Billie Hughes, gemmologist at Lotus Gemology and award-winning photographer, sheds light on how her father influenced her passion for gems and her journey in the jewellery industry.
At the young age of 28, Billie Hughes has already co-curated an exhibition titled “Discover the Gemstones, Ruby & Sapphire” with Olivier Segura, gemmologist and scientific director at L’École, Van Cleef & Arpels School of Jewellery Arts. Below we find out how she inherited her love for gems from her father and founder of Lotus Gems, Richard W Hughes and her journey towards becoming a gemmologist.
One of the advantages of having gemmologist parents is that I’ve been able to visit gem mines around the world. In fact, I can’t really remember my first mining trip because I was only two years old. However, many of our later trips were highlights as I was growing up. I remember my dad taking me around tourmaline mines in California before I was ten years old. Getting to crawl into dark caves and dig for crystals was definitely cool.
It’s hard to choose just one. A trip I really enjoyed was when we traveled around East Africa for a month in preparation for our book Ruby & Sapphire: A Collector’s Guide. It was my first trip to mainland Africa, and we got to see amazing sights. During this trip we visited Mozambique, which currently has the most productive ruby mines in the world. I have never been anywhere else where you can dig up so many rubies in one day.
These field trips have taught me just how precious gemstones really are. Inside each stone is a story. While it’s exciting to see miners uncover a big, valuable piece, more often than not an entire day’s labor unearths only a few tiny pebbles. We have seen miners in Myanmar’s famous Mogok Stone Tract save tiny pieces of ruby scarcely larger than grains of sand. Yet despite the challenges, many miners have hope that the next big find might be hiding in their next bucket of gravel.
My dad shared his passion for gems with me from a young age. Whenever the opportunity arose, he would take me to mines and gem markets, so I was immersed in the world around gems early on. One of the great things about this industry is not just being around beautiful stones, but also meeting the fascinating people in our trade.
Although my parents are both gemmologists, I didn’t intend to join this field. After graduating from university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My dad suggested I try a gemmology class just to see if I would like it.
With some encouragement from my father, I signed up for an FGA (Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain) class and it was there, looking at specimens in the microscope, that I became hooked. Each stone contains an inner world. In a way the sense of adventure we get looking at stones under the microscope is not unlike the excitement of visiting a new mine.
When I was in university I actually studied political science. Perhaps if I hadn’t gotten into gemmology I would have continued to pursue that or gone on to study law like many of my classmates.
In fact, one of the things I love about gemmology is that it’s not a one-dimensional field. Gemmology combines science, art, history, and culture and allows us to explore all of these things. Being a lab gemmologist, I get to have a wide variety of experiences. One day at work might mean testing stones at the microscope and running different advanced instruments. Another day might involve going into the field to visit a mine and collect samples. When I meet with clients I get to connect with people from all over the world whose love for gems has brought them together. It never gets boring!
My dad’s beautiful photo of polysynthetic twinning in a pink sapphire from Vietnam is a special photo to us because it hangs in our lobby at Lotus Gemology. These twin planes (the parallel lines going diagonally across the stone) occur when the sapphire crystal is subject to stress or pressure after its formation. Sometimes these planes are difficult to observe, so my dad photographed this specimen between two crossed polarising plates. This makes them easier to see, producing the bright “rainbow” of interference colours in the image.
One of the things my dad always emphasises is to make the most of each opportunity that comes your way. This is important when visiting mines, for example. When you’re visiting a place like Mogok in Myanmar, regulations may quickly change, so it’s not easily accessible. He also places a high value on integrity. These lessons are important for both work and on a personal level.
However, we don’t just learn by advice, but from example. One of the things I admire about my dad is how seriously he takes the quality of his work. He puts great effort not just into the big picture, but in making sure that each detail is carried out with care and purpose. I try to follow this example and make sure my work meets those high standards.