
So, assuming capital gemstones are natural, untreated, and of exceptional colour, clarity, cut and size, no, I have not always specialised in them. I really didn’t have any sort of formal education at first. I majored in geology in college in San Jose CA, but I dropped out after one year because I already had my own small business, plus sex, drugs and rock & roll in the Bay Area in the mid-70’s was too much of a temptation for me. I moved to Las Vegas in 1977 where I eventually opened my AGTA member wholesaling business “Gem Source”. After a while I realized that if I wanted to expand my business, I’d need to source stones in Asia. So, I took a three-week trip. I went to Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. I visited cutting factories, pearl wholesalers, the gem market in Chanthaburi, and I made a good profit from my purchases on that trip.
So I started going to Hong Kong and Thailand regularly, by 1993 I had offices in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Las Vegas. I was traveling all the time, and with all the staff & expenses, I needed to generate $25,000 a month before I could even take a salary for myself. That year I sold over 500,000 calibrated 6x4mm oval heated rubies and sapphires. My primary business was about quantity, not quality; eventually it became too stressful and I burned out. I sold my 1/2 of the Las Vegas company to my partner, closed the Hong Kong office, let all of my Bangkok staff go except for one secretary, and began focusing on quality rather than quantity.
What really got me hooked on exceptional quality rubies and sapphires was a parcel of Mogok star sapphires I bought at the Thai-Myanmar border gem market in Mae Sot in 1996. Most of the parcel was junk “gift stones” that people buy as souvenirs, worth about fifty bucks each. But a few were really exceptional. One of them was absolutely beautiful, powder blue 36 cts gem. I showed it to a Burmese dealer friend of mine in Bangkok and she gasped and pulled out a matching Mogok pink star, 35 cts with the perfect complementary pastel color. She eventually sold the pair to Cartier through a Paris dealer, and they made it into a pendant displayed in their Place Vendôme store. I’m so glad I payed attention!
Jeff Bergman and Ko Choo at his Baw Mar, Mogok, Sapphire mine in Myanmar - Photo Credit: Primagem
AsiaLounges: Can you tell us a bit about some of the more memorable gems which have passed through your hands?
Jeffery Bergman: Well the 3.32ct Burmese Crimson Prince Ruby certainly comes to mind. When I first examined it, I was sure it was a top quality Mogok red spinel, then the owner said “please use your loupe”. The clarity was remarkable, but I detected a faint dusting of intact rutile silk so I knew immediately it was an unheated ruby. It was a “wow” gem for sure. But the grandest of gems is certainly a 113ct sugarloaf cabochon royal blue Mogok sapphire mounted in a carved aquamarine leaf brooch by Carvin French. Stunning, breathtaking, hypnotising.
The Crimson Prince Ruby, possibly the nicest ruby we have laid our eyes upon - Photo Credit: Jeffrey Scovil for Primagem
AsiaLounges: I understand you have been indulging in philanthropy gifting part of your personal collection to a US based gemological institute, can you tell us more about that and how it came to be?
Jeffery Bergman: Through my relationship with Shelly Sergent and Craig Lynch, gemologist advisers to Somewhere In the Rainbow Collection (SITR) I learned the University of Arizona Tucson was creating a full blown gemology degree program including a new museum for the department. My wife Natalie and daughter Hailey both have careers they love, nothing to do with gems. So I contemplated what would happen to my prized collection after I die, and I imagined them selling it off for a small fraction of what it cost me to assemble over the past 5 decades. So, I bequeathed my entire reference collection and most of my trapiche collection, over 400 items, to the UofA. So every year during the Tucson show, I will be able to visit the best of my collection on display in the new UofA gem & mineral museum opening in 2021.
Philanthropically speaking, more important, in my opinion, is that since 2006, my wife and I have been supporting New Blood Learning Center in Mae Sot on the Thai/Burma border. New Blood Learning Center educates and cares for at risk refugee children and youths, many of them orphans. The Mae Sot gem market has played an important role in my gem trading career, so Natalie and I decided is was an ideal opportunity to give back to the community we have been blessed through. And what better endeavour than feeding, clothing and educating children, many of them orphans!
