On a recent trip to Bangkok I met up with fellow Gem nerd and facetor, Justin Prim. He has created a school in Bangkok called the Institute Of Gem Trading which focuses on practical aspects of the gem trade. Classes include analysing rough gemstone, cutting gemstones and even how to run a gem business. I sat down with Justin and had a chat to him abut how he started in the Gem world. It is always fascinating to hear the journey that others have taken. The amount of knowledge needed to succeed in the gem world is enourmus.
If you are interested in what Justin has created at the school, I would encourage you to visit the IGT website and checkout the courses.
My journey into the world of gemstones started in 2012 when I moved to San Francisco, California. 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 met a girl who introduced me to the weird world of gem shows and I was immediately intrigued. As I walked around my first gem trade show, looking at table after table of beads, little white boxes of sparkling stones, bowls of twinkling colors, and the diverse array of people running the booths, I wondered to myself, “What is going on here?” I felt like I had stumbled into a secret community of ancient 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.
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 the Tucson Show and its incredible, mind numbing, eye-straining smorgasbord of stones. I took my first trip to Thailand that year and my love of gemstones had a huge impact on my itinerary. From the gem district of Bangkok to the gem trading town of Chanthaburi, I saw a lot of stones in wild and exotic places. I was beginning to realize how worldwide the gem trade was.
The next two things 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 immediately 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 lapidary club called the Gem and Mineral Society. I also discovered a TV show called Gem Hunt.
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 faceting stones, haggling, going to mines, and getting the rough stones cut into finished 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 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 finished gemstones 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.
Learning To Cut Gemstones
As 2013 was ending, I was starting to think about going to Tucson again. I knew I wanted to learn how to cut stones and I started thinking about the San Francisco Gem and Mineral Society. I was able to become a member in January and then it was a scramble to acquire knowledge: I had one month to learn the foundations of cutting cabochons before my 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: I 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.
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. 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.
Around that time, my name came to the top of the waiting list for a faceting class in the San Francisco lapidary club. 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 machine. I really appreicated how much more impressive the faceted 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.
As I learned to facet, I knew I needed to go deeper in my knowledge. The time had come and I was ready to commit. I was going to go to GIA and get a Graduate Gemologist degree. Always looking for the financial tricks and loopholes, I figured out that I could do half the GG program online from a friends house in the UK and then do the other half at the Bangkok campus. I decided that I could also take my faceting machine with me so that while my brain got full of gemology information, my hands and eyes could continue towards mastering the art of faceting.
I saved up money for six months and then left America. I spent the summer in Scotland, helping a friend renovate a 100 year old schoolhouse while I did my GIA Colored Stones program. Then, as planned, I went to Bangkok to finish my GG program with the Diamonds class. I finished the whole thing around Christmas and at that point I had decided that it wouldn’t make sense for me to go back to America. I was in the epicenter of the world’s gemstone trade. As a gemcutter, all the work was here. As a gemologist, all the connections were here. As a merchant, all the stones were here.
I got lucky and met Field Gemologist Vincent Pardieu and was able to persuade him to let me tag along on one of his field expeditions to the Zircon mines of Cambodia and Ruby mines along the border of Thailand and Cambodia. I learned a lot from the experience and through Vincent and other new gem trade friends I was able to get my first actual job in the Bangkok trade. I started teaching gemology courses at AIGS while also preparing a gem cutting course that I would eventually teach.
The Birth Of The Institute Of Gem Trading
After six months at AIGS, I left to help open a brand new school in Bangkok called the Institute of Gem Trading. Its mission was to be the missing link between the traditional gemology training and the actual trade. Many new gemology graduates (myself included) get a bit of a shock when they realize that their shiny new gemology degree doesn’t automatically open all the doors to the trade. There is still years worth of knowledge that must be obtained first hand after graduating before one is ready to start a company in the gem business.
Around the same time, I embarked on a passion project which is to be a book about the history of gem cutting. This subject is endlessly fascinating to me and has led to me traveling around the world many times, looking for Renaissance-era jewelry, old manuscripts, antique faceting machines, as well as meeting gemcutters in countries all over the globe and learning their stories. For the last two years, I have collected an incredible amount of information and have been regularly publishing articles about my findings as I prepare my full-length book for publication.
The journey seems to keep unfolding endlessly. I am teaching monthly faceting classes at IGT while also doing research for my book which involves lots of travel, writing, and giving presentations. I’ve been creating new gem cuts based on my research as well as developing a line of Renaissance-inspired jewelry. The more I travel and meet and study with cutters, the better I become at cutting and the better I can communicate my knowledge with my students as well as through my articles and talks. Everything seems to be related right now as I wander down the halls of the past and peer into possible futures for the gem trade and the world of gemstone cutting.
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.