Heritage Series: Gem-A President Maggie Campbell Pedersen

Our Heritage Series has explored Gem-A’s journey over the last 110 years, celebrating the illustrious figures who have helped to shape the gemmological world of today. Our last instalment takes us to the present day with an exclusive interview with Gem-A’s current President, Maggie Campbell Pedersen FGA ABIPP, who shares with us her own gemmological journey.

Book signing on the Gem-A stand at the Tucson fairs in 2006.

When I was a child my father (who was Danish) worked both in London and in Denmark, frequently having to spend quite a lot of time away from home.  He often returned with a little present tucked into the corner of his suitcase, and sometimes it was a Georg Jensen silver brooch or bracelet (which unfortunately were later lost in a burglary). Thus my interest in jewellery was awakened at an early age. 

Having finished school, my wish to become a silversmith was thwarted. I applied for an apprenticeship with Georg Jensen but was turned down on the grounds that the work was too physically hard for a woman. 

So instead of silversmithing, I spent three years at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Photography, obtaining a degree in Commercial/Industrial photography – which in those days wasn’t a job for a woman either – and it led back to jewellery when I opened a studio specialising in gems and jewellery.

In those days there was no digital photography, but we used large format cut film in plate cameras. Retouching was done by hand with a tiny paintbrush, and stones like jadeite jade and emeralds – which can fluoresce in the infra-red – frequently used to appear a muddy brown which was almost impossible to filter out. Photoshop has made jewellery photography so much easier!

Q. Many Gem-A members will be familiar with your work on ivory – what first inspired you to specialise in this material and organic gems?

When studying for my Gemmology Diploma it occurred to me that ‘organics’ – with the exception of pearls – were largely ignored by gemmologists. My fascination for ‘nature’ is as strong as my love of gemstones. Organics never merited more than a small chapter at the end of any gemmology book, and usually with very poor photos. 


Publications by Maggie Campbell Pedersen

To me, an elephant is more interesting than a hole in the ground – even if that hole contains diamonds! And further, I knew that I could take decent photos of organics. So I wrote a book…

Q. Have you noticed any change in the industry’s attitude towards ivory and organics in recent years?

Today there is perhaps a little more awareness of organics in the industry, but they still tend to be regarded as the ‘poor cousin’ and considered less important.  Also, for some years many people have not touched ivory or tortoiseshell as they are from endangered species, and some have the same attitude to coral.

It is my impression that it is not understood just how widespread the use of organics has been in the decorative arts, and how magnificent the craftsmanship has been in fashioning them. Another point worth remembering is that organics are our oldest form of jewellery and have been used worldwide for many millennia by both the rich and the poor.

We always have to push a little to make gemmologists aware that they need a basic knowledge of organics, as at any time a member of the public may ask for an identification.

Q. Can you tell us more about your work with animal conservation?

My work in animal conservation has mostly consisted of taking a couple of weeks’ holiday every now and then to volunteer at an animal conservation project, in order to get close and learn more about them. I have tagged hawksbill turtles in Barbados and fed cheetahs in Namibia.

I have tried (and failed!) to give a vitamin tablet to a captive, injured manatee in Florida.My most memorable trip was working as a research assistant at an elephant conservation camp in northern Thailand on the Myanmar/Laos borders.

MCP hosing down an elephant at a conservation camp in Northern Thailand.

We were testing the animals to compare their thought processes and reactions to our human ones. For example, does an elephant get jealous if it is fed only cornflakes, while the elephant beside it gets delicious pumpkin seeds?  (Answer: they don’t show jealousy.) And I had plenty of opportunity to study the animals’ teeth.

Working on conservation projects gives an invaluable insight into the real problems involved, and how complicated the situations are.  A simple ‘ban-the-lot’ solution, thought up by well-meaning people in far-away countries, can end up being counter-productive and result in disastrous knock-on effects. It is useful to be able to put my extra knowledge to good effect when things like the proposed ivory bans are being discussed.

I have also spent holidays attending short courses on such things as silversmithing, jewellery making, and enamelling. They have helped me to understand a little of what goes into the production of jewellery and objets d’art, and I have gained immense admiration for the craftsmen and women who work in these mediums.

