Given today’s gemological technology, a gemstone’s country of origin can be determined with amazing accuracy. Yvonne Jiew, founder of Rockstoc LLC, can do one or two better than that. In some cases she knows the mine shaft the gemstone came from and the miner who unearthed it.
She could even talk about his kids, their house and the family’s favorite meal eaten with rice.
This in-depth knowledge and familiarity with gemstone miners and their mining operations doesn’t come easy. For the last 14 years Yvonne has travelled to far-flung destinations across the globe sourcing gemstones that “look edible” for her clientele made up of jewelers, collectors and museums.
“Imagine a gummy bear or a jellybean,” says Yvonne. “‘Edible’ may not be a [gemological] standard per se, but it is definitely a major criteria for [my] sourcing. The word gemmy is probably synonymous with what I was trying to describe. If a gem isn’t going to look appealing you’re probably better off buying a white stone for scintillation. I specialize in sourcing gemstones from Mogok, Burma.”
Travelling is in Yvonne’s blood. The daughter of a civil engineer, her family moved around a lot when she was growing up. “By the time I was eight I had three passports all full of various travel stamps all over,” says Yvonne.
Yvonne’s background and family history is almost as colorful as the gemstones she sources. She’s of Chinese descent, grew up in Australia, where she studied at Monash University, has traveled extensively in Canada and the US at different stages of her life and now has an office based in the exotic Midwest – Sioux Falls, South Dakota to be exact.
Early influences for her life’s gemstone journey began as a child. Yvonne’s father also was an antique collector who specialized in Ming Dynasty nephrite jade. Curious about her father’s work as a child, it wasn’t until her 30s that her first step onto her gemstone path was made.
During a stroll in a Tasmania forest, sunshine broke through a late morning fog that created a rainbow on moisture-covered rocks. Yvonne turned some of the rocks over and discovered green and violet stone.
“I thought I discovered jadeite,” says Yvonne. “I thought I’d struck it rich.”
She brought her specimens to the Melbourne Museum, only to find out that she had discovered aventurine, a type of quartz. Fortunes weren’t made with a fortuitous find, but Yvonne did find treasure in a career rooted in a genuine passion.
“Instead of being disappointed, I was hooked,” says Yvonne. “I later joined a lapidary club In Melbourne [Australia] and started slowly learning about cutting and gemstones. During that period of two years, I realized what an expensive hobby I had started and needed a way to upcycle my stock. I think that was really the tilting point for me. Without realizing, I inadvertently started my career when I started to sell small slabs to make extra money to fund my diversion.”
From selling slabs to valuable rocks, Yvonne began selling better quality rock specimens online during eBay’s infancy years. (Her information technology background advanced this effort quickly.) As her customer base grew she started to grasp the global reach of her B2B online store. This was a side-gig for Yvonne, who was working full time with Telstra, a Melbourne-based telecommunications company.
There’s always a tipping point when dividing time and other resources between a full-time job and a money-making hobby. Too many gem shows, the travel, investments and prep work were getting to be too much. Yvonne left Telstra 14 years ago and never looked back.
“At that time, I invested all my money into rocks, and the total amount in my bank account stood at $200 when I made that leap,” says Yvonne.
“Upcycling” is Yvonne’s operative and guiding phrase. As her career started taking shape, she discovered there was a demand for sourcing mid-range gemstones – that wide range of goods that’s well above fish gravel and close to fine in the gemstone world.
Sourcing this particular assortment of colored stones meant less computer work and more travel. The gemstone hubs of the world became frequent visits for Yvonne. Bangkok and Chantaburi, Thailand, Beruwala and Ratnapura, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Luc Yen, Vietnam, Guangzhou, China, Jaipur, India, Rangoon (Yangon) and Mogok, Burma (Myanmar) and even Idar-Oberstein, Germany, would be frequently-traveled destinations.
Pre-COVID, Yvonne was in Mogok so often it was almost a “second home” for her. She has come to specialize in gemstones from this remote, mountainous region of northern Burma, known for its rich, deeply color saturated sapphires and rubies.
But for the real gemstone adventurer and sourcing guru, there’s no better place to find colored stones of any type, shape and size than “The Gemstone Mecca” of Jaipur, India (known as the Pink City based on its colorful architecture).
“That city has the biggest range in color I have ever seen personally,” says Yvonne. “Prices can also be sometimes cheaper than buying at the source.”
The days of selling chrysoprase and boulder opal are long gone. Yvonne is comfortable sourcing unique gemstone and mineral specimens as well as her mid-range of goods. Along the way, however, logical and natural extensions to her career have evolved. She’s now sourcing finer gemstones for more select clients. And, she has become a bit of an independent filmmaker and philanthropist.
During her travels to Bangkok, two transformative events happened for Yvonne. The first was making the acquaintance of Rob Himebaugh, who transformed 76 hours of raw video footage from Yvonne into a 23-minute video entitled Chasing Color, which was produced in 2019. The video has captured footage and scenes only a handful of people in the global gem and jewelry industry have observed firsthand.
The second was lengthy meetings with Dr. Adolf Peretti, founder of GRS (GemResearch Swisslab). In addition to gemstone identification and grading work with Yvonne, Dr. Peretti shared information about his charity called the Amber Project. The doctor’s words of the scientific community having a responsibility to “not just take” but to “give back” to the areas of the world that bring mineral wealth to the global market resonated with Yvonne.
During the final days of documentary video shooting in Jaipur two years back, Yvonne decided to organize a food drive. The idea came with two days left before her departure. With the help of many connections in the gem business she was able to pull in an enormous amount of food essentials.
“We were able to bring in one ton of rice and lentils combined,” says Yvonne. “This created about 100 bags of food for people in Christian, Muslim and Hindu neighborhoods. The whole thing felt very surreal.”
COVID restrictions have eased and Yvonne is sourcing overseas again. First stop, Thailand. During the restriction period, however, she made up for lost time with family while aiming to diversify her business to include the manufacturing of mounted goods. At this stage of her career Yvonne would also like to set up an office in Bangkok to support this work, produce more documentaries and coordinate with government-based groups to determine the environmental impact of gemstone mining.