Geology Home Page physical geology historical geology planetary gems
Roger Weller, geology instructor
by John Vivian
The Family Jewels
The Webster dictionary describes a gemologist as, “an expert in gems; specifically one who appraises gems.” With that being said, it shouldn’t matter who, or what gender, the expert may be. Apparently, in the early 1900’s it did. A great aunt of mine by the name of Ella J. Bird was the first woman in the U.S to graduate, as a registered jeweler, from the American Gem Society. My family still has possession of her beloved gem collection.
Early in Ella J. Bird’s career when she was consumed in
a much different trade, that of a hat maker, Ella was busy in her craft when the
phone rang. It was a friend in the jewelry store across the street; asking if
she could help out for the day. One of the clerks were absent and the store was
shorthanded. Ella said yes, so she did, and never went back to millinery (hat
maker). She had found her passion and made it her profession by climbing her
way to the top. Through years of difficult business experiences and long hours
of scientific study under qualified teachers. Robert Shipley Jr., the elder son
of the founder of Gemological Institute of America, personally typed a letter to
Ella in 1939 stating he was mighty happy to advise her that her grade on the
stone examination was 100%. “For a woman student, this was outstanding. After
checking up a bit, the women students have done somewhat better than have the
men. However, man or woman, a 100% is something to crow about.” He went on
saying he‘s looking forward to meeting her again in Boston and hopes that
nothing will keep her away from the Conclave.
Having read that, and it being at the start of her career, proved to me “the climb to the top,” had to have been a huge challenge for her. It must have provided a great amount of determination, because her collection of gems, minerals and stones are amazing. Rubies, sapphires, diamonds, amethysts, emeralds, zircons, peridots, turquoise, lapis lazuli and a dozen or so more. On about 30 3x5 index cards, she has mounted with jeweler’s wax specimens of all the different kinds of precious and semiprecious gemstones in all their varying shapes and colors. She became known for her selective buying, or finding just the right thing for the right person. People from all around sought her out for her trusted eye. Ella was able to gain a great amount of respect for her profession. Her client book alone, is a “gem” itself. She enjoyed buying jewels for others and getting the chance to share her knowledge.
Also in her collection are three genuine scarabs, which at that time, there were only eight in the world known to exist. A two-inch high rose quartz angel figurine, a green jade elephant, an entrancing puppy dog of agate, and a pendant of white jade carved in the shape of a panther. Those were part of her personal collection. The others were used for customers and potential buyers.
On one occasion in the early 50’s, she was asked by Harry Winston of New York, designer and maker of exquisite jewelry and owner of many historic gems, to present the exhibition case of the famous Catherine the Great Sapphire. This was the largest faceted sapphire in the world worth $250,000, at the time. For the long line of people who filed by and waited to see this rarity, Ella answered questions and told the stones history: how it was given to Catherine the Great of Russia by an admirer for luck, then sold at the time of World War I to equip ambulances for the Russian soldiers. Later to be bought by Mr. Winston. The star in a sapphire, by the way, is an optical effect; formed by bands of light reflected as the stone is moved to or from a source of light. If a piece is properly cut, this effect remains no matter the size. The sapphire has always been considered a lucky gem.
She also was invited to join group lectures around the U.S. at conventions and eventually having her own lecture which she named, “Your Birthstone on Parade.” Explaining to interested individuals and buyers the different origins and cuts of each stone and the beliefs that go along with them.
For a woman in the early 1900’s who wanted to be educated, certified, and registered in a profession such as this one, it was unheard of and frowned upon. Aunt Ella didn’t care. She was more determined and curious to dig in Mother Nature’s jewelry box and seek out all of Earths hidden treasures. She continued her profession to the end. Ella J. Birds was laid to rest in Mesa, AZ in 1974; but her gem collection still lives on in our family. A few years before her passing, she had her five great nieces pick out their birthstone; had them set in an arrangement of their choosing. Those five pieces of jewelry are worn and admired by the family members who haven’t forgotten her, the way history has. They are fondly remembered as the family jewels.
Written By: John Vivian Spring 2016