There are countless reasons to visit Vietnam, so I can’t wait for April 2021, when I’ll be leading a gemstone tour in this fascinating and beautiful country. If you’re thinking about booking your next adventure (and we lovers of travel really do need a break after this year), I’d really recommend putting Vietnam on your wish list.
On our gemstone tour, we’ll be learning all about Vietnam’s young gemstone industry and focussing on the country’s fine rubies, blue sapphires, pearls and rare blue spinel. All you gemstone enthusiasts and hobbyists will be able to indulge fully in your love of gemstones, with fabulous activities, learning experiences and gemstones on offer. Keep your eye out for more details in my upcoming blogs!
For now, let’s look at a few reasons to visit Vietnam besides its superb gemstones.
Centuries of fascinating history have left Vietnam with a rich culture that’s well worth exploring. A mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism is the majority religious belief here, but—along with Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, Vietnam has two indigenous religions dating back to the French colonial period: Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. You will also come across a strong tradition of ancestor and spirit worship. This wonderful diversity means that everywhere you look, you’ll see stunning architecture, beautiful art and a fascinating musical and theatrical scene—including the mesmerising Vietnamese water puppetry.
The Vietnamese take their eating and drinking seriously, and there is huge variation within the country in the preparation of certain dishes. Ordering a pho in North or South Vietnam is a different experience and the source of much heated debate! Beer lovers as well as foodies will be in heaven here—the country has fully embraced beer culture since the French introduced it at the end of the 19th century. Travelling round Vietnam, you’ll encounter many a local brand of draft, bottled and craft beer.
Vietnam’s scenery is absolutely jaw dropping. From the other-worldly beauty of UNESCO listed Ha Long Bay (featured in many films) to the blazing red and white sand dunes of Mui Ne, you will be spoilt for natural wonders on your Vietnamese adventure. Mountains, waterfalls, pristine beaches and incredible cave systems… there’s more than enough variety to bring out the photographer in everyone.
Convinced? Book a space on our Vietnam Gemstone Tour to experience this wonderful country while learning all about its gemstones and gem trade industry!
If you read about my field gemmology trip with Vincent Pardieu in April 2017, you’ll know how I learned about the existence of composite gemstones and lead glass filled rubies.
Lead glass filled rubies entered the market in 2004, but since many people (especially hobbyists and tourist collectors) are still unaware of their presence, I wrote about them in ‘Buying Gemstones and Jewellery in Thailand.’ After all, Thailand is a world hub for gemstone treatment and continues to be where most of the lead glass filled rubies (also known as ‘composite rubies’) are manufactured these days.
So, for those of you who want to know more about lead glass filled rubies, here’s an excerpt from the book:
In the grand scheme of things, 95% of all gemstones sold have been treated in some way. With rubies and sapphires, the figure is closer to 99%. Heat treatment is the norm and something that you shouldn’t usually worry about — unless you are intending to buy a natural, unheated gemstone, in which case you would be investing thousands of pounds and would expect it to come with a lab report. Be on your guard if someone tries to sell you a good-looking, ‘untreated’ stone!
Remember: if it looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
Thailand is considered a world leader in gemstone treatment techniques, which can work both to the buyer’s advantage or against it.
Heat treatment simply enhances a gemstone’s natural beauty and clarity. Thailand is famous for the skill of its craftspeople, who have over the past 30 years or so developed sophisticated variations on the traditional art of heating gemstones to improve their colour.
Unless you’re looking to spend a vast amount of money, your primary aim should be to make sure the gemstone you are about to buy is genuine and not a piece of cheap fakery.
This said, there is a huge difference between rubies and sapphires that have been fissure treated in the traditional way and ‘composite’ gemstones, which are formed in the lab using a fairly recent technique. The appearance of traditionally fissure-treated rubies and sapphires is enhanced by using miniscule amounts of glass to fill any tiny inclusions on the surface of the stone. Composite gems are formed from lower quality corundum, which is acid treated to remove all the inclusions. The holes left behind are then filled with leaded glass. Leaded glass is very clear, but is even softer than ordinary glass and this means that composite gems are significantly less tough than their traditionally fissure-treated cousins.
