AGS @ 75

The American Gem Society, the jewelry and gem trades’ professional guild, celebrates its 75th anniversary this month at its 2009 Conclave in Chicago, site of its first Conclave.

AGS has been a leader in professional, ethical, and educational standards for its members since its 1934 founding. It trains and certifies jewelers, gemologists, and jewelry appraisers and brings them and suppliers together at its annual instructional Conclaves. Its AGS Laboratory specializes in diamond grading and has its own cut, color, and clarity standards.

In this special report, JCK looks at “AGS at 75,” including its beginnings and a look ahead.

The early 20th century saw widespread gemological ignorance in the U.S. jewelry trade, with almost no access to training. It wasn’t unusual, for instance, for jewelers to mistake any red stone for a ruby or use vague diamond terminology.

Reacting to this, jeweler, gemologist, and visionary Robert M. Shipley offered a series of night-school lectures on gemology at the University of Southern California in late 1930. Within weeks, these evolved—because of demand from jewelers hungry for gem training—into the Gemological Institute of America mail order courses.

Starting in 1931, Shipley set up study groups of correspondence students in California and then the country, calling them the nucleus of a professional society of jewelers. That was a key sales point as he went literally store to store, enrolling jewelers in the courses.

By late 1933, Shipley had to launch a national guild. While the trade’s need for ethical business standards and enforcement of requirements for professional titles were obvious, the loose network of study groups was starting to break apart.

Shipley and officials of the nascent GIA drew up guidelines, and in 1934—in the depths of the Great Depression—he and his wife, Beatrice, cashed in their last convertible asset, a life insurance policy, to establish the American Gem Society. Its aims were to promote professional education among jewelry trade members, elevate the ethics and prestige of the trade, and “make America gem and jewelry conscious.” Shipley wanted not only a guild of ethical jewelers but also to boost their profits in those Depression years.

Shipley, Beatrice, and the tiny GIA staff added the duties of running AGS. Shipley was executive director and Beatrice was chief administrator.

“Bea” Shipley hasn’t gotten full credit for helping create and run GIA and AGS. A shrewd businesswoman, she provided her financially strapped husband with money to start GIA (as a private partnership) and then, with their life insurance policy, AGS. She gave up her successful art gallery business to manage them and let Shipley turn their home into their early headquarters.

For years, Bea ran GIA and AGS operations on meager funds from supporters and modest income from Shipley’s relentless on-the-road selling of gemology courses. She was a savvy administrator, using skills honed earlier as a girls’ school dean to craft procedures for running GIA/AGS headquarters. Without Beatrice Shipley, it’s doubtful Robert Shipley could have established either AGS or GIA, said GIA’s Gems & Gemology journal when she died in 1963.

Shortly after starting AGS, Shipley set off on a 100-day tour of America to promote the growing gemology movement and society. He spent 10 weeks setting up regional committees, lecturing, meeting with jewelers in 25 cities, and enrolling them in GIA courses. Despite opposition from some in the trade, who preferred that jewelers remain gemologically ignorant, leading industry figures and experts became Shipley supporters and GIA and AGS officials.

The years 1934 through 1936 saw work begin on defining ethical conduct and gem terminology. The first issue of Guilds, the AGS publication, appeared (renamed Spectra in 1986). The first professional titles (Certified Gemologist, Registered Jeweler) were awarded by GIA, and regional AGS certification boards and an admissions board were set up.

Shipley believed, recalled a supporter later, that “those who took his correspondence courses [should] attend some sort of get-together [to see] first-hand … things they had been attempting to assimilate by mail.” By late 1936, there were enough students, graduates, and AGS members to do that.

The Gemological Conclave, a two-day event, convened in 1937 at the Palmer House in Chicago, with 103 GIA graduates and students from AGS groups in 12 states. Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone called the gem study sessions “precedent-making” and the Conclave “an amazing commentary upon the vitality of the jewelry trade.” At 11 p.m. on its last day, “more than 90 student jewelers were still in their seats, attentively following the discussions.”

In addition to gem study, there were lectures by Shipley and his son, Robert Jr., on gem instruments (which Robert Jr. was inventing almost single-handedly), gem identification techniques, and diamond mining. Famed diamond dealer Lazare Kaplan and his son Leo told how they cleaved the famous Jonker diamond, and jewelers reported on new business gained as a result of their gemological training.

