School of Rocks: The Feds Go to the GIA

For two weeks a year, the GIA campus becomes a magnet for law enforcement from around the world, who take a crash course in Gemology 101. JCK got an exclusive look at this training program—and learned why the government finds it so useful.

Mark Maxwell, an instructor of jewelry manufacturing arts at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, Calif., holds up a 14k gold ring for the entire class to see.

“You will see just how quickly rings can be melted down into a puddle,” Maxwell says. He pulls out a jeweler’s torch and demonstrates how it’s done before asking a volunteer from the class to hold the torch while guiding him. “Now you can stick a bunch of this gold in your belt or shoes.” About an hour earlier, Maxwell showed the class how to surreptitiously switch a diamond in less than 30 seconds. (He managed 24.)

Primers on committing illegal acts are not standard educational fare at the Gemological Institute of America. But these are not standard GIA students. They are 22 members of law enforcement, all picked by the FBI. Among them are federal agents, local police officers, investigators from the Department of Homeland Security, cops from Hong Kong and South Africa, and even a Canadian Mountie. They have convened at the Institute’s Carlsbad, Calif., campus for a free, two-week training session on the basics of gems and jewelry, so they’ll be better equipped to handle ­industry-related crime.

The Institute has run these sessions for the past five years. The program stemmed from a suggestion from Dan McCaffrey, a former Tiffany & Co. director of operations who is now an FBI agent specializing in jewelry cases.

“I had a relationship with GIA in recovering stolen diamonds and thought it would be a good idea to get specific training,” McCaffrey tells JCK. “It had proven very successful in a lot of the cases I was involved with, and I wanted to share that knowledge.”

I taught the law: GIA instructor Brenda Harwick puts the cops, federal agents, and detectives through the paces.

The first seminar in 2007 lasted only a day. Larry Wright, GIA’s director of global security and the head of the program, admits no one was sure at first if the agents would find it valuable. But it quickly became clear that not only did the attendees get a lot out of the course, there was too much information to be presented in such a short time frame. “It was like drinking from a fire hose,” Wright says. “One day doesn’t work.”

In 2008, the program was expanded to two weeks, and it’s been that length ever since. For the 2012 edition, the curriculum covered the basics of colored stones and diamonds as well as hallmarking, gold testing, the Kimberley Process, determining a piece’s value, and disguising value. For example, at one point, the group examined a box of bench shavings that looked like dirt. They were surprised to learn the shavings were worth $12,000.

The two weeks even end with a test: The students must visually identify a variety of colored stones, spot whether a ruby has been lead-filled, and grade the color and clarity of diamonds—without, instructor Brenda Harwick repeatedly noted, consulting master stones.

The program has three goals, Wright says. The first is simply to give attendees a good background in gemology.

The second is to let investigators swap ideas and network with other officers who specialize in these crimes. At one student forum, for example, an officer from South Africa commented that its border agents have copies of every country’s Kimberley Process certificate in order to spot fakes. McCaffrey replied that might be useful for U.S. agents as well.

And the third is simply to introduce people in law enforcement to GIA and to provide a point of contact when things pop up. “We give them a ton of material, and even if they don’t remember every single item, they know who they can call,” Wright says.

What was striking about the day of classes JCK attended was the amount of detail packed into the presentations—and how the agents eagerly lapped up every last bit of minutiae. But when you’re an investigator, Wright says, little things matter: “The details are important because you never know what hook will be the thread you pull.”

McCaffrey says that many of the investigators initially don’t possess much gem knowledge, but the classes give them a new perspective on how to solve a jewelry case.

“In law enforcement speak, a diamond is essentially as individual as a fingerprint,” he says. “So instead of saying [a victim] lost a bunch of clear rocks, they can look at them as diamonds of a particular color and clarity with imperfections inside them. That helps them identify stolen gems and ­jewelry and link them to a particular crime.”

The seminars also give law enforcement insight into the way the jewelry industry works. “When I interview a jeweler I suspect is buying stolen property, it helps to have specific knowledge of [industry] terms so you are getting an edge on that person and know they can’t lie to you or mislead you,” says McCaffrey. “The jewelry industry is a very closed industry. Within the industry there has to be a level of trust that you understand the way it operates.”

One participant even thought the seminars could be useful for undercover work. “The more I know as an undercover operative,” says Lt. Andre Dawson of the Los Angeles Police Department, “the more I can convince the bad guys this is who I am.” As a result of the course, he adds, “If someone comes across a stone in the field, I can at least give an amateur opinion.”

Some in the group felt this kind of course is particularly timely, now that using gems to launder money is becoming a more commonplace crime. “Our agency is focused on things that go over the border,” says a Homeland Security agent, who did not want his name used because he hadn’t been cleared to speak to the press. “Last year Mexico instituted restrictions on U.S. currency. So [illicit money] is being put in other commodities—gold, diamonds, and gems—simply because of the ease with which it can be moved around.”

And McCaffrey thinks that jewelry is often a “gateway crime.”

“Gems and jewelry are a great way of making and laundering money for everyone from organized crime syndicates to terrorist groups,” he says. “They are liquid, and their value is recognized around the world. It is a lot easier to carry diamonds in your pocket than it is to carry $4 million in cash.”

Then there’s the obvious point: Gems and jewelry are attractive targets for theft. Another attendee, FBI agent Eric Ives, points out that, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, some $1.5 billion in jewelry was stolen in 2010—making it the second-biggest category of stolen merchandise (next to automobiles). And only $65 million of that, or 4.6 percent, was recovered.

Jewelry theft, says Ives, is “a huge issue. You always want to stay one step ahead. And now, with these seminars, we have more knowledgeable people than we did a couple of weeks ago.”

Tiffany exec–turned–FBI agent Dan McCaffrey

There is talk of expanding the program to include e-learning, and possibly bringing the instructors to law enforcement, rather than the other way around. Internally, the program enjoys widespread popularity, with many students and instructors happy to meet the attendees and hear their stories of chasing crooks. “We love the program,” says GIA president Donna Baker, adding that it dovetails with the Institute’s mission of protecting public confidence in gems and jewelry.

Jewelers’ Security Alliance head John Kennedy is also a fan. “It’s great,” he says. “It gets all these law enforcement people in the mind-set of thinking about jewelry crime. The FBI puts a good deal of time and money into this; two weeks is a very costly endeavor. It shows a great commitment to the jewelry industry.”

But has it made a difference in the field? McCaffrey says he uses the insights he’s received from the program every day. And Wright heard of one instance where a detective was being cross-examined on the witness stand and mentioned something about a diamond. “A defense attorney made the mistake of questioning his knowledge base on gemstones,” he chuckles. The officer then talked about his two weeks at GIA, and dropped a few morsels of gem-related knowledge. “The attorney said, ‘Your honor, we rest our case,’?” Wright says. “And the guy pled guilty.”