Prof. Mimi Ou Yang Chiu Mei – The Jade Lady
Born into a third-generation Chinese mining family living in Indonesia (Belitung Island), Mimi Ou Yang Chiu Mei received a billitonite (tektite) stone as a gift from a local miner. It inspired her to pursue what she calls her “Stone Dream,” a quest that led her to not only find one of the beautiful black stones herself, but ultimately took her to the wonderful world of Fei Cui Jade. Today, a renowned expert on this multifaceted gemstone, Mimi is affectionately known around the world as “The Jade Lady” and the “Queen of Fei Cui.”
By Yuen Hoi Ling (Helen), BSS (Hons), CS (GEOG), FGA, FGAHK, DGA, GIA-AJP, JJD (HKIG), CG (Fei Cui & Diamond)
By Yuen Hoi Ling (Helen), BSS (Hons), CS (GEOG), FGA, FGAHK, DGA, GIA-AJP, JJD (HKIG), CG (Fei Cui & Diamond)
Growing up as a daughter in a patriarchal Chinese family, with a preference for sons over daughters, Mimi was determined to excel in everything she pursued. She credits the gift of the billitonite (tektite) for stirring her curiosity about the stone’s origin and her own search for finding one of these black stones. Her perseverance attracted the attention of her grandparents who helped her follow her “Stone Dream” as she embarked on the road to studying geology.
At the age of 13, she accompanied her elder brother to Jakarta and enrolled in “Chinese Socialism School” where she was influenced by teachers with patriotic thoughts of China. While living in Indonesia, she aspired to become what she considered a “real Chinese” by returning to her homeland to study. In addition to her “Stone Dream,” she now had a “Chinese Dream.” Even though her family strongly opposed her decision, and knowing that she would face many difficulties, she returned to Mainland China in 1951 where she attended high school and university.
In 1954, she was admitted to the Geological University in Beijing. During her studies, she accompanied her teacher in exploring the mountains and countryside and performing geological survey work. In 1959, she graduated from the Department of Geology, Beijing Geological University, and became a geological engineer. After graduation, she stayed with the university to teach Integrated Geology while still pursuing her “Stone Dream.”
In the early 1970s, her father became seriously ill. Although she applied for a visa to return to Indonesia, she had to stay in Hong Kong to await visa approval. During this long process, she took the opportunity to work at the University of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, her father passed away before the visa was approved and her mother passed away a short time later.
While in Hong Kong, Mimi gained insight into the area and knew that its geological story was relatively simple, and therefore, research and development of geological matters limited her opportunities there. At the same time, however, Hong Kong, with its laissez faire free port, saw its Fei Cui (Jadeite Jade) and jewelry industry grow rapidly.
She quickly realized that studying gemology might bring her new opportunities in Hong Kong, so she pursued a gemological diploma at the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A) where, in 1979, she obtained her diploma for Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (FGA). Following this achievement, she completed the Graduate Diamond Diploma of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), earning professional gemological diplomas from both Great Britain and the United States.
In 1982, she applied to the University of Hong Kong to obtain a Master’s Degree in mineralogy. At that time, none of the faculty members at the university had studied jadeite and related material, so there wasn't anyone who could serve as her supervisor. The head of the Geography & Geology Department, an expert in soil science, Professor C.J. Grant, however, helped her find a nominal supervisor and allowed her to explore her studies independently.
In 1983, during her summer vacation, the young woman returned to Beijing where, under the guidance of her former teacher, the famous crystallographer Professor Zhizhong Peng, she conducted research on ureyite.
Finding Her Dream Stone
Back in Hong Kong, she visited hundreds of jewelry shops on Jade Street, an area of Canton Road, to collect samples for her study. She then analyzed them using various methods such as chemical analysis, X-Ray diffraction, Mossbauer spectrum analysis, visible light absorption spectrum analysis and microscope observation, among others. She had found her “Dream Stone,” becoming the first person to discover a “Terrestrial Source of Ureyite (Kosmochlor)” as disclosed in a 1984 article, published by the American Mineralogist, which shocked the fields of mineralogy.
