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.

The Hole Truth

Posted by Rebecca Stone on September 21, 2010
Sep 212010

OK. I am starting to design earrings in earnest, and — well — I have a confession to make. I don’t have pierced ears. And, yes, I realize that as far as jewelry designers go, I’m probably in the minority here.

It’s not that I don’t like earrings. I do. Very much. I just like my ears more. Why should I subject them to disfigurement? While I realize that many people go for piercing to better keep track of their earrings, I guess I’ve always been willing to risk the occasional loss in favor of avoiding the unfortunate elongated hole look some women develop as they age. And as far as comfort? It’s true that clips can pinch, but it’s been my experience that you can find ways to adjust them in order to eliminate this problem, while keeping them fairly secure. And I’m talking about more than “walk-in-the-park” secure.

Hooks or clips? Many earrings can go either way, and I think everyone (whether pierced or intact) who wants to should be able to wear beautiful earrings.

Hooks or clips? Many earrings can go either way, and I think everyone (whether pierced or intact) who wants to should be able to wear beautiful earrings.


As a former belly dancer, I can claim a lot of experience in the non-pierced earring department. Earrings are a major component of a dancer’s costume and, back in the day, when I could still recognize my waistline, I wore some whoppers: big, bangly hoops, draped in coins and lots of dangly sparklies. I danced my way through college, after college and into graduate school without any serious earring mishap. True that I occasionally lost one (why always just one?? Like socks in a dryer, I guess). But it’s not like it flew off in the midst of a shimmy-spin into some guy’s drink or anything. And I sure never put anyone’s eye out with an earring launch. They would usually just mysteriously disappear — sometimes only as far as my dance bra or harem pants (this was the ’70s and early ’80s — I don’t think they wear harem pants anymore).

But I was just glad to avoid the fate of friends who reported infections or the horrors of torn ear lobes when their earrings would snag on some immovable piece of costuming. And then there was the friend whose dance partner, a rainbow boa constrictor, decided to take a little detour through the loop of her PIERCED earring and got stuck. She couldn’t take the earring off and had to hold the snake and earring against her head LEST HE RIP HER EARLOBE IN TWO. The more stuck he got, the more he tried to squeeze through the hoop! Meanwhile, we had to scramble around the mall where we were performing to scavenge a pair of nippers small enough to cut the loop to free him. So much for that earring, and my friend’s ear was very sore. It could have been worse. Now, if it had only been a pair of non-pierced earrings….

Yeah, I know, most women wear a wondrous range of fishhooks and leverbacks that will never grace my lobes unless I submit to the hole punch, needle or whatever skewer du jour is au current. And, let’s face it, the designs available in pierced earrings are way more plentiful (and usually more beautiful) than you’ll find among their clip-on or screw-on cousins (it seems sort of unfair). But there’s just something about putting holes in my body that bothers me. Call me a coward, but I know I’m not alone.

It used to be fairly easy to find nice-looking non-pierced earrings in stores, but this seems less the case these days (especially since May Company bit the dust). Any that I have been able to locate tend to be rather gargantuan monstrosities that seem destined to become victims of gravity. The other day I was in a Nordstrom’s and didn’t see any non-pierced at all. Curious, I asked the salesperson behind the counter if they ever got requests for clip-ons. She said that actually they did all the time, but wasn’t sure why they didn’t carry any. It seems to be easier these days to find non-pierced earrings online than in brick and mortar shops. A look around the Internet reveals more than a handful of shops that specialize in this market as well as what seems to be enough of a demand to support them. Some of these stores sell the usual types of non-pierced fare in a wide array of designs (i.e.: crazy4clipons.com and cliptomania.com) while others offer less traditional solutions (check out lisadora.com, harrymason.com and earwrap.com).

Of course, many pierced earrings can be converted onto non-pierced findings. To be honest, though, as I make earrings to go with my necklaces and bracelets, I do prefer the look of them as they dangle demurely from delicate hooks rather than from big metallic buttons (though not so much that I find myself reaching for a needle and an ice cube). Ready-made sterling or gold-filled hook earring findings are also much less expensive, and they are easy to handcraft out of wire. In contrast, aside from ear cuffs, wraps or hooks that hang from other places around the ear, non-pierced findings are rather high-tech jobs, involving small springs, magnets or screws, that would be much more difficult to make. And the price of ready-made sterling and gold-filled earring findings is stratospheric.

