Recently I joked on this blog’s Facebook page that my interview with Yianni Melas (or as some fashion mags have referred to him, the “modern-day Indiana Jones”) might just shut this whole thing down, because I wasn’t sure where I’d get better material than what he gave me. And while that statement is still fairly true, I didn’t know just how true it was until I start playing the role of the “unbiased journalist” (and yes, Virginia, we still exist. That aside was meant for a select few in the room who might be reading.)
If you’re in the jewelry industry and you don’t follow Yianni at his @gemexplorer handle on Instagram, you genuinely are neglecting yourself of an education like none you’d receive on social media, anywhere. A 1988 graduate of and instructor at the Gemological Institute of America, Carlsbad and Santa Monica, and former gemstone consultant to some guy named David Yurman (never heard of him) and some company called Swarovski, (who???) Yianni Melas has not only accomplished what most of us only dream about in his 52 years on this earth, but he has done it in very Frank Sinatra fashion… his way, and unapologetically. This man isn’t afraid to tell his truth, in his voice, no matter who he pisses off, and while I have always been a fan of diplomacy (Did I say always? I meant, sometimes. Rarely. Okay, it’s a skill I need to work on) there is something refreshing about his lack of diplomatic filter. “Refreshing” doesn’t equal “appropriate” in every situation, but then again, who am I to say what’s appropriate and what isn’t? After all, I’m the blogger who only discovered who Yianni Melas was when I saw that he followed me on social media and that his profile picture was of him, shirtless, with a shitload of chest hair. Never being one to turn away from a hairy guy pic (hey, we all have our kinky turn-ons. I don’t judge) I followed Yianni back, changing my views on mining, gemstones, and Greek/Texan men forever.
So without further hesitation, here is the Adornmentality interview with the man, the myth, the legend, and the soon-to-be Instagram megastar… GEM EXPLORER, YIANNI MELAS:
BP: Okay Yianni, first thing’s first… did you ever find Napoleon’s sword in your back yard? (Editor’s note: Google it.)
YM: No. The bomb apparently incinerated the treasure including the gems. Years later, as a Fireman-EMT, I realized that diamonds that everyone says are forever are not really forever. In a house fire the diamonds will burn rather nicely since they are indeed over-glorified compressed coal. Funny enough the rubies and sapphires will survive since they have a higher melting temperature.
As for the sword, I may not have found it but I did find lots of other ancient treasures deeper, because as it turns out, our house was built on an Ancient Greek cemetery. I guess I began my career as a young grave robber.
BP: Not everyone can get away with wearing suspenders and no shirt. How did your distinct style come about and when should we expect your line of gem miners clothing on the market?
YM: Lol!!! They were not suspenders in the style of suits but rather functioned as a military knife holder/sheath. I found out that it was the most convenient place that allowed me fast use. And the suspender was military issue. I need to recall which army! I’m happy you chose to ask me about suspender vs the skull carving made from a guy’s femur (too late for new question!)
Now, about my distinct style of clothing: Before it was fashionable to be an “explorer survival guy” on television, I was wearing my vests. They were simply convenient. I have a collection of them but do wear special ones over and over just because I’m a creature of habit and a bit superstitious. But I learned early to wear long sleeves and special clothing when deep in the bush. I recall using my machete to clear very heavy jungle growth and hundreds of spiders and insects falling on me from the top because of the chopping. Vests in those areas are not recommended as they provide too many places for creatures to crawl into. In Vietnam, I also realized that after taking my shirt off because of the heat, the local poison ivy took its toll on me. My body looked like the Michelin tire guy after all the swelling. I now wear long sleeves when exploring through those types of areas. Since time is limited I won’t discuss the killer bees of Africa that attacked me in Kenya, the Butsi worms of Zambia, the leaches of Vietnam or the hundreds of ticks I had to pull from my groin area in Tanzanian border. Oh, yes, my life is so “fashionable” and the most important thing is designing fashion clothes for the *Jungle Man* out there and making your best dressed list, LOL! Moving on to the latest accessory in my collection. It’s a military multi-compartment thigh bag which allows me to carry extra equipment!
