Obituary: GIA Chairman Richard T. Liddicoat, 84, ‘Father of Modern Gemology’

Richard T. Liddicoat Jr., the much-honored father of modern gemology and chairman of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), died on July 23 at his Santa Monica, Calif., home, following a months-long battle with cancer. He was 84.

Through his work and leadership at GIA for 62 years, Liddicoat—gemologist, educator, scholar, and industry leader—was a creator and shaper of today’s gemological profession. He had enormous influence on the development of both the domestic and international gem and jewelry industries.

The man known affectionately to generations of GIA students and staff as “Mr. L” and “RTL” came to GIA quite by accident. In 1940, GIA founder Robert M. Shipley Jr. wrote to a few GIA supporters and advisors, saying that he needed a temporary replacement for his son Robert Jr., then GIA director of research and education, who was going into military service. GIA consultant and mineralogy professor Chester Slawson, of the University of Michigan, suggested to his young graduate school teaching assistant, Dick Liddicoat, that he might want to consider the job.

Liddicoat had never heard of the then still-small Institute in California, but thought “the idea of [the study of] gems and Los Angeles had appeal,” he said later. He joined GIA on June 28, 1940, and, except for military service in World War II, remained at GIA for the rest of his life. Soon recognized at the school and in the industry for his geniality, hard work, and professional commitment, Liddicoat became Shipley’s right hand in running and representing GIA. He succeeded him in 1952 as executive director when Shipley retired.

Building on the foundation laid by Shipley and GIA’s early staff, Liddicoat and his own handpicked team saved GIA from possible failure in the early 1950s, and oversaw its development and growth during the 1960s and 1970s into the jewelry and gem industries’ own university.

Liddicoat was appointed president of GIA in 1970 by its board of governors. In 1983, following a heart attack, Liddicoat became chairman of the board of GIA and turned over the daily administration to a new generation. He was named lifetime chairman in 1992. His strong influence continued through his chairmanship and advice to GIA officials (he had his own office at GIA’s new Carlsbad campus), and his intimate involvement with GIA and its activities continued almost to the end.

Liddicoat’s contributions to gemology and the gem and jewelry industries are numerous. Here are just a few:

In the early 1950s, he created the GIA diamond grading system, today used universally to describe, grade, and evaluate diamonds. He was the early director of GIA’s New York operations; engineered the 1948 purchase of the Gem Trade Laboratory and the foundation of today’s world renowned GIA laboratories and research services; and led the overhaul of GIA’s home study courses in the late 1950s and ’60s to bring diamond education and practical gem training to grassroots jewelers.

He was chief editor for 50 years of GIA’s Gems & Gemology, the industry’s leading journal and a major influence on gemological thought and study. His many writings include the much-reprinted industry-standard Handbook of Gem Identification as well as hundreds of articles.

Liddicoat oversaw development of GIA’s on-campus resident training programs, and approved the overseas GIA classes that were the start of today’s international network of GIA campuses. He also was instrumental in the development of what is now the Richard T. Liddicoat Library at GIA, the world’s largest and most important repository of gemological literature.

Under Liddicoat’s tenure and leadership, GIA grew from a tiny California home study school and New York office into an internationally respected leader in gemological education and research.

Still, he found time to teach thousands of jewelers, gemologists, and industry leaders in sessions here and overseas, including the GIA-run educational sessions at scores of Conclaves of the American Gem Society. His legacy includes a staff of GIA managers and teachers—as dedicated as himself to gemology and the industry—who have trained generations of students in the ethical, practical approach to gemology advocated by Liddicoat.

When Robert Shipley Sr. retired, Liddicoat paid tribute to GIA’s founder by saying that the effect of his work would last for centuries. The same is equally true for Liddicoat. The legacy of this humble, genial scholar and great gemologist will continue to influence and affect gemology education and research throughout the world for uncountable generations to come.