Something of Myself title

It is said that everything has a beginning, middle and end. And so it is with my life and my book, Ruby & Sapphire. In telling the tale, perhaps it is best to begin with my own story. Like the Judeo-Christian God with his Bible, I shall start at the beginning…

University can wait

The seeds of my life in precious stones were sown at age 17, with a classmate's invitation to visit Europe upon graduation from high school. "Let's go! University can wait," Seth teased. "What better way to learn than to drink directly from the Fountain of Life? Just imagine, we'll run with Hemingway's bulls, explore life's meaning with Sartre on the banks of the Seine, discover love to a symphony of Crete sunsets. And have a damned good time, to boot. Whaddya say?"

I was captive – swallowing hook, line, sinker and angler's elbow. Two weeks after graduation, we found ourselves aboard Icelandic Airways. Europe and the world lay below. We were all aboard for the first of life's great adventures.

Go East, young man!

Asia was not initially in the cards. Seth and I had planned to winter in Israel, and return to Europe in the spring. But, in one of those glorious accidents that changes a life, I ventured to Sweden, tried to hitch a ride, failed and then made my way back to Copenhagen. My first night back was not nice, as a thief made off with my day pack and traveller's checks. So I was left virtually penniless.

That evening, as serendipity would have it, I met someone who would change my life. Colin had just made the overland journey from Asia and as he described the wonders of the East, I listened with rapt attention. Istanbul, Delhi, Rangoon, Bangkok – the names rolled off his tongue like a Kipling verse. And then he spoke the magic word – Nepal.

Now, one must understand. I had grown up in Boulder, Colorado, mountaineering Mecca of America. Reared on National Geographic documentaries showing climbers with their army of porters marching towards Everest, the Himalayas represented all one could aspire to. They were the cherry on the sundae, the holy grail, the pink flamingo on the suburban lawn. Dangling Nepal out there was like asking a 15-year old if he wouldn't mind showing your nymphomaniac cousin around town while you studied for finals. It got the blood a pumping! Then Colin casually mentioned that transport between Istanbul and Nepal would probably run, say… $35. This for a journey of some 5000 km. That sealed it. The die was cast; the hook was set, it was written. I had heard the Sirens' song and would answer the call.

Indeed, he was right. The Eastern lands proved every bit as splendid as described. But in terms of travel expenses, he had erred. It cost me only $25 to travel between Istanbul and Nepal.

Out of Africa

Before jumping straight into Asia, we made a small detour to Morocco, for a taste of the Third World. While waiting for the ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta, Seth and I made the acquaintance of Michael, an African-American from Detroit, who was to become our traveling companion during the next several weeks.

Our days in Morocco were… enlightening. From the moment we crossed the border at Ceuta, we were hassled, hustled, harassed, harangued and otherwise swindled.

Things came to a head in Fez, where we gathered in a decrepit hostelry, plotting escape from the madness. "Ya know, Mike," Seth and I opined, "You could pass for a Moroccan. Particularly if you wear one of those Moroccan jellabas (robes) you bought yesterday. Then we can go everywhere without being hassled – the street hustlers will think you're with us." Begrudgingly, Mike agreed the plan was a good one and thus, suitably attired, we hit the streets. After strolling about a block, with passersby nervously twittering, a voice suddenly cried out from a streetside café: "Hey black man! You're jellaba."

Ten days after our arrival, weightier in wisdom, but far lighter in coin, Morocco spit us onto the deck of a Tangiers ferry. We landed with an impotent bleat. Our last act in that fair land had been the purchase of a Herald Tribune, which proved to be dated before our arrival in Morocco.

Istanbul is Constantinople

Seth and I parted company in Greece; he headed for Israel and his own personal pilgrimage, I for Asia and mine. My first stop was Istanbul.

The Straits of Bosporus, less than one km wide, mark the physical separation between Europe and Asia. But the chasm of time between these two great continents can be measured in millennia. In Asia, particularly rural areas, one is quickly introduced to life as it was centuries before. A big part of that is precious stones, which remain an integral item of trade in much of the East. From Iran's turquoise, through Afghanistan's lapis lazuli, to the rubies, sapphires and jade of Burma and Thailand, jewels and jewelry are a constant fixture.

