Behind any piece of handmade jewelry there is a lot of work. Skills, experiments, hours of creative happiness and frustration. And when we see something really good we feel it, there is some particular energy in it! Now imagine that there is a lot of work not only behind the piece itself but also behind the materials it is made of. And the most miraculous is A Stone.
I am really happy to present you an interview completely dedicated to the work behind the stone. The work that is often not noticed even by the professional jewellers, not even talking about the customers. The work behind a great, beautiful, perfectly cut stone. Because it is a miracle, how out of tones of dirty gravel, through the hands of hundreds of people is born something that you are happy to wear on a finger.
I talked to Martine Lavoie behind Pierres de Charme about the ordinary work of a gem dealer, how to make sure you are getting really a good stone and what can be sustainable about it. It is also a really wonderful talk about the backstage of the gem industry and how it was possible only in five years to build up the business name well-known in Canada and internationally. I think it will be interesting for both, professionals and curious jewelry lovers.
Martine, thank you for finding some time for me! Let’s start from the beginning, how your business was born?
I started in August, 2012. I was in real estate and even though I loved my job I became passionate with gemmology and it made me want to go that way. When I started I took my savings to make this business. I said to myself, I need to invest in a new job which will bring me some money, allow to travel and meet many people in the next 25 years. I don’t need so much money but I need to do what I like. But it needed a lot to start! I could not do it at 20, at 30 years old.
I bought some stones in Brazil because I had a trip there with the School of Gemmology. I built an office at home in my son’s room. I had my microscope and everything, made a library. I thought, I would meet there some customers.
I had no sapphires, no topaz, no amethyst or citrine. I had only stones from Brazil – tourmaline, some garnets. What they call semi-precious stones. Now I call them fine gemstones, because semi-precious is like a slang, it’s not the right term. I had also some emeralds, because I visited the mine, some imperial topaz. I also had some stones from my personal gem collection. And I decided that I’m going to be a gem-dealer.
I decided to go out and to meet some people. I thought, everybody would like what I have, it was so beautiful! But they did not. Most of them didn’t know some stones, like green garnet, for example. They did not know, natural zircon exists. They were traditionally buying sapphires, ruby, emeralds. I was a little disappointed to discover that they did not want to be open-minded.
My client networking was also awful. I could go to Laval, to Dorval, then to Magog… (cities in the Montreal area). I could meet only 2-3 customers per day. And in less than a year I decided to move to 620, Cathcart (a building with jewelry services in Montreal), because there are so many people that can come per day! We have infrastructure like this only here, in Toronto and Vancouver.
So, when people from all around started to come in big quantities, I realised that I need to buy sapphires, ruby, topaz, citrine and all the other traditional choices. And to buy much more than what I had. At some point you realise that you need to have everything in all shapes and sizes, cuts and colours. It’s incredible! It goes up to thousands of gems!
I started with nothing, I really started with 80 stones. Now it is many thousands.
When I was starting, I did not know what I was doing. And I thought it would be easier. It was really hard at the beginning.
One person in New York once told me: “I am going to Hong Kong to sell my stones. Now there is so much money there. I am going where the money is”. Sounded stupid. I started to think, if the money is not in Montreal for gemstones, where is it? And then I went to Vancouver. I googled every single name of the jeweller, of every goldsmith and silversmith. Who actually make jewelry with the stones they buy, not getting the pre-made jewelry. I then headed to Halifax, then Calgary, then Toronto, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon and more! I googled jewellers in every city! And going there for 2-3 days. In one week I could meet 40 people! That was a huge change!
There is much more coloured gemstones culture in these places, especially, in the west and even in a small town like Halifax or even Charlottetown. There I would sell the same amount in three days as I would sell in three months here, in Montreal, at that time. I did not have many people coming in.
Why do you think it was so hard to start here?
Why? First of all, they must have said: “Who’s that person, is she serious?” To buy gemstones you need trust. They did not know me. They may be thought, it’s a hobby, and I would stop doing it in two years, who knows.
There are also other people doing it. After a year Benedict, my daughter, joined the company. I think, at that time they started to take it more seriously. There are other people joining. The younger generation is doing it, it will last. So, we started to have a bit more people. But it took good three years. Now it’s working. We have a lot of people, but the new ones keep coming, also. There are so many jewelry stores in Quebec! I had no idea!
Even if they don’t buy a 5-thousand stone now, they might once come with such client. It takes time to build the relationships. All the time it is growing like a snowball.
So, it kept growing. We keep buying more stones. And every time I buy, I think, oh, this big cabochon, I know Rebecca in Toronto, she will like it. Or Erin in Vancouver likes this. I always have my clients in my mind.
You are not an office gem-dealer. You travel a lot, go to the mines. Tell about it!
I went to many mines. My first trip, as I told, was to Brazil. Than I went to the ICA (the International Colored Gemstone Association) congress in 2013. I went to Tanzania, I was organizing the trip with the School of Gemmology. There was a trip to Burma. Everywhere I was meeting the dealers, the people from the mines where I still keep getting the stones directly. They are still my friends and my suppliers.
I still have a lot of stones from Brazil. They have everything there, they cut really well. My emeralds are also from Brazil. It is very very rare that you can trace a stone. With these I can. For example, you got a sapphire from Sri Lanka, the cutter might have bought it from Madagascar. It moves. Me, I buy all my emeralds from the mine in Brazil. From the mine’s owner.