Following these achievements, Mimi earned a Master of Philosophy Degree in mineralogy in 1985 with her English thesis, “A Mineralogical Study of Burmese Jadeite Jade.” When she analyzed Burmese jadeite jade samples, she discovered that the dominant isomorphic series contained three kinds of minerals (the isomorphic substitution) – jadeite, aegirine and ureyite. Some of the samples fell into the composition field of the chromium pyroxene, ureyite. This was the first in-depth academic study on the terrestrial occurrence of ureyite, hitherto found only in meteorites.
In 1863, French mineralogist Alexis Damour (1808-1902), was the first to identify the material that was commonly called “jade,” showing that it was two different minerals: the amphibole group, known as nephrite, and sodium-aluminum silicate of the pyroxene group named jadeite. Members of the jade industry in China believed that Fei Cui Jade (Burmese jade) was defined by Damour’s description that “Burmese jade is only recognized as jadeite.” This created chaos in the jade market and confused mineralogists.
Professor Mimi (as she then became known) proposed that Fei Cui Jade be recognized as the family name of jadeite jade, which includes a polycrystalline collection of three mineral members: Jadeite Jade (NaALSi2O6), Kosmochlor Jade (sodium chromium silicate, NaCr Si2O6), and Omphacite Jade (CaMgSi2O6). Jadeite Jade is not the only mineral that makes up Burmese Jadeite Jade, however, the popular green color is due to chromium (sodium chromium pyroxene) that reaches a certain proportion and forms the most noble Fei Cui Jade gemstone. The new definition of Fei Cui Jade was supported by industry experts worldwide. To promote the newly recognized classification, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department suggested this definition be cited in the product description of Fei Cui Jade in its trade regulations guidelines.
Following her research and publication of the “Terrestrial Source of Ureyite,” Prof. Mimi wanted to further her studies and pursue a Ph.D. At that time, however, the department head at the University of Hong Kong told her that no faculty member could provide the proper guidance to her and suggested that she pursue the degree overseas. Her situation did not allow her to study abroad, and eventually she abandoned the idea.
Fei Cui Jade is found in six countries in the world, but it is estimated that 90% of gem-quality gems come from Myanmar. With a deep understanding of Fei Cui Jade, Prof. Mimi was no longer satisfied with relying on only the research in the laboratory. She decided to participate in the "Myanmar Open Auction Market" (the rough Fei Cui Jade trade fair held by the Myanmar government since 1964), where she collected a large amount of high-quality rough Fei Cui Jade.
In the early 1980s, Hong Kong became a distribution center of jade products, as well as for processing and producing. Some gems were re-exported overseas or sent to domestic Fei Cui Jade markets. In those days, some merchants began to produce a “new treated Fei Cui Jade.” This resin-treatment created an optical effect and transparency in the gem. This artificial processing of the gem appeared in the Hong Kong Fei Cui Jade market, which troubled the well-established merchants and led to confusion. Many soon lost confidence in buying and selling Fei Cui Jade.
During this time, members of the Fei Cui Jade industry didn’t have enough gemological knowledge to assist them in their buying decisions. When Prof. Mimi saw a magazine article that stated: “Jade was popular in antique Chinese art pieces, but there is no Chinese study that mentions it in detail. It is a shame for the Chinese,” she set out to systematically analyze Fei Cui Jade and thereby help promote it on the international market.
In writing her Master's thesis, she focused on the artificial treatments in use, such as soaking the gem in strong acid and infiltrating with resin. As a result, she divided Fei Cui Jade into four categories according to treatment type: (A) natural; (B) bleaching and resin-filled; (C) heating and dyeing; (B+C) dyeing with resin. She disclosed the methods of distinguishing real Fei Cui Jade in television interviews and newspaper articles to promote an understanding of jade and its treatments. Even though unscrupulous jade traders try to intimidate her, she is steadfast in her efforts to bring transparency to the industry. “Natural Fei Cui Jade was formed over several million years, and gem-grade Fei Cui is rare and precious. I am a scholar. I must tell the truth to the world,” she says.
