A Tribute to Richard T. Liddicoat Jr.

He’s called “The Father of Modern Gemology,” but Richard T. Liddicoat Jr., late chairman of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), deserves another title, too—”The Father of Retail Jewelry Professionalism.” Liddicoat focused unswervingly on giving jewelers what he called “over-the-counter practicality” through education, innovations, policies, writings, and research he created or championed. In doing so, he improved the professional lives and businesses of countless retailers—past, present, and future—in North America and around the world. In this tribute to JCK‘s 2002 Person of the Year, we look at just a few ways in which Liddicoat, who died July 23, affected jewelers during his 60 years at GIA.

Innovator

Liddicoat is justly celebrated for creating GIA’s diamond grading system, today’s international standard for evaluating diamonds. But he devised it for jewelers, not the diamond trade.

Its creation was prompted by a fiscal crisis at GIA. The post-World War II “G.I. Bill”—under which Uncle Sam paid war veterans’ educational costs—boosted GIA enrollment and revenues enormously. But coverage ended in mid-1951, and without something to attract more paying students and offset dwindling G.I. Bill revenues, said Liddicoat later, “we were going to wind down rapidly.”

His solution: create a diamond merchandising course to help jewelers boost diamond sales. But, in the early 1950s, there was no standard diamond grading system to teach. Many different systems were in use—or misuse—by dealers, retailers, and appraisers, causing confusion.

So in early 1952, Liddicoat, with some input from a few colleagues, began work on GIA’s own grading system for use as a teaching tool. After 18 months, the new system—based on diamond color, clarity, cut, and carat weight—was ready. It used a D-to-Z color scale—because, Liddicoat said, with “D” as top grade GIA’s system couldn’t be misinterpreted—and kept clarity grades already in use, but doubled the number of grades after “flawless” because “there weren’t enough … to fit the [needs of the] market.”

The GIA system was so simple and effective, one could know a diamond’s quality, sight unseen, by its letter designations and consistently estimate value based on grading data. It debuted in 1953 in a new one-week class, taught first by Liddicoat in New York City’s diamond district—”the toughest place possible,” he recalled. It was an immediate success, and GIA had to quickly schedule more classes for its New York and Los Angeles offices. “It really appealed to small retailers,” who until then had relied on their suppliers for an honest appraisal of diamond merchandise, noted Liddicoat. Now, with GIA’s system, they could evaluate and price it themselves.

To get the new training quickly and directly to mom-and-pop jewelers across America, Liddicoat did two things: He added the new material to GIA’s home study diamond course—an extensive rewrite he personally supervised—and sent the grading class on the road. These traveling classes not only brought GIA’s system to grassroots jewelers but also introduced jewelers to gem instruments, identification techniques, and hands-on training that increased their professional expertise. That opened up a “new world for jewelers, who had relied only on a loupe,” said early instructor Bert Krashes, later GIA vice president.

As demand for the training grew, so did GIA enrollments, but the system Liddicoat devised did more than keep GIA viable. It enhanced jewelers’ diamond merchandising and professionalism, permeated retail and gem sectors here and internationally through GIA training and repeated usage, and became the basis of GIA’s renowned grading service and diamond reports.

Equally important, it changed jewelers’ perception of GIA. While respected for its training and gem equipment, “until we went into grading and appraising in such detail, there was a feeling GIA wasn’t relevant” to their daily needs, said Liddicoat in 1997. “People thought we were primarily [providers of] product knowledge, instead of stuff they could really use over the counter.” But GIA’s system and its offspring (classes, revised home study, grading service, and diamond reports) demonstrated that it was “part of the industry, rather than an ivory-tower institution.”

Practical Education

Liddicoat began applying his approach to jewelers’ training as soon as he arrived at GIA in 1940, adding encouraging comments to home study assignments he graded to let students know, he said, that there was someone “sitting in Los Angeles, anxious [about them].” In the 1940s and ’50s, he created many new programs, such as GIA’s first evening class, an advanced course in gem instruments and gems of “every species the jeweler is likely to encounter,” classes for the public, retailing courses, and GIA’s innovative diamond grading classes.