I think the vest, lion claw, skull, dog tags, neck scarf, and thigh bag have become my “@Gemexplorer” image, but I never did it on purpose. I’m not an imitator or actor pretending to be Indiana Jones. Or a city boy who a few times a year plays the part of “explorer.” This is what I’ve been doing all my life. I’m not arrogant in saying so because I despise arrogance. But I am humbly confident. This is what I do and this is what people expect from me.
Funny story, in a recent conference in NYC where I was the guest speaker for Eddie LeVian, I was asked to wear my jungle outfits for the talk to the Sterling Jewelers crowd. On the last day I decided to wear my Sartoriali Pal Zileri suit. I was thinking everyone would be proud to see me cleaned up. Everyone was indeed shocked but then asked me to go back to wearing the jungle outfit so that they could take pictures with me.
Also, a thing about weapons: I’m designing a high tech knife based on old Spartan design as well as a Masai spear. Most knives are useless against lions and hyenas. Weapons are important to me as they are part of my job. I was taught to be a butcher at our farm when I was young so I got used to the whole blood thing at an early age. And I love my custom pepper spray that I had custom filled into a fire extinguisher. That thing can stop an army including killing me if the wind blowing my way!
BP: You’re on a roll, Yianni. Next question… which of the gemstones are your favorite to mine and why?
YM: I think gemstones are like beautiful women, or, men if that’s your preference. Each stone has its beauty and rather than love just one I prefer to see the beauty in each of them. Even stones not so perfect. Truth is, I like imperfect stones. After working for Helmut Swarovski for fourteen years and seeing the perfection of pure glass I realized the beauty of imperfection in natural gems. I’m big into supporting artisanal miners, so in all my jewelry I will not just have clean, perfect stones but also beautifully imperfect ones as produced by nature.
Years ago in New York I visited this luxury chandelier store of the rich and famous. Some chandeliers were over $180,000 each. Turns out there were several of them hanging from the ceiling and some looked kitschy and cheap. Those were the ones that had 100% leaded Swarovski crystals (glass) hanging from them. The most popular chandelier was the one that contained half flawless Swarovski crystals and half natural quartz crystals with lots of inclusions. The mix between the two found to be the most attractive to the eye. The fire from the Swarovski leaded glass and the natural feeling one got from the included quartz created a harmonious design. That had a huge effect on me.
Another reason I cannot choose my favorite gem is because I associate the gemstones I find with the country I visited. Because each country has its own unique beauty I can’t just choose one stone. Brazil, Burma, and Zimbabwe, for example, are all unique in their own way and so are their gems. But if I had to choose just a few they would be Burmese Jade, Burmese Red Spinel and a new stone I just discovered which is sort of bluish-green Chrysoprase. I’ve given it a name but it’s still secret. But if you ask me next year what my favorite gem is, chances are I will give you different stones.
BP: How many heads of state have you met and mingled with on your journeys and have any of them shared one too many glasses of Ouzo with you?
YM: I’ve met enough to realize I don’t like most of them. The only person I ever looked up to and supported for several years was Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. This was a woman under house arrest for a big part of her life. To me, she was the true female version of Nelson Mandela in Asia. I used to secretly work with her husband, Dr. Michael Aris, to fight the junta there and support her. To this day, I would die for her. She was the most powerful person I ever met in all of my travels. When I met her, my knees bent from her aura. I think Hillary Clinton felt same. For seven years I risked my life to bring pro-democracy books printed in Bangkok to Burma through the jungles of Thailand, all undercover in order to expose the companies doing business in Burma so the universities could boycott them. This was done under the cover of a ruby factory that employed 92 single mothers providing for their families. Looking back, it was a risky thing to do, but I would do it again if I had to. I stopped when her husband died of Prostate cancer. Sad love story those two.
