AGTA-GTC’s New Team

Between losing its longtime director and pointed questions about how it could afford to hire three gemological heavyweights to replace him, AGTA’s Gemological Testing Center had a rough start to 2005. Eleven months later, the lab could be more profitable than ever.

It was no great surprise to anyone at the American Gem Trade Association when Ken Scarratt, former director of AGTA’s Gemological Testing Center, announced plans to resign and move to Thailand last March. Not only had Scarratt lived there years before but he also has a Thai wife (who worked for AGTA as well), and everyone there knew that the Scarratts considered Thailand, not New York, home.

Douglas K. Hucker, executive director of Dallas-based AGTA, calls Scarratt one of the top gemological minds in the world and admitted it wouldn’t be easy to replace him. Yet even as he lured three of the world’s acknowledged gemological leaders to join AGTA’s laboratory, some AGTA members were questioning whether a lab that has never turned a profit should be seeking such big—and undoubtedly expensive—fish.

THE NEW STAFF

First on the list was Lore (pronounced similar to “Laura”) Kiefert, formerly assistant director of SSEF, the Swiss Gemmological Institute in Basel, Switzerland. Kiefert, the new director for GTC, has a doctorate in mineralogy and is an expert in corundum. She wrote a master’s thesis on the distinguishing characteristics of sapphires (natural versus synthetic as well as different origins). Since GTC has been pulling in more than 50 percent of its work in sapphire, her skill set fits the job.

Next AGTA lured John Koivula away from the Gemological Institute of America. Koivula, a world-renowned inclusion expert with degrees in geology and chemistry, was GIA’s chief gemologist and a fixture at the Institute. His 29-year tenure there includes writing more than 800 papers and articles on gem identification. Koivula also has written two books and soon will be the author of two more.

Finally, AGTA persuaded Richard Hughes to leave Pala International. Former executive vice president for the Asian Institute of Gemmological Sciences in Bangkok, Thailand, Hughes is the author of two books, both on corundum. He was also in charge of Pala’s Web site and has assumed the same responsibility for AGTA GTC.

The rest of the gemological staff includes Garry DuToit, GTC’s laboratory manager, and Riccardo Befi. “Garry is the master of the Raman [spectroscope],” says Kiefert. “When I was working at SSEF, I was considered to be the most knowledgeable Raman user in our lab. But compared with Garry, I feel like a beginner.”

Befi manages all aspects of pearl X-ray and identification. He came to GTC from the International Gemological Institute, where he directed the diamond-grading and colored-stone gem-identification departments. Prior to IGI, Befi worked in gemology and quality control at Carvin French, a high-end jewelry manufacturer in New York.

“We have good stalwart people who have been there for years,” notes Hucker. “To have Lore, John, and Dick all step in and effect a reasonably smooth transition has been very rewarding.”

DOLLARS AND SENSE

Rewarding, yes; inexpensive, no. Though AGTA declined to release salary figures to JCK, it’s not unreasonable to assume that experts of this caliber would not jump longtime jobs without significant motivation, and members have confirmed this in off-the- record conversations. Despite a significantly increased number of stones coming in for evaluation and greatly improved turnaround time bringing in more money than in the past, some members still question whether the lab went too far out on a financial limb.

Hucker admits the laboratory had losses again last year. “But as I have said, we don’t like to necessarily look at the individual parts of AGTA as profit centers. The GTC is first and foremost considered as a critical service to our members and the industry,” Hucker says.

He also points out that AGTA’s annual report shows the association doing well in some areas, if not so well in others. That, he says, is business—making money in one area to afford goods and services in another.

AGTA had a very good year last year. The Tucson Show produced most of the income for the organization. “That’s where we get the money to support the modest things that we do,” says Hucker. That said, Hucker was quick to point out that the lab is not a modest thing. “It’s a very important thing that we do for the industry,” he says. “Because it requires the fuel to run it, it’s been an ongoing challenge financially for the organization. While AGTA has a major voice in the jewelry industry, we are not as financially powerful as some other jewelry organizations.

“Again, our intent is not necessarily to have this lab become profitable,” explains Hucker. “Our intent is to have the best possible laboratory we can provide.”

BUSINESS CHALLENGES

A laboratory—even one that saved the U.S. ruby and sapphire market from being surreptitiously flooded with beryllium-treated goods—still must be financially responsible, if not profitable. And while lab veterans DuToit and Befi have both talent and speed in identifying gemstones, other younger, less experienced staff held the lab back.

“One of the things we saw was the fact that, while we were hiring good gemologists, they had little or no laboratory experience,” says Hucker. “It takes a long time to gain lab experience and get them up to speed.” This resulted in slow turnaround time, and the lab couldn’t keep up. Hucker says it was essential to hire people who could get up to speed right away.

With everyone in place, the pace of positive change has been fast. “Demand in the lab is up,” says Hucker. “We finally have gemologists who can handle all of the work we put in front of them.” “We have had the busiest month ever,” notes Kiefert, and, in fact, GTC had record months in May and June. “The biggest challenge at the moment is to keep our turnaround time short.”

“Clients are now getting their gemstones back within five to seven working days,” says Hucker. “Now we’re at a point where, if we’ve got the goods, we’re fine,” he says.

Cranking out the work should help the bottom line. “I’m not going to say that the lab is going to make a ton of money next year,” says Hucker, “but we’re certainly not going to have to make as great an effort supporting it as we’ve had to in the past.”

“I’m thrilled,” says Eric Braunwart, current president of AGTA. “I’m just happy to see this before the end of my term.” As president of the organization, Braunwart has been caught between believing in the importance of the lab, and knowing the expense of it.

GEMOLOGICAL CHALLENGES AHEAD

Beryllium treatment is a big challenge, and there’s no easy answer. “We see a lot of pinks and padparadscha types,” says Kiefert. “I know that most of the Madagascans are heated.”

Among the instruments available to GTC for detection of beryllium are LIBS (Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy) and SIMS (Secondary Ion Mass Spectroscopy). Currently, SIMS testing is performed outside the lab.

Kiefert notes that another challenge for the laboratory is its participation with the Laboratory Manual Harmonization Committee. “LMHC is a group of seven world-renowned laboratories that meet three times a year. We discuss harmonization of report wording, and also criteria used to determine whether, for example, a stone is heated or not, or harmonizing color limits, for example, with ruby and pink sapphire.

AGTA has already defined the boundaries for padparadscha. “Now we’re working with the LMHC, trying to coordinate our call.”

FUTURE POSSIBILITIES

Hucker is looking to expand the actual physical plant, possibly add a few more staff members, and improve some basic business systems. “We’re first working on improving efficiencies,” he says. One improvement he would like to see is a new database system that could “radically improve the turnaround time.”

GTC recently added a weekly newsletter focusing on laboratory updates. “We have a wealth of rich content that you can send out every week. It’s a very compelling read. And that does two things for us. First of all, it notifies our clients that we’re turning around work in five to seven days, and secondly, there’s a reason for them to read it.”

For more information on the AGTA GTC laboratory, visit www.AGTA-GTC.org.