But in the late 1950s, Liddicoat—now executive director—really put his stamp on GIA education with what he himself called a “drastic” overhaul of its gemology curriculum. The courses, designed in the mid-1930s by GIA founder Robert Shipley and associates, were heavily scientific, and by the 1950s, despite updates, too theoretical and esoteric.

“There was a lot of ivory-tower information which wasn’t useful over the counter,” Liddicoat said later, and he was determined to make GIA courses “as practical as they could possibly be for the jeweler.” Each was reviewed, revised, and restructured, with Liddicoat doing much of the actual work himself, assisted by staffers.

He also sought to make them “as easy to learn as it can be.” The number of lessons were reduced (though their length often increased) and most essay questions were replaced with multiple-choice ones, “enabling us to ask more penetrating questions and do a more effective teaching job,” Liddicoat noted. Such changes substantially boosted the percentage of students completing courses.

Another change—unusual for that time—was mailing “practice” diamonds to home-study students to grade (which GIA still does). “People expressed amazement that we would do this,” said Liddicoat later. “But it seemed to me the jewelry industry is based on trust.”

The revamped courses debuted between 1958 and 1961, and Liddicoat was pleased with the direction they set. The training was “more down to earth and acceptable enough for a store owner” to enroll his employees, he said.

Liddicoat also influenced jewelers through his annual appearances for a half century at the American Gem Society’s Conclaves—as speaker, instructor, GIA president, and industry leader—and through GIA’s hands-on educational programs there, which he organized and directed for many years. Though GIA did these “at a significant loss,” Liddicoat believed “we could afford to do this, because they challenged our GIA instructors to be creative and made it important for jewelers to come,” not only to learn about gems and equipment, but also how to sell bigger and better diamonds, colored stones, gold, silver, and platinum jewelry.

Business Basics

Liddicoat’s focus on training relevant to jewelers’ professional needs wasn’t limited to gemology, as exemplified in two areas of instruction he championed. One was the establishment of a six-month resident program in jewelry manufacturing skills, the predecessor to today’s Graduate Jeweler diploma program at GIA.

Another concerned retailing and business management skills. Too many GIA graduates went into or back to the jewelry trade “without adequate practical business knowledge,” Liddicoat once said. “To be complete jewelers, they need complete training.”

He began in 1952 with a short-lived jewelry merchandising class, later rewritten (with input from successful jewelers) to become in 1956 GIA’s first home-study course in retailing for jewelers. Two decades later, the course was substantially revised and also spawned a two-week resident course. Both foreshadowed today’s Accredited Jewelry Professional program in essential product knowledge and sales techniques.

In the late 1970s, Liddicoat authorized creation of a six-month resident diploma course in jewelry store management. Debuting in 1980, it taught business skills needed in store operations. The popular course—also GIA’s first to use computers, including a simulated jewelry store program—lasted until 1986.

This year, the Institute renewed Liddicoat’s vision with its new GIA School of Business at its Carlsbad, Calif., headquarters—the world’s only such school specifically for the jewelry industry—and diploma programs in jewelry business principles, finance, merchandising, and business law.

Writer

One area where Liddicoat has greatly influenced jewelers is his work as a writer and editor. His first major contribution to gemological literature and jewelers’ reference sources was his Handbook of Gemstone Identification, written shortly after he returned from World War II.

To make his book accessible, and different, from others that were scientific and technical, he designed it “like a cookbook,” grouping gems by color and transparency. He assembled research during the day, and at night he dictated chapters to his wife. The book, which took a year to complete, clearly described the essentials of gem properties, instruments for testing, and procedures for identifying gems. It also contained useful tables, charts, photographs, and a glossary.