We didn’t share ouzo but we did eat a Burmese specialty of dried smelly shrimp, garlic, chili pepper, peanuts and other yummy ingredients. It was strange when I first tried it but now it’s one of my favorite dishes. There was so much garlic it killed my breath and anything parasitic, and whatever didn’t die was killed by the Ouzo I drank to kill the worm larvae I may have eaten during my jungle journey.
BP: You state that you’re half Greek and half Texan. Do either of those halves want to secede from the Union and if it’s the Texan half, how soon should we expect that? Not that I’m against Texas or anything. I’m just asking.
YM: Why secede? We just need to convince Mexico, Canada, Panama, and Cuba to join us and become one big, happy family! Anything can be worked out as long as we drink Ouzo and I cook Moussaka, a few whole lambs, and some smoked Texas bbq ribs! Texans are a warm culture like the Greeks and they’re hard working family people. And I love the food. By the way, not to deviate, but I am a master wax carver and I can’t carve worth a damn if I’m not listening to blasting country music. Drives everyone in my house crazy.
BP: Have you ever wrestled an alligator over a ruby? Please say yes. In my mind you have. Please don’t ruin it for me.
YM: No… But some of the women I showed my gems to didn’t want to return them. Let me tell you, taking a gem away from a woman who thinks it’s hers just because you showed it to her once is as bad as wrestling an alligator. Anyway, why wrestle when you can shoot him? I guess it’s the Texan in me. I see a crocodile and I see an awesome pair of boots and a grilled tail steak.
BP: What’s your favorite thing about your Greek background and what’s a common misconception about Greeks that you find yourself constantly correcting (mainly to Americans?)
YM: Greeks simply know how to live life to the fullest. The sea, the food, and the culture. There is nothing like Greek island life and I’ve seen the world. But the greatest gift Greece gave me was my pride in my people and my country… and to believe in myself. It starts rather early when Greek grandmothers call us names like Hercules and Colossus. It’s only later we find out we were not the Greek gods they told us we were! It’s a kind of a brainwashing but it worked with me. When in the jungles of the world and faced with life threatening obstacles, I gathered strength from the fact I was Greek and had to stand up to my fears, just as my ancestors had to. I know it’s silly, but at times I spoke to my ancestors to give me courage when I felt I had none and when I was alone.
As for a common misconception Americans have about Greeks, it’s that we only own restaurants. As it turns out from a poll last year that I read, Greeks are among the most highly educated ethnic groups living in the United States. To make it relative to the jewelry business, let’s look at some of the major achievements of Greeks in our industry: Nick Paspaley from “Paspaley Pearls” controls 85% of South Sea Pearls. The Pouroulis family, who founded “Petra Diamonds” in South Africa, controls several diamond and platinum mines as well as the most famous diamond mine in the world, “The Kimberley Mine.” Also, the late Dr. Archie Kalokerinos. He was the world authority of Opals in Australia in his time. The legendary Pappas brothers, George and Yasson, discovered several of the most well-known colored stone mines in East Africa. The Folli Follie and Links of London brands are also owned by some of my Greek friends in Athens.
As a youngster I was influenced by all of these legends. I was lucky to meet most of them before some passed away, and, I learned some of their secrets. I feel I carry a heavy burden to continue their legacy so that I can one day pass my secrets to the youth of the next generation. Oh, and did you know that Bulgari was Greek?
BP: Are you surprised at the amount of stalkers… err, “followers,” rather… that you have on Instagram?
YM: Stalkers? LOL. Barbara, you make me laugh. They are my friends! Really, I love them, but lately it has been getting insane. Especially after Vogue magazine in Paris tweeted me as the “modern Indiana Jones of our century.” I opened my page and said, “wtf!?” Yesterday I was surprised that people got excited when I replied their messages! They write that they can’t believe I answered! I’m so grounded and humble in this regard that I feel almost embarrassed when they treat me with such excitement. It’s actually I who gets excited when they answer. I think Instagram is my way of communicating with the world because deep inside me I am a bit shy, though I put a good show on when I’m in public. But Instagram allows me to use images of gems and of my adventures as a means to lobby for my main objective, which is to promote bead cutting for single moms in Africa. Over 80% of the rough sourced at the mines is bead quality, yet nearly 100% of the rough from Africa is exported to India and China. I believe God sprinkled that rough there for a reason. And that is to feed and take care of the poor people of that region. And if you look at where gems are mostly found they are usually the most desolate of places on the planet. Creating my jewelry brand is a way for me to control where I source the gems and where I choose to cut them. In other words, a true “mines to market” strategy few designers have been able to make work successfully.
