This weekend I moseyed down the coast to attend the career fair put on each October by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Based in Carlsbad, CA, the institute’s world headquarters and campus is perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which shimmered in the distance, albeit through a misty rain. Not a bad place to collect your thoughts.

Pile of rocks or mound of gems? How well do you know your stones? Really?

Pile of rocks or mound of gems? How well do you know your stones? Really?

The opening event drew what looked to be a few hundred fair participants to hear a panel discussion about the current state of the jewelry and gem industry. Despite the economic mess we’re currently in, the message was, of course, hopeful (I mean, it kind of has to be). Several speakers reported that while business in the domestic market is still challenging, they are seeing growth this year in comparison to 2009 in both precious and semiprecious gems. There was also agreement that business, previously shipped overseas, was starting to be brought back to the U.S. for reasons of efficiency, quality control and more timely turnaround of product. Good news to the crowd, many of whom, as GIA students, had just graduated.

The school, respected throughout the world of all things gemological, offers diplomas ranging from Graduate Gemologist and Bench Jeweler to Designer and Retail Sales or Management Professional. Judging by the sea of sleek and stylish men and women in black suits, it seemed to me that a large number of attendees were matriculating into the sales end of the trade — the face of fine jewelry. Black suits (pencil skirts and heels for women) seem to be the official uniform of the fine jewelry retail industry. I’ve also seen this same type of outfit amid the glittering diamonds in Los Angeles’ downtown Jewelry District. Very elegant.

I, on the other hand, flounced around in my little gray number with a flared skirt and black, platformy sandals, army-green computer bag slung over one shoulder. Not exactly the picture of high fashion. But then, this isn’t exactly the handmade/Etsy type crowd, which is really more my milleu. In fact, one of the career coaches I spoke with about business start-ups and entrepreneurship had no idea what Etsy was. Interesting. It wasn’t till the Designer panel discussion that I felt more at home. There the black suits gave way to more color and all types of styles.

While I do not consider myself to be a tie-dyed, granola-eating hippie (though I do enjoy a bowl of honey-almond with dried cranberries now and then), I am definitely not a hipster. I have never been, nor do I think I ever will be, the face of “fine jewelry,” and am much more comfortable toiling away in obscurity, making jewelry that’s not just fine, but mighty fine.

Personal style musings aside, I felt like I got a lot of high-octane mileage out of the day, what with connecting with industry experts and being served nutritious food for thought (they also make killer breakfast burritos there). Speakers throughout the day included designers Paul Klecka, Mark Schneider, Sandra Muller and Erica Courtney. Each described how he or she got into the business and then went on to promote his or her brand. These guys have been at it for a while. Some create their designs in CAD (the new-fangled, high-tech and au current method of sketching out a design). Others like Courtney, use a pen and paper — or in the case of Schneider, a pencil and paper. Some still do some of the manufacturing themselves, while others hire jewelers to do that job. But all agreed that researching what’s out there and what’s been done in the past, finding your own voice, knowing and believing in your product and getting it out there through networking are key.

Other presenters during the day provided an interesting mix of insights and included JCK Magazine Publisher Mark Smelzer, Blue Nile’s Debra Dolphin, celebrity stylist George Blodwell and Alan Bell of Rio Grande (where many of us get our supplies). He and others spoke about the alarming level of misinformation that can be found throughout the industry, especially in retail. It’s not uncommon for sales reps to have little experience or knowledge about the products they are selling. This does little to cultivate a sense of trust among consumers, many of whom may well be better informed about stones than those who are selling them (thanks to their ability to do their own research on the Internet). It can also damage the reputation of the industry itself, which does none of us any favors.

By the end of the day, the clouds had lifted, the sun shone and the angels sang. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, so I went out for a walk on the beach (where, yes, I actually pocketed some clear agates and a few really striking shells) and reflected.

Key points I came away with:

1. Know your product. Know your stones. Accurately describe them. Are they heat treated? Dyed? Waxed? Epoxied? Synthetic? Glass? Are they what you think they are? How are they best worn? How are they best cared for? How much should they cost? And those are only some basic questions. That online gemology course GIA offers is starting to look better and better.

2. Because of the rarity and expense of certain precious stones, such as ruby, other more affordable stones that can offer similar colors, such as tourmaline, are becoming more popular. In the case of sapphire, iolite might make a good stand-in. Even synthetics or treated stones, as long as they are identified as such, can come in handy. Some people prefer a stone that is natural; others don’t care as long as the color is right.

3. Custom jewelry is gaining in popularity, addressing desire for individuality. No kidding! In the past week, I’ve gotten three orders for custom pieces.

4. Estate jewelry is doing well at the moment. Apparently, during recessions, people start digging into the jewelry boxes to trade their jewelry for extra cash.

5. Networking is key to promoting your jewelry. While this isn’t exactly a revelation, it was interesting to hear about some of the ways designers do this (PR agencies, for instance, to get your pieces on celebrities). The bottom line is, whether you go the high-tech route (Facebook, etc.) or the low-tech route (Chamber of Commerce), you need to get your creations seen.

6. Concerns about strip mining and conflict mines are legitimate and justified. But people need to feel good about wearing stones. They are a gift from nature. For its own survival, the industry needs to stay at the forefront of efforts to end illicit trade and promote responsibility to the environment and human rights in mining practices.

I think it behooves us as jewelry designers/makers to pay attention to the origins of the stones and metals we use. Not always an easy task, especially in the heat of a gem show. But blood diamonds are one thing. How about that strand of rough emerald I just bought? How do you determine if the stones you are buying are environmentally friendly and conflict-free? But that’s a complicated topic for another blog.

© 2011 Inclusions Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha