From Prism Volume II 2024: Affiliate Member Profile, Brent Malgarin of Elegant Gems

By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

The Gem Connoisseur 

A seasoned dealer, cutter, designer, and retailer scales back his volume of work but ramps up his attention to rare and special stones.

As an undergraduate in the early 1980s at Washington State University, Brent Malgarin thought he would become an accountant, but a Diamond purchase—“for an investment,” he says—led him down a gemstone-paved career path. “I showed it to a friend who said I paid too much, I returned it, and found gems much more mentally stimulating than accounting,” he says.

He shifted gears and enrolled in the GIA in Santa Monica, Calif., obtaining his graduate gemology (G.G.) degree in residence in 1981. Afterwards, he returned to Washington state and worked for different retailers and wholesalers while dealing in loose gems and learning to buy, cut, and sell as a side hustle. He also started attending the Tucson gem shows.

“I got to know the dealers and would help them,” he recollects. “I’ve only missed a few shows over the years, but those early days were a lot of fun! You’d go to dinner, come back, and talk about gems and minerals until late in the night.”

He had mentors like gem dealer Bernadine Johnson and cutter Buzz Gray, who convinced him to buy a faceting machine. That began Malgarin’s cutting journey, where he taught himself how to cut by reading Lapidary Journal and through trial and error with polishing compounds. 

Some fruits of his labor have been memorable: he cut a no-heat Uruguayan Amethyst into a shield-cut trillion weighing 22.04 carats that won an AGTA Cutting Edge Award in 1992 and which he donated to the Smithsonian Institution. He won a second Cutting Edge Award in 2005. “In those days it was a learning experience all the time,” he says.

Lifetime of Learning

Malgarin worked for many people off and on through the years, learning something new with each experience.

Early in his cutting career, he could purchase “nice parcels,” cutting what he desired—until rough dealers started insisting that customers buy larger lots. In the 1990s, a more experienced peer asked him to attend trade shows in Bangkok and Hong Kong, an invitation he happily accepted. 

“I went with a friend who had been a dealer for 20-plus years, so I learned fast how to understand pricing and how to buy—which is an art unto itself,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult. Buying is where the money is made.”

As his career progressed, Malgarin managed both large and small chain stores and worked with suppliers, including a large Pearl dealer. In these positions, he learned how to deal with employees and how to buy for volume enterprises. He exhibited at trade shows nationwide—in Miami, Dallas, and Las Vegas. Fine color was his focus. At one point, he even worked as a gemstone lecturer on cruise ships, and another time with the FBI to catch a jewelry thief! His interests and involvement in jewelry seemingly had no boundaries. 

A turning point was on September 11, 2001. He was just landing in Bangkok for another show when he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center Towers on TV. “The whole business changed,” he said. “I didn’t know how long it would be before I could go home. And when I did, retailers didn’t want to buy as much because they didn’t know what the future would hold.” 

He kept at it for nearly another 10 years, until the Great Recession struck. Business for everyone then took a nosedive, and it didn’t make sense to be an on-the-road salesman. By 2010, he and his wife decided to open a retail shop in Edmonds, Wash. 

The Malgarins established Elegant Gems in a little gem-box of a building—580 square feet and filled with special antiques to house colored gems and gem-set jewelry. Among his treasures: a clawfoot oak table circa 1890 and a 10-foot oak table from the Idaho state capital building circa 1910. For sale were minerals, loose gems, jewels purchased from others, and some he designed himself and had manufactured. 

Awards Season

As he filled his cases with some of his own handiwork, peers took notice, particularly when he entered the AGTA Spectrum Awards.

In 2013, he entered a pair of earrings in 18K yellow gold with multicolored Sphalerite (14.87 ctw.) and Diamonds (42.0 ctw.) that took the Manufacturing Honors Award in the Evening Wear Division and Buyers Choice Award at the 2013 AGTA GemFair Tucson. 

Local clients started to seek him out for special designs, some that led to more AGTA Spectrum Awards. A female customer who gardened regularly did so in her inherited natural nacreous Pearl ring. “It had been in her family since the 1800s,” says Malgarin. He encouraged her to consider a new style to preserve the Pearl, a suggestion she took and embellished by bringing a second natural drop-shape Pearl to pair with the new design. 

He boldly proclaimed to her, “I’ll design a piece of jewelry for you that will win First Place in the Classical Division of the Spectrum Awards.” She had no idea what the Awards were but was intrigued and said yes. Malgarin got to work. His design? A triple-drop necklace in platinum featuring her 12.63mm and 15.22mm natural white Pearls accented with a 4.64 ct. blue Zircon and Diamonds (1.05 ctw.). 

In 2016, he entered it into the Spectrum Awards. It was his only entry, and as his prophecy foresaw, it won First Place in the Classical Division. Peer Jeffrey Bilgore of the eponymous design firm called him to share the news. “You entered one piece, and it took First Place,” Malgarin recalls. 

Last year, the Malgarins relocated to Idaho, but the business Elegant Gems will live on in smaller projects. A case in point is a graduated round layout of Sri Lankan royal blue Sapphires (44.0 ctw.) that he will set into a necklace. “Buying gems is like an addiction,” he laughs.

From Prism Volume II 2024: Affiliate Member Profile, Brent Malgarin of Elegant Gems
A triple-drop necklace in platinum featuring 12.63mm and 15.22mm natural white Pearls with a 4.64 ct. blue Zircon and Diamonds (1.05 ctw.). Malgarin designed this necklace for a client, and the piece won First Place in the Classical Division of the 2016 AGTA Spectrum Awards

Fast Facts on Brent Malgarin of Elegant Gems 

Contact: Brent Malgarin, Owner 

Years in Business: 42 

Headquarters: Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Phone Number: 206-355-5065

Email: [email protected]

Facebook: Elegant Gems on Facebook

From Prism Volume II 2024: Affiliate Member Profile, Brent Malgarin of Elegant Gems
Earrings in 18K yellow gold with multicolored Sphalerite (14.87 ctw.) and Diamonds (42.0 ctw.) took Manufacturing Honors Award in the Evening Wear Division of the 2013 AGTA Spectrum Awards and “Buyers Choice Award” at the 2013 AGTA GemFair Tucson.

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