Today we interview our friend Zoe Michelou from Imperial Colors and we’ll be discussing about her path in the gem trade. Daughter of a prominent coloured-gems sourcing entrepreneur and emerald specialist, Zoe has made a name for herself in the fine quality gem segment.
Discover with us today how she got involved in the trade and what pushed her to pursue the mine to market path she is now on.
Without any further delay, we give you Zoe Michelou!
Here is Zoe Michelou looking at some fine emeralds in Colombia - Photo Credits: Zoe Michelou
AsiaLounges: First of all thank you Zoe for agreeing to being with us today. Can you tell us more about yourself? Who are you Zoe Michelou?
Zoe Michelou: First of all thank you for inviting me for this interview. I'm a french citizen and I grew up in Colombia with my 3 brothers and sisters. I studied and lived in Paris. When I was 18, my father, a prominent life time gem business man took me in a very important gem and jewellery meeting and event in Jaipur where I discovered, and got embezzled, by the gems and jewellery splendour.
A couple of years later, I moved to Bangkok where I started an internship at Beauty Gems, followed by my education at GIA and GIT where I followed the Gem-A Classes. I completed my education with a jewellery design degree at GIT.
These education and training years in Bangkok gave me the opportunity to get an in-depth understanding of the particularity of the gemstone related activities. Bangkok, given its history, its proximity to China and other fast growing economy, is a prime destination for rough gemstones coming from producing countries making it a key platform for the trade and the merchants worldwide.
My first experience as a coloured gemstone buyer was for a large and reputed European jewellery manufacturing company established in Bangkok. My personal network put me in the path of the largest coloured gemstone miner in Nigeria, who offered me to help them develop the strategy and sales of rough tourmalines and garnets coming from their mines. It provided me with the opportunity to learn and manage the subtleties of tourmalines and other coloured gemstones coming from Africa from a grading, trading and processing stand point.
AsiaLounges: To my knowledge, there are rather few western women at the helm of a gem empire, and even less that travel to the mines to buy their rough. Can you tell us more about that part of your trade and what decided you to position your company this way. The mine to market way I mean?
Zoe Michelou: My activities took me to the mines in Nigeria on several occasions where I learnt all about small and large scale and mechanised mining as well as challenges related to local communities.
My Nigerian “bosses” trained me in African extraction and rough trade so that I could develop a pertinent grading and selling of the rough as well as cutting some of the best pieces. I became specialist of tourmaline rough and cut analysis and expanded my field of action to other rough sources like Paraiba in Mozambique, purple garnet from the boarder area of Mozambique/Zimbabwe. The Family background in emerald took me into the Swat Valley, in Pakistan, where I have been travelling regularly and got acquainted with the local culture, mining techniques and field rough grading. This opened a new opportunity to partner with local miners.
The nature of the family business and my orientation has always been at the source and from the source . By deciding to operate from Bangkok, the natural development of the activities were 2 steps higher in the direction of the consumer market through foreign wholesalers to jewelry manufacturers. I have been exposed continuously over the last few years to traceability, ethical sourcing, responsible mining in meetings and forums where I have been invited to participate. Obviously the trend of the century and the millennium calling for a solid commitment with Mine to Market and transparent business practice.
Ndlr.: read here an interview that Zoe gave to GIA about Tourmalines: https://www.gia.edu/gems-gemol
Here is Zoe Michelou inspecting a days worth of emerald production in Fizzaghat Mine, Mingaora, Swat , Pakistan. - Photo Credits: Zoe Michelou
AsiaLounges: You have been known to play with emerald, tourmalines and aquamarines mainly, is it out of personal taste, business requirements or?
Zoe Michelou: Emerald always has been sort of my favourite stone, probably because of the family influence and business related to this gemstone but also because of the mysticism and extraordinary history of Colombian emeralds throughout the ages.
My passion as a gemmologist and a passionate coloured gems hunter has taken me to whatever sources can offer me, extraordinary colors and sparkles.
Why tourmaline and garnets have been my other specialty, I have come across sources of top color aquamarines which we have been able to cut or re-cut in our lapidary.
As you know in our activities we must adapt to the market demand and adjust to the availability of the material.
