Robert M. Shipley Sr.: JCK’s Person of the Century

How do you pick the jewelry industry’s most important person of the century? With so many candidates to choose from, how do you narrow the focus to just one?

Try subtraction. Think about all the movers and shakers this industry has seen over the past 100 years, then ask: Whose contributions would represent the greatest loss if they were erased? From that perspective, the choice is easy.

The one person who transformed the industry and set its course this century was Robert M. Shipley Sr. What he did—aided by his remarkable wife, Beatrice, and son Robert Jr.—continues to affect the way every jeweler and gem dealer does business.

Consider his accomplishments: He introduced gemological training to the United States and established the first gemological school, the first research laboratory, and the first professional gemology journal in North America. He pioneered the creation and use of gemological instruments. He founded the first professional society of jewelers in North America and organized the first national educational conclaves of jeweler/gemologists. He instituted industry-wide standards for grading and nomenclature. He even helped create the “four Cs” of diamond buying.

Remove Shipley, and much of the foundation underlying the modern American jewelry and gem industries crumbles.

Unlikely choice. In 1930, when his saga begins, no one seemed less likely to change anything than Shipley.

Born in Missouri in 1887, he was a successful Wichita, Kan., jeweler and national jewelry trade association officer until the mid-1920s. Then, exhausted from overwork and business expansion, he sold his firm, got divorced, and followed that decade’s “lost generation” of Americans to Paris, intending never to return.

There, in a chance encounter at the Louvre Museum, he met the recently divorced Beatrice Bell, a prim, dark-haired beauty and one-time dean of a Los Angeles girls’ school. Soon they were in love. She supported his decision to enroll in the pioneering gemology correspondence course offered by Great Britain’s National Association of Goldsmiths. When Shipley returned to America in late 1929, he was one of only a handful of trained gemologists in the world. But his plan to start anew as a gem and fine arts consultant to New York City’s wealthy crashed along with the U.S. stock market.

Discouraged, Shipley headed west to Los Angeles and “Bea,” whom he called “the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.” They married in 1930. While she supported them with earnings from her small art gallery, Shipley, now past 40, struggled to start another business. He tried his luck as a lecturer, an art consultant, and a gem consultant. He started a mail-order gem reference service and authored a book on gemology. He mailed notices for each new idea to libraries, associations, and jewelers. But success eluded him.

The future of the jewelry and gem industries was also in doubt, a consequence of widespread gemological ignorance. (Shipley himself lost sales in the ’20s because of his own ignorance.) Public confidence in jewelers was so shaky, Jewelers’ Circular editor T. Edgar Willson—a campaigner for professional education—wrote in a 1930 editorial that to survive, “the jeweler must know gems!”

Then, in the autumn of 1930, San Diego jeweler Armand Jessop, who had known Shipley when both were trade group officers, asked him to give a series of 10 lectures on gems. The weekly talks would take place at the University of Southern California’s evening school in Los Angeles. Shipley agreed, but he didn’t expect much to come of it, a view that was confirmed the night of the first lecture when he arrived to find no one in the classroom. “It was the worst moment of my life,” he said later. But as he left, he spotted a note on the door—the lecture had been moved to a larger hall. There, a standing-room-only crowd of several dozen knowledge-hungry jewelers was waiting for him.

A new idea. Within weeks, jewelers were driving long distances to hear him, and he was mailing mimeographed lecture notes to others too far away to attend. He began giving the talks around the state, and as he did, he conceived a new idea: a national society of professionally trained, knowledgeable jewelers committed to a standard of ethics. “Like guilds of old,” he said.

In early 1931, together with a few evening school students, he opened the “Gemological Institute of America” in a tiny Los Angeles office. The fledgling organization offered classes, mail order lessons, and a research lab.

Thus began a decade-long crusade to enroll, teach, and equip the industry. Like a modern apostle of gemology, Shipley crisscrossed America to deliver his message, traveling 25,000 miles annually and wearing out six used cars in the process. (He pawned his only jewelry—a diamond and emerald ring—for $85 to buy the first used car and a typewriter.) He went store to store, urging jewelers to sign up for GIA’s mail-order gemology courses and to join the American Gem Society, which he established in 1934—when there were enough GIA graduates. Tall and erudite, with piercing eyes, he was a mesmerizing salesman, often signing up a store owner and his employees within the first half hour. “Professionalizing the industry,” as he told JCK in the 1940s, became his obsession, and America’s gemology movement was born.

The right person. Shipley was the right person at the right moment, a nexus and a rallying point for various disconnected individuals who had called for more professionalism, education, research, and unity in the jewelry and gem trades. GIA and AGS provided the framework and the means for achieving those goals. Soon—despite opposition from some in the trade who preferred that jewelers stay uninformed—leading industry figures and experts were becoming Shipley supporters and GIA and AGS officials.

Shipley had the time, zeal, and commitment to promote gemology in America for the many years it needed to take root. As a jeweler and gemologist, he had the knowledge to compose a mail-order curriculum (vetted by international experts) that made “mastery of gemology a simple task,” in Shipley’s words, for anyone. Those GIA courses and the early AGS conclaves stitched together a national community of jeweler-gemologists, unifying the industry at the grass roots.