For, let’s say, amethyst or citrine you can’t really know – they are found all around the globe and are not really traced.
When you have some stones that you really know where they come from, it is really good, but it isn’t easy to trace all the time.
Sapphires and amethyst
How the stones are sourced by the dealers? How to tell a good dealer from a bad one?
For me one sign of quality is the International Coloured Gemstone Association.
People there are mostly big gem dealers, very well-known and trusted. They do only shows – Hong Kong, Germany, Tucson… I am getting directly morganite, emerald, tourmaline, aquamarine, imperial topaz. For these I know exactly where they come from. They are well cut. I’ve negotiated excellent discount during the last past years. My sapphires and rubies I buy from one of the biggest companies in the world. They have calibrated stones. It means, all the round will be the same, all the oval will be the same. I also have a big dealer closer, in New York. If I need something to show quickly I can get it the next morning..
For the rest I have some small businesses that we found ourselves when we went to the mines. For example, to Madagascar. They have a small production and they have a very good mine, they do a lot for people working there. They have a medical institution, good working hours, etc. Also, none of their stones are treated. They have spinel, ruby, pink sapphires, aquamarine…
Their aquamarine is a bit greener, because it is untreated – the heat takes of the yellow, it becomes blue. Some people ask for that. There are more and more people who want untreated stones. But we have to understand it is very rare. Most of the stones are treated in a way or another, mostly heat treated, as the earth would do in a way.
Also, we went to Sri Lanka last May. We decided the following. Since the coloured sapphires are very trendy, we got some in Montana, the raw materials. And went to have them heated and cut in Sri Lanka, We can garanty the tracability and the ethical of all our Montana sapphires. It became a niche market for us. We also checked many stones ready cut there. We were seeing 800 stones per day, from 9-18. the non-blue sapphires, the white, coloured…they come in so many colours!
There is a growing demand for the white sapphires. If they are very well cut they might look like a diamond, but a carat is around a 1000$. For a diamond it will be 10 000$. You know, you need to bring what the market wants.
We’ve visited some cutting factory and were imppressed withthe process of the cutting. If somebody says: “How come this stone is 20$? It’s too expensive”. But only imagine, you have to find the mine, to extract the raw material from the mine. It is a rough piece that you need to give someone to cut it.
It is really precious. When you go to a mine, all you see is gravel. Before you find a sapphire … Tons of gravel before getting a tiny dirty raw stone.
How to choose a good stone dealer?
For us it worked because we are gemmologists. Some gem dealers are not but they have been doing it from generation to generation, it is often a family business. They have their knowledge. It is also okay. They are known to everyone.
For me the quality mark is to properly disclose the treatment.
Sapphires before and after heat treatment
We want everyone to disclose the stone treatment (whether it was heated). Because the most important thing is the reputation. If some customer says to the jeweller: “You sold me a topaz instead of an aquamarine”, it is the gem dealer who is responsible and has no excuse for that.
It is very important, the whole chain, from whom you buy. All infrastructure. I won’t go to buy from someone I don’t know. I can not take the chances. I can’t always check everything I am buying.
Because if you lose your reputation, you lose everything. It is funny but when you go to the mine it’s to understand the geology and where the gemstone come from. But you have to know that is the greatest place to have people selling you synthetic stones.
It is an amazing world! It is different e as a jewelry business. If you go to a big jewelry show, it is more like a fashion show, with its rumours, trends, gala, dresses, things like that. My world is completely different. The gem-dealer is always the owner, who is at the table. They travel from one show to another three-four times a year. They don’t stay at expensive hotels, they sleep at the same room as their employee. It is very simple and low-profile. We are all together, sharing information. We are not in competition. Somebody in Brazil may tell me: “I know this guy for the black diamonds”. He can give me the name of anyone, we help each other.
It is a very close world, we do congresses, mine tours. It is really a kind of a family. A really nice network. I was in real estate and it was such a different world! A lot of generosity and kindness, it is unbelievable. They are unbelievable, they will do anything to please us. This chain is really really important.
In a way it is a tough business. Nobody is making much money. No one really got rich in it. All the time you need to reinvest money into new inventory, to buy, to buy…
So, as I said, to be a really good gem dealer you need the whole chain behind you to do this business.
The second thing you need to give a great service. To react quickly, to send the photos, to send stones on memo (consignement) If they want something they want it now.
We always give any information the customers need. I believe, if you help people, someone will help you. Somehow it works out. I am sure. If you give it somehow comes back.
Garnet, tanzanite, rubellite, tourmaline
Can you tell a bit about sustainability? What does it mean to be ethical in the world of gems?
Well, as I already told, first of all it is really great when you can trace your stones directly to the mine, which is rare and possible only for certain type of gems.
Secondly, it is the mine itself. But here we need to remember that our understanding of ethical work conditions in Canada and, let’s say in Sri Lanka are not the same. Because outside the mine the workers would have much worse conditions or even no job at all. However, there are some mines that go higher in their standards, provide good medical care, food, etc. Like the factory where we cut our stones in Sri Lanka.
One last thing to add, the ethical question mostly concerns “blood diamonds”, it is rare to have that “blood” type of business with the coloured gemstones. And even with the diamonds it is significantly improving.
Photos in the text: Pierres de Charme
Photo on the cover: Photo stock