India at last

India is best summed up in the comment of one of my fellow travelers, who declared: "It seems to survive in spite of itself." While you either love it or hate it, I found myself doing a bit of both. More than in any other land I visited, I felt transported back to another age.

Since the 15th century, the destination of most overland travelers from Europe was the same – India. I will never forget my first experience. One of the delights of overland travel is that of crossing land borders. Sudden changes in mood and culture always bring surprises. And the Pakistan-India border was a perfect ten. While the Persians had set up an entire museum at the Afghan border to deter smugglers, India took a more subliminal approach. Travelers were set in line, and handlers brought out a psychic. She slowly approached each and, after a wave of the hand over the forehead, said sternly: "Where is your contraband?" No one broke down into a slobbering heap during my crossing, but later, it was said she was "very good at detecting smugglers."

My friend, Peter, and I took the bus into Amritsar. We had first met in Berlin; later I stumbled upon him on a Khyber Pass-bound bus in Kabul. Over the next several months, we would experience the subcontinent together.

At the Amritsar bus station, inside the station, in line, was a cow, seemingly waiting for a ticket on the last bus out. Welcome to India. That night we slept inside the Golden Temple, scene of the Sikh siege in 1984.

Jewels from the mine

My career in gems got off to an ignominious start. Having been offered various and sundry "jewels and priceless relics" from all points east of Istanbul, Peter and I decided to take the plunge in Jaipur. Throwing caution to the wind, we would purchase a small parcel of Indian star rubies for resale. Our search began in a small jewelry shop near Jaipur's Hawa Mahal (Hall of Winds).

Clever chaps that we were, Peter and I concluded we simply needed a good ruse. Deep in the core of our being, we just knew that the vulpine Oriental venders would hold back the finest goods. Thus we demanded the seller "bring out the good stuff" after each parcel was displayed. Peter, playing the best Abbott to my Costello, would pass a packet across the table for my look-see. Upon poring over a single $1/ct ruby for ten minutes, holding both stone and loupe at arm's length, and checking the star from all directions, I then pronounced judgment: "My good man, this will just not do! We are big dealers, with no time to waste! Show us the good stuff!"

Not even a single paise descended from heaven. Instead, following several parcels and several rejections, the seller looked us straight in the eye and, in the vernacular, told us we were full of that which emanates from the rear of a Hindu holy animal. He then proceeded to scold us, explaining that, from the moment we stepped into his shop, it was obvious we were simple tourists, not dealers. Such was apparent merely by the way we handled the loupe and stone papers, not to mention the fact that I had failed to notice the star on one stone because it was upside down. We beat a hasty retreat and, regrouping outside, decided our hiking boots must have given us away.


Peter and I arrived at Raxaul, on the Nepalese border, at midday. Too late to catch the bus to Kathmandu, but with the Himalayan foothills glistening in the distance, we would not be deterred. We immediately set off for the border. Like so many Asian land borders, the station on one side was a distance from that on the other. Leaving India was, well, Indian – all hassle and uncertainty. Crossing the small creek that delineated the border, one immediately entered another world. "Would the customs agent like to see our bags?" Only if we had a mind to carry them from the horse buggy into the shed. "And would he mind chopping our walking papers anyway?" Of course, with a smile. Namasté.

On the Nepalese side, the Himalayas beckoned. We quickly found a truck driven by a Sikh, heading for Kathmandu that very night. "Were we interested?" Would a bear shit in the Vatican? If given the chance, yes. As December's dusk slowly enveloped the surrounding terai, we set off. The sun's last rays blazed in our wake as we entered the foothills. Midnight came and went and we still headed up, twisting and turning into a Himalayan wonderland, with only our imaginations and the truck's weak headlamps illuminating our path.

