A certified jewelry artist, gemologist and gemcutter Rita-Livia Erikson, is the only person in Estonia who has such a combination of three specialties. In fact, such a mix is also rare worldwide. Passion towards gemstones has, among other places, led Rita to study in California and Bangkok, as well as to work in a ruby mine in Mozambique.
She has created the jewelry brand Rita Livia Jewelry and has become an undisputed specialist in the Estonian gemstone field. Now let’s dive into the fascinating world of gems and explore Rita’s thoughts on gemstones, ethics and much more!
To begin with, is it right to talk about gemstones, precious stones or semi-precious stones?
I personally avoid using both the words „precious stone“ and „semi-precious stone“. Instead I use the word „gemstone“. The first two refer very strongly to value. However, this is causing more and more confusion. The stones that have traditionally been called precious stones in Western culture are far from being always more valuable than all the other stones used in jewelry – i.e. semi-precious stones. We must also bear in mind that these terms date back to a time when stones were distinguished only by color. Thus, for example, all red gemstones (rubies) were considered precious stones. Nowadays the value of a stone depends on a number of factors, and this outdated terminology does not play a role in this.
Since 2016, you have kept going to Arizona, the world’s largest gem and mineral fair, from where you bring stones to Estonia for your jewelry. How has the global pandemic affected the fair and you? Where do you get the stones now?
Of course, the current situation in the world has also had a major impact in this regard. This year, the gem and mineral fair in Arizona will be missed by most people, including me. Similarly, many smaller trade fairs around the world have been cancelled as well. Fortunately, over the years, I have stockpiled more stones than I could use even now. However, during current situation, I have started to order new rough stones for cutting from reliable contacts via internet. For the first time, I am not able to hand select every single stone I buy. Inevitably, however, you have to keep up with the times and get out of your comfort zone.
What does your jewelry creation process look like? Do you first have the gem and then comes the idea or vice versa?
When it comes to faceted stones, the creation process almost always starts with the stone. First there is the stone and then I create a jewelry design around it. A gemstone as a natural material is often in itself a sufficient source of inspiration and the idea grows around there by itself. But of course the stone can also be adapted to the idea. In general, however, this means at least some changes. For example, what exactly needs to be done for a suitable and secure fastening, which would then harmonize well with the rest of the jewelry.
To the bystander, the world of gemstones often seems something distant, exquisite and even a little dangerous. Getting the rarest gems into ones possession seems to be one of the biggest missions of fanatics. Is finding rare stones one of your missions as well?
Of course, rarity itself is fascinating. It is also one of the three defining characteristics of a gemstone. It is a stone that can be called beautiful, rare and durable all at the same time. However, trying not to be a collector, I buy stones based on what is important and beautiful enough for me. The beauty of the stones should be seen and appreciated. So to me it makes sense that they should end up in wearable jewelry, not a dark, closed safe.
To make gems always shine, how is it right to take care of the jewelry? is there something one definitely shouldn’t do?
In order for the stones to shine and the jewelry to always be as beautiful as possible, they must be cleaned regularly. How often depends on the wearer. It is safe to use warm mild soapy water and a soft toothbrush to clean all stones and pearls. In order to shine, faceted gems must be clean from the bottom, not just the top. Care should be taken when using disinfectants, as they can adversely affect some materials (e.g. break down the pearl over time). That is why I recommend removing the rings for this procedure.
There has been a lot of talk about precious and semi-precious stones in recent years, but rather in the context of esoteric teachings than jewelry. How do you feel about attributing different metaphysical features to gemstones?
I am not personally fascinated by esoterics. I find that the story of natural stones, what their physical features are, and how they come into being in general, is in itself so amazing and multi-level that it is all practically imperceptible. Each stone has its own background and character, and each of them is unique. The fact that nature has been able to create something so fantastic, incredible and beautiful is more than enough for me, and I do not think that anything more metaphysical needs to be added to it.
You also offer a gemstone identification service. How many forgeries have you detected?
So far, more than half of them have been made of synthetic stones or imitations, i.e. they are expected or thought to be something else. When buying stones from unknown sources, a simple rule also applies here: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
You use natural gems in your jewelry. But how do you feel about synthetic stones? It has been said that the more time passes, the harder it is to distinguish between the two, and perhaps it would be „greener“ or more sustainable to make stones in the laboratory. How do you feel about that?