But earrings are becoming a new mission for me. A rediscovered passion. Sure, I’ll cheerfully offer pierced earrings. I’d be a fool not to. And I’ll try the designs out on my pierced-earred friends. I’m a believer in test driving designs before offering them for sale. But I will also offer non-pierced versions of everything (via simple conversions onto silver- or gold-plated findings, until I can figure out an alternative). It’s the only way I can personally test out (and enjoy) my own creations.  And I think it’s only fair.

Thoughts? Suggestions? I’d welcome comments on this.

California has long been a leader when it comes to environmental regulation. That’s often something for us Californians to be proud of. But there are times when regulatory fervor tests the bounds of reason. Case in point of late is the skirmish over the state rock, Serpentine (this while California’s unemployment rate stands at 12.3 percent?). The pale green stone, often sold under the name “New Jade,” (it sort of looks like, well, Jade) is popular among jewelry designers because of its beauty, affordability and carvability. In fact, it is the cover story for the August 2010 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist (“Smokin’ Stones: Serpentine and More,” by Sharon Elaine Thompson). Interesting timing when you consider that it’s been under fire this month due to the fact that it sometimes serves as a host to asbestos, a known carcinogen.

Pale green Serpentine makes a pretty pairing with Amethyst and Freshwater Pearls.

Pale green Serpentine makes a pretty pairing with Amethyst and Freshwater Pearls.

DROP THE ROCK

Sponsored by California State Senator Gloria Romero and backed by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), a senate bill (SB624) would topple Serpentine from its status as the state’s top rock, a position it has held since 1965. Opponents of the rock contend that because Serpentine sometimes contains the mineral chrysotile, a form of asbestos, it should not represent health-conscious California as its official rock. Asbestos exposure is linked to diseases such as mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs.

The ADAO argues that its Drop the Rock campaign seeks to promote public health through educating the public about the rock, which, in some of its forms, contains a known carcinogen. The organization’s press release states, “It is not about what serpentine is or is not; it is a question of removing a State-wide symbol that represents a substance that can, in one of its forms, cause irreversible disease and death as it has to thousands of its victims.” So, in essence, the anti-rock effort seems mostly concerned with symbolism.

KEEP OUR ROCK

But geologists and others in California’s scientific community maintain that SB624 is rife with inaccuracies, and may only serve to escalate nuisance lawsuits involving asbestos litigation.  Others worry about the possibilities of land closures in areas where the rock might be lurking. The Civil Justice Association of California officially opposes the bill, which it believes to be based on “bad science.”

Language in the bill declares that, “California should not designate a rock known to be toxic to the health of its residents as the state’s official rock.” But scientists point out this is an erroneous and misleading statement. Says Garry Hayes, who teaches geology at Modesto Junior College, “Serpentine is not toxic. A mineral that is found in the rock, chrysotile, in its asbestos form, has been shown to be dangerous when improperly utilized.” But, he adds, “Almost any rock contains ores that can be dangerous, including the ores that produce gold, our state mineral.”

Similarly, in a July 17 piece for the California North Coast’s Times-Standard, Humboldt State University associate professor of geology, Brandon Schwab notes that overexposure to any mineral can lead to a negative impact on human health. “Quartz is the most common mineral in the Earth’s crust,” he writes, “and inhalation of silica dust can lead to the disease silicosis.”

Schwab concludes, “If the Legislature feels it is important to spend time removing any official state connection to potentially hazardous materials, I would argue that overexposure to the state mammal (Grizzly bear) is more likely to be hazardous than exposure to the state rock.”

The consensus is that while some Serpentine does indeed contain chrysotile asbestos, risks are negligible. Said retired United States Geological Survey geologist Malcolm Ross, in a July 13 New York Times article, “There is no way anyone is going to get bothered by casual exposure to that kind of rock, unless they were breaking it up with a sledgehammer year after year.”

I guess this means no grinding Serpentine up for snuff, but that using a piece of the stone in jewelry design or wearing a pendant made from it is unlikely to present a health hazard. So no need to break out the “Wear at own risk” signs for the next art show. But what will be the fate of the much-maligned rock?

Word is that the State Assembly will vote on the bill on August 2, and Serpentine proponents are urging those in favor of keeping it as the state rock to contact their representatives this week. Also, check out California Serpentine Awareness! Keep our Rock! Fight SB 624 on Face book.

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