By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief
This is the first installment in a series about women in the gemstone industry.
Yvonne Jiew knows a little bit about many subjects, but gem dealing is likely her strongest suit. The onetime IT professional, chef, sommelier, professional poker player, and jack-of-all-trades has spent the last 20 years immersed in the gemstone industry, though she’s also working towards her pilot’s license and snapping high-quality photographs for galleries nationwide.
Jiew, who now owns Rockstoc, a gem dealing and jewelry sales outfit, spent her early years in Malaysia. Her father was Borneo-born and her mother was from Singapore. They moved to Australia when Jiew was eight. She spent the next 37 years there, completing her university degree in graphic design, getting a post-graduate degree in marketing, and working a series of jobs, including one (which she’d rather not disclose) that gave her some keen insights into reading people.
“I learned soft skills that led me to determine if someone was lying or not,” she says. “Those skills help me negotiate gem prices today.”
Yvonne Jiew shopping for Jade overseas
Genesis of the Gemstone Business
After a three-year-stint in this intense field, she stepped away for a break. She took up hiking near Tasmania’s Gordon Dam, finding some pretty rocks along a path. She was so enthralled by them that she filled a bucket and took them to the National Gallery of Victoria to see if they were worth anything. They were Aventurine, with minimal value, but Jiew’s interest in gems was piqued; the museum workers encouraged her join a lapidary club. She also started selling rocks and gems on eBay in its early days and learned how to cut opal.
“It was dirty and gross,” she says. “And you could spend so much money on rough and then lose money every time you cut because there’s a lot of loss during the process.”
From there she was hooked. Jiew started doing trade shows, built a website and business, and started traveling the world to source gems and mineral specimens. To date, she’s been to Myanmar, Colombia, Namibia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and more. Further trips, including one to Nigeria and another to travel the Silk Road (possibly with yours truly), are on the horizon.
She left Australia to follow a friend and eventually met her present-day husband. The pair moved to New York City for a few years, moving on to South Dakota for some wide-open spaces once they had kids.
Once stateside, Jiew became active on social media in the jewelry community. She wanted to continue offering the gems and jewels she had been selling for years. But the environment early on was hostile—she encountered discrimination because of her Chinese ethnicity, with some accusing her of selling undisclosed dyed goods or synthetics, simply because of her race. One man said to her, “Why would anyone buy from someone who is Chinese and not an American?”
“I was trying to sell colored stones, and they kept telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about,” she says.
Days of Documentation
Shocked but not deterred, Jiew started to document her journeys through video and photos. Coral was one of her first subjects at a time when many said selling Coral was not kosher. “People were worried about destroying coral reefs, so I wondered, ‘Is this true?’” she recollects. “I started to interview divers and manufacturers and document what I was learning.”
In this way, she could show gems for sale along with videos and photos of herself at the sources. Eventually she hired a documentary film maker to trail her around Asia for two weeks—an endeavor boiled down into a 23-minute film called Chasing Color that debuted at various festivals in 2020 and took home a prize from the Los Angeles Film Festival that same year. In the film she journeys from Thailand, where she met GRS Lab founder Dr. Adolf Peretti, to India and more locations in search of great gemstones to buy.
“We had no script, I had no idea what I was doing,” she jokes. “I met my director at the airport in Thailand.”
Another dark comedic moment? Realizing his genre was horror.
Still, they pushed on and gave viewers a glimpse into the rugged road of a gem dealer buying rough and the intense negotiations involved. And despite her rough entrée to the American gemstone market, she doesn’t regret encountering those social media users.
“They drove me to documentation,” she says. “But I’m happy they did because I’m really interested in the ethics behind trading. I’m anti-greenwashing, and I’ve spent the last seven years proving that I’m getting gems straight from source countries.”
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