BP: Speaking of your jewelry brand, when and where will we see the launch of your Philippe Alexander collection that you’ve named after your son?
YM: Regarding the name, I didn’t want to give the jewelry brand my name (which is a bit of a brand already in the inner gem and mining world) for my own reasons. To me, it’s too egotistical as a Greek father. I prefer being the foundation for my son, Philippe Alexander, so he is able to, one day, have the company to himself. I want him to stand on my shoulders and live an easier life than I did. Not spoiled but with a momentum began by his father. But the brand name stands for many things that are not just my son. It also stands for the Golden Period of Greece, which hugely influenced jewelry design as well as world art and architecture. It’s my goal to revive that period back to Greece. And in the heart of the brand, it stands for the personal quest of Alexander the Great to explore new lands and discover new cultures to enrich his own. My designs are predominately Greek but they’re fully influenced by all of the cultures I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with and nations I’m able to travel to. I believe this collection, and this brand, represents my journey in searching for gems. Or, perhaps the real journey wasn’t to search for gems, but rather the artistic influences of each country I’ve visited. The search for the gems, themselves, just made the journey of artistic enlightenment possible. So to answer your question more specifically, I’m launching the collection this year, likely within the next few months. I’m going through an internal debate with myself to go public or just have everything available online on my website. Not sure what ideology will conquer in the end.
I enjoy being solitary when in the jungles of the world or in my own jewelry world when I carve my waxes, so I can relate to the lifestyle of JAR. All I know is that I want to focus on keeping the marketing simple so I can zone in on the artistic side I’ve been cultivating (yet suppressing) all of these years. At 52, I have paid my dues, but I’m ready now for the other half of creating the most progressive artisanal “mines to market” brand ever launched.
BP: Last question, Yianni… if there is one jewelry industry person, besides yours truly, that you could meet in the next year, who would it be and why?
YM: Truthfully, there is no one I want to meet that I have not already met. At this stage I just want to be left alone (hahaha.) But, to give you an answer for the sake of the interview, and, perhaps to shock YOU a bit for a change, maybe that b***h at that famous luxury jewelry store chain who refused to answer my three emails last December. Now, you may say I’m ending the interview with negativity, but the truth is I love confrontation when good can come out of it. It’s a Greek character trait to debate about everything and when that doesn’t work we burn the streets of Athens down! Problem with today’s society is that they are too diplomatic with people who have power and no one wants to stand up to them. And, that’s what I enjoy doing. Kind of my version of “Fifty Shades of DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS.” And I couldn’t honestly care less if they ever showcase my jewelry at their stores, anyway. I’m HERCULES! LOL!! (Grandma, I love you wherever you are!) These individuals are used to people apologizing even when they are the ones being rude. And this just feeds their ego. Some of the busiest people I know are great communicators. It means they are either organized, or if not, know how to delegate their communication. And no, you can’t edit b***h out. It’s in the dictionary and It’s PG. But I know you’re thinking… “I need to advise this Greek/Texan to be more diplomatic and choose his words carefully.” I’m reading your mind, Barbara. And stop smiling! Good luck… I’m hopeless!
BP: Hopeless or not, Yianni, I have thoroughly enjoyed this interview and getting to know you through it. Without a doubt, you’re my favorite “find” of 2015, thus far, and trust me when I say you have yourself a new, loyal, and devoted
Please stay tuned for parts two and three of this series which will feature Alp Sagnak (aka, “The Turk”) as well as Amedeo Scognamiglio (“The Italian”), coming soon.