Not only is the leaded glass in composite gems less tough than ordinary glass, its presence makes analysis of the corundum itself much more difficult. This means that it is harder for a grading
laboratory to determine the quality and weight of the original stone. Some composite stones are more than 40% glass! Furthermore, a composite ruby or sapphire whose corundum has many or deep fractures is difficult to distinguish from one whose corundum has only minor fractures. The former is much less durable than the latter.
Buying a composite gem is just fine if you know what you’re buying and have paid an appropriate price for it. The problems come when dealers knowingly — or unknowingly — try to sell you a composite ruby as a traditionally fissure-treated stone. Not only will you be paying much more than the stone is worth, but your piece of jewellery will be far more susceptible to damage and degradation.
If you decide to get the gem re-set or professionally cleaned, if you need a ring re-sized, or even if you wear your jewellery while cleaning or cooking, a composite ruby is likely to be damaged irreparably.
Composite gemstones are easy to identify if you can use a jeweller’s loupe — a small magnifying eyepiece used to examine gems. At 10x magnification under a strong light you should be able to see gas bubbles in the glass, heavy fracturing and an effect that looks like streaks of a different colour flashing across the stone.
On one of my trips last year to Mogok, Myanmar, I had the opportunity to sit and watch a gem-painting being made.
I appreciate good art, but I’m not someone who goes to art museums or would even consider picking up a paint brush. This was fascinating though, and I spent a few hours watching the artist meticulously use ground-up gemstones to create the face of Buddha, bringing the gem painting to life with each brush stroke.
A few weeks ago I was in Vietnam, researching a future gem tour. Once again, I found myself mesmerised by the locals making gem paintings. I began to wonder whether it was something I myself could do as a hobby.
I sat and watched again and I noticed a few significant differences between the gem paintings in Mogok and the gem-paintings in Luc Yen.
In Mogok, the gem paintings are made on whiteboard or wood, about 3-4 mm thick. The artist begins by carefully drawing the outlines of the piece on the board. These outlines are then filled in with gemstone powder—some very fine, like sand, and some coarser, like breadcrumbs. The Mogok style of gem-art uses a combination gemstone powder with brush painting.
In Luc Yen, the gem painting hub of northern Vietnam, the paintings are very different from those created in Mogok. Luc Yen gem artists place transparent acrylic plastic sheets (2-3mm thick) over a picture, so that the artist can follow the exact outlines and colours.
Different textures of gemstones go into a Luc Yen gem painting, including shards of marble and glass-sharp slivers of rose quartz. The artists skilfully make flower petals, by dousing a teaspoon of gemstone powder in glue and peeling the dried ‘petal’ off its backing paper. I also saw virtually no brush painting in Luc Yen, though I’m sure it’s used for faces and very fine details.
Finally, when the finished painting is dry, the artists apply a white decal to the back of the acrylic.
Though, the Luc Yen paintings are just as skilful and elaborate as the Mogok gem paintings, the Luc Yen style seemed to me a little easier for a beginner to achieve a good result. I couldn’t resist having a go!
Creating my own gem painting felt a bit like being at playschool, but the experience was also weirdly meditative. It took me about four hours, though I must admit I cheated a little! Running short of time, I went ‘off piste’ and added my own cheeky touch.
I’m reasonably pleased with the result. When the current lockdown of the Covid-19 crisis comes to an end, I shall go and get it framed.
I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to share the fun with others. 5 kilos of gemstones came back with me from Vietnam and I’m currently taking orders for gemstone painting kits. It could be the perfect way to take your mind off the stresses of everyday life!
Whether you would like to receive a gem painting kit, or order a bespoke framed gemstone portrait by the skilled gem artists in my contacts list, get in touch.