Raphael Gübelin, President of the House of Gübelin-One of a Kind Emerald Paternity Test
In March, Gübelin Gem Lab announced the launch of a new traceability technology for Emeralds. A path breaking technology, Emerald Paternity Test uses customized DNA based nanoparticles that enables the traceability of emeralds to the exact place of mining. We find out more about this state of the art technology from Raphael Gübelin, President of the House of Gübelin. By Vijetha Rangabashyam
The Emerald Paternity Test is going to be vastly beneficial for the coloured gemstone industry. The technology created to determine the provenance of an emerald is specifically developed to survive the entire cycle of the creation of an emerald, from mining to reaching the end consumer. From big corporations to governments, jewellery brands and retailers, Emerald Paternity Test is a step towards making the system more transparent and in turn gaining more trust. For the first time, Nanotechnology, a branch of technology that deals with dimensions of less than 100 nanometers has been used in this field.
Why did you find the need to create a paternity test for Emeralds in particular?
At the House of Gübelin, it has always been our target to provide the consumer with the most relevant information possible. For example, we established a gemmological laboratory in 1923. The Gübelin Gem Lab is an independent subsidiary of the Swiss, family-owned firm Gübelin.
In recent years, the trend towards full transparency has also reached the gem and jewellery industry. Gemstone buyers want to understand where the stones come from, how they have been sourced and what practices, principles and values the companies and individuals at the mine apply and stand for, so we react to their demands and offer solutions. In order to trace back emeralds back to their origin, the Gübelin Gem Lab presents the Emerald Paternity Test. As this technology is based on nanoparticles, it is ideal to adapt to emeralds due to their mineral structure. This new technology proves the provenance of emeralds back to the exact mine.
Can you tell us in detail about your emerald paternity test and how it works?
The Emerald Paternity Test is based on nanoparticles. They are used in many industries and are extremely small and invisible even to the best optical microscope. We have customized DNA based, nano-sized particles to suit the specific needs of the gemstone industry.
The particles have a diametre of about 100 nanometres or 0.0001 millimetres. For comparison, a human hair has the diametre of 100 of these nanoparticles. Information on the mining location (e.g. country, mining area, mine, shaft), the miner (e.g. company name, mining cooperative) and the mining time (year, quarter) is encrypted and stored in the DNA, and encapsulated in a sphere of amorphous silica to resist the influence of cutting, polishing and repeated treatment.
The process starts in the mine, where the emerald gets unearthed. Ideally, the rough crystals are tagged with the nanoparticles before any cleaning or sorting is undertaken. The nanoparticles are inserted into the rough crystals by a simple process during which the particles penetrate all fissures and adhere closely to their surfaces. Within a few minutes the applied ethanolbased liquid evaporates completely. The insertion of the DNA tags does not affect the appearance, quality, or properties of the emeralds. After this step the tagging process is already complete.
The nanoparticles can be retrieved, the information contained in the DNA read out and decoded at any later stage during the lifetime of the emerald, disclosing the paternity of the emerald. The Emerald Paternity Test can be performed with minimal additional effort and little influence on the standard process, allowing a truly independent test of the exact provenance of an emerald.
Would you call this technology first of its kind and path-breaking and why?
So far, companies in the jewellery industry embracing ambitious transparency goals faced limitations when it came to the exact origin of the gemstones they used in their products. They had to rely on a mixture of trust and self-declaration by mining companies, lacking an independent proof of provenance. With the availability of the Emerald Paternity Test, such a proof is now available for all stakeholders within the gemstone industry. This technology makes the provenance testable and certifiable. It is also the first time that nanoparticles are used in this context.
How is this going to benefit the industry?
In fact, the whole industry along the supply chain benefits. This technology offers miners (both big corporates and cooperatives of small and artisanal miners), governments, trade organisations, industry watchdogs, jewellery brands and final customers a completely new level of transparency when sourcing emeralds. Transparency is a prerequisite to build more sustainable mining practices, considering certain ethical, social and environmental standards.
How has the response been so far for this technology, in the Asian markets specifically?
We were overwhelmed by the resonance of the trade and media, both end-consumer and trade press. Mining companies are interested to learn how the technology can be applied in their operations. Aside of the big miners, we are cooperating with groups that represent the interest of artisanal and small miners, to find ways to make the technology accessible also to them. We expect a big push for this technology to come from jewellery brands and retailers, as they feel the need to tell the end consumer a more complete story. Millenials give less importance to the traditional country of origin question, but want to get reliable information on how the stone was sourced. This is a global trend, not only in the US and Europe.
Why have you collaborated with Gemfields for this project?
We are glad to test with major emerald miners for the feasibility study. Gemfields it not only an industry leader, but also a forward thinking company, and hence a perfect partner to test a groundbreaking idea such as this paternity test for emeralds. We have also conducted another very successful field trial with the Belmont emerald mine in Brazil. We are now planning the application of the technology in the standard operation, and expect the first emeralds that contain these nanoparticles to be on the market towards the end of this year.
What does Gübelin have in store for the future in terms of testing/technology?
The Emerald Paternity is the first, important step. And we continue developing new approaches to the industry in order to prove the provenance of gemstones. Therefore, we have established the Provenance Proof label, standing for a range of technologies, processes and standards aiming at a more transparent supply chain. We are already working on new methods, services and technologies, so we can provide more transparency to other gemstone such as rubies.