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A cut above: DB gemologist and custom jeweller Rahila Refaaq

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DB gemologist and custom jeweller Rahila Refaaq is putting an ethical shine on precious stones. Elizabeth Kerr hears all about it

Sitting at ifc’s Le Salon de thé de Joël Robuchon, Rahila Refaaq is on her way to the workshop where the bespoke jewellery she creates is completed – but there’s very little in the way of bling on the forty-something gemologist herself. You’d think she’d look as sparkly as a Desperate Housewife, but her skin reacts poorly to metals and leather. Her ears aren’t pierced and she only occasionally wears a pendant. She does sport a pale green beryl, her favourite stone, and she will cop to owning an impressive collection of gems, even if she doesn’t wear them every day.

It’s just as well the Sri Lanka native doesn’t always get blingy herself. Rahila’s relatively soft spoken, but when her interest is piqued – which is often – her voice gets louder. Bolder. She likes to talk about her two daughters (Zaha a Fashion Marketing graduate, Maarya in neurology) and my positive travel tales about her home country also please her no end.

A family business

There’s very little the 18-year veteran of the gem industry can’t explain or supply to the customers that come to her through her six- year-old studio Zaha et Cetera. Precious stones are big business in Hong Kong, and there are scores of jewellers making customised pieces, but for Rahila it’s a family business. Her father worked in gems and passed on his crew and ethic (you work for your customers, not vice versa) when he retired. And as a Sri Lankan, it’s no surprise gems run in the family – gems are big business there too.

Rahila relocated to Hong Kong permanently in 2002 after commuting around Asia – the Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka – for years. Her first arrival in Hong Kong, aged two, was with her family, who moved here for her dad’s diamond manufacturing business. Along the way she studied at the Gemological Institute of America campus in Thailand and Hong Kong, but nonetheless started her working life in banking – which was what she was doing when she met her IT professional husband, also Sri Lankan, in 1992 when he was on a stopover.

“There weren’t that many Sri Lankan families in Hong Kongback then. There are more now, more professionals, but back then my father’s place was, like, an open house,” Rahila recalls with a chuckle. “Everyone passing through was told, ‘Go to Mr Zeyard’s house.’ They had no idea who he was but they were encouraged to pass through. My husband came to the house.”

An extended layover and a year of dating later, Rahila got married in front of 1,000 guests (anything less might as well be eloping) in Sri Lanka. The couple finally settled in DB in 2002.

Eventually Rahila circled back to gemology, and landed a job at the International Gemological Institute’s lab in Hong Kong, testing stones for major auction houses and private jewellers. She gave up the white coat for Zaha et Cetera in 2012. “Friends wanted to do something with me but I couldn’t because of my position at the lab,” she recalls. “I’d also reached a certain level at the lab, and the next step would have been taking over from the CEO. It was that or something new.”

Best practice strategies

Zaha et Cetera is a small operation – a factory in Central and an office in Discovery Bay – that’s gotten where it is through word of mouth, and by providing alternatives that suit the client’s budget. Rahila also caters to all gem needs, like investors who don’t want to keep cash.

Rahila admits that diamonds are still the stone star, regardless of how not rare they are, but she says this may be changing. “Last year I had a client who wanted a blue sapphire engagement ring. He didn’t want any diamonds. It was different, and a lot of it had to do with his beliefs.”

As the world shakes off the last vestiges of the ‘Greed is good’ ethos, blood diamonds are going out of style. Rahila buys diamonds from Kimberley Process – a multilateral trade organisation, established in 2003, that works to prevent the flow of conflict diamonds. She sources other stones from Sri Lanka because of her heritage and also because the country has strict child-labour laws.

Additionally, Rahila happily recycles old stones and metals for redesign. “We can’t use the same gold because the recycling process is another story, but it’s the right thing to do – and older stones are often worth much, much more than new ones,” she says.

Not surprisingly Hong Kong is a singular market, distinct from Rahila’s biggest in the UK, the US, Europe and Sri Lanka. Clients seeking custom work usually have ideas in mind, but Rahila manages to sneak a bit of herself into the final look. “Sri Lankans love colour and every shade of coloured gem can be found there. I do pull from Sri Lankan design. It’s vibrant,” she admits.

Commitment to local craftsmen

Another of Rahila’s distinguishing factors is her commitment to local craftsmen. Her team of bench jewellers have decades of experience in cutting, polishing and setting stones, and they’re right here in the SAR.

“We’re very fortunate to have that legacy of diamond and gem knowledge. There are very few places that have these experienced people still working,” she says of one of the city’s historic trades that hasn’t been outsourced to China. “It’s a little more expensive but I can check the quality, I can monitor everything easily, and I trust my factory not to swap out stones.”

Her next project is reinvesting in Sri Lanka’s gem resources by offering free workshops and education in the local villages around Ratnapura which she regularly visits. “Right now, my father’s generation takes a stone and, with no gemology experience, thinks ‘Sure. It’s real,’” she says. “But you can’t do that anymore. You have to do the testing. There are so many synthetics out there. This generation is different. But traders there still don’t quite get the concept, and I can’t afford 10% of my stones to be fake.”

At some point down the road Rahila would like to try her hand at standard retailing, with a line of fixed designs available at a traditional shop – rents permitting. She can wait, though. “I do exhibit at some of the fairs… So far it’s good, touch wood,” she finishes. “I’m happy with the pace as it stands. I’m doing my thing.”

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