Richard is a world expert on rubies and sapphires, an award-winning author of numerous books and articles. Richard and Billie welcomed me to their lab, she listened and looked at her father with admiration and respect, and was soon reciprocated when he told us how she helped him to set up Lotus Gemology laboratory in 2014. Richard is the first generation of his family in gemology. How did he do it?
How did Richard start in this industry?
“I had no idea I would eventually become one of the most influential gemologists. Back in 1976 – after my high school graduation – I decided to travel with two friends towards what ended up becoming a round-the-world adventure.”
While in Europe, Richard made a key encounter in Copenhagen, an Australian man who had just come from Asia . “As he described his experiences there, I realized that it was Asia that I really wanted to visit. Growing up in Colorado, I had dreamed of seeing the mighty Himalayas ever since I was a young boy.” Hughes asked what it might cost to go from Europe to Nepal, and was stunned by the reply: 30 USD. In fact it cost him just 25 USD to travel by bus and train from Istanbul to Kathmandu, via Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
“While I was in London, I saw the British Crown Jewels, but as I was travelling through Asia I was directly exposed to the gem trade.” When in Jaipur with his friend at the gem market, he was negotiating and challenging the dealers to show him “the good stuff, even though they clearly were clueless. “We were looking at star rubies with the stone upside down – it was pretty bad” Richard laughs at his inexpert young self. India and Nepal led to Burma, where he saw his first rubies and jade, and thought to himself that in the future, he might have become a jade trader. “I knew nothing about it, but it seemed so exotic. I was hooked.”
He then travelled to Thailand, and finally home. That’s where he first considered studying gemstones. He looked at the offerings of GIA, but found their courses too oriented for the retail and sales path. “Do I really see myself sitting in a retail jewelry store behind the counter? No, I don’t want to do that”.
Abandoning the idea of GIA, he briefly studied recording studio engineering, but at the age of 20 he decided to return to Thailand, where he made a living teaching English. Seeing a Bangkok Post ad about the newly opened Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS) school, he decided to take a class. His current wife, Wimon, was the person who helped him with the enrollment process, and the rest is history.
After completing the AIGS program, he wanted to deepen his gem studies and signed up for GIA in California, but was offered a teaching position at AIGS the day before he was to leave Thailand: “I felt I could drink direct from the fountain in Bangkok, which is where the business is, so I decided to stay.” He joined AIGS as a teacher, but was soon also involved in the establishment of the AIGS lab.
In those days, gemstones were traded without lab reports. People were not worried about the possibility that the gems might be treated; the main concern was avoiding synthetic gems. Whilst in the USA there were labs for testing, nothing was yet set-up in Thailand. Hence AIGS began to analyze stones, for the trade and public, particularly for gems purchased by customers at World Jewels, the parent company of AIGS.
“Each morning we checked all the stones purchased the previous day. Our only tool was a 10x loupe. It was a great experience, because we got to see not only what customers in different countries bought, but also the prices paid. That’s how I learned about judging quality and pricing.”
The Bangkok scene was very different from today, there were only a few GIA-trained gemologists. Today Bangkok is full of gemologists, several major gemology schools, and a half-dozen major labs.
Richard started to trade as well, spending his weekends at the Burmese borders buying gems. Given his initial low budget, he was mainly buying the cheapest gems, that very same gem that today is very sought after, expensive and rare in its top colors “I was buying mostly spinel; with a hundred dollars you could find a very nice stone. I wish I bought them and kept them aside”.
Slowly he became manager at AIGS whilst his girlfriend (and later wife), headed up the laboratory. In 1989, their daughter, Billie, was born. Richard’s first book, Corundum, was published in 1990.
Following a discovery of rubies in Vietnam, the whole Hughes family moved to Hanoi in 1992, but Vietnam in those days was neither safe, nor an easy place to live. “Our phones were tapped, our mail was opened, we couldn’t travel, needing a special permit to go anywhere beyond the airport.” With a young child approaching school age, the best choice was to return to the USA.