Here is a selection of delicious No Oil Sugar loaves emerald from Swat Pakistan by Imperial Colors - Photo Credits: Zoe Michelou
AsiaLounges: We noticed that much like us and few others in the Bangkok market, you are inclined to sacrifice weight in order to get a better looking stone overall. Why this choice?
Zoe Michelou: Precision, proportion, symmetry, color, clarity and polish are the fundamental ingredients for a perfect cut stone. Only perfect cut stone can find a sustainable quality market. Therefore we have secured our own lapidary and cutting services which allows us to also provide our customers with a better service .
AsiaLounges: Further to the two previous questions, should you be free from market and marketing concerns, which would be the one gem you’d rather specialise in? In other words, which one is your favourite gem and why?
Zoe Michelou: Besides emralds, my favourite gem would be tourmalines of uncommon colours such as indicolite, lagoon blue tourmalines and paraiba. (Ndlr.: all of which are in the blue range safe from uncommon tourmalines which may adopt other shades).
In this regard, I have a personal taste for the development of special shapes and series that can be used by designers.
Here is a selection of Zoe's favourite gems from Imperial Colors Collection - Photo Credits: Arjuna Irsutti Photography
AsiaLounges: As a member of ICA yourself, I suppose you have heard of the now famous ethical question that seems to be lingering around the trade at all levels. What’s your take on this issue and how do you address it provided that it is an actual concern to you and / or your clientele?
Zoe Michelou: This is a very serious matter that we have been addressing for a couple of years in the development of my activities. Transparency, ethics, provenance and vertical integration provide customers and consumers with confidence. The demand and the technology of present days require concrete actions that will probably include proof of provenance and blockchain. I don’t see how the modern business in the coloured gem and jewellery sector can avoid this.
AsiaLounges: As a second generation of coloured-gems sourcing entrepreneur yourself, what are the most dramatic changes you see between our generations way to work and the previous one? Is there even a difference in your opinion?
Zoe Michelou: The fundamental of the business and the knowledge required professionally in our industry have not changed. However, extraction, practices, tools, marketing and sales platforms, mentality of customers and globalisation of the sector are obviously very different of what they were in the era of my father.
AsiaLounges: Many traders look at China as being the new El Dorado for the trade. Between the sheer number of potential clients and the financial power it represents many dealers are lured in by the promises of riches. What is your position concerning the rising crisis coming from China? By that I mean the fact that the current health crisis and economical concerns being raised as the Chinese market becomes more gem savvy?
Zoe Michelou: Chinese market for gem dealers is a dream, only Chinese merchants or Chinese partnerships within China can hope to develop a color gemstone business in China. Luxury brands for what they represent have been successful in China as the name of the brand reflects the value and exclusive quality that the Chinese typical rich customer wants to acquire. Outstanding designers who succeed in becoming famous with Chinese consumers can succeed with this huge but difficult market.
Western social medias are blocked in China and the language barrier make it very difficult to penetrate the Chinese market.
The crisis referred to in your question is hitting very severely the gem, jewellery and watch business as well as other businesses. However, there will obviously be a recovery one day with opportunities for those who will be well positioned at that time as the Chinese economy and growth will be number one.
Supervising the gem cutting of Imperial Colors Co-Production - Photo Credits: Zoe Michelou
AsiaLounges: Easier question as we are slowly reaching the end of this interview. In your opinion, is being a gemologist capital to doing what you do on a daily basis ?
Zoe Michelou: Definitely yes, knowledge of gemstone and gemmology is one of the fundamentals when you approach the industry. However, field experience and day and to day activities in real business life is the real education that contributes the most to the experience and success.
AsiaLounges: Last but not least, our traditional ending question, could you please provide three advices to people trying to follow in your footsteps and three books that you believe any gem lover out there needs to have in his/her library?
Zoe Michelou: This is a very difficult time to enter in an industry that is getting verticalised with a supply chain that is getting shorter and shorter with less and less actors and more and higher capital expenditure and technical knowledge.
3 books I will recommend to any gemologist or gemstone passionates are:
- The Emerald and Ruby compilation made by Gemfields and edited by Thames and Hudson.
AsiaLounges: Thank you very much Zoe 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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