For me, what matters is the nature and background of the stones, not just the color and game of light. Knowing the source of a stone (e.g. synthetic vs natural) not only changes its value, but also the meaning behind its brilliance. Of course, everything has its own market, as well as costume jewelry, which are not meant to last for years or even months. However, this is not a choice that I would make myself, because jewelry and stones are very personal and important to me. Distinguishing one material from another requires experience, but for example, distinguishing a synthetic ruby from a natural one has not become more difficult in recent decades; rather, the distinction becomes easier over time.
I would not say that the production of synthetic stones is „greener“. It is certainly easier, cheaper and faster, but because they can be produced in unlimited quantities, they are never rare. The vast majority of natural stones are still mined by hand and with very rudimentary tools. To distinguish them from the rest of the soil, only water is always used. Chemicals are never used in stone mining processes. So it follows that mining anything else (e.g. various metals, including gold) is never that environmentally friendly.
As synthetic stones are produced in factories, the pollution they cause to the environment is far from non-existent. In addition, directing the whole market to this kind of sustainability would take away the income of countless people working in mines around the world. I do not have a negative attitude towards synthetic stones. However, in my opinion it is not acceptable to try to show others in a negative light in order to better market one’s products. Unfortunately, this is a pattern that synthetic stone sellers often follow, claiming that natural is one way or another a worse choice. It is good for people to have choices and it should be kept that way.
An interesting topic is the ethics of gems as well. The terms „guilt-free“ or „conflict-free“ and „ethically-sourced“ gems are often used when talking about stones. Do you know the situation in the mines today? From which mines do you get your stones?
Ethics, even in the world of gems, is a very multi-level and much more complex issue than it first seems. For me, these terms are mainly sales terms. What does „ethical“ really mean? From whose point of view? When a 12-year-old boy in Tanzania sifts sapphires out of the mud by a river bend, with this little money he can not only buy food for his younger sibling, but also pay for their schooling. However, from the point of view of Western society, it is unethical to buy these stones from him, because it is considered child labor.
Many countries on the East Coast of Africa are rich in mineral resources and are the world’s most important gem areas. Countless locals spend their days searching for these valued colored minerals, which are the only possible source of income for their families. I saw it up close in Mozambique, where rubies were mined by two foreign companies and, in parallel, by hundreds of local people independently. They do not work officially for any company and do not expect any compensation from anywhere. However, who specifically excavated one stone or another is not always identifiable afterwards.
If the mining of the individuals is banned or their gems are boycotted, who will benefit? It is clear that large companies and large-scale mining companies can win the most. They can rely on the sales terms mentioned at the beginning, because they have everything order on paper. Unfortunately, these companies are usually not local, but are owned by richer countries (such as the United Kingdom), which have obtained a mining permit and can therefore deliver peacefully abroad with a minimum of local labor. But how many local people lose their livelihoods because of that?
„Conflict-free“ and „blood diamonds“ have long been out of the question today, as the mine to market of diamonds has been very tightly controlled internationally for almost 20 years through the Kimberly Process. To my knowledge, no large-scale conflict has been financially supported by the extraction of colored stones. Unlike diamond mines, colored stone mines are usually small in size. Gems are mined from them to earn a living for their family, hoping to find this one large, high quality and precious shining stone that will secure the future of the whole family.
I myself have bought most of the stones from my personal acquaintances and reliable dealers, who obtain the stones directly from the miners. Many of these dealers travel around the world to different mines and nearby gem markets and buy these natural minerals from people who have dug them out and washed them out of the mud.
In almost every field today, we can talk about recycling. How can we see that in the world of gems?
Gems are the most durable materials that exist on our planet. They have been waiting in the earth’s crust for millions, hundreds of millions, sometimes even billions of years, to be dug out. When they finally find their way into jewelry and if handled properly, their beauty will last forever. Gemstones can be re-polished or the worn-scratched polish refreshed if necessary. These are materials that can be used endlessly in new jewelry designs, and this has been done repeatedly over thousands of years in history.
Finally, your career so far has been extremely exciting! Over the last ten years, devotion towards gems has taken you to very different countries and made you study the subject in depth. What else does the world of gems have to offer you?
My journey into the world of gems continues vigorously. Due to current difficulties no trips are planned for the near future, but I will still keep up to date with everything that is happening in the world. At the same time, I focus on cutting stones here and strive to educate and arouse interest in the colorful world of gems among our local population. The possibilities are endless and I hope to ignite this same devotion against these ancient materials in others. Nature has been able to produce incredibly beautiful and amazing materials that deserve to continue to be enjoyed and appreciated for their beauty and uniqueness.
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