With so much happening, only two hours were available for AGS business. “Those two hours saw the beginnings of the Society organization as we know it today,” wrote Ohio jeweler and longtime AGS member and officer Carleton Broer Sr. “Conclave” was adopted as the annual sessions’ official name. Rules on ethical business conduct by members were approved. Work continued on AGS’s organizational framework, and a national governing committee was formed.

One other action had far-reaching consequences for the gem and jewelry trades: Shipley’s appointment of a committee (including diamond retailers, GIA and AGS officials, and gemology students) to standardize diamond terminology, which, at the time, was confusing and even deceptive. Within six months, AGS urged members to use Flawless—it provided a detailed definition—to describe diamonds, instead of perfect, which it called meaningless, “since nothing in nature [is] absolutely perfect.” It also barred many terms for diamond quality, like sound, eye clean, commercially perfect, and perfect cut. These first steps resulted in a standard gem and diamond nomenclature that ultimately would be used worldwide.

“What began as a purely experimental meeting ended as a distinct success,” reported Gems & Gemology. “For those fortunate enough to be there, it was an experience never to be forgotten,” wrote Carleton Broer 20 years later. “For the first time, a large group [was] able to exchange ideas, come in contact with the leaders of the gemological profession, and see and use instruments they had, until then, only read about.”

It was the 1938 Conclaves (in Chicago and Boston, an annual practice until World War II), however, where “the gemological movement came of age,” said JCK. The first “had the aspect of novelty,” the magazine noted, but the second ones were “proof of growth, sustained interest, and individual achievements of students, registered jewelers, junior gemologists, and certified gemologists.”

Early Conclaves helped knit the widely spread study groups, individual students, and gemologists together as a profession and create cohesion for the still-wobbly national society. Those laboring on gemology courses in their offices or homes realized they weren’t alone but part of a national movement with tools, requirements, and equipment to establish them as professionals in their communities.

In 1942—hit hard by sharp drops in enrollments because of World War II—Shipley and officials of GIA, AGS, and the trade decided to convert GIA (still owned by the Shipleys) into an endowed, nonprofit organization. AGS, the unofficial alumni group of GIA, led efforts to fund the endowment and purchase GIA for the industry. Raising over $50,000 in four months, AGS “saved the trade’s leading educational institution from becoming a wartime casualty,” said one trade magazine.

Bea Shipley retired as administrator of GIA and AGS. Bob Jr. had already left both in 1941 for wartime service, though he returned to them for a short time afterward and invented instruments for AGS in the 1950s. Robert Shipley Sr. continued to lead GIA and AGS.

Well into the 1940s, Shipley and his associates contended AGS and GIA were separate organizations, but they were really two sides of the same coin. GIA provided courses and gem instruments for AGS members, who were GIA graduates, and controlled instruction at Conclaves. The same jewelry and gem trade leaders served as officials of both, sometimes simultaneously. Both shared the same headquarters (first the Shipley home, afterward a corner building, with the AGS address and entrance on one street and GIA’s on the other), the same staff, even the same filing system.

In 1946, with GIA and AGS re-energized by the return of men and women from World War II, officials of both met and agreed to separate. They began the processes to divide the two, and Shipley submitted his resignation, effective at year’s end, as AGS executive director.

That didn’t end his involvement. He gave his valedictory at the 1948 Conclave in Washington, D.C., and the Shipleys were honored at Conclave on AGS’s 25th anniversary. In the 1960s, he attended Conclaves and wrote booklets for AGS. In 1967, AGS named its highest honor, for service to the industry, the annual Robert M. Shipley Award.

In 1947, AGS and GIA formally separated, and Alfred Woodill—the Shipleys’ nephew, who began working at GIA and AGS while a teenager in the 1930s and was Shipley’s choice to lead AGS—became its executive director, starting a 40-year tenure. In 1948, AGS moved to new headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

“For the first time,” wrote Carleton Broer Sr., later an AGS chairman, “the Society was in its own home, and completely on its own feet. One era had ended and another begun.”