James Nelson

From The Gemology Project
Jump to: navigation, search

Dr. James Nelson (born June 7th, 1913) is a Scottish chemist and gemmologist. Together with his wife and Alan Jobbins he initiated the correspondence course for The Gemmological Association of Great-Britain in the 1980's.


Anyone who has been involved in gemmology, even for a short while, will have heard of the activities of ebullient scientist and inventor Dr James Nelson. A life-long mineral collector, his name has been well-known for only about a quarter of a century in gemmological circles. His preliminary skirmishes into gemmology began at an age when most of us are starting to take retirement seriously. His true interest lies in the wonders of the behaviour of light. To study and demonstrate the ways light and gemstones interact he has invented, and commissioned, many and varied devices. His workshop is an Aladdin’s cave packed to the ceiling with instruments, most of which he has designed, papers, many of which he has written and a collection of specimens, which he employs to demonstrate the principles he still expounds with great enthusiasm. His ardour, acumen and critical faculties are undiminished by age and his physical stamina and ability would do credit to one twenty years younger.

Jamie was born on 7th June 1913 in Stirling, Scotland. His formal education in Scotland and Canada ended at the age of fourteen when he left school to support his mother and sister. However, just before leaving, he was awarded a gold medal for obtaining the highest High School entrance exam marks in the Niagara Falls district.

For the period of the second world war Jamie was employed at a large magnesium smelting works, in Manchester, as chief analytical chemist. During this time he published many accounts of his own physical analytical methods including ultraviolet emission spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction analysis. His expertise in the latter led to his secondment to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, famous for proving the existence of the electron, positron, neutron and the discovery of the structure of DNA.

At the Cavendish Laboratory Jamie’s task was to measure the thermal expansion of graphite. Graphite was used to slow down the neutrons in nuclear-fission electricity- generators then under construction in U.K. The information was vital to engineers making calculations to compensate for the unexpected dilation of graphite moderator- blocks owing to prolonged neutron bombardment. Jamie was able to obtain accurate measurements up to 800°C using his own high temperature X-ray diffraction camera.

Jamie married his wife, Doris, in 1942. Without her help and support during his student days at Cambridge, so he assures me, he would have starved. Shortly after their marriage Doris discovered a most interesting clause in the University background knowledge to profit from a path of instruction leading to a Ph.D., the enrolment could proceed.’. Following a Viva Voce with three university Fellows, Jamie received an official letter advising him to seek enrolment at a College and provide himself with cap and gown of Master status.

Jamie successfully completed his thesis with Professor Sir Lawrence Bragg as his supervisor. He then regarded himself as a card-carrying crystallographer. Sir Lawrence generously gave Jamie many of the crystal specimens on which Sir Lawrence himself had determined the atomic structure over the previous thirty years.

Jamie made a poor start in gemmology. In 1980, after three examination attempts, he achieved only a pass mark. Since then he has more than made up for this inauspicious beginning. For his seminal work on the explanation of the optical ‘flash effect’, used to detect glass fracture-filling in diamonds, he was awarded the Gemmological Association’s Research Diploma in 1993. Since its inception in 1945 there have only been six recipients of this award, one of whom was Dr Eduard Gübelin who died recently at the age of 92. Jamie is the only survivor of the group.

In 2001, in Chicago, Jamie received the prestigious August Köhler Medal, an award of the State Microscopical Society of Illinois, U.S.A. ‘for outstanding contributions to optical microscopy.’.

Since 1994 Jamie has been engaged in helping to produce the first comprehensive data base of the Raman spectra of minerals, gemstones and their inclusions. The Renishaw compilation now amounts to over one thousand five hundred mineral species and chemical compounds, all of which have come from his own considerable collection. He is still continuing with this programme.

Recently Jamie has developed an instrument to study low-temperature photoluminescence spectroscopy of colourless and HPHT treated diamonds. The apparatus, which operates at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, -196°C, is an accessory to the Renishaw Raman Microspectrometer and enables the distinction of HPHT treated diamonds from all other colourless diamonds. Jamie has also invented a compact and inexpensive device to detect short-wave ultra-violet transparency, a necessary test preceding the test for HPHT treatment. All Jamie’s custom-built products are made and marketed by his one-man company, Nelson Gemmological Instruments. Jamie founded McCrone Scientific Ltd in 1963 and is still a non-executive director. He resigned from the Members’ Council of the Gem-A earlier this year having been a member since 1990.

Since 1984 Jamie has published seventeen original articles on gemmology, almost all of which have been published in the Gem-A’s Journal of Gemmology. In March 2005 he produced a six thousand word analysis* The Twilight of the Peer-Reviewed Printed Scientific Periodicals in response to the rapidly emerging scientific magazines on the internet. He is currently working on the completion of four more articles and has no plans to retire just yet.