Charmed into Gemmology by the secrets hidden in gemstones

Jacomien Labuschagne shows off some of the beautiful gemstones that attracted her to Gemmology. (Photograph: STEPHANIE NIEUWOUDT)

Jacomien Labuschagne was a jewellery design student in her second year at Stellenbosch University (SU) when she fell in love with the patterns and inclusions that were visible when examining precious stones under a microscope.

These were the mica platelets in aventurine quartz, copper triangles in synthetic aventurine glass and the geometric lines of rutile needles in sapphires.

“Initially I wanted to study occupational therapy, but the closer it came to having to take the big decision, the more frequently I checked out the art department’s website and noticed jewellery design. When aptitude tests confirmed that jewellery design was the right direction, there was no turning back. And I realised early on in the course that I did not want to keep the knowledge that I acquired to myself.”

An academic career in the field therefore became attractive.

All students in Jewellery Design in SU’s Department of Visual Arts have to take the Gemmology course in their second year. While some students are not keen on the mathematical calculations and scientific terms that they have to master for the course, Jacomien realised that she wanted to work as a designer of jewellery containing gemstones.

This interest quickly grew into a passion and, since the start of this year, she has been a lecturer in Gemmology and is in control of the well-equipped Gemmology laboratory. Among the gemstones that are studied are tiger’s eye, lapis lazuli, rock-crystal, iolite, amethyst, rubies, garnets, jasper and many more.

Jacomien points out that gemmologists do not readily speak about precious stones and semiprecious stones.

“Everything is precious,” she says.

The Gemmology laboratory. (Photograph: JACOMIEN LABUSCHAGNE)

On the top floor of the Visual Arts Building she talks with great enthusiasm about “ancient water” that is trapped in some stones, and also of the inclusions that look like a “horse’s tail” that can only be seen with a microscope in demantoid garnet. She talks about how gemstones are cut en how light moves through them.

She also is full of praise for Dave Glenister, who was attached to SU for more than 30 years and a lecturer in Gemmology from 2000. She was taught by him and later tutored under his guidance. Glenister was also her mentor and when he retired last year she applied for his post.

“I was very sceptical about whether I would get the post,” says Jacomien.

“But I am grateful that I was appointed and I feel privileged that Dave continues to remain available to assist me with advice and help.”

This 25-year-old has 16 students in her class this year – one of whom is a BComm student and another who is studying Geology.

“I realise that I still have a lot to learn. However, the pressure forces me to make sure that I am up to date about everything that is happening in my field. Every day is a new learning experience. While I work with the students I am also busy learning.”

The Gemmology division was still part of the Department of Geology until about two years ago. When it was announced that the Department of Geology wanted to close the division, Prof Keith Dietrich, chairperson of the Department of Visual Arts, along with Glenister, decided that the division was too valuable and could not be allowed to close down. He eventually succeeded in incorporating Gemmology as part of the Department of Visual Arts.

Students at work in the Gemmology laboratory. (Photograph: JACOMIEN LABUSCHAGNE)

“The Gemmology laboratory is unique because it is the only one in the country in which detailed training takes place for a double semester at tertiary level,” says Dietrich.

Meanwhile, Jacomien is also busy full time with studies towards her MA in Visual Arts (Jewellery Design). She hopes to graduate in March 2013. And earlier this year she was one of the finalists in the Talente jewellery design competition. Three rings that she had made with plastic bags, baked at 180 degrees Celsius and finished with gemstones, were exhibited in Munich, Germany as part of the competition.

“May aim is to present the subject of Gemmology so well that people who attend the course will be an asset to the jewellery industry,” says Jacomien, who is hoping to present short courses to people from the commercial sector next year.

“I believe that jewellers and designers with knowledge of Gemmology have an advantage in the industry.” – STEPHANIE NIEUWOUDT