She's a Gem: Martine and Bénédicte
She’s A Gem: Martine & Bénédicte Lavoie
The jewellery industry can be intimidating for women starting their own business. Until very recently, it was widely considered “a man’s world,” and it was easy for me to get shrugged off while trying to grow my business. Luckily, there were a few other women in the industry who understood the value of encouragement and collaboration, not competition.
Martine and Bénédicte Lavoie are two gemmologists who go above and beyond to promote hope for other women in the industry. They’re the dynamic mother-and-daughter duo behind Pierres de Charme, a fine gems dealer based in Montréal.
I first met Martine and Bénédicte when I was still a student—they were one of the first gem dealers I ever purchased from. Many years later, I joined their team in Montréal and saw firsthand the role they play in helping students in Canada get started in this business.
One of the most admirable things about their philosophy is the dedication to trust and ethics in everything they do. Together, they’ve travelled all over the world to create strong relationships with a range of reputable suppliers. They’re also part of a board of ethics in the industry.
Inspired by this year’s Women’s History Month theme, “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” I reached out to Martine and Bénédicte so they could share their story as part of the bold narrative of women in industries that have long been dominated by men.
Learn all about their beginnings in gemmology, how they grew their business as a mother-daughter duo, and how sharing their journey has lit a path for other women in the industry.
Let’s take it from the beginning. What encouraged you both to pursue gemmology and start your business, Pierres de Charme?
Martine: I searched for a gemology school after visiting India and the gemstones markets in Jaipur. I thought it would be fun to learn about it and eventually become an appraiser. I wanted to slow down with my previous career in commercial real estate. This is when I met Odile Civitello, owner of the École de Gemmologie de Montréal (EGM). The EGM used to be an accredited teaching centre for The Gemmological Association Of Great Britain (Gem-A), which gives out the FGA Diploma. It was a long journey as I hadn’t been in school for quite a long time and had absolutely no knowledge in science or chemistry, which is a big part of gemmology. I started buying and selling some stones, travelling to mines and making contacts—and the rest is history. We are celebrating our 10th anniversary in business this year!
Bénédicte: After the trip to India I stayed in Paris for a few months and came back to Montréal to start university. Over the next few years, I saw how hard my mom was studying, and how extremely passionate she was in her travels for trade shows and events—it looked much more fun than working from 9 to 5 every day in a big company. I had just a few classes left for my diploma, so I started taking Gemology 1 and 2 at EGM on the side, just to check it out. I loved it! I love doing experiments and testing the stones, using the microscope, and enjoying all these beautiful colours and inclusions. I eventually asked my mom if I could start coming in and slowly start working for her fully. So I finished my degree and enrolled for my FGA diploma.
First off, I need to congratulate you on your 10th anniversary—what an incredible milestone! I’m especially in awe of your bravery, Martine. I know you were in commercial real estate for over 20 years, and switching industries after all that time must not have been the easiest. What was that like for you?
Martine: I think the most difficult part wasn’t the career transition, but the risks I had to take. I finished all the projects I had in commercial real estate while studying for my FGA, and I had to put a lot of savings in my new business and in our inventory. The first few years were difficult and I worked very hard to make it happen.
I think it’s safe to say that your hard work has paid off, for yourself and your daughter! She joined you just 3 years after you started your new company—how did you inspire and encourage each other in the beginning?
Martine: She was already helping me out with some group sales or events, and I think it certainly influenced her to do more. I have to admit that I was terrified when she asked to join my new work, because the business was so young and it was a big decision to have her involved. I didn’t make it easy for her either, she had to get the diploma and knew the first few years would be lots of work with a lower salary compared with jobs in a bigger company. Now that we work together, we continue to influence each other’s work and are very complementary.
I thought I would slow down with working but the fact that Benedicte joined me also made this thing a lot more real and we had to put the effort in.
I love that you both discovered gemmology at different parts of your lives, but ended up on the same path. What’s it like to work as a mother-daughter team in this business?
Bénédicte: I think it definitely makes things easier to work as a mother and daughter duo, thanks to our very different personalities and strengths. My mother was in business before and has a lot of experience, so it’s great to have her as a mentor. We also have the same vision for the business, so whenever we don’t agree on something—which is very rare—it’s easy for us to discuss it. A lot of gem dealers come from family business so it’s also very fitting for the industry and almost a norm to work with family. It’s great for us to work with families and build relationships with both generations.
It’s clear that you were largely inspired by your mother’s path, but you also discovered a separate passion of your own—stone-cutting in Bangkok. Can you take us through your learning journey?
Bénédicte: It was amazing! Bangkok is quite the place to be when you’re in the industry and, since I was already in business for a few years, I knew a lot of people who lived there.