Many Indian trucks have a storage space above the cab and so I climbed up to stretch out. It was there that I completed the journey, amidst the pines and stars. As the sun rose, we descended the final hill into the Kathmandu valley. Paradise lost – paradise found. It was pure magic. Even today, words seem utterly inadequate, so I will not try. Suffice to say that my stay in the Kingdom lasted several months and included a journey to the Himalaya's inner sanctum. I was hooked, and have since revisited Nepal again and again, most recently in December 2003, when I journeyed to Nepal's Khumbu region after a 25-year absence.

Oh, Calcutta

From Nepal, I beat a swift path to Calcutta, original capital of the British Raj. Anyone who has traveled to India has heard the Calcutta horror stories – the beggars, the cripples, the grinding poverty… Expecting the worst, I arrived at Howrah station at dawn, just slightly tattered, considering I spent the trip in a luggage rack on an Indian train. Instead of despair, I found a vibrant city, one which continues to be my favorite metropolis on the subcontinent.

Burmese Days

Depending on how one worked it, Burma was either the most, or least, expensive country in Asia. Officially, $1 bought six kyat; unofficially, it was closer to thirty. The game was thus: tourists could legally import one carton of cigarettes and one liter of whisky. Obtained at Calcutta's DumDum [1] airport, these would be sold for several times their value in Rangoon. With the exchange of $10 at the legal rate, to satisfy Burmese officialdom, the proceeds were enough to live on for the full week, and then some.

Superficially, Ne Win's Burmese Road to Socialism appeared like the disordered in charge of the disenfranchised, with all in disarray. But evidently somebody was keeping track – six copies were required for every visa application.

Burma represented a topsy-turvy, never-never land where up was down, down was sideways and time moved only slightly above the stall speed of a bicycle. Central government policies had so decimated the manufacturing and agricultural sectors that even basic necessities had to be purchased on the black market. And so ubiquitous was this black market that locals called it the brown market. One of Burma's most important products was gems. I recall trading an old and dirty towel for an orange spinel in Mandalay and, to this day, continue to be bewildered that anyone would want that rag. As the saying goes: "In the Land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

Bangkok Nights

If Kublai Khan's pleasure dome could be reincarnated into the present, it would rest in Bangkok. Like parched survivors emerging from the Sahara, overland travelers deplaned in Bangkok to a world long-since forgotten. For the first time since Istanbul, one found unheard of luxuries – air conditioning, ice cream, cold beer, beautiful girls in miniskirts – it was more than a grown man could take. As an adolescent, I made sure to get more than my share. I was in love, head-over-heels. Bangkok was destined to become my home for a number of years.

Thailand was, is, and probably always will be, one of those glorious places on the planet. A place of enjoyment, a place of warmth, a place of good cheer, a place of jai dee (good heart) and sanuk dee (good fun). Indeed, it is the Land of Smiles. And a smile is always better than a frown. Every time I return, my grin is ear-to-ear.

Getting down to business

Somewhere it is written that every Bangkok resident should aspire to open either travel agency or jewelry store. Since I was living in Bangkok, and since I cared nothing for the vagaries of ticketing others to paradise, I chose gems. My entrée took the form of a gemology class at the newly-minted Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS). One thing led to another and I eventually ended up managing the Institute. Once again, university could wait.

It was exciting, particularly in the beginning. The school's owners ran one of Bangkok's largest wholesale gem houses. Each morning we would troop in early to check the goods purchased the previous day, with loupe and tweezers our only tools. Buyers came from around the world, particularly Japan – we quickly learned the peccadilloes and tastes of each. Best of all, we would play the precious-stone version of The Price is Right, guessing the cost of each lot before checking what had really been paid. It was an invaluable experience.

On the border

Weekends were often spent at the Burmese border, particularly Mae Sot. An overnight bus on Saturday night put one in Mae Sot Sunday morning, giving daylight hours for stone purchases. Then it was back on the bus for Bangkok, a quick shower and work Monday morning. When not in Bangkok or Mae Sot, I was off visiting the Cambodian border, Mae Sai, Bo Ploi, Phrae, Chanthaburi, India, Sri Lanka, Burma. Seven days a week, I lived, stroked, inhaled precious stones.