Back in Colorado, Richard wrote his second book – Ruby & Sapphire. “From 1993–1996, two years of writing and one for printing.” The book was printed in Thailand, mainly because it was cheaper, and so the whole family moved to Bangkok. “It took so long, but when you do things the first time you always make mistake that you don’t repeat the second time around. Nowadays we can print a book in three months, thanks to our experience.”
In 1997, Richard was again in the USA. Following a brief stint at an LA lab, he joined Bill Larson’s Pala International in Fallbrook, CA. Larson, a legendary collector of both gems and minerals, hired Richard to develop the company’s online presence. Shortly thereafter, Richard’s wife, Wimon, was hired to photograph both Pala’s gems and Larson’s personal collection. She spent eight years with Pala, developing into a world-class gemstone photographer.
In 2005, he was approached to help set up a West Coast branch of the AGTA Gem Testing Center, along with his gemological hero and friend, John Koivula. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived partnership. The AGTA GTC eventually shut its doors permanently in 2009. Koivula left in 2007 and Hughes in 2008, after receiving an offer to return to Bangkok. “Sadly, moving back to Bangkok coincided with the economic crisis in late 2008; by mid-2010 the company closed its doors.”
In 2010 Richard moved to Hong Kong to work for an acquaintance of his, a businessman from Taiwan who had acquired a sapphire mine in Laos. The mine did not turn out to be profitable and it was soon shuttered.
During a 2009 field expedition organized by Vincent Pardieu, he and Vincent visited the Montepuez ruby mine (currently owned by Gemfields), they were the first foreign gemologists to do so. “It was amazing. The local miners had just been pushed off the property and in the two hours we explored the ground it was clear that this was the richest ruby mine I had ever seen. That night, after we returned to Pemba, where we were staying, I called my Taiwanese friend in Hong Kong and told him I had found an incredible property to invest in. He asked me where I was. I said ‘Mozambique.’ He replied: ‘that’s Africa right?’ I said yes. He said ‘I don’t want to get involved in Africa,’ and thus missed the chance to buy the world’s richest ruby mine. True story.”
Following the closing of the Lao sapphire project, Richard was approached by the Gem and Jewelry Institute of Thailand (GIT) to write a book promoting the Thai gem trade. Richard spent 2012–13 traveling to ruby and sapphire mines around the world. The result was Ruby & Sapphire: A Collector’s Guide, published in the beginning of 2014. Not only did it feature Richard’s photographs, but also those of Wimon and Billie.
Billie, having graduated from UCLA in 2011, had moved to Bangkok and was teaching English. Her parents suggested she might enjoy gemology, since Billie loved watching TV shows on forensic science like CSI. They offered her a deal: “Full room and board (at their condo) and a full-ride parental-paid scholarship for the FGA program taught in Bangkok at GIT, no strings attached”. If she didn’t like it, she was free to explore other careers as she wished.
There was only one slight problem. She loved it. She took her exam in June 2013 and was travelling with her father and some close friends to gem mines in East Africa when her mother phoned with the news. She had passed the exam.
Once the book for GIT was delivered, the seed for Lotus was planted: Richard and the family started to set up the company. While Richard and his wife are first-generation gemologists, Lotus – as he proudly says “is founded by we three.” “It took us a good six months to get everything ready, a little longer than we expected,” but that’s the difference between planning and reality, especially in Thailand.
Starting over today, what would he change?
Richard admits being happy with each choice and step in his life, but if he could change one thing, he would have started his own lab earlier. The idea was already in his mind in 2005, when he proposed it to a friend, but their paths diverged. The only regret was “not to have started it in 2008, rather than in 2014”.
What were the most fundamental choices in his career?
Entrepreneurs face dozens of challenges every week, but only a few might shape the future of a career. The wisdom or failure of certain choices may become apparent only years or decades later.
Richard has no hesitation to respond to the question with three key points: “Going to Asia, meeting and marrying my wife, and subsequently, giving Billie the freedom to choose her own path in life.”
Surprisingly neither of those choices are directly connected with the business itself, but in a different “sliding doors” scenario, today Richard could be a sound engineer in New York.
What does he see as the biggest challenges in business?