Q. Was there a particular moment that shaped your gemmological career?

Somewhat naively, I thought that when I had written my book on organics that would be the end of it. But I found myself being asked to teach, and to write more, and to lecture, and all the while I was continuing to research that wonderful area of gemmology called organics. It completely took over my life, and still does.

I don’t know where work ends and hobby begins. As they say, ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’

Examining a legal, CITES-certified elephant tusk at a shop in Singapore. Photo by Tay Thye Sun.

Q. What is your main focus today?

I closed the photographic studio several years ago, and now I only photograph things for my own use, to illustrate my work. I have done a lot of lecturing, both to specialist groups and to the public, and have been an accredited lecturer for The Arts Society (formerly NADFAS), for about twelve years, giving talks on the organic gem materials and their uses through the ages.
That work is based mostly in the UK, but also took me several times to Australia and New Zealand. Wherever I go, I am constantly searching for more information on organics as they can be found in every corner of the world.
Here at home I get called in to identify organics, for example for auction houses. I have also become deeply involved in the discussions about the proposed new laws on trade in ivory. I also continue to write, and am presently working on a new book, ‘Tortoiseshell’.  

The Jade Market in Hong Kong. A favourite haunt for finding organics and their fakes.

Q. As the Association’s first female president, you have an important place in Gem-A history. What does Gem-A mean to you and what do you value most about the Association?

Gem-A has come such a long way since I first joined.  It has grown and expanded, but it has never lost sight of its goal to supply good, sound gemmological education, and it has never compromised on standards.  

At the same time, Gem-A has kept its community spirit.  I have always been amazed at how willing and eager gemmologists are to share their knowledge.  We like nothing better than to discover something new and tell everyone about it.  Belonging to Gem-A means that one is part of a like-minded and friendly group of people.  Furthermore, because Gem-A is an international organisation the group spans the world, so wherever we go we can find friends who are willing to help us with our queries or research.

On the Amber Laboratory’s stand at Amberif in Gdansk, Poland, in 2010.
Left to right: Mrs Gabriela Gierlowski, MCP, Ms Olena Belichenko, Prof. Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz.

For me personally, it has been an immense honour to be President, and I am enjoying so much being a real part of the Association and these responsibilities. As for being the first female President, I suppose that does make it extra special, though I admit that I hadn’t realised that I was the first until someone pointed it out to me. I was more aware that I was the first President with a speciality in organics!

Q. From an idea in 1908, Gem-A courses are now taught in ATC’s across the globe! How far has gemmology come, and how far do we still have to go?

It is exciting to see how Gem-A continues to expand in China, Europe, and the USA too. We are a very international organisation. I would also like to see more expansion here at home. For example, more collaboration with some of the other trades (such as antiques dealers), than we have at present. Gem-A and its expertise is too often forgotten and bypassed.

It would be great to have a higher profile for gemmologists amongst the general public too, as most of them don’t know we exist. It is disconcerting to be asked so frequently what gemmology is, and I have lost count of the number of times I have been called a ‘gemmonologist’

Q. As we celebrate 110 years of organised gemmology in the UK at this year’s conference, what do you think Gem-A’s legacy is to the gemmological community?

Education. A sharing and spreading of knowledge, at a standard which can be relied upon. The terms ‘FGA’ or ‘DGA’ mean as much today as they always have done. Gem-A keeps up-to-date with whatever is happening in the gem world, reports on it, and alters its courses to reflect improved knowledge or changing thoughts.

Today’s syllabus is very different from the one I studied, and it is constantly evolving – especially as we see a rise in students studying online. Furthermore, we encourage students to think for themselves and continue to develop, with the exam as a good, solid base from which to carry on. 

2017 Gem-A Graduates. Image Credit: Gem-A.

Gem-A gives us plenty of opportunities to continue our education, with the annual Conference, seminars, courses, evening lectures and magazines. The Association is, and always has been, a constantly active and highly respected part of the gemmological community.

If you are a Gem-A Member or Student you will have received an email to book member or student rates, if you haven't received it please contact membership@gem-a.com.

All image credits are Maggie Campbell Pedersen unless otherwise stated. 

Cover Image: Maggie Campbell Pedersen. 


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