Behind the Scenes: My Experience Judging the 2013 AGTA Spectrum & Cutting Edge Awards

After many years of merely viewing the American Gem Trade Association Spectrum & Cutting Edge Award winners, I finally experienced what it was like to be on the panel that selected the winning pieces. And after witnessing years of sometimes questionable selections—2008’s carved green turquoise horsehead pin as Best of Show?—I was anxious to experience the process and understand how choices were made.

I had an impressive set of peers for this task. My well-respected judging colleagues—Candace Edelman of Alex Sepkus, fine jewelry buyer Abby Huhtanen of Bergdorf Goodman, lapidarist Kiwon Jang, and designer Kimberly McDonald—each brought a unique skill set to the table. Kiwon’s stone savvy was invaluable while judging the loose stones; Candy’s eye for choosing colored stones and finished work was instrumental in assessing craftsmanship; Kimberly’s clearly defined aesthetic lent a fresh perspective to most selections;, and Abby’s knowledge of what actually sells reminded us all to keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak. As for me, I think what I brought to the group were insights into what editors choose to fill their pages and why (e.g., certain pieces photograph better than others), and a big-picture grasp of trends and designers. One downside: It was really hard for me not to blurt out the names of the makers of many pieces, though I can say with confidence that recognizing the handiwork of those I’ve reported on for more than 14 years did not sway my decisions.

When the judging started, we turned into something of a well-oiled machine, and our diverse crew turned out to be a great fit. Though I fell in love with a large lemony unheated oval yellow sapphire that Kiwon agreed was quite uncommon, another judge’s observation about an internal flaw persuaded the group to give it an honorable mention instead of a higher honor in the Classic Gemstones category of the Cutting Edge Awards. And when I wasn’t convinced about the merits of awarding third place in the Classical jewelry category within the Spectrum Awards to an Etruscan-style 22k yellow gold and labradorite cylinder bib necklace, Kimberly’s insight into its fresh use of the stone cuts swayed me.

There were also pieces on which we all agreed: For example, midway through day one of judging, the team announced that the Best of Show and first place in the Classical category should indeed be James Currens ruby Lava ring. (It was that hot!) And a men’s sapphire ring that I found sleek, masculine, and understated lacked proper finishing, which therefore kept it from placing at all in the awards. And while examining bridal jewelry, most agreed that one beautifully designed but lightweight cuff required a heavier construction for longterm wear, and shouldn’t place among our selections—though the Platinum Guild International and Women’s Jewelry Association came in on Sunday to judge their own sponsored categories, and WJA honored the bracelet with the Gem Diva Award in the Bridal category. In fact, judges of the Platinum Honors and Diva categories cast spotlights onto a number of pieces that our AGTA-sanctioned core of judges didn’t recognize, including a pair of Deirdre Featherstone earrings that won Best Use of Platinum and Color.

With nearly 500 entries, there were certainly more than a few pieces that didn’t earn official recognition, but emerged as winners in my mind nonetheless. My only regret is that we couldn’t jot down feedback for entries not recognized—though AGTA president Doug Hucker noted a practical point: “We only have one weekend to do the judging!”

Judging the Spectrum and Cutting Edge Awards was a privilege and a learning experience that I won’t soon forget. Our AGTA advisors—Hucker and Awards chairman Robert Bentley of Robert Bentley Co. in New York City—remained tight-lipped about choices, offering feedback only when asked. And when Doug joked that AGTA would be “defending our selections” to industry post-awards announcements, I realized that the judges’ choices were as right, fair, or nonsensical as others will perceive them to be—since beauty, one of the overall criteria for selection, is indeed in the eye of the beholder.