Summary
In a recent phone call, Jeffery Bergman of Primagem, discussed his career in the gem trade. His decades-long career has taken its share of twists and turns, from small-time lapidary to large-scale wholesale to a focus on the high-end market. Through the course of his career, he’s become a leading expert on sapphire and on trapiche gems. Read about his path toward high-end gems and the highs and lows that came along the way, about sapphire connoisseurship, and his advice for newcomers to the sapphire trade.
Reading time: 12 min
sapphire expert jeffrey bergan with a trapiche sapphire

Jeffery Bergman with Mogok, Myanmar unheated trapiche sapphire rough. Photo © Jeffery Bergman.

A Young Start in the Gem Trade

How did you get your start in the gem trade?

Oh, I was pretty young. I’ll tell you the long story. Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, I always wanted to be a marine biologist. But, when I was 11 or 12 years old, there was this beryllium mine, Ruggles Mine, nearby. They had some low-grade aquamarine, some garnets. The mine was really a reserve for beryllium ore, in case there was a national emergency. But you could pay a buck to dig out gems. They weren’t great quality, but for me, at that age, they were like treasure.

At that point, though, I was still interested in marine biology. Then, when I was 13, my dad worked for the government and got a contract in Australia. So I moved from New Hampshire where there was so much to do – a lake nearby, forests to explore, sports – to the Australian outback where there was nothing but desert. No TV and only one radio station. I was bored to tears.

Did you start collecting opal?

Not quite! After a while my mom suggested that I join the lapidary club at the community center. And 13 year old Jeffery was like, “OK, I guess.” I met club president John Eisen there, who taught me how to cut a cabochon. My first cabochon, an agate, I’ve kept it, I still have it today. Anyway, John saw it and told my parents that I was a natural, and they should encourage it.

So, my dad bought me a small parcel of Andamooka opal rough. Opal rough comes cheap, especially in 1970, so for the whole parcel it was only five bucks. I started cutting some cabs from it, and the first was a 2 ct pear-shape, pinfire pattern. My dad took it to work with him and it was sitting on his desk when one of his co-workers saw it. He thought it would make a nice pendant for his wife, and bought it for $40. So when my dad came home he gave me $35, saying that the opal sold for $40 and, less his investment of $5, I made $35, and I had the rest of the rough I could still cut.

In 1970, $35 was good chunk of money, for a fourteen year old kid, it was really something. I had spent about two hours cutting the opal, so I just made $17 an hour. That was more than my dad made, and my friends working in the shops made only about 50 cents an hour. And 49 years later I’m still doing my hobby. I’m one of the fortunate ones who’s never really worked. I still love what I do, and none of it is drudgery.

Do you still cut stones sometimes?

Well, I cut occasionally, but it’s really more for personal pleasure than as a part of my business. Sometimes when I get an older stone that needs a light re-polish I’ll do it myself. Or, if it desperately needs a re-cut I’ll cut away the problem area before handing it over to another cutter to finish it. When I was about 20, living in San Jose, I realized that when I was cutting my profits were limited by labor. So, I turned towards wholesaling, and I let cutting be more for pleasure than for money making.

This is one case where a sapphire desperately needed a re-cut. Click through to see its much-improved cut. Cornflower blue unheated Sri Lankan sapphire before and after recut. Photos by Jeff Scovil © Jeffery Bergman.

Becoming a Sapphire Expert

So, how did you go from a kid cabbing opals to an expert in some of the most expensive stones?

Well, I really didn’t have any sort of formal education at first. I majored in geology in college but I dropped out after one year because I already had my own small business. I moved to Las Vegas and opened my wholesaling business “Gem Source,” and after a while I realized that if I wanted to expand my business I’d need source stones in Asia. So, I took a three-week trip. I went to Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. I visited cutting factories, pearl wholesalers, the gem market in Chanthaburi, and I made a good profit from my purchases on that trip.

large rough sapphire and cut

Visiting the gem markets always yields fascinating sights. Mogok, Myanmar unheated faceted and 5 kg rough sapphire. Photo by Jeffery Bergman © Jeffery Bergman.

