Gem expert Richard Wise aims to lift gem trade's veil
PITTSFIELD — Valentine's Day may be behind us, but oftentimes, as Sean Connery's character counsels in the film "Finding Forrester," an unexpected gift, at an unexpected time, is most meaningful. For some, that might entail purchasing jewelry. If you're thinking of surprising a special someone with a ring or bracelet, though, gem expert Richard W. Wise advises against buying from the big brands.
"Most of the stuff that you see that comes out of jewelry stores in America is crap. It's junk," Wise said during a recent visit to his Pittsfield home.
Throughout a nearly 35-year career in the jewelry business, Wise frequently saw sapphires that were black, rubies that were brown and emeralds that resembled "broken Coke bottles." Those are three of the "big four" gemstones, the other being diamonds. Many customers know those types of gems. Other stones — and how they are assessed — can be mysteries to potential buyers. Store owners who purchase through gem distributors also have their own questions.
"The gem business, going way back, has always been sort of veiled in secrecy," Wise said.
For decades, Wise has been trying to peel back that shroud. Most recently, he finished the second edition of "Secrets of the Gem Trade: The Connoisseur's Guide to Precious Gemstones," which was first published in 2003. The book's roots can be traced to when Wise and Laurie Donovan opened a Lenox-based jewelry business, L. & R. Wise Goldsmiths, in 1980. Gem dealers began calling shortly thereafter, and Wise had a lot of questions. He had collected gems as a child, but still had never heard of, for instance, tourmaline. He also wanted to understand the valuation process.
"I always wanted to know why one thing was better than another," he said.
The dealers weren't particularly forthcoming.
"I didn't like the answers that I was getting, so I tried to research it and quickly found out that there were lots and lots of books about the geology and crystallography, and lore of gemstones, but there was nothing in literature where you could sit down and say, 'OK, this is how you judge a ruby,'" Wise recalled. "It didn't exist."
With distributors unwilling to reveal their sources, Wise decided to cut out the middle men. In 1984, he made his first trip to Thailand.
"In October, Wise flew to the jungles of southeastern Thailand, near the Cambodian border, to the area surrounding the city of Chanthaburi. There, for 10 days, Wise trod the path of the gems from the mines to the dealers to his store in Lenox. He returned with five rubies and 30 sapphires, some from Thailand, some smuggled into Thailand from Burma," Tim Cahill wrote in a Dec. 16, 1984 article in The Eagle.
"That [trip] was what launched me," Wise recalled.
He soon made another trip, this time heading to the Tuamotu Islands for black pearls and to Australia for opals. He also returned to Thailand and stopped in Hong Kong on that journey. Brazil, Colombia and East Africa were among his later destinations.
"These are the source areas for gemstones. ... There's not a lot in the U.S.," Wise said.
Wise wrote for trade publications and other titles about what he found on his travels. Along the way, he learned how to assess different gems, focusing on brilliance, color and the purity of the hue. The four Cs — color, cut, clarity and carat — are the most well-known criteria for evaluating stones. Wise puts it even more simply.
"The prettier it is, the better it is," he said.
Wise used his articles and findings to compile the first edition of his book, which includes industry secrets and 47 chapters about different gem types. One of his discoveries was that many larger stores' reliance on mass manufacturing ultimately hurts their offerings' quality. Basically, customers want the stones they see in advertisements and elsewhere to match what they buy. In order to meet this demand, stones at major retailers "have to descend in quality to the point where there's a certain abundance, consistency, which is the hobgoblin of rarity," Wise said.
For example, during his travels, Wise would often be presented with a parcel of stones.
"Maybe 90 percent of them you could say, OK, that manufacturer could buy this parcel, and he could sell that ring over and over again, and people would be happy. But there might be one or two stones that ... are referred to as the 'eyes' of the parcel, that are put in there to whet your appetite. Because if you put a couple of really good stones [in], they make everything else look better. It's odd, but that's the truth," he said.
Wise could buy the "eyes" because he didn't need the entire batch; his store was selling its items individually. And the dealers didn't mind the small transactions because the rest of the parcel's uniformity would ultimately dictate whether a larger operation would purchase it.
During his 33-plus years running his Lenox shop (later called R.W. Wise Goldsmiths Inc.), Wise sold a number of stones "in the seven figures." His personal best was $2 million for a vivid yellow diamond, he said. One of his clients, the late Otis resident Cora N. Miller, had a collection worth about $20 million, according to Wise.
"She has virtually everything, although diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald, you know. She was pretty traditional. Eventually, I'd get her to buy a garnet or a tourmaline, but generally, what she wanted was the finest of the fine," Wise said.
Wise retired in 2013. He's still writing; he just finished his second novel. His first, "The French Blue," is a work of historical fiction about French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier that was published in 2010.
Though Wise devoted much of his life to learning about and selling gems, he doesn't overstate their importance.
"The nice thing about it is that nobody needs to have a gem. I mean, it isn't like if I'm denying you a gem, your life is now going to curdle," Wise said. "... In a sense, they are the most valuable things, ounce for ounce, on earth that have no value at all. I mean, they won't keep off the rain. They won't keep you warm in winter, and probably, in a survival situation, you'd probably trade one for a can of beans. It's all perception."
Jeannie Maschino contributed research for this story.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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