In 2015, in the CCTV documentary series Civilization Code episode called “I'm Crazy for Fei Cui Jade,” Kwok Wing, Deputy Dean of the Department of Geology of China University of Geosciences, introduced Mimi’s 4C2T1V grading and evaluation standard. It stands for Color, Clarity, Cutting, Crack, Transparency, Texture and Volume. As an added descriptor, she created the Fei Cui Jade Classification that differentiates the gems according to color, transparency, grain size, texture and mineral structure: Glassy, Icy, White Pea, Old Mine, Oily Green, Dry Green, Black Rooster (Chinese Painting) and others. Glassy has the highest value, followed by Icy, with the others in decreasing order. She cautions, though, that Glassy Fei Cui Jade in green colors may vary greatly in value as a function of even small differences in hue and transparency. “To gain consumer confidence, Fei Cui Jade products must have professional and identification certificates,” she adds.
An example of her devotion to her “Stone Dream” can be seen in a trip she took in 1999. Despite the political turbulence in Myanmar and the lack of stability in the primary deposit zone and jade mining caves, Mimi was determined to investigate Fei Cui Jade in a primary deposit. Thus, at the age of 60+ years, Mimi made her Last Will and Testament and risked her life, along with that of her only son, Humphrey Yen, to travel to Myanmar. She was the only Chinese geologist permitted by the Myanmar government to enter the primary and secondary deposits for research. Since then, she has collected jade samples from Japan, Russia, Guatemala, and elsewhere, thus establishing the world's largest Fei Cui Jade research database.
Prof. Mimi’s reputation earned her accolades from industry leaders worldwide. One of the world’s leading gemologists, E. Alan Jobbins, who once served as vice president of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, praised her as “the leader in gemology and mineralogy in Asia.” Dr. Rafael Aharoni, former president of the Israeli Diamond Chamber of Commerce, wrote that Prof. Mimi is “one of the most educated scholars in the world on Fei Cui Jade, diamonds and jewelry. I really appreciate her selfless dedication to academic training and contributions to the jewelry industry.”
In 2000, she was awarded a Visiting Professorship at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan. In 2007, she became the sixth person ever to be named an Honorary Life Member of Gem-A. This honor made her the first Chinese native, and the only person in Asia, to have it bestowed on her.
In 2015, she was the first scholar to be awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award” by Jewellery News Asia and the “Outstanding Achievement Award” by the Hong Kong Jewellery and Jade Manufacturers Association.
In 2018, the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening, she was presented with a “Meritorious Person Award” by the Gems & Jewelry Trade Association of China, an award for making significant contributions to the China gems and jewelry industry.
As a professional gemologist and Fei Cui Jade educator, Prof. Mimi has been an educator for more than 60 years. She started teaching at the Department of Geology of Beijing University, followed by the Department of Geography and Geology at the University of Hong Kong, with continuing education courses at the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University.
The self-developed teaching system and examination diploma courses for Fei Cui Jade, which she founded, are also required courses by the Gemmological Association of Hong Kong for certification in the gemstone. This education has systematically trained high-quality talent for the Fei Cui Jade and gem industry in Hong Kong and has attracted a large number of students from Mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, the United States and other countries.
Prof. Mimi’s dedication to teaching is also due to her sense of mission. On her many trips to Myanmar, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Guangdong, and Yunnan—the most important processing centers for Fei Cui Jade—she realized that the industry is full of temptations and traps. Some merchants care only about profit; they lack knowledge about Fei Cui Jade; they take advantage of loopholes in different quality standards, while concealing what they pay in order to make Fei Cui Jade prices chaotic. “It is important to understand the subject and know how to honestly evaluate the gem,” she insists, stressing, “people say gold is expensive, but Fei Cui Jade is priceless.”