By hook and by book

As all close to me can testify, I suffer a terminal love of books. Thus the first task I undertook at AIGS was creation of a library. But it was a colleague, Bill Spengler, who kindled my interest in antiquarian books. Having grown up in Kabul and Peshawar, Bill was constantly traveling hither and yon. When he returned from one Calcutta sojourn with an Indian edition of Tavernier's Travels, I was fascinated. Soon I was doing the same, stocking AIGS and my own library with the obscure, the interesting, the fascinating… along with plotting my own literary career.

Push comes to shove

Inspiration to write came via two contrary channels. The push was two books with which I had fallen in love: Kunz & Stevenson's Book of the Pearl and Sinkankas' Emeralds and other Beryls. The word magnificent does not do these works justice. Their pages put the thought in my mind to do a similar, comprehensive volume on ruby and sapphire. [2] Shove occurred during a particularly distasteful corporate "motivational" retreat. I suppose it worked. Then and there I made the decision to begin doing things for my own welfare.

Love potion number 3.32

Life was not all work and no play. I did find time for other activities. Among my varied duties was working in the closet-like confines of the AIGS lab. It was there, amidst the ever-present odor of di-iodomethane (methylene iodide) and the occasional foray to Patpong's Mizo's Kitchen that love came to town. My colleague, Wimon, and I were eventually married, and now have a beautiful daughter, Erin Billie. We continue to share a passion for precious stones, fine music and sashimi. And when we smell methylene iodide, we still get all worked up…

The Gemological Enquirer

Mark Twain and I are in very much the same position. We have to put things in such a way as to make people who would otherwise hang us, believe that we are joking.

George Bernard Shaw

While the first edition of Ruby & Sapphire [Corundum] was in the hands of the publisher, I began work on a periodical, entitled Gemological Digest. A better appellation would have been the Gemological Enquirer, for, compared to the staid cud typically doled out by test-tube publishers, it must have seemed like a supermarket tabloid.


In our quest for irreverence, more than a few sacred cows met their maker. I can say with some satisfaction that industry figures were haunted by thoughts of what was printed. Like a Scud missile, readers either applauded or ducked, depending on the accuracy of our aim. Thankfully, yeas always outnumbered the philistines by a substantial margin.

I will always remember my employer's skittish disposition whenever I brought a new issue over for vetting. After pausing to read it, Henry would cluck and titter like a nervous hen:

Let's see, this time you've insulted Ne Win, De Beers, the GIA, the Pope, CIBJO, organized religion, the old, the young and the restless, atheists, beggars, blind hookers and the entire cast of Rambo. Sure you haven't missed someone?

Warming to the task, Henry would then consult his shopworn copy of the World Registry Of Definable Groups Who Might at Some Future Date Impact Business, and, with toe extended, gingerly test the waters:

Hmm. Except the Northern Kerala Mango Growers' Association, I can't find any new targets. So I suppose we're safe. But Kee-rist, can't you ditch the disparaging remark about Mother Theresa? Thank god that mango outfit doesn't subscribe.

Thus another issue would be put to bed. Such are the sensitivities of the sensitive. But I must confess, Henry always gave me plenty of rope.


Shortly after the birth of my daughter, my wife Wimon and I came to realize that Bangkok was not a particularly nice place for a child. While the people remained as warm as ever, physically, the city had become a monstrosity. Pollution soared literally beyond measurement and an increasing part of each day was spent idling in traffic. The city's worst aspect was its jack-hammer noise, which continued relentlessly, 24-hours-a-day.

Thus the decision to leave was made. Following a brief stay in Vietnam, my family and I returned to Boulder, land of my roots. In the process, I rediscovered some of the beauties of my original home. Clean air, the change of seasons, regular exercise and, most importantly, quiet; are all pleasures relearned, renewed. It was there that I penned Ruby & Sapphire.

