A Passion For Gems

A lifelong passion for gemology and a desire to train and educate others on the beauty and finer points of gemstones have driven Debbie Hiss’s multifaceted career.

Hiss, the director of training for New York–based Lazare Kaplan International, has served the industry in various capacities for nearly 30 years. She started her jewelry career as an apprentice silversmith with Allan Adler Silversmiths in Hollywood, Calif., in 1976, where she learned the basics of jewelry manufacturing. In 1977, she moved to Sarah Leonard Jewelers in Los Angeles, where she spent the next three years learning the retail sales business as well as the fundamentals of diamond grading under Lenny and Sunny Friedman.

After earning a graduate gemologist degree in residence from the Gemological Institute of America in 1980, Hiss joined the GIA staff as resident colored-stone instructor and taught there for more than seven years.

In 1988, Hiss decided to try her hand at trade journalism. She spent two years at JCK as the West Coast editor, primarily writing articles on colored stones. In 1990, Hiss became director of information for the American Gem Trade Association, serving as AGTA’s main press contact and conducting educational seminars for retailers on the benefits of selling colored stones and colored-stone jewelry.

Hiss rejoined GIA in 1993 as manager of association training, where her main focus was coordinating GIA’s trade-show participation and developing high-quality training programs for industry organizations and events.

In 2001, Hiss joined the Diamond Promotion Service, where she served as Northwest regional director and then trade-association manager. Her main focus with DPS was overseeing integrated partnership programs with a variety of associations and organizations. She stayed with DPS for four years before joining LKI this past April as director of training—a newly created position.

In an exclusive interview with JCK, Hiss discusses how her many roles have combined to shape her career.

JCK: How did your early experience in bench manufacturing, retailing, and appraisals set up the rest of your career?

DH: The bench was my first entrée to the jewelry industry, and although only a brief part of my career, it gave me a tremendous understanding of, and appreciation for, what goes into creating a piece of jewelry. This allowed me to talk knowledgeably to consumers and, in my later positions, to the industry about the artistry behind jewelry. I also learned that the bench was not the place for me; I needed a more people-oriented position. So I moved to retail and had the good fortune to work in one of the finest retail stores in the country, Sarah Leonard Jewelers, under the wing of Lenny and Sunny Friedman. They were both great teachers. They taught me the basics of diamond grading, and their passion for gemology struck a chord with me. I loved being in the store, working with people, making them happy, and sharing my love for gems with them.

JCK: Why did you decide to leave retail and join GIA, and what key things did you take away from your time there?

DH: Lenny got me going on gemology—I was taking GIA home-study courses. But it was taking longer than I wanted to complete the program. A real turning point for me was when I decided to earn my G.G. degree in residence. I absolutely loved the atmosphere at GIA, I had a real passion for the gemology side of the business, and I thought that working at GIA would give me an opportunity to hone my skills and grow. My biggest challenge was mustering the courage to face my first class! But after a few days, I loved it. It was a wonderful feeling being able to enlighten people, and I loved the challenge of turning technical information into something educational, interesting, and fun. I taught specifically on colored stones and loved the diversity they had to offer. I also had the opportunity to work with some incredible gemological legends on a daily basis. My time at GIA also offered me the opportunity to lecture at numerous events. Working at GIA gave me confidence and truly shaped me—not only as a gemologist but as an educator and public speaker. It was the most pivotal move of my career and opened a lot of doors for me.

JCK: Why did you decide to shift to journalism, and how did your experience at

affect your career?

DH: I was intrigued by the position with JCK. It broadened my experience and contacts. It also allowed me to be in touch with many industry notables and be on the inside track of developments in the colored-stone sector. But it was perhaps the most challenging position of my career. I had never been a journalist before, and trying to distill technical information into a concise, readable story isn’t easy. At that point, I felt more at ease lecturing in front of people than I did sitting in front of a computer trying to turn my notes into a compelling article. It gave me a new appreciation for journalists and what they do for the industry. [Former JCK editor-in-chief] George Holmes was a major influence for me during this time. He had an amazing gift for helping me sort out the information I had gathered to get to the crux of the article. He had such a quiet, humble way of showing his brilliance. I feel so fortunate to have worked with him.