So I started going to Hong Kong and Thailand regularly, and I opened an office there in 1990, and by 1993 I had offices in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Las Vegas. I was traveling all the time, and with all the staff I had I needed to generate $25,000 a month before I could even take a salary for myself. It was too much and I was burnt out.

What did you do then?

From then I decided to focus on quality instead of quantity. I sold the Las Vegas business to my partner and closed the Hong Kong office. I let all of my Bangkok staff go except for one secretary. And I was able to focus on the high-quality stones.

What really got me hooked on exceptional quality rubies and sapphires is a parcel of Mogok star sapphires I bought at the Thai-Myanmar border gem market in Mae Sot in 1996. Most of the parcel was junk “gift stones” that people buy as souvenirs, worth about fifty bucks each. But a few were really exceptional. One of them was absolutely beautiful, powder blue 36-ct gem. I showed it to a Burmese dealer friend of mine in Bangkok and she gasped and pulled out the perfect matching Mogok pink star, 35 ct and the perfect complementary pastel color. She eventually sold the pair to Cartier through a Paris dealer, and they made it into a pendant displayed in their Place Vendôme store.

It was a big ego trip for me. I come from a modest background and I’ve had to work hard to build up my inventory. I still don’t have a huge budget, and there are a lot of things that I can’t buy. So getting these gems displayed in Paris, that was great. So I decided to focus on quality.

Pakistan bi-color trapiche sapphire

In addition to traditional fine gemstones, Jeffery Bergman deals in trapiche gems like this Kashmir, Pakistan bi-color unheated trapiche sapphire. Photo by Jeffery Bergman © Jeffery Bergman

Did you end up getting a formal education, too?

I did, eventually. My wife Natalie is a Thai human rights attorney and she wanted to study for her international law Master’s at UNICRI in Turin, Italy. And in the Summer of 2014 when she was writing her thesis, she said she needed a few weeks to herself to focus on writing and studying with her classmates.

So, I took the train up to SSEF in Basel, Switzerland. I already knew Henry Hänni, the now retired director of SSEF and several of the gemologist instructors. They offer several excellent short courses on general gemology, diamonds, pearls, colored gems etc. Eventually I completed five of them, I didn’t really need it for my business, it was more of an ego thing. “Yes, Jeffery Bergman is a real on-paper SSEF Certified Scientific Gemologist.” With all the flying back and forth from Bangkok over several years, it is probably the most expensive gemology certification ever!

kashmir sapphire

Scientific gemology is more important than ever. Due to high values and occasional lab errors on origin, Kashmir sapphire sales typically require three major lab reports, this one has SSEF, GIA & AGL. Photo by Arjuna Irsutti ©  Jeffery Bergman.

Highs and Lows in the Life of a Sapphire Expert

What are some of the major highlights in your career as a sapphire expert?

Oh, there have been so many! Back in 1983 I had the opportunity to travel to Santa Monica and meet GIA Chairman Dick Liddicoat. We really hit it off. Then in 1989 I was in his office, and by coincidence he received a call from Bob Kane who was working for GIA at the time. Apparently, gemologist/author/photographer Fred Ward was going to Sri Lanka to do an article on ruby and sapphire for National Geographic, his assistant had an emergency and couldn’t go. So Bob Kane was trying to find someone to replace him at the last minute. Richard said, “Well I have Jeffery Bergman here in my office right now, what about him?”

A couple days later I’m on a plane to Colombo. It was an amazing trip. Since we were with National Geographic we were able to see all sorts of amazing gems. They opened up the national treasury, we met with the Sri Lanka Gem & Jewellery Authority and many top dealers. It was a fabulous experience, one of the highlights of my career.

From a personal satisfaction standpoint, in the early 90s the International Colored Gem Association (ICA) was debating a letter code system to use for disclosure of gemstone treatments. I wrote a scathing editorial published in jewel Siam magazine saying basically that codes are for keeping secrets, and if you don’t have the space to disclose treatments on an invoice, you should use bigger invoices. Well, after that my membership application to ICA was rejected, but Henry Hänni from SSEF thanked me personally saying that someone needed to say it. There have been so many wonderful experiences meeting people, too many to count, but these really top my list.

madagascar sapphire

Unheated Madagascar sapphire easily mistaken for Kashmir sapphire. Photo by Jeffery Bergman © Jeffery Bergman.

