written by Paul Holewa
The platitude of “things happen for a reason” doesn’t do much to reduce the stress and anxiety associated with change when it’s happening. Such was the case for Oke Millett, president of Discovery Gems & Jewellery. When Oke was a 9-year-old boy his family moved from Montreal to Vancouver. The move to a new home put the collecting-crazed kid within walking distance of an antique store where the seeds of destiny took root for a globetrotting career in colored stone sourcing, trading and cutting.
Oke is so grateful to the genesis of his interest in gems and jewelry, shaped in the formative years of his youth, that when he created his own company in 2016 he named it after the neighborhood antique store. Like most doting parents Oke’s mother and father were enablers to his habit of collecting things.
To help young Oke like his new city just a bit more his parents took him to an antique store located between the family’s home and school. His folks purchased a few trinkets for young Oke. During the sales exchange his parents told Al the store owner that their son was a bit of a collector. Al needed a go-fer to help around the store and Oke was more than willing to work after school, weekends and holidays.
As Al’s store evolved he offered more products in terms of colored gems and ranges of jewelry. A retail mall location was opened to accommodate the business expansion. And, as Al’s business grew in different directions Oke’s interest in gem identification and lapidary skills matured in tandem. When Oke received his driver’s license at 16, he took to the road with Al bringing trays of colored stones to retail jewelers in Vancouver.
Things were going smoothly for the budding partnership. On one fateful night, however, everything changed. Al’s wife was murdered in a botched home invasion. After the tragic event Al was never the same. Al lost the business but his long-time bench jeweler purchased the retail store. Oke continued to work with him before and during college.
Throughout the career development years and beyond, Oke always had a foot in the gem and jewelry business – a “side hustle” as Oke likes to say, even when working for the Canadian government.
“I would commission custom jobs and have Al’s bench jeweler make them,” says Oke. “I ended up a partner in an antique mall. And, in the late 1990s I got into eBay. I grew my eBay business into having five full-time employees listing and packing stuff, primarily based on accepting consignments from other antique dealers.”
Life changes and so do career paths. Working for international aid groups, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and global charities such as CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency), USAID, DFID (Department for International Development), the United Nations and World Bank were a natural extension of Oke’s government work. As luck and timing would have it, Oke found himself in Afghanistan starting in 2002. He lived there for eight years.
“I earned a reputation for being someone to take to the markets to ensure one didn’t buy junk,” says Oke. “I ended up opening a little sideline with a local NGO, and sold finished jewelry I had made in Bangkok, using Afghan-sourced gems.”
As any good colored stone enthusiast will attest, the best way to learn and be active in the business is to do business, and possibly even reside, in major hubs for this portion of the industry. Oke went from one gem-rich nation in the Middle East to Nigeria, an African nation also known for its mineral wealth.
While in Nigeria he networked with artisanal miners, gem cutters and fellow gem traders. This move sharpened his skills and prepared him for a fortuitous meeting in 2014 with Chap Riedel, who owned a small cutting facility in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second most populace city near the Burma border.
Over time, Oke became more involved in Chap’s business operations. It was at this stage that Oke took his involvement in the gem trade to the next level. “In 2015, I decided if I was going to get ‘serious’ in the business by formalizing my training,” says Oke. “I completed the GIA G.G. courses online and took up residence in Bangkok.”
In the pre-COVID days, Oke spent much of his time in the Chiang Mai facility trading and cutting gemstones of many varieties and making road trips to retailers in the US. With travel restrictions impacting the global gem trade, Oke has decided to temporarily establish gem cutting operations in Chile.
Still, the engines that propel the gem and jewelry industry don’t idle for long. Colored stones from Burma find their way into Thailand through The Kingdom’s northern border, keeping Oke and Chap knee-deep in mainly sapphires, rubies and spinels. Oke sees spinels as an “up and coming” gemstone having a lucrative future for retailers and their customers. Spinel comes in a variety of colors that many liken to its Burma-sourced precious stone cousin.
To expand on the number of customers keen on color, Oke has two words: “Show color.” Oke added. “Have it featured in the store, as well as a couple of trays of loose stones. Talk about color to your consumers. Once you have broken the ice with the customer and they have shown interest in colored stones, dig into your pocket or showcase for your ‘feature’ stone and just casually introduce it.”
For retailers still hovering over that 8 to 15 percent of inventory mix dedicated to color, Oke asks jewelry store owners to consider these three points. First, colored stones can’t be “commoditized” to the same level as diamonds. Second, margins on color can be very lucrative for jewelry store owners.
Finally, the colored stone portion of the industry has been dealing with lab-grown goods for decades. The dustup over synthetics and even treated gemstones has settled long ago. Mined goods and synthetic gems have found their respective customer niches based on a variety of preferences and reasons.
“The industry is still reeling with the impact lab diamonds are having,” says Oke. “And it will take a while before the market shakes out and finds the ‘right’ price point for lab-grown diamonds versus natural [mined] gemstones. This volatility is going to be dangerous for retailers and traders. One way to offset these risks is to develop a colored stone market, while the fallout of these lab grown diamonds continues to be a work in progress.”