JEWELLER Alistir Tait is to lead a fact-finding mission of leading gem experts to study the hidden world of precious stone production in the Far East.
He will be the only Scot in a 12-strong delegation that will spend two weeks in Thailand uncovering information about the secretive gem trade, dealing in rubies, sapphires, zircon and spinel.
Alistir, owner of Alistir Wood Tait Antique and Fine Jewellery in Rose Street, Edinburgh, hopes the trip will also allow them a rare opportunity to get as close as possible to the stone production of repressive Burma as well as other troubled neighbouring countries, including Cambodia and Vietnam.
As one of Scotland’s best-respected jewellers and gemmologists, Alisitir has already campaigned successfully to raise the profile of endangered Scottish pearls and “blood diamonds” from the world’s conflict zones.
The Thai trip has been organised by the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, known as Gem-A, and includes academics, collectors, jewellers and other experts. Alistir was the youngest ever Fellow of the Association at the age of 17.
He said the trip would allow the Association to report to its members on working conditions, as well as to study any misuse of various techniques – including heat treatment – which allow inferior gems stones to be passed off as better quality stones.
Alistir, 49, added: “This is a fantastic opportunity to get in on the ground and see what is really happening in Thailand and get right up to date by visiting mines, workshops, gem cutting factories and the places where traders go to buy stones
“Thailand is now one of the world’s major gem centres, but like many such places it is quite secretive and surrounded by mythology and misinformation. People at the source, including those involved in mines, cutting and treatment, don’t really want strangers, especially jewellers, to know a lot about what really happens.
“We might find that stones which really should be discarded as inferior are being treated to change their colour or clarity and then being passed off as genuine gems. It is also important we see what kind of conditions people are employed in to make sure there are no serious abuses, particularly of women and children.”
The trip will also include a visit to a thriving gem market in Mae Sai on the border with Burma and Alistir added: “The gem stones all come from Mogok in Burma, which is legendary among gemmologists for its rubies.
“However it is closed to the rest of the world and this is as close as we can hope to get to find out anything we can about what goes on there.”
If the group witness appalling working conditions or widespread abuse of those gem treatments which are frowned upon in the west, they can apply pressure for change through Gem-A, which has wide influence among jewellers and other experts.
Previously it has successfully campaigned for the jewellery trade to avoid dealing in blood diamonds, which help prop up corrupt or repressive regimes. Alistir was a leading campaigner in Scotland.
He has also helped raise awareness of poor working conditions in the gem mines of East Africa, while at home he played a key role in helping the Scottish Executive to devise a coherent policy on restricted trade in native pearls, to help conserve under-threat freshwater Scottish mussels.
As well as visiting mines in Chanthaburi and Bo Ploy, and gem markets and cutting factories across Thailand, Alistir has also been asked to speak at one of the country’s leading universities.
As one of the world’s top experts on Scotland’s heritage in precious stones and metals he will address students at Chanthaburi University on the subject, and will talk about native Scottish pearls, gold and sapphires, as well as sought-after semi-precious stones like cairngorm, agate, garnets and jasper.
He added: “I am genuinely thrilled at being asked to take part in this fact-finding trip and think it would be rewarding to any jeweller or anyone with a deep love of gemstones. Being asked to speak at the university is an additional privilege and should ensure it is a very memorable trip indeed.”
The group fly to Thailand on November 16 and return to the UK on November 30.