Remembering Dr. Edward J. Gübelin

Dr. Edward J. Gübelin was one of the world’s most respected, honored, and accomplished gemologists, and many articles will be published elucidating his unparalleled professional achievements. My intent here is to provide personal insights into the life of one of gemology’s greatest heroes.

As a young gemology student in 1977, I first learned of Dr. Gübelin from his classic 1974 book Internal World of Gemstones: Documents from Space and Time, and from his many articles. Upon graduation from the Gemological Institute of America, I joined the staff of GIA’s Gem Trade Laboratory. In 1979, I was 22 years old and thrilled to receive a long letter from Dr. Gübelin complimenting me on my first published article, “Developments and Highlights at GIA’s Lab in Los Angeles.” He encouraged me to continue taking photomicrographs and to keep writing. In his letter he was kind, articulate, and gracious. Dr. Gübelin elevated the art of letter writing to a new level of intelligent eloquence.

This letter started a 25-year correspondence and an enduring friendship, which extended beyond gemology. He offered kindness, companionship, and advice on many topics. During my travels around the world for GIA, the Swiss city of Lucerne always seemed to be on the way to, or on the way home from, almost any destination. Even my vacations seemed to find me visiting Dr. and Mrs. Gübelin for a few days at their beautiful house near the shores of Lake Lucerne in the village of Meggen. Next to his front door was a large plaque inlaid with various ornamental stones and the inscription “Ratna Mahal,” meaning “house of gems” in Sinhalese. He also replaced the hood emblem on his Mercedes Benz with a large, beautifully polished sphere of tiger’s-eye. These are just a few examples of how Dr. Gübelin interwove gemology throughout his life.

Edward Gübelin’s thirst for gemological knowledge is well known, but he had interests and profound knowledge in many areas and was a true Renaissance man. He once told me how important he felt it was to read newspapers and books, and to be a student of current and historical events, as well as the arts. “Otherwise when I get together with my friends and family who are not gemologists,” he said, “I will not have anything to talk about other than gems.”

Dr. Gübelin was not only one of the world’s greatest gemological pioneers and teachers: He was a scholar, linguist (fluent in five languages), author, poet, master photographer, filmmaker, artist, jewelry designer, collector, and world-class traveler/adventurer. He excelled in everything he did.

In 1996 I had the honor of being appointed director of the Gübelin Gemological Laboratory, which Dr. Gübelin directed for nearly 40 years. During my years in Switzerland, I not only enjoyed the fascinating and rewarding work at the laboratory but also cherished the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Gübelin and to collaborate on a variety of special projects with him. For example, both of us loved and were fascinated by Burmese gemstones, and he was always excited to photograph and study any new or exceptional examples of inclusions that we encountered in gems submitted to the laboratory.

Life Artist. One beautiful spring Saturday afternoon, Dr. Gübelin and I attended a concert by a young Swiss violin virtuoso, in a magnificent 19th-century church. Dr. Gübelin had contributed to the purchase of a rare violin for this promising young musician. On the way back to Lucerne, he stopped at a charming country restaurant, where we enjoyed coffee and apple strudel. I commented that he certainly knew how to enjoy life. He responded that after years of diligent practice, he had become a “life artist”—one who experiences the very best life has to offer.

During his 70-plus-year career, Dr. Gübelin traveled extensively to explore the world’s gem deposits and cutting and trading centers, visit colleagues in gem labs, and speak at conferences. He was often the first gemologist to visit and to write about a new or classic gem locality, such as the tanzanite and tsavorite mining areas of East Africa, Zabargad (the ancient peridot island in the Red Sea), as well as Mogok and the Jade Mines District of Upper Burma.

More than once, Dr. Gübelin expressed bewilderment over those around him complaining of frequently being tired. He told me that he had never been tired—I believe this was truly an expression of his never-ending zest and passion for life. I don’t think he had time to be weary, for he knew there were too many great things in life to experience and accomplish. An example of his boundless energy was exhibited during a trip to the gem mines in Mogok, Burma, in 1993. Seven of his friends accompanied him. Even though he was 81 at the time—45 years older than many of us—as we climbed hills in and around the ruby and sapphire mines, he was always in front, patiently waiting for us to catch up. Perhaps the excitement of just being there invigorated him.

After his wife’s passing in 1992, Dr. Gübelin moved into a spacious apartment in the National Hotel on Lake Lucerne, where he transformed one of the largest rooms into a gemological laboratory. A massive table in the center of the room was covered with gemological instruments, some new, others dating back decades. The “legs” of the table were filing cabinets around the entire perimeter, which contained Dr. Gübelin’s article reference collection. It was classified by subject and contained articles he had been clipping for more than 50 years. Each file contained a treasure trove of information.

Dr. Gübelin was generous with his knowledge. When colleagues, students, or even strangers from around the world inquired about a particular gem or gem-related topic, he would photocopy the relevant portions of the file for them.

Dr. Gübelin was a world-class collector of many objects, including books on various topics, antiques, paintings, Russian icons, stamps, Egyptian artifacts, and gemstones. His gem collection comprises thousands of gemstones he acquired during the past six decades. In addition to the beauty, rarity, and value, this collection is the most important and complete gemological/research collection ever assembled.

Dr. Gübelin’s public persona was one of utmost professionalism—he was the consummate scholarly gentleman—but he had a dry, quick wit to match his razor-sharp intellect. During the 1985 ICA Congress in Idar-Oberstein, Germany, Colin Curtis gave a fervent speech on how colored-stone promotion started with each of us. He said the men in the audience should wear jewelry such as gem-set cufflinks and rings. Later that day, Colin, Dr. Gübelin, and I met in a small bistro. After a few minutes of conversation, Dr. Gübelin excused himself while turning away from the table. He slowly turned back, looking at Colin, and said, “I thought about what you said today and I completely agree.” Dr. Gübelin was now wearing long, dangling opal earrings! For a split second, Colin and I stared in disbelief, but then all three of us burst into laughter. Earlier in the day he had purchased the earrings as a gift for his wife.

Although we mourn Dr. Gübelin’s passing, we should also celebrate his remarkable life, and the fact that the gem and jewelry industries had such a great champion for more than 70 years. I shudder to imagine the thought of gemology today without it having been shaped in countless profound ways by Dr. Edward J. Gübelin. I have no doubt that many of us realize just how fortunate we are to have counted him as our teacher, mentor, and friend.

Robert E. Kane, President and CEO, Fine Gems International, Helena, Mont.