The Hong Kong Gems Laboratory (HKGL)
In 1987, Prof. Mimi founded the Hong Kong Institute of Gemmology (HKIG) and the Hong Kong Gems Laboratory (HKGL). HKIG was the first overseas academic center to teach the Gem-A FGA (Gemmologist) and DGA (Diamond) courses in Chinese. It is still the center where most students take the Gem-A FGA and DGA exams every year, while also providing training for the Hong Kong jewelry industry. She also introduced the diamond grading course of the Gemological Institute of Belgium (HRD) and the international chief jewelry professional appraiser/Master Valuer Program (MVP) course.
The HKGL is recognized as one of the jewelry appraisal agencies designated by the Hong Kong government for providing services for domestic and foreign jewelry shops and auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
Promoting Gemology in China
During her early career, Prof. Mimi returned to China to promote gemological knowledge and help her home country to cultivate more professionals. In 1985, she was invited to the Guilin Institute of Geology in Guangxi Province to hold the first national gemology workshop. In 1987, she was invited to give a lecture at the National Gemmology Conference held by the Guiyang Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 1989, she traveled to the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Wuhan to help Wuhan Geosciences Institute (China University of Geosciences Wuhan) introduce the Gem-A FGA course and thus established the first FGA course teaching center in Mainland China. Since 2000, she has been invited to give Fei Cui Jade lectures in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan and other cities. She also actively introduced many foreign experts to China, while helping to cultivate international professionals in Chinese gemology and the Fei Cui Jade industry, thus helping her “Chinese Dream.”
She was selected as a Chinese expert by the International Gemmological Conference (IGC) and participated in every IGC held all over the world. In 2004, she helped organize the IGC in China, a first for the nation. After the Conference, she fell ill due to excessive fatigue, which shows her strong sense of responsibility.
The price for high quality Fei Cui Jade has increased over the last 20 years. It has become integrated into Chinese culture, symbolizing “virtue and beauty,” and something that preserves the value of investment and inheritance culture.
Still Going Strong
Prof. Mimi is now more than 80 years old, and “is still not ready to retire,” she says. She often works late into the night and teaches students from all over the world. She is loved and esteemed by colleagues, mentors, students, gem aficionados and others. She loves teaching and believes that, during the teaching process, she also gains knowledge, which keeps her feeling young.
And young at heart, she certainly is. “I still have many dreams,” she insists, “such as establishing the Fei Cui Jade Education Foundation; setting up the World Chinese Fei Cui Jade Association; establishing the Fei Cui Jade Science Park; and expanding the Fei Cui Jade market towards healthy and sustainable development. I would also like to see a Chiu Mei Fei Cui Jade Science Park, which can spread knowledge of the gem to more Chinese people and other friends around the world.”
Many of the Dreams for her Stone are being recognized. In 2019, the name “Fei Cui Jade” was discussed at the CIBJO Conference session and became one of the most valuable gemstones recognized by the world's gemological industry. In 2021, the gemstone attracted even more international attention, with discussions about having the term be a trade name. It has been added to CIBJO’s Blue Book series with Prof. Mimi as the Chief Academic Advisor, from the Gemmological Association of Hong Kong’s Fei Cui Standards Project.
In addition to nearly 100 gemological articles and a variety of books (Fei Cui Jade Appreciation; Fei Cui Jade ABCs; Fei Cui Jade Purchase; Complete Collection of Fei Cui Jade; Chiu Mei Fei Cui Jade; Appreciation of Ruby & Sapphire; Fei Cui Jade: A Stone & A Culture), Prof. Mimi is currently editing a systematic and comprehensive textbook on Fei Cui Jade and gemstones, hoping to leave a textbook for the gem industry, as well as training more Fei Cui Jade and gemstone professionals in the future.
She sums up her philosophy: “Change your life with knowledge: keep learning and growing; use knowledge to cultivate talents for society, contribute to the country and continue to develop for the world.”