My Journey into Gemstones

Originally published in the United States Faceters Guild Newsletter, June 2016.

My journey into the world of gemstones started in 2012 when I moved to San Francisco. Coming from Chicago where I grew up and lived for several years, I knew nothing of gems, nothing of crystals, nothing of the art form that would soon take over my life. Upon settling in San Francisco, I started dating a girl who used to be a crystal and gemstone vendor at festivals, following around the Grateful Dead and the like. As I got to know her better, I got to know her crystals better. She introduced me to the weird world of gem shows and I was immediately intrigued. I walked around the Marin Center in San Rafael looking at table after table of beads, little white boxes of sparkling stones, bowls of twinkling colors, and the people running the tables and I wondered to myself, “What is going on here?” I felt like I had stumbled into a secret community of commodity traders. My interest in the medieval era perked up as I got to understand the process by which stones are bought and sold. “It’s so SIMPLE,” I said to myself. I bought my first quartz crystal at that show, a banana sized clear thing with interesting and complex looking angles on the top and I was hooked before I knew it.

Gem Trading Room in Chanthaburi, Thailand

Over the next year, I was further indoctrinated into the world of precious stones. I went to a handful of shows around the Bay Area and I also made my first pilgrimage out to Tucson and its incredible, mind numbing, eye-straining smorgasbord of stones. My girlfriend and I also went to Thailand for six weeks and our mutual love of gemstones had a huge impact on our itinerary. From the gem district of Bangkok to the gem trading town of Chanthaburi, we saw a lot of stones in wild and exotic places. I was beginning to realize how worldwide this gem trade was. I couldn’t believe that I had never known anything about it before moving out West.

The next two thing that happened probably had the biggest impact over my future life choices and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that one of them is a TV show. I was curious about how these beautiful stones that I was seeing at the trade shows were taken out of the ground and how they were cut into such interesting shapes. I started looking online to see if there were books or resources that would give me the answers I was looking for. During that search, I discovered that San Francisco has a club called the Gem and Mineral Society. I also discovered a TV show called Gem Hunt.

Giant Quartz in Tucson

For those that haven’t seen it, the television show follows a seasoned stone buyer, a fashion expert, and a geologist as they go from country to country buying rough stones, haggling, going to mines, and getting the rough cut into gemstones. That program showed me exactly what I wanted to see; excitement, adventure, and really wild things. The show got my inner wheels turning and has been a source of inspiration to this day. I discovered several other gem hunting shows that year that further increased my thirst for gemstone knowledge. My background as an artist and musician really enabled me to appreciate the old fashioned artisanal aspect of the gem trade; the buying and selling of rough goods, the process of turning the rough into the fine, and then the process of selling the refined stones and pairing them with precious metals. It was an industry that I could really wrap my brain around and I wanted in. I just wasn’t quite sure how to do it yet.

As 2013 was ending, we were starting to talk about going to Tucson again. I knew I wanted to learn how to cut stones and I remembered that I had previously found the website for the San Francisco Gem and Mineral Society. I started looking at that again thinking about the membership process. My girlfriend and I were able to become members in January. At that time it felt like a scramble to acquire knowledge. I had one month to learn the foundations of cabbing before we left for our second pilgrimage to Tucson. I wanted to buy stones to cut but I needed to understand the cutting process so I would know what to look for. Everything was still very foreign to me then. Even though I had been going to gem shows and buying stones for a year, there was so much to learn and everything looks so different in big boxes on long tables in the hot Tucson sun. In the end, it all worked out. We joined the club, I learned to cut, I spent a huge amount of money in Tucson and came back to spend all my free time visiting the gem club, befriending its many members, and cutting all the rough stones I got.

Cutting my teeth on a piece of Jade.