How about major disappointments?

Well, not everyone in the gem trade is so friendly. Back in 1990 I was involved in supplying samples and technical information to GIA for their article on titanium diffusion heat treatment in blue sapphires. It was a major article looking at how to identify this treatment. Anyway, I received death threats from dealers who were selling these treated sapphires without disclosure. It was disappointing to be acting in integrity, trying to make the trade more open and honest for consumers, and getting death threats. It was definitely a low point.

Sapphire Connoisseurship

What do you look for in a fine sapphire?

I would start with a color that’s not too dark and not too light, and even, with minimal color zoning. And try to get as pure a color as possible. For blues, you don’t want any secondary gray/green and no secondary purple. In my opinion, most of the “royal blues” you see today are too dark. I prefer a medium cornflower to a medium dark well saturated blue. The slang we use in the trade is an “open color.”

Cornflower blue unheated Sri Lankan sapphire left, Burmese right, photo by Jeffery Bergman; Mogok, Myanmar unheated sapphire photo by Arjuna Irsutti; Royal blue unheated Nigerian sapphire photo by Jeffery Bergman; Mogok, Myanmar unheated sapphire photo by Jeffery Bergman. Images © Jeffery Bergman

In padparadscha, I’m not a huge fan of the very pale pastels. I prefer the medium-tone, saturated stones, with a distinct combination of pink and orange. There’s a trend that GRS started to call the pinker ones “sunrise” and the orange ones “sunset.” By that standard, I prefer a high noon! But padparadschas are really complicated, and Richard Hughes’s article on padparadscha sapphire from Lotus Gemology really points out how every dealer has a different range of color and there’s really no standard.

For the other fancy colors, I prefer the vivid, saturated yellows that come out of Sri Lanka. In pink sapphire the best I’ve seen are the hot pink stones, almost a ruby. For green, there’s a growing appreciation of green sapphires but I’ve never seen one with a really beautiful color. They’re usually olivey or steely. I tend to stay away from greens.

Yellow, pink, and green sapphire photos by Arjuna Irsutti. Kashmir, Pakistan bi-color unheated sapphire photo by Jeff Scovil. Mogok, Myanmar heated borderline vivid pink sapphire/ruby photo by Adisorn. Images © Jeffery Bergman

Has there been any sapphire that’s completely taken your breath away?

Oh, yes. There’s a 22-ct padparadscha that’s way over my budget. The asking is about two million. It’s a really stunning stone, but Madagascar origin. If it were from Sri Lanka it would’ve sold already. It’s rather stupid, but that’s how origin works. It’s really beautiful, the most stunning padparadscha I’ve ever seen.

22 ct padparadscha

22-ct unheated padparadcha by Arjuna Irsutti. © Jeffery Bergman.

For blue, there’s an amazing 113-ct Mogok royal blue sugarloaf cabochon that I had the opportunity to photograph. It’s the prettiest cab I’ve ever seen, amazing color. There have been a few exceptional faceted blues, too. There was one 6 ct unheated Sri Lankan stone I saw, flawless and perfect vivid cobalt blue. It was just that color like the glass milk of magnesia bottles. That pure color is so rare. It looked like a screaming synthetic of some sort. It sold for $26,000/ct, which is an incredible price for a stone that size. But it really had an otherworldly glow to it, it was the most beautiful vivid blue.

sugarloaf cabochon sapphire

Mogok, Myanmar unheated sugarloaf cabochon sapphire in carved aquamarine and diamond flower brooch by Carvin French. Photo by Jeffery Bergman © Jeffery Bergman

Advice from a Sapphire Expert

What advice do you have for people starting out in the sapphire trade?

For anyone new to the gem trade in general, I’d say go to as many trade shows as you can and look at everyone’s inventory. The best way to educate yourself is to expose yourself to as many gems as possible. If you have the budget, go international. Visit the mines, cutting factories, the big gem markets. For sapphire in particular, learn the difference that fine cutting makes. The whole industry is moving towards recognizing fine cutting. If you put an emphasis on fine cutting early in your career, you’ll have an edge over those who haven’t caught on yet.