Shipley was much in demand as an expert on gemology and the jewelry industry. He conferred with the Federal Trade Commission on guides for the jewelry trade, helped De Beers create the “four Cs” for marketing diamonds in the United States, wrote about gemology for trade magazines, and worked with AGS members on diamond nomenclature. Meanwhile, GIA’s lab provided the industry’s first scientific facility for evaluating gems, and Gems & Gemology became gemology’s technical journal. GIA and AGS were gender-blind. Women made up the early staffs, and the first gemologists included both men and women.

Unsung partner. Shipley didn’t do it alone. Fittingly for an industry built on family-owned businesses, he was strongly supported by his wife, Bea, and his son Robert Jr.

History hasn’t given Beatrice Shipley the credit she deserves for helping to create GIA and AGS—in part because she didn’t seek it. She didn’t even use her name on articles and reports she wrote for GIA in its early years. But without her, “it is doubtful” Shipley could have established either organization, Gems & Gemology editorialized when she died in 1963.

Beatrice was a shrewd businesswoman who provided her financially strapped husband with funds to set up GIA as a private partnership. She gave up her successful art gallery to manage GIA and let Shipley turn their home into the early headquarters of GIA/AGS.

Throughout the Depression, she managed the GIA/AGS operation on meager funds from supporters and the modest income from Shipley’s on-the-road sale of courses. Somehow, even during government-ordered “bank holidays,” she made sure there was cash on hand for expenses. She was a savvy (and stern) CEO, and the skills she had honed during her tenure as a girls’ school dean informed the standards and procedures she developed to run GIA headquarters.

Instrument genius. Meanwhile, Bob Jr., Shipley’s eldest son from his first marriage, created a new industry almost single-handedly under his father’s guidance. Though he coauthored GIA’s early courses in gemology and managed its nascent laboratory (establishing its initial nationwide reputation), Bob Jr.’s greatest impact was in instrumentation.

Before the Shipleys, there were no gemological instruments, only those for mineralogists. The elder Shipley wanted to create equipment specifically for jewelers and gemologists and found the ideal person to achieve that objective when his son, a genius in instrument innovation, joined him in 1933. Bob Jr. realized the value of darkfield illumination in examining gemstone interiors and combined the technique with binocular magnification to create the first gem microscope in 1937. He used the polarized sheets developed by Polaroid inventor Edwin Land to create the first gem-testing polariscope. He developed the original optical colorimeter; an electronic colorimeter (for AGS); a universal motional immersion stage; equipment for testing drilled, natural, and cultured pearls; a pocket refractometer; and a gemological polarizing microscope.

Throughout the 1930s, a steady stream of new gemological instruments came out of the GIA/AGS lab. In 1931, when GIA began, a jeweler’s most common instrument was a loupe. By the mid-1940s, dozens of jewelry stores across the United States had basic gem labs equipped with GIA instruments.

Far-reaching influence. Shipley and his supporters laid the foundation for today’s jewelry and gem industries in little more than a decade. In 1943, a board set up by AGS purchased GIA from the Shipleys on behalf of the industry. Bea retired. Bob Jr. had left for war in 1941, though he returned briefly afterward. Shipley Sr. continued until the late 1940s as director of AGS (which in 1964 named its honor for industry service the Shipley Award) and as GIA’s director until 1952. He died in 1978.

Robert Shipley’s influence continued to be felt through the people he hired or tapped to succeed him. They include Richard T. Liddicoat Jr., his successor as head of GIA, who built it into a renowned educational and research institution and is probably the industry’s best-known and most beloved figure; G. Robert Crowningshield, the world’s most respected gemologist, who developed tests and procedures routinely used by jewelers and gemologists; and Alfred Woodill, Bea’s nephew. Woodill was Shipley’s choice to lead AGS when it separated from GIA in the late 1940s; he did so for 40 years.

How do you choose the Person of the Century? With multiplication. Look at a person’s achievements and see how their effects have multiplied through the years. As Richard Liddicoat said of Robert M. Shipley Sr. on Shipley’s retirement in 1952: “His influence will continue to affect the industry for centuries to come.”

Readers’ Choice

What do Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy, Chris Evert Lloyd, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Gates have in common? Each was nominated as the jewelry industry’s Person of the Century. The usual justification was that the individual helped advertise and glamorize jewelry, even if he or she did nothing but wear it or buy it for a spouse.

When we solicited nominations, we had more substantial accomplishments in mind. We were looking for true giants of the industry, people whose contributions resulted in lasting change felt by retail jewelers in their day-to-day lives. The vast majority of the nominations we received—in response to solicitations at our Las Vegas show, on our Web site, and in the magazine itself—fit this ideal. And we note with pleasure that the person most often named was the one we chose ourselves. Here are the 20th-century’s top 10 jewelry industry luminaries as chosen by JCK readers:

  1. Robert Shipley Sr.

  2. Harry Winston

  3. Morris Zale

  4. Richard Liddicoat

  5. Harry Oppenheimer

  6. Nicholas Oppenheimer

  7. Michael Roman

  8. Matt Stuller

  9. Marcel Tolkowsky

  10. Martin Rapaport

Interestingly, the No. 11 choice was “The American Consumer,” reminiscent of Time magazine’s occasional aggregate selection for its Person of the Year honor. There’s certainly a case to be made for the indefatigable, free-spending American shopper. Where would any of us be without such a wonderful creature? But people in any retail industry could ask that question, so in the end we, like most readers, settled on an individual—Robert M. Shipley Sr. The many reasons we did so are set forth in the accompanying article.