JCK: What was your experience at AGTA like? What key skills and experiences did you take away from this position?

DH: My departure from JCK coincided with my personal decision to move to the Pacific Northwest, an area I had fallen in love with. I had a great network of people in the industry, and I thought I could find or create a position for myself. I was then approached by AGTA, and after several months of dialogue, they hired me as director of information. Working for AGTA was a wonderful experience. I had the opportunity to launch the first Cutting Edge loose gemstones competition, and also was heavily involved with the Spectrum Awards design competition, not to mention the experience of seeing the AGTA GemFair from the inside. I worked with some fantastic people, including Peggy Willett, who was AGTA director at the time, gem dealers Steve Taylor and Eric Braunwart, and AGTA show manager Mary Lou Keen. I got the chance to talk to the trade press, retailers, designers, and manufacturers about colored stones as a spokesperson for the industry. My time at AGTA also really got me plugged into the trade-show circuit as a speaker. And I got to see the passion that colored-stone dealers had for their business—a passion I shared.

JCK: Why did you decide to go back to GIA, and what was your role there the second time around?

DH: AGTA wanted me to move to Dallas to maintain a full-time position. This was pre-Internet, so there were some challenges working outside the main headquarters. At an industry event, I mentioned the choice I had to make to Kathryn Kimmel of GIA. Over dinner, she convinced me to come back and work with her in the marketing department. My new role at GIA evolved into a hybrid marketing/education position. I had a great passion for education, but I was more of a spokesperson at AGTA. The GIA position allowed me to get out more in the industry at trade shows and seminars, spreading the word about GIA and training people. I worked with all the trade organizations and trade shows to make sure GIA was on their various educational programs—it was a great combination for me that used all of my skills. I also enjoyed the chance to return to pure gemology.

JCK: Your next move was over to DPS. What was your role there, and how did this fit into your previous experiences?

DH: My move to DPS was a natural transition. I got to utilize all the skills I had gained, working with retailers, manufacturers, and trade publications. Yet it was different from any position I had previously held, since I was entering the world of diamonds after so many years of focusing on color. I had to learn the workings of the diamond industry, understand how De Beers worked, and learn all about the sightholders. It was a real challenge that I felt would round out my experience. My main responsibility was working with retailers and manufacturers to ensure their knowledge of the various DPS campaigns and to help them align with those programs so they could leverage DPS ad dollars to benefit their businesses. One of my greatest accomplishments at DPS was overseeing partnership programs with IJO [Independent Jewelers Organization] and RJO [Retail Jewelers Organization]—two of the major buying groups—to help members sell strategic diamond products. We gave them advertising and marketing tools to use and helped them get the right product in the right stores. The position eventually evolved into trade-association manager, where I worked with trade associations and Jewelers of America affiliates on DPS programs and partnerships.

JCK: How did the Lazare Kaplan position come about, and what are your responsibilities there?

DH: The reason for the change is that I never lost my passion for teaching. Lazare Kaplan never had a position focused on training, and they wanted to create one. They realized they needed someone that could go to their retail partners and make sure the salespeople understand the uniqueness of the Lazare Kaplan diamond brand and the compelling Lazare Kaplan story. So they approached me to discuss this position. I felt that, now that I had spent time on the diamond side, it would be a great opportunity to travel to the stores, work directly with their staff, conduct training sessions, and help them merchandise our product, so I accepted the position.

JCK: How has your involvement in the Women’s Jewelry Association influenced your career?

DH: I am currently the president of the Pacific Northwest chapter of WJA. Being plugged into a network of industry professionals—primarily women—has been truly inspirational. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to pick up the phone or drop an e-mail to a member, even someone I’ve not yet met, and have an instant bond through our membership. It’s also tremendously rewarding to help nurture and guide young women who are new to the industry. One of my proudest career moments was accepting one of WJA’s Awards for Excellence in 1995—the highest honor bestowed annually by the association.