Last updateTue, 19 Jun 2018 9pm

From SEAL to Shining Gems


Ralph “Lish” Morgan went from being a Navy SEAL (Sea Air and Land) to a gemologist in 1987. When he talks about his special assignments in far-flung destinations like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Venezuela and Sri Lanka, Ralph wasn’t armed with modern government-issued weaponry. He had the most advanced portable gemological equipment to complete what he calls “high-value gemological missions.” 

Seal-mountain-MarchLike many operators from covert combat units, Ralph doesn’t discuss his Navy SEAL days in much detail. What he is willing to share is how it all started.  In 1971, Ralph was 17, already demonstrating leadership skills as captain of the football and track teams and class president.

He was a good runner and a “fair” swimmer by his assessment. Ralph also had solid academic transcripts. And, coming from a long line of family members that served in the military, enlisting in the Navy to fight in the Vietnam War was his generational turn.

In June 1972, Ralph was one of 157 hand-picked men to undergo basic SEAL training. Of that 157 only 16 men made the final cut, Ralph being one of them. When he graduated from his SEAL training, Ralph was part of Class #66. He took part in a number of missions throughout Southeast Asia in the next three years and left the SEALs for the first time in September 1975.   

With a world open to him in his early twenties, Ralph attended the Brooks Institute of Photography and minored in photojournalism. Work choices that followed were in keeping with a person that likes to be active in their job. But even with these new challenges, Ralph found himself back with the SEALs in February 1984. At 30, he went through SEAL team training a second time.

Ralph was an active-duty SEAL for another three years and retired from active duty in 1987. He then started up his own tree removal and trimming service called The Whistling Tree Man, and he placed print ads in a Palo Alto weekly newspaper. Given his athletic abilities, physical strength, and climbing skills, Ralph quickly built his client list based on referrals and the small print ad.

John Gellman, a retired jeweler living in the Palo Alto area, saw Ralph’s tree service ad and contracted him to do some work on his property. He watched the former SEAL in action. Based on John’s observations, he told Ralph he’d make a good gemologist because he was very visual, had an eye for detail, seemed determined in his pursuits, was focused, and possessed a strong work ethic.

The meeting made an impact on Ralph, and a fresh career path was in front of him. Then based in Santa Monica, Ralph contacted the GIA and took the Institute’s Residence Gem Identification seminar. As Ralph started piecing together the possibilities of taking his gemological studies further, his career niche became crystal clear.

Seal-river-March“Working with beautiful stones, travel, and adventure, I was hooked,” says Ralph.

And with that career epiphany Ralph was on his way to combine two very unique skill sets. In May 1987, he continued his gemological studies at the GIA in the Graduate Gemologist in residence program, where he received plenty of hands-on training. To round out his gemological training, Ralph worked in the Colored Stone Department at the GIA from 1987 to 1988. 

SEAL training gave Ralph weapons skills, emotional and mental focus, and the ability to improvise on a dime. And, once a SEAL always a SEAL: Ralph’s bond with his fighting force brethren located all over the world, provide him with much needed on-the-ground intelligence, networks, and infrastructure.   

More importantly, Ralph’s fellow SEALs provided actual threat levels wherever his high-value gem missions would take him. One of the first such gemological missions was a November 1992 trip to Pakistan’s famed Peshawar Gem Market (near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border) when Ralph met Ahmad Shah Massoud.  

Massoud was best known as the central political and military leader that helped drive out the Soviets that occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Educated as an engineer, a Sunni Muslim by birth, anti-communist at heart, a natural military leader, and even a poet, Massoud found much common ground with a Navy SEAL turned gemologist.

“I remember drinking 7-Up and eating freshly-cooked lamb with him as I viewed fine emeralds from the Panjshir Valley in the subdued light of the room,” says Ralph.

In the early 1990s when Ralph met with Massoud a new occupying force was taking hold in Afghanistan: the Taliban. As the country’s then new Minister of Defense, Massoud’s soldiers were constantly engaging al-Qaeda forces.

After numerous attempts, on September 9, 2001, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber was successful in assassinating Massoud. When the US invaded Afghanistan after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, US and NATO forces quickly aligned with Massoud’s troops. Today, Massoud remains a national hero to the Afghanis, and a sorely missed ally to the US and NATO forces that continue to battle al-Qaeda forces, there and in other parts of the Middle East.

Ralph returned to the region in 2005 to Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. Striking landscapes, the warmth and welcome given to Ralph by the people, emerald rough and specimens sourced from the Panjshir Valley’s rich mines that were a gemologist’s dream to examine, were just part of what made Afghanistan his most memorable destination to date. 

Meeting Massoud and the memories of their exchanges only served to more securely hold Afghanistan as Ralph’s number one high-value gem mission to date in terms of aesthetics and lasting memories. “He was an interesting man to watch,” says Ralph. “He had a piercing gaze that watched every movement around him. I appreciated this part of his warrior mind set the most.”  

But his adventures went well beyond the Middle East. In the 1990s Sri Lanka was coming online with sapphires of fine color qualities and sizes. Ralph made missions there for clients seeking pink, blue and color-change sapphires. Travels to Sri Lanka, however, were wrought with danger in January 1995 when Ralph first travelled there.

While sourcing prized sapphires for clients, the Tamil Tigers were a fighting force to be reckoned with, as the militant group was responsible for the assassination of two world leaders. As always, close friends were essential in setting up contacts for safely executed missions.

Aiding gemologists in Russia, sourcing diamond rough in Venezuela and South Africa were also notable gemstone adventures for Ralph in carving out his industry niche. In recent years the destinations remain wide-ranging, but the missions and clientele have changed.

“The people I’m working for nowadays are financial types looking for fancy colored diamonds,” says Ralph. “Clients want the more rare blue and pink diamonds as well as large white diamonds of 3 carats and larger.”

At 59, Ralph looks more the part of a Navy SEAL than a gemologist. Given where his high-value gem missions take him, it’s best that his height and muscular build makes the first impression.