From pen to ink

All of 1996 and much of 1997 were spent giving birth in Bangkok to the new-and-improved Ruby & Sapphire. It was an opportunity to renew old acquaintances, as well as to visit gem deposits, both old and new. Rather than describe them here, I will let the reader browse the site map for my writings from that period. Included are major pieces on Burma's ruby and jade mines, the demise of Thailand's corundum deposits and other gem hunting adventures.

Back to the lab

In late 1997, I began working for the Los Angeles-based Gem Quality Institute (GQI), in charge of their colored stone department. Gemstone enhancement disclosure had finally become an issue of importance and GQI led the way with the most comprehensive enhancement disclosure report in the world, one which has since been copied by many other labs. In addition, I served as editor of GQI's quarterly newsletter, GQ Eye.

All in the family

1999 found me ready for new challenges. I moved to the little town of Fallbrook, California, where I worked with William Larson and Pala International. Pala has one of the finest arrays of colored stones, jewelry and minerals in the country, and Fallbrook is America's Idar-Oberstein, home to many gem and mineral dealers and just minutes from the famous tourmaline, spessartite and kunzite mines.

Best of all, I really felt at home. Working at Pala was a dream, providing exceptional colored stones to discerning clients. And I loved the people I worked with. Bill, Josh, Gabe and the rest of the Pala staff are beyond belief. Every day surrounded by them was and is a gift, a day added to my life.

If you are in the market for fine gems or minerals, give Josh, Gabe or Bill a holler at 800-854-1598. There are no better people in the business to deal with.

Trial by fire

Late in 2004, a dear friend of mine, Ken Scarratt, contacted me. We had known each other since he took over AIGS following my departure, and had become blood brothers during the beryllium wars of the new millennium. Following the Asia economic crisis of 1997, he had moved on to New York, founding the AGTA Gemological Testing Center, which quickly established itself as the premier colored stone lab in the US.

Ken was looking to hire experienced people. With his sweet British accent, he managed not only to lure me away from Pala, but to get John Koivula from the GIA. Together John and I opened a Left Coast branch of the AGTA-GTC. Along with the addition of Lore Kiefert (formerly of SSEF) and the rest of the NYC staff, AGTA-GTC built a "dream team" of the finest gemologists in the world.

It was at the AGTA-GTC that I was introduced to Loretta Castoro. While Loretta and I had met before, in the lab we renewed our friendship. Soon she was back to Bangkok, and when the opportunity arose in 2008, I joined her back in Bangkok, at GemsTV. Later, a friendship initiated through an article I had written developed into my latest position, with SinoRMC, a company mining sapphire in Laos and Australia.

Three decades on…

For Wimon and I, it was full circle. Love is… the feeling is beyond magic. So many are like us. We are not the first. Coming together in an intersection of cultures, expectations and, in the end, understandings.

We met in Bangkok, fell in love in that City of Angels, departed for a decade into America, and returned once more to Asia.

They say you can never go home. It's a lie. It's been 30 years since my first journey to Asia. The passage of time has done little to dull my thirst for new lands, new experiences, new adventures. While I have visited more than fifty countries on six continents, my fascination with Asia continues to draw me towards that great mass of humanity.

Many have said about the Himalayas that memories are just not good enough, which is why we are continually drawn back. And so it has been with me and Asia. Whenever I look at a map of that great continent, I see not where I've been, but where I haven't. New adventures await. Land's end continues to be just out of sight, just over the next horizon. All it takes to get started is for someone to say: "Let's go!" Suddenly, I'm 17 again, and university can wait. I'm all aboard for another of life's great adventures.

Richard W. Hughes
Bangkok, Thailand
October 2010

  1. Allegedly named in honor of the fact that it was the first site where dum-dum bullets were used. [ return to text ]

  2. Amazingly, until the first edition of this book in 1990, there existed not a single volume devoted exclusively to ruby and sapphire. [ return to text ]clear gif

The above is mainly taken from Richard W. Hughes' book Ruby & Sapphire. See also Colourful Language, the recent Australian Jeweller interview. Or browse the RWH Bibliography.clear gif




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