On Jeffery & Natalie (far left in the photo) supported projects: New Blood Learning Center in Mae Sot - Photo Credit: Primagem
AsiaLounges: When I first met you I seldom saw anything but rubies and sapphires in your hands yet you have recently been heavily involved in the emerald trade and been teaching about them in China. Why this shift?
Jeffery Bergman: Chance favours the prepared mind, perhaps? In October 2017 I was approached by Ethiopians involved in the new emerald mines in the Shakiso area in the south. They were successful award winning coffee producers and proficient artisanal gold & tantalum miners, but clueless about emerald marketing. Since I had considerable experience treating and marketing Colombian emeralds in Bangkok in the 1990’s, I offered my expertise. We formed a partnership where they supplied the rough, I went to work cutting, treating (when necessary), branding & marketing Shakiso as premium quality, ethically sourced, mine-to-market natural Ethiopian emeralds, and 75% of the revenues went to the Ethiopian partners.
We had a hugely successful launch with Mayer & Watt at AGTA Tucson, and by May 2018, an article “From Ethiopia, Emeralds” appeared in the New York Times interviewing one of our first clients, Vladyslav Y. Yavorskyy of IVY. By June 2018 we were selling to high end dealers in Geneva, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Bangkok, so it seems I did my job pretty well. During this time I continued to feature exceptional unheated rubies and sapphires as the core of my business.
Here Jeff's holding a sizeable Ethiopian rough emerald - Photo Credits: Nadthasiri (Natalie) Bergman
AsiaLounges: You may have seen us asking recently a series of questions concerning ethics in the trade. What’s your take on that particular issue? What makes a gem ethical or not according to you? And does that criterion apply to Investment gems, to Capital gems?
Jeffery Bergman: Heat treated carnelian was discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb dated to about 1300 B.C.C. Ethics in the trade has been a challenge since the first heated carnelians traded hands over 3,000 years ago. Did the seller disclose they were heated? Doubtful! With the dozens of reliable gem labs around the world issuing reports delineating enhancements, plus LMHC, The Blue Books, CIBJO, AGTA & ICA, we have come a long way in understanding and implementing the long term financial benefit to the trade of practicing full disclosure of any and all enhancements. So, Ethics Part #1 is covered.
Now, Ethics Part #2. – If you are speaking of “ethically sourced”, you are opening up an entirely different can of worms. Ethical by whose standards? What is ethical to an Ivy League graduate is most likely radically different from what is ethical to an artisanal gem miner in Nigeria or Afghanistan. By marketing a gem using the “ethical” label, who benefits the most, and who is likely to suffer harm? Gems smuggled out of Burma do not financially benefit the brutal military dictatorship, so does that make those gems “ethical”? A 12 year old boy sieves gravel for sapphires and other gems in the Umba river valley of North Eastern Tanzania. His meagre income not only helps feed his younger brother and sister, but allows them to go to school as well. Are his sapphires not ethically sourced due to Western child labor laws?
Austrian economist Peter Drucker poignantly observed “culture eats ideology for lunch”. The danger we face is the ethical sourcing trend primarily benefiting elite brands and large-scale mining corporations while the interests of those who can't afford to have their voices heard are mostly neglected. How can we practically apply idealistic Western standards of ethical sourcing to a highly fragmented predominantly artisanal supply chain originating primarily in developing countries? In implementing this ethical labelling marketing trend, we should be moving forward under a giant yellow PROCEED WITH CAUTION sign.
Our trade is at risk of our latest marketing buzzwords having no real meaning. They certainly offer negligible upstream benefits to artisanal miners and cutters. As an industry, with all our good intentions, let us not forget our dear departed Dana Shore’s efforts to "protect the little guy, to focus on the oft-ignored lowest denominator in the supply-chain, the artisanal miner.”
