I am back today with a new portrait in the world of jewellery. Isabelle Reyjal has kindly agreed to tell me about her professional life and her journey from customs to gemmology. I thank her very much and I hope that, like me, you will have as much pleasure to discover it. Enjoy your reading!
Emerald from Madagascar and freshwater pearls from China during the Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines 2015 show. Photo: Constance Chabrol
1-Can you quickly introduce yourself?
My name is Isabelle and I am 53 years old. I live in Paris, I am a gemmologist and a gemmology teacher.
2-What profession did you want to do as a child?
I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas, but I wanted to do something related to the French language. As a little girl I wanted to write children’s books; later I wanted to be a journalist, travelling the world and writing articles. None of this came true.
3-And finally, what is your current job?
I work in customs. My pen is quite useful there, but not for the purposes I would have imagined.
4-How did you get to this position? Tell us about your career path.
I studied classical literature, which I enjoyed very much, and which took me to the master’s level, but very quickly I had the desire to become financially independent. I wanted to stay in my home region, the Corrèze, so I took the competitive examination for the École Normale d’Instituteurs, which was then local. I didn’t mind teaching, but I wasn’t really suited to working with young children; I looked for something else urgently, and I took a competitive examination in the administration of Finance, which landed me in Paris as my first posting; I have settled there, contrary to my initial plans.
5-When did you first hear about gemmology and why did you finally decide to study it and make it part of your profession?
As a child, I was already fascinated by stones; I can’t say why, nothing or nobody in my family or my environment predisposed me to it. I remember spending long hours reading and rereading the pages devoted to precious stones in the family encyclopaedia; I scanned the colour photo plates, I learned the names of the gems by heart; but all this remained very virtual because I had no real stones to look at at home! So this interest remained buried and dormant for many years.
In 1984, when I was twenty-two years old, I had the opportunity to make a trip to Sri Lanka, which awakened this dormant passion; all these stones that I saw in the local jewellery shops gave me a glimpse of a fascinating and magical universe. I didn’t know anything about it yet…
6-And what specific course of study related to jewellery and gemology did you follow?
Two years after this trip, I moved to Paris. I quickly learned about the existence of the National Institute of Gemmology, but my salary at the time did not allow me to consider this training. I had to wait another ten years. In 1993, I took the plunge; I sacrificed my holiday budget to enrol in weekly evening classes. I knew right away that it would be a long story!
Four years later, I had finished my basic course at the ING, and I racked my brains to find out what I could do with it; there was no way the adventure would end there. I looked for a department in the Ministry of Finance where my gemmological qualification could be useful. I found a customs office in Paris that specialised in the clearance of precious stones. I scrambled to get a secondment to this office, and I got it.
It was a great experience, which allowed me to put my knowledge into practice and train my eye in an incomparable way. My job was to check the conformity of exported or imported goods with the invoices presented, and to ensure that the various customs regulations were respected. All day long, gems, pearls and jewels would parade across my desk, from the most humble to the most dazzling. We only worked with professionals. I got to know the world of jewellers and gem dealers, so some have remained friends.
But in customs, the variety of jobs and the game of promotions mean that you rarely stay in one position for a whole career; I left this service after a few years to explore other unrelated functions.
In the meantime, I had continued to train at the ING on additional modules: diamond, decorative stones, European patent. On the day of the FEEG graduation ceremony, the director of the ING came to ask me if I would like to join the teaching team. I didn’t expect it at all, and it was a great joy. In 2000, I started to give some evening gemmology classes at the ING, after my day job for my administration. The contact with adult students, from all professional backgrounds but sharing the same passion and desire to learn, appealed to me immediately.
7-Do you have any family in this profession?
Strictly no one!
8-What do you like best about your job?
I like to switch from one universe to another, to go without transition from my day job to teaching gemmology in the evening. The students who come every week, after their work, make an effort on their private life that I have known and that I share with them; their motivation and their seriousness make me want to give them the best; real links are forged that go well beyond the simple student-teacher relationship. And I also appreciate the atmosphere in the groups, and the relationships that develop between people who come from very different backgrounds and would probably never have met without this common love of stones; some learners are already in the profession, others dream of entering it, others practice this activity for pure pleasure; all of this mixes in a very complementary and rich way.
9-You are also an author for the AFG magazine, and you recently published a collection of short stories. When did you feel like writing and why?
For as long as I can remember, I have always written, in one way or another. I obviously don’t have the academic background to write in-depth scientific articles; the AFG journal has given me the opportunity on several occasions to approach gems from a very different angle, particularly by tracking their use in classical literature. The recently published short stories are a further development of this research. Marrying gems to writing, I obviously couldn’t have dreamt of a better life path.
10-This profession is full of stories and anecdotes. Do you have one or two to tell us?
I remember a stone that made an impression on me, in the customs department. It was a large, magnificent red spinel that arrived from a prestigious New York address to be mounted in the workshops of an equally prestigious Parisian company. The stone was splendid, and as far as value was concerned, lined up quite a few zeros behind the first number. All the analyses agreed with the spinel, except for the polariscope, which stubbornly refused to turn around, which bothered me. I was therefore busy observing this stone, to the great displeasure of the importer, who was in a hurry to get it back and who didn’t understand why I lingered to look at it from every angle. In the end, under the binoculars, I finally spotted an extremely fine, almost invisible demarcation at the level of the feuilletis, and a refractometer reading of the culasse confirmed my sudden suspicion: it was a natural spinel/synthetic corundum doublet. The real value was almost zero. The jeweller couldn’t believe it!
11-Finally, what advice would you give to young people who want to enter this profession and work with gems?
Like all attractive environments, the world of gems is extremely closed; if you have no family, no fortune, and no well-placed relations to gain access, it is obviously more complicated. There is only one solution: to be better or more imaginative than the others in what you want to do, of which you must have a precise idea. The competition is tough, and places are expensive. I also think that you shouldn’t be afraid to start small and accept the small tasks, if that’s a way to get your foot in the door. After that, if you are serious, persistent, resourceful, and meet the right people, all hope is allowed.
See you soon!