It was published in 1947 and has remained in print ever since. Now in the fourth printing of its 12th edition, it has been revised and expanded as gemology has changed and grown, with input (as Liddicoat acknowledged in each new printing) from various GIA staffers. Over the course of more than 50 years, the Handbook has become a required text for GIA students and a standard reference for generations of jewelers and gemologists.

Liddicoat also co-authored, in the 1960s, the first Diamond Dictionary and The Jewelers’ Manual, and during his 60 years at GIA he wrote or co-authored many articles and columns for GIA, domestic and foreign publications, the Encyclopedia Americana, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology.

However, it was as editor-in-chief of GIA’s Gems & Gemology, the world’s leading gemological journal, that he made his other great contribution to industry literature. Liddicoat took over G&G in 1952, when he succeeded GIA founder Robert Shipley, the former editor, as GIA executive director. In a record rare in journalism, Liddicoat held the post for 50 years, a tenure that ended only with his death in July.

His role was “primarily a policy-setting function,” he said modestly in 1994, “with most labor-intensive activity carried out by a succession of associate editors and editors.” But during five decades at G&G‘s helm, Liddicoat influenced industry thought and discussion through policies that guided G&G‘s tone and content; his own articles, editorials, and columns; and by his influence on G&G‘s writers and editors, including G&G‘s new award-winning editor-in-chief, Alice Keller. Indeed, Liddicoat’s commitment to G&G and its readers was such that, even in his sickbed, in the very last days of his life, he talked about upcoming G&G issues and articles.

Providing Access

Under Liddicoat, GIA expanded ways to access its training. One was allowing anyone to take its courses. Liddicoat strongly believed it was “essential that GIA instruction be open to all” because of long-term beneficial effects on the ethics and professionalism of all jewelry retailers.

Another example was GIA’s traveling extension classes, which developed from the organization’s 1950s on-the-road diamond grading classes. By the mid-1960s, they were already in such demand that hundreds across America were signing up annually. One reason for their popularity was that Liddicoat and his staff expanded the classes to include other useful skills, such as diamond appraisal, gem identification, design, repair, and diamond setting.

By the mid-1970s, there was a well-organized staff of traveling teams of instructors, with detailed itineraries and schedules. Accompanying them was “Doorstep”—another program supported by Liddicoat—which gave home-study students in cities visited by the classes access to equipment, gems, and proctored exams. The extension class teachers also became popular speakers and instructors at AGS Conclaves.

GIA’s extension classrooms continue to offer practical training in gemology and jewelry manufacturing year-round to thousands across America, while “Doorstep” has become “Student Lab,” a professionally equipped gemology lab for self-study and testing. Together, they fulfill Liddicoat’s vision of sending GIA training on the road to grassroots jewelers.

Administrator

Liddicoat’s influence on jewelers’ lives as an administrator has been significant. Recognized soon after joining GIA in 1940 for his administrative skills and professional commitment—”Mr. Liddicoat has proved exceptionally capable, already supervising the work of a large number of students,” said an early report—he became founder Robert Shipley’s right hand in running and representing GIA. Liddicoat succeeded Shipley in 1952 as executive director (renamed “president” in 1970) and guided GIA’s development from a small California home-study school and tiny New York office into the industry’s own college, an international leader in gemological education and research.

He helped establish GIA’s New York operation and Gem Trade Laboratory in the late 1940s, led GIA’s expansion into larger headquarters in the 1950s and mid-1970s, and authorized creation of GIA’s world-class research department in the late 1970s.

He also oversaw establishment of GIA’s full-time resident programs. In the late 1950s, a few home-study students began coming to GIA’s California headquarters for tutoring. In 1962, to “formalize” the situation, Liddicoat scheduled “more or less formal classes with lectures.” By 1965, these had become a full-time on-site Graduate Gemologist program.

In the 1970s, to cope with escalating enrollments (including many from abroad), GIA expanded the program to six months, added it to the New York operation, increased classes starting monthly, and added jewelry manufacturing and store management to its on-site training. The growing program also led GIA to move to larger headquarters in the mid-1970s. The full-time resident program, said Liddicoat then, was “obviously an idea that had won acceptance.”

