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An extraordinary journey through the microscope

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Shirley Mitchell FGA DGA FJVA

Melissa Allen GG (GIA), FGA is no ordinary gemologist, jewellery valuer or jewellery consultant. She has a gift, an almost unique ability to do something that most gemologists cannot. She has the ability, patience and skill for gemology photomicrography.

By her own admission, her ability is not a talent that she was born with, more of a skill and something she stumbled upon during her development as a gemologist where her fascination really began, collecting rocks and petrified wood close to her home in East Texas. It just so happens that Houston Museum has a wonderful Mineral Gallery too, so Melissa spent much time learning and developing her knowledge further. Gemology is often a natural progression and so the GIA beckoned … next stop Carslbad to begin the long road to earning her Graduate Gemologist (GG)!

Melissa in Thailand discovering gems
Melissa examines cobalt spinel in Luc Yen, Vietnam

Melissa’s journey continued developing further as a jewellery consultant and valuer until one day Gabriel Mattice introduced her to Gem-A, gave her a copy of Sinkakas Mineralogy and whisked her off to Thailand and Vietnam ... seeing where the gems come from, deep from within the earth, learning from the great Richard Hughes, seeing the world through his eyes, changed Melissa’s world too….  that was the moment she decided she would take the next step in her gem(m)ology career and study for her FGA, a huge feat when you are working full time too.

‘My love of gemology photomicrography and the microphotographs of John Koivula, Danny Sanchez, Nathan Renfro, Lotus Gemology, captivated me. The level of detail blew me away, and I was desperate to find out more and importantly, how they did it.' 

A fly caught in copal resin
Melissa captured this image of a fly struggling to free itself from the sap, a moment in time saved forever, perfectly! The perfect microphotograph, whether a gemmologist or not, to put the level of detail Melissa is able to capture into context, from the hairs on the fly's legs to the detail of the eyes, even more amazing when you consider the 'field of view' of this image is a mere 7mm! 

What could be described as a chance encounter sparked Melissa's interest in such a way, that it has evolved into a passion. One that has led her to become an award-winning photomicrographer. Taking Second place the Gem-A Gemstone Photographer of the Year in 2019 with ‘Crimson Geoscape’ and then in 2020, she achieved the amazing double honour ... First Place with ‘Helvite Merry-Go-Round’ and Second place with ‘Frozen in Time’. With her pictures also featuring on the covers of several trade magazines. 

Gem-A Winning covers
1) Gem-A Photographer of the Year Second Place 2019 - Crimson Geoscape
2) Gem-A Photographer of the Year Winner 2020 - Helvite Merry Go Round
3) Gem-A Photographer of the Year Runner Up 2020 - Frozen In Time

Melissa's first steps into the world of photomicrography was a small selection of gemstones, and her mobile phone mounted to a microscope. Humble beginnings when you compare those early days to what she has since achieved. However, like any good story, Melissa's success did not come easily and was not achieved overnight; it has been hard earnt with hours, days, weeks, months and years dedicated to developing and honing her skill, through trial, error and repetition. But for Melissa, all of that is irrelevant, because for her photomicrography is so much more. She has even described it as a form of meditation.  

Melissa Allen GG (GIA) FGA
Melissa Allen GG (GIA) FGA

'I get lost in the stones under the scope. It is like taking a trip somewhere without ever leaving home. You can see what the stone has been through when you look inside it. When you see a lily pad in peridot, you can imagine the stress it was under. Or when you see internal diffusion in a sapphire, you can start to see its story… each stone has a story, and we as gemmologists have to figure it out. It is almost a mystery when you start to look at it; then you begin to see it for what it is as you become familiar with it.' 

color stone
Colour Change Triphylite
Triphylite crystal in quartz displaying colour change effect.
Location - Galiléia, Minas Gerais, Brazil

When you talk to Melissa about photomicrography, passion for it fills every word she speaks. So it's easy to see how that passion, coupled with a relentless work ethic, that has seen her spend days photographing a stone, trying to get that one perfect shot; has helped her become the award winner she is today. 

I asked her what she believed was more important in photomicrography, equipment or lighting. 

Good equipment is important, but not as much as good illumination. In my opinion, you can get a very nice photo with an average setup and very good illumination. But you cannot get the same result, even with the best equipment if the lighting is poor. 

Surface of diamond
Trigons on surface of a diamond

As we have discovered, Melissa spends a lot of time honing her skill, so much time in fact that she has even named her microscope Lucy. But like everything she does, choosing a name was not an off the cuff thought as Melissa put some serious thought into it.

'Jewellers/Valuers have a bond with their scopes, they become an old friend…we know how they work and how they don't. And I was spending so much time with my scope; it felt right that it should have a name, but I wanted that name to have a meaning. Now I am not religious, but the world of saints has always fascinated me. So I, like any good valuer, started researching saints and found that St. Lucia was the patron saint of eyes and light, which was perfect, so that is how Lucy got her name.'

stone with needles
Rutile needles intersecting at 90 degrees to each other in a pyrope almandine garnet

A few words from Melissa herself….

What has been your biggest challenge perfecting your skill?

Lighting… haha. There are still things I have a hard time trying to capture. I always think, I know if I had just one more different light I could do it better. Getting something to illuminate without too much light glaring is tricky.

What has been your proudest moment in your career to date?

Graduating with my FGA. I achieved it during a very tremulous time in my life. It was my miracle, I really had not expected to pass, but I tried so hard, studying any moment I could, in the car before work, before bed, at lunch. I gave it my all and it worked, this is the reason I am so proud.

When asked what words of advice she would give to anyone starting in photomicrography, her advice was simple.

First, enjoy it. Then, lighting, lighting, lighting… lighting transforms what you are looking at and you can manipulate what you see with different lighting.  

green gemstone
Chrome Tourmaline
Negative crystal inside of a chrome tourmaline
Courtesy of Sid Tucker

The JVA is extremely proud to be showcasing Melissa’s superb photomicrography work as the banner for our Articles and News Page. Please visit Melissa’s website at www.gemologyresources.com to see all her amazing work, we know you'll be as amazed as we are.

You can also follow Melissa Allen at her socials… 

 Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/melissa.m.allen.56 

 Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/gemmomel/ 

Luc Yen, Vietnam

We join Melissa as she hikes through the jungle in May Trung, the primary source of cobalt blue spinel. As some of the photographs show ... it was a long arduous hike, but was so rewarding when she reached her destination as can be seen by her expression, and one really does appreciate where our beautiful gems come from!

From the jungle we follow Melissa's journey to the gem markets in Hanoi and Luc Yen, now cut and polished, she examines the gems, first with her eye, then with her jeweller's loupe, looking for those all important stories inside the stones that she can tell us more about when she gets back to 'Lucy' the microscope!

Front Cover Microphotographs ...

Melissa's microphotograph's have featured on the covers of gemmology magazines, as winning entries in the Gem-A Photographer of Year competition and the Italian Gemmological Review.