I went on several mining trips during this time period. My understanding of how stones come out of the ground and how to find them was growing and I really enjoyed cutting and polishing stones that I had sourced myself. I still wanted to learn more and I started thinking about formal training. I looked at several gemology schools in the US and in Thailand and decided they were just too expensive. I also considered a proper geology degree from San Francisco State, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to commit to four years of higher education in my current life. I had been itching to return to school for a few years and I really liked the idea of pursuing my new passion through higher education, but I just wasn’t sure if it was the best idea. Also, it’s expensive and I wasn’t ready to commit to something so expensive. I put my gem school dream on hold for a year because another part of my life was also getting serious and I decided to dedicate 2015 to saving money for an extended research trip to the UK so that I could write a book about the landscapes of the Arthurian Legends. I successfully raised those funds and went on that trip and now my book is about to be finished, so I have returned to my original gem school dream plan.

Mining in Northern California

After six months abroad, collecting stories and stones from sacred sites, I returned to San Francisco to figure out what I would do with the rest of my life. I had just had my 32nd birthday and the yearning to return to some kind of educational program and change my career path was stronger than ever. I had been working as a bike messenger for 11 years and I was looking for something new to occupy my life. Luckily, the stones immediately took my attention again. I had been on a waiting list for a faceting class at the San Francisco Gem and Mineral Society for almost two years, and suddenly my name had come to the top of the list. Ever since I joined the club and learned how to cut cabochons, I knew what I really wanted to do was learn to facet. I started the class and immediately loved it. I loved the mathematical and geometrical aspects. I enjoyed working on the Ultratec. I enjoyed how much more impressive the finished stone looks compared to a cabochon. After only two classes, I bought my own machine. All I needed was confirmation that I was going to be able to enjoy figuring this technique out and I was ready. I started scouring ebay and craigslist and talking to a few people along the way and by Christmas, I had my own vintage Ultratec V2.

I decided that since I had successfully dedicated 2015 to my Arthurian quest and book then I could successfully dedicate 2016 to increasing my knowledge and skill with gemstones. The time had come and I was ready to commit. I was going to go to GIA and get a Graduate Gemologist degree. The price of on-campus education in the U.S. was too high for me to be able to afford so I started a long period of research and brainstorming to figure out a plan that would work with my budget and also offer me some excitement in it’s location. Eventually, I figured out that I could return to the UK to do half the GG program online and then do the other half in Bangkok. I decided that I could also take my faceting machine to the UK with me so that while my brain’s getting full of gemology information, my hands and eyes can continue towards mastering the art of faceting.

Gems ready for faceting

I started an intensive three-job work schedule and I figured out every single credit card rewards points trick to help me on my way. Between free rewards flight, cheap rent in Scotland and Bangkok, and putting all my possessions into storage, I have got the whole plan figured out and everything is in the works. I’m working 10–12 hours a day, 6 days a week until June 1st, while also attempting to cut stones for an hour or two at night. Starting June 1, I will not work until 2017. My days will be spent cutting stones on my recently acquired Polymetric Scintillator, learning through online GIA classes, and exploring the beautiful countryside of southern Scotland. In October, I head to Bangkok for two months to immerse myself in Diamond knowledge and to make contacts in the international gemstone trade. I will get my Graduate Gemology diploma on Christmas eve, and I hope to jump straight into the gemology trade. I love to travel so I am hoping to find some international work. My dream is to use the knowledge I acquire from GIA and from my faceting experience to be able to travel to exotic parts of the world such as Madagascar, Thailand, India, Tanzania, and Burma to identify, verify, and buy rough gems and then bring them back to the States, cut them on my faceting machine and then sell them to clients. I know this is a difficult dream to achieve but I am confident that all the pieces will fall into place. My motto for the last year has been “All Dreams Must Come True” and so far, everything is falling into place. My plane tickets are purchased, my GIA deposit is paid, my faceting machine is ready to go and I have enough rough gems to last me the rest of year. Gems rule everything around me. How much dreamier can life get?

About the Author

Justin K Prim is an American lapidary and gemologist living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. He has studied gemcutting traditions all over the world as well as attending gemology programs at GIA and AIGS. He is currently working on a book about the worldwide history of gemstone faceting. He works as a Lapidary Instructor for the Institute of Gem Trading as well as writing articles, producing videos, and giving talks about gem cutting history.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to read more of my gem and faceting related articles on my website below.