Bergman's Law - by Jeff Bergman
AsiaLounges: Tell us about “Bergman’s Law”?
Jeffery Bergman: I coined “Bergman’s Law” primarily in response to ignorant brokers on LinkedIn and with smart phones offering worthless junk “gems” at prices worthy of Christie’s record breaking auction prices. We have a wonderful industry based in integrity and trust, yet a few ignorant idiots can easily taint the image of our precious trade through their stupidity. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” – Edmund Burke. Hence, Bergman’s Law: "As “smart” phones come into the hands of more and more ignorant people, the percentage of idiots trying to broker “high-value” pseudo-gems increases exponentially!” We all have a responsibility to serve and protect our trade as it is our livelihoods and futures at stake.
AsiaLounges: One question we like to ask in these interviews is concerning our guest’s favourite gem family. What is yours? And would it be different should there be no concern about trade value and business opportunity?
Jeffery Bergman: For me it is, hands down, corundum. Primary reasons? Beauty, variety, rarity, durability, history. No other gem family can compete given those five criteria.
Majestic Unheated Burmese Royal Blue Sapphire SugarLoaf 113 cts - Photo Credit: Primagem
AsiaLounges: Back on topic, what are your thoughts on treatment and origin of gems? It is understood that both play a major role in pricing but what makes an origin more desirable than an other in the world of capital gems?
Jeffery Bergman: Really need to separate the two subjects. While I prefer 100% natural, supply and demand dictates the vast majority of gems sold to consumers are enhanced in some fashion. Disclosure is the only issue. If your invoices are not big enough to explain clearly and concisely what has been done to the gem, then print bigger invoices. There is nothing wrong with ANY enhancement as long as it is accurately disclosed with proper care instructions for end users.
Origin is an issue of personal preference and budget. You can buy a delicious $20 bottle of sparkling white wine from USA, Australia, or South Africa, and it might actually be better than a $100 bottle from France, BUT, it would NOT be Champagne. It is the same with gems. I have a very sweet 5 carat cornflower blue Kashmir sapphire wholesale priced at $500,000NET. An equal, or even better quality Madagascar sapphire of same weight would be less than $50,000NET. Humans are emotional and nostalgic, that is why important jewelry previously owned by famous people typically sells for huge premiums at auction. And history drives demand when names like Kashmir, Burma and Colombia are attached to fine gems.
Jeffery on the track of yet another stunning gemstone somewhere in Africa - Photo Credits: Richard W. Hughes from Lotus Gemology
AsiaLounges: What’s your take on comments such as that of Richard W. Hughes in his paper “Sapphire Connoisseurship” that origin and price should not necessarily be correlated but rather overall look be given priority when deciding the price of a gem?
Jeffery Bergman: I totally agree that origin and price should not necessarily be correlated. What is the point in paying a premium price for an ugly Kashmir sapphire, just because of origin? Color, clarity, cut, weight, treatment, then origin, that is how value should be prioritised.
AsiaLounges: In your opinion, what sets apart a gem from a capital gem?
Jeffery Bergman: Great question, and the only reasonable answer I can give is, it depends on your budget. A wealthy businesswoman might consider $1M for a sapphire and diamond ensemble to be a small investment. But a single mother of several children, working as a nurse, might consider $1,000 for a simple sapphire pendent gift to her graduating daughter to be a huge capital investment.
AsiaLounges: How do a seasoned gem dealer and gemologist like yourself decide on a gem report? What makes you trust in a lab rather than another and would you bring any gemstone, regardless of price, to all the lab you’d recommend? Do you use certain labs rather than others depending on the gems you have to have a report on and why?
Jeffery Bergman: Mostly it is a matter of client demand. For gems over about $10,000, the majority of my Asian & European clients require SSEF & Gubelin reports, most USA clients prefer AGL & GIA. There is still strong demand for GRS reports in China, and demand for Guild Gem Lab is growing there as well. I’m a personal fan of Lotus Gemology & DANAT, plus I use ICA GemLab, AIGS, Stone Group Lab (USA) and Bellerophon Gemlab for specific requirements. I would bring any gemstone, regardless of price, to any of these labs, but at the end of the day, it is usually the client who decides which lab they are most confident in.