While leading GIA into on-campus instruction, Liddicoat also authorized its expansion in the early ’70s outside North America, with diamond classes in Israel (influencing its developing diamond industry), a GIA-affiliated school in Japan, and the first translation of GIA courses (into Japanese).

Thanks to Liddicoat’s leadership and pioneering efforts, jewelers today can get GIA training not only through home study (now called “distance education”) but also full-time at GIA’s headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., New York, or Los Angeles, and at 11 campuses in England, Italy, Russia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.

The man known to many as “RTL” and “Mr. L” provided steady, creative leadership as GIA president, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s as GIA total enrollments soared and changed to include greater numbers of young people (many with no jewelry background) and more women and foreign students.

Liddicoat also influenced the industry through the managers, staff, and teachers he hired and mentored, who have passed on his ethical, practical approach to gemology and the jewelry profession to generations of jewelers.

In 1983, following a heart attack, Liddicoat retired, becoming chairman of GIA’s board of governors, and then Lifetime Chairman in 1992. His strong influence on GIA and the industry continued through his chairmanship (he kept an office at GIA headquarters), advice, speeches, and his close involvement with GIA’s officials and activities even to his very last days.

‘Mr. L’

As effective as his achievements was the influence of Richard Liddicoat’s personality and example. “He set the highest standards of achievement and integrity for everyone at GIA, students and staff alike, as well as the entire industry,” said longtime friend Glenn Nord, who succeeded him as president.

From his earliest years at the Institute, the scholarly, genial, soft-spoken Liddicoat made a deep impression on those he taught and with whom he worked. GIA and AGS reports described him as “especially popular among staff and students” and “an extremely popular leader and instructor,” while one of his late-1940s classes thought so highly of him that “we gave him a sterling silver cigarette case with facsimiles of our signatures,” recalled a member decades later.

During 60 years as speaker, instructor, GIA president, and industry leader, Liddicoat trained and informed thousands of jewelers, gemologists, and industry leaders in America and overseas. He enjoyed teaching, sharing his expertise and offering thoughtful, useful advice to those in the trade. He was, said one jeweler-gemologist recently, “our universal mentor.”

Liddicoat’s contributions weren’t limited to GIA. He also found time to be a delegate to President Eisenhower’s Conference on Small Business (1957), a trustee of the National Home Study Council (for 22 years, starting in 1980), and a founder of the International Colored Gemstone Association (1984).

Many honors were bestowed on him, including the American Gem Society’s Robert M. Shipley Award (1976), a species of tourmaline named for him (“liddicoatite”) by the Smithsonian Institution, the Morris B. Zale Lifetime Achievement Award (1987), election to the National Home Study Council Hall of Fame (1991), the GIA League of Honor Lifetime Achievement Award (1995), and the AGS Lifetime Achievement Award (2001).

Liddicoat loved good puns, a good pipe, a good game of golf, and life, say friends and colleagues, who use words like “gentleman,” “inspiring,” “cheerful,” “personable,” and “modest” to describe him. He was also self-effacing, immune to self-promotion. Indeed, close friends outside the jewelry industry only learned of the extent of his achievements at his memorial service. “We had no idea,” said one.

Another friend, with him shortly before his death, recalled that as they talked about old friends and times past, about GIA and gemology, Liddicoat “wondered what his legacy might be.”

The answer is too great to be contained in a few magazine pages. As GIA president Bill Boyajian said recently, “Richard Liddicoat’s legacy lives on in every student who took a GIA course, in every staff member he guided and supported. His contributions on behalf of jewelers, gemologists, and the consuming public have changed the course of history.”

Its a legacy that will continue to influence and benefit jewelers around the world for generations to come.

Portions of this report are based on the history of the Gemological Institute of America, by William G. Shuster, due to be published by GIA next year.