It gave me the opportunity to meet my teacher Justin and learn this amazing new skill. I wanted to take this class to get to know the stones better. As a gemologist, we become specialists by observing different physical and optical properties by using different tools. We learn how different angles of the rough can give different colours, how some gemstones have cleavage directions and should be cut a certain way, and how much loss of material you can have by cutting a rough stone.
I always wanted to apply these concepts and understand them fully. The initial idea was that it would help me buy when we go overseas, as we often have to recut some of the stones we buy to get rid of windows (when the stone is too shallow), inclusions, or when we buy parcels of rough gemstones. But I truly fell in love with stone-cutting and I immediately ordered the machine when I got back from the trip in 2018. I’ve been cutting gemstones since.
After travelling solo for your new skill, you and your mom started travelling the world together in search of gemstones. Can you tell us what these trips are usually like?
It depends on the purpose, but each one follows the same rhythm. If we go to a tradeshow, we will usually work all day and network at night. Association congresses are similar to trade shows, but with conferences and education all day, which is always very interesting. Buying trips are very intense during the day because we see hundreds of gemstones during the day and we need to focus and keep track of what we need and what we are buying.
That all sounds very interesting—and very hard work! What are some of the things you always keep in mind on every buying trip?
The most important thing is to listen to our clients and always keep them in mind when we buy. The trends change and we always have to stay up to date. We buy from trusted suppliers and source our stones with a lot of other variables involved. We’ve made many contacts over the years through trade shows or other people. Whenever we travel and have the opportunity to visit them, we go to their offices and some of the mines we work with. We consider many of our suppliers good friends and have great relationships with them. Together, we’ve visited mines in Australia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Brasil, Madagascar, Tanzania.
I love the people-first, human approach you’ve created together at Pierres de Charme. Are there any other philosophies that guide your business?
We want to work with people we trust, this is the most important thing. As I said earlier, we have visited most of our supplier’s facilities and will continue to do so. A lot of people will tell you what you want to hear—we don’t want that. We want to work with people with whom we have real and transparent relationships. We can’t travel everywhere all the time and this is why we sometimes have to rely on our suppliers. And we want to be able to do the same with our customers.
People are more and more focused on traceability, but it’s not always possible to have it. When we buy in Sri Lanka, it’s impossible to say that the stone was mined in Sri Lanka as people from all over the world go there to make business, sell, buy or exchange rough stones. So even though the mining conditions in Sri Lanka are excellent, it’s impossible for us to guarantee it was mined there. So we’re very transparent about that and this is important for us.
We try as much as we can to work directly with the mines, but these small- or medium-scale mines have limited productions. Since the productions are limited, you can’t have all calibrated sizes and shapes.
Yes, transparency and honesty is so important if we’re to keep growing as an industry, which you both have been doing your fair share of. For instance, I know you’ve been so dedicated to helping Canadian students get started in this business.
We love working with students. Education is a big part of our mission and we know that gemstones are overwhelming for students, so we think it’s important for us to make sure they have all the information they need. We take the time to explain and answer all of their questions and we like to think of it as a long-term relationship. We also like to think that there’s a stone for everyone and every budget! You don’t need to spend $10,000 for a nice gemstone. If your budget is $100, we’ll find you something beautiful. We like to sell high-quality stones even if it’s under $50. Students should be able to make jewellery with nice natural gemstones, even on a student’s budget.
It’s great to see the students grow as well. We’re still dealing with many people we met in schools that are now successful and talented goldsmiths.
I remember first meeting you both when I was still a student. You were so inspiring to me then, and you still are! It’s just so great to see successful women in this industry, which isn’t always easy, and it’s why I wanted to speak to you about this year’s Women’s History Month theme, “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” What has your experience been, and how does Pierres de Charme contribute to “promoting hope” for other women in the business?
Gem dealers are typically men, but I think we promote hope by showing others that it’s possible to succeed and thrive in this industry as a woman, too. We’ve never had any problem with credibility, no matter where we travel, and we’re usually taken seriously.
A lot of people ask us how it is to work in a predominantly male industry, which is true to a certain extent, but most of our clients are women! And it’s a privilege to work with successful women who thrive and make a career out of their passion just like us.
All of our staff are also women involved in the industry in their own way. I like to think that they learn a lot about gemstones by working with us. Not only the gemmological aspect, but also the amazing range and variety of stones and colours that exist, the market and value of gemstones, and a lot of insight about the industry and its challenges.
Martine and Bénédicte are perfect examples of how industries can change for the better when we’re willing to help each other out. Learn more about their team and what they do by following their company on Instagram, or by scrolling through their website: http://pierresdecharme.com/en/
Let’s band together and do some healing as a society. As much as you can, share the stories of women who inspire you, and remember to educate others about the things we’re fighting for. Learn more about Women’s History Month: https://nationalwomenshistoryalliance.org/