AsiaLounges: We’re almost at the end of our interview and we’d like to pick your brains about what are your thoughts on the gem trade as a whole, what direction will it take? What will be the changes you anticipate to come in the next five to ten years? And what would make a sound investment gem wise nowadays?
Jeffery Bergman: Prognostication is a risky proposition at best.
#1. The whole ethical/responsible/transparent marketing trend is going to play a major role in determining winners and losers over the next decade. Demand for mine-to-market traceability, including blockchain, will place additional, potentially unsustainable burdens on small players, so guess who wins?
#2. China and India represent huge and growing markets, though very tricky to navigate their business environments without a strong and trusted local partner.
#3. I’m personally thrilled with the awakening to the added value of fine cutting the trade is experiencing. I expect this to continue to grow.
#4. Personal favourites for sound investment worthy gems nowadays would be first and foremost, top quality unheated Burma “pigeon’s blood” rubies. I have standing orders ranging up to over US$10M which I am unable to fulfil for lack of availability. Next, extra fine unheated Mozambique rubies, extra fine unheated Kashmir-like, padparadcha and pink Madagascar sapphires, exceptional Shakiso Ethiopian emeralds (no oil, insignificant or minor clarity enhancement), extra fine unheated Russian demantoid garnets, top 1% of really gemmy low hydrophane Ethiopian opals are still a bargain,
AsiaLounges: How can interested loungers contact you? Where can they meet you?
Jeffery Bergman: Jeffery@Primagem.com (mind the spelling) Bangkok is home but I travel a lot, happy to meet here, or at one of the shows, Hong Kong, Tucson, BaselWorld, GemGeneva etc.
AsiaLounges: Last but not least, our traditional advice to the younger generations and potential buyers that read these lines. Could you please provide three advices you’d have liked to receive when you started or three advices you’d give to your own child should she ever decide to join the fray?
Jeffery Bergman: First advice, DON’T!!!
I can’t change your mind?
OK, get educated!
There is great value in starting at the bottom like I did, licking rocks, and learning to cut gems.
Do at least one really respected basic gemology course. Read, read, read. Get your GG, FGA, SSEF-SGC if you have the budget. Go to international gem & jewelry trade shows, go to small regional shows, attend the seminars, go to many many shows, go to many many seminars, look at ten’s of thousands of gems, look at everything, ask questions. Keep doing this several times every year for the rest of your life.
Subscribe to gemology and jewelry periodicals. Read them all. For the rest of your life. Start a gem & jewelry library. Buy many many many books. Read them all. Then read them again. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times someone has asked a question, and something from an article or book I read 20 years ago popped into my mind.
If you are intent on gems being a lifelong career, get some experience in retail. Personally, I hated it, but what I learned was invaluable and has served me well for the past 35 years. The retail end user feeds us all. Learn that, serve that, protect that.
Finally, I’ve made it a lifelong habit to compliment people’s jewelry. If an amethyst pendant catches my eye, I will remark “what a lovely pendant, is that amethyst?” Invariably I receive an appreciative smile and a thank you, and often a conversation opens up. I know that person will walk away with a greater appreciation of their jewelry, and an increased desire to acquire more.
AsiaLounges: Jeff thank you very much for being with us today, I’m sure our readers, the Loungers, enjoyed reading these lines as much as we enjoyed writing them with you.
As for us, we’ll meet you Loungers again soon with more interviews and other articles related to the gem trade. If you liked what you read, feel free to Like, Comment and Share on your favourite social media platform so that family and friends may read it too! And, if you want to support A Gem Dealer's Journal, here is a link to our Patreon's Page.
Lastly, as per usual, should you have any suggestions about who we should interview next or what topic we should approach, feel free to contact us by mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll happily look into it for you.
See you in the Lounges,