Again, Richard does not hesitate one second to say: “Keeping an open mind. As a child, everything is possible, you see no barriers, you are flexible. The older you grow, the more you become set in your ways and reluctant to take different perspectives into consideration. This is a deadly trap for business and for life.”
What is the inspiration behind Lotus?
Passion, backed up by experience and expertise. “Wimon and I were there in the first lab in Thailand, and we have learnt so much in the following four decades. We understand that this is what we know, and we have to do what we know best.”
As you enter Lotus, you clearly perceive the vision behind it. “We like simplicity, minimalism, removing the superfluous, in order to allow us to focus on what is important.” After so many years of travelling through Asia, Richard seems to have absorbed the Buddhist sense of essentialism and applied it to his business model. He continues along the same lines “the most difficult thing is turning down opportunities – bad or good. Sometimes you are offered so many great opportunities that is easier to say yes. The difficulty is saying no to good things, choosing to do fewer things, focusing on what we believe is not just important for us, but for the greater community.”
Lotus means Billie, Wimon and Richard. “We started slowly to avoid blowing all our money before we were sure of what needed to be done. The beauty is that we did not have to borrow money and we wanted to keep it that way.” Billie – remembering with pride those early days – adds “We sat down to see which functions we needed and we saw they could be covered by the three of us with our skills,” and Richard concludes “You have to keep cost down in a startup.”
During their days at the AGTA GTC, Richard and John Koivula discussed the development of a different type of report, something that would appeal to the emotional attraction of gems, not just the intellectual or scientific. “I remembered back to the days when I first became interested in gems. Sadly, when I looked at AGTA and other lab reports, they read more like a blood test than a celebration of these unique creations of Mother Nature. So I set about to change that.”
“The result was the ‘JewelFolio,’ the gem trade’s first deluxe report. Since its appearance in 2007, the idea has been copied by labs around the world. Following the AGTA GTC closure in 2009, New York’s American Gemological Laboratories (AGL) bought the JewelFolio design from the AGTA”.
When opening Lotus, Richard’s plan was to build on the experience designing the JewelFolio and improve it. “Every time you do something, you realize in retrospect how you could do it better.” Another issue that Richard wanted to address was the way lab traditionally describe treatment (H, HD, etc.), which he finds misleading and confusing for the final consumer. “Treatment codes were originally designed by the AGTA for use on invoices from dealer to dealer. They were never designed to be used on lab reports. Unfortunately, those codes were abused by certain labs as a way of hiding enhancements, and the codes became so prevalent that now all labs are forced to use codes.”
At Lotus, they decided to make explicit enhancement disclosures, even while using those codes. Billie came up with the idea to use different report cover colors to reflect the treatment situation. Thus Lotus reports are the only reports in the industry where one can immediately recognize treatment status. Gold report covers are reserved for untreated gems, silver for treated, and black covers for synthetic and heavily-treated gems.
What is the secret of success in the gem business?
Even though he is a scientist, Richard suggests that a crucial element of success is “luck,” supported by a series of other factors such as curiosity and “keeping an enquiring mind,” all along your journey, no matter at which stage of life or career.
Another key factor in achieving success in the eye of Richard is to “understand what you enjoy doing and, at in the same time, what you are good at” and to work hard at it.
Even though there might be no secret in the fact that experience and know-how are at the base of success, it is refreshing and somehow reassuring to know that this is the best recipe to achieve recognition and to build a sustainable business, in any industry.
Best advice for a person starting his career now?
“Find what you like doing and try to monetize it,” Richard replies, and with a confident and mature approach, Billie suggests that, to be realistic, you may have to go through several steps in order to have a suitable business. Doing only what we like is the dream target, but, as in any job, sometimes there are less enjoyable tasks. “If we could do only what we like, we would stare at gemstones all day long, discuss them, and take pictures, but we also need to analyze them scientifically and create reliable reports.” Thus one regimented segment of our business permits us to explore another, more enjoyable task.
The takeaway is that patience and commitment to our choices bring results. Shortcuts or improvisation are important, but may not lead to a sustainable business. Luck can help, but you can also help luck by taking risks, making choices that not always are mainstream.