Interview: Heather Widener

Beadazzled is pleased and proud to welcome Heather Widener, a Gemological Institute of America (GIA)-certified gemologist, to our Falls Church location this month!  Heather will teach a “Gemstone 101” class on the 21st and 28th of February — call us at 703-848-2323 to register.  We sat down with Heather today to chat about her career, the intersections of science and art, how to tell real turquoise from fake, and more!

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Heather Widener

We began our talk at the gem wall.  Heather will draw from our stock of gems during her talk, so as we chatted we pulled down strands for her to reference.

BEADAZZLED:  Turquoise is a good stone to talk about — there are so many shades.

HEATHER WIDENER:  And imitations, too.  I like that you mark which stones are dyed.  A lot of places don’t disclose that.

BDZ:  Is there an easy way to tell without a label?

HW:  The biggest tell for turquoise is when the matrix isn’t level.  Real turquoise is textured, pitted a bit, and the darker stone underneath — the matrix — isn’t level with the blue or the green.  But with dyed magnesite, for instance, you get this eggshell crackle that’s totally smooth.  There’s no texture.  It’s perfectly even.

From left to right, these strands are: dyed magnesite (note the eggshell crackle pattern), real turquoise, real turquoise, and dyed turquoise.

BDZ:  The market is so flooded with this dyed magnesite.  Which is fine if you know what it is and you know you want to work with it — it’s a great material.  But sometimes when we pull out real turquoise, people think it’s fake because they’re not used to seeing stones that look that way.

HW:  Yeah.  You have to look at the matrix.

You can use a loupe (the kind of magnifying glass pictured above) to see that the cracks in the dyed magnesite are perfectly even with the surface of the stone.

BDZ:  So how did you get into gemology?

HW:  Well, my husband works in the Foreign Service and we lived in the Philippines for a while.  They have amazing pearls there.  I had always been into making jewelry — I’ve done every art and craft known to man, but jewelry making was the one that stuck, and so I brought a lot of pearls back with me to the U.S.

From left to right: abalone, three strands of freshwater pearls, coral, dyed pink pearls, dyed green-gold pearls.

HW con’t:  I took them to a certified appraiser and she priced them at almost 50 times the value I’d bought them for.  And we got to talking and she could see I had a good eye and that I was interested.  She told me I should pursue certification in gemology, and so I started taking GIA classes.  Now I always know what I’m buying.

BDZ:  What is that process like, to get your certification?

HW:  Right now I’m a Diamonds Graduate, and I’m working to be a Graduate Gemologist.  There are seven classes you have to take to get to that level, including labs.  I’ve done all of them and the only thing I have left is the final exam.  For that I have to correctly identify 20 stones.  The first time I did gem identification it took me about three hours.  Like, “well, I don’t know, this could be dye or it could be an inclusion; is this a gas bubble or something else,” hours.  Now I can do it in less than thirty minutes.

BDZ:  So you got into the science of it through your passion for the artistic side of it.

HW:  They’re so intertwined to me.  I love the science and the art of jewelry.

Amethyst comes in a lovely range of shades. The bottom strand is a mix of amethyst and citrine, which are both varieties of quartz. So many artistic possibilities come from mixing these stones. Heather will discuss the science behind these “sister stones” during her talk.

BDZ:  Your favorite stones — do they differ depending on how you’re looking at them?  For instance, if you have a favorite stone to study as a gemologist, is it different from your favorite stone to work with as a jeweler?

HW:  Absolutely.  When I’m studying a stone, I love anything with inclusions.  The less transparent the better.  It’s amazing how looking inside a stone like that is totally different from looking at it.

BDZ:  What do you mean by looking “inside” a stone versus at it?

HW:  When I say “inside” I mean looking at it under magnification, under a microscope.  I love stones that appear totally clear to the naked eye — we call that “eye clean” — but under magnification they’re not clear at all.  Some emeralds look like they have gardens inside them.

BDZ:  That’s kind of magical.  So how does that differ from stones you like to work with as a jewelry artist?

HW:  When I’m making jewelry I look for color, for a range of color.  Sapphire, tourmaline, and anything with inclusions visible to the naked eye.  Quartz, rutilated or tourmalated quartz, is great.  And a well-cut stone.  I got to meet these incredible German gem cutters when I was at the winter gem show, and I loved talking with them about their craft.

This photo shows the beautiful range of color found in carnelian.

BDZ:  Okay, last question.  If you had to narrow it down to one thing, what is the most important thing for a beginner to know about when it comes to gems?

HW:  I always tell people the same thing, whether they’re a business or an individual.  Buy from a reliable source.  Because then you don’t have to know anything else.  People who provide documentation even when they don’t legally have to — like how you mark when things are dyed — people you can trust, they are the only ones you want to work with.

All the gems pictured above will be featured, among others, in Heather’s talk.  Call 703-848-2323 to register!  These gems are also all for sale at our Falls Church location.

You can find Heather online at gemfabulous.com and huwbijoux.com.

Photos by Natalie Thielen Helper.

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