Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Spring 2019, Vol. 55, No. 1

Sourcing Stones with Columbia Gem House

Trillion-cut blue hyalite opals.
Figure 1. Left: These trillion-cut blue hyalite opals from Oregon, weighing about 2.25 ct each, are reminiscent of moonstone. Right: Five Montana sapphires, ranging from 0.60 to 1.20 ct, showcase Columbia Gem House’s “GeoCut,” which follows the crystal’s natural shape. Photo by Robert Weldon/GIA.

Eric Braunwart (Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Washington) spoke to us on how the industry has evolved since he opened his doors in 1976. Columbia Gem House has been a pioneer in the responsible sourcing of gemstones.

Braunwart traces his commitment to ethically sourced gems, those that he can track and trace and align with the company’s fair trade protocols, to a project he worked on with the World Bank in Madagascar about 20 years ago. His involvement with this project led him to set up fair trade standards for his own business—no small feat, as there were no such procedures for the gem and jewelry industry at the time. To create policies, Braunwart and his staff turned to industries such as food and agriculture. The company has remained open to public feedback; this is how Braunwart became passionate about prevention of silicosis in cutting communities. They have collaborated with different entities to create projects to benefit miners and their communities (read about one such project in J.-L. Archuleta, “The color of responsibility: Ethical issues and solutions in colored gemstones,” Summer 2016 G&G, pp. 144–160). The company continues to seek out projects in regions where they can make a difference by setting up schools, medical facilities, and other community needs.

Growing up in the American West led to Braunwart’s interest in the region’s nontraditional gem materials, such as agates, garnets, and petrified wood. Even though his business was involved in more traditional gem materials, he was drawn to the chalcedony, variscite, and turquoise that were not featured in classic jewelry. Today, Columbia Gem House sources and cuts about 150 different varieties of gemstones. American gemstones, such as the faceted blue hyalite opal from Oregon (figure 1, left), are one of their specialties. Much of their current business comes from small designers rather than large corporate interests. They have run their cutting facility in China for 35 years, with a trusted team that can quickly respond to orders.

While the company was in business before millennials were even born, this generation has clearly influenced the company’s sales; many of this year’s buyers in Tucson were people in their twenties representing small designer firms making modest purchases. Braunwart has been able to capitalize on social media (particularly Instagram) to make decisions on materials, colors, and cuts, allowing followers to vote on what types of material to promote. He believes that social media will continue to drive consumers toward ethical and sustainable choices in jewelry, with the full impact being felt within the next five years.

Unheated Tanzanian sapphire.
Figure 2. This 21.33 ct blue and green unheated sapphire is from Tanzania. Photo by Robert Weldon/GIA.

The 2019 AGTA show brought many new and established buyers to the Columbia Gem House booth. In fact, Braunwart said that this Tucson show, the company’s 41st, was their most successful ever. He attributes that to a growing interest in sustainably and ethically mined gemstones. Popular items included small baguettes in a variety of colors and materials, unheated Montana sapphire, Cortez pearls, and fossilized coral from Utah. The company’s “GeoCut,” a simple cut that follows the natural shape of the crystal, is used in materials such as Montana sapphire (figure 1, right). One remarkable stone from outside the United States was a 21.33 ct unheated sapphire from Tanzania showing distinct blue and green colors (figure 2).

Jennifer-Lynn Archuleta is the editor of Gems & Gemology. Jennifer Stone-Sundberg is a research scientist at GIA in New York, and a technical editor of Gems & Gemology.