The American Gem Society: 70 Years and Counting

Robert Shipley’s two goals—to create an educational institution and develop a national guild of ethical, knowledgeable jewelers—were accomplished simultaneously during the 1930s. First, Shipley’s early gemological students founded the Gemological Society of Southern California in January 1931. Next, Shipley planted GIA study groups around the country, calling them the “nuclei of the national professional society.” The creation of that society was one of his early selling points when urging jewelers to study gemology.

As more jewelers took GIA courses, alumni became increasingly eager to get together in a formal, organized group. By 1933, the need for such a group had become obvious to Shipley. There still were no agreed-upon standards for ethical conduct in the industry—such as using 10x magnification and eliminating deceptive terminology for diamonds—and educational requirements for professional titles needed enforcement, he said.

But the main reason Shipley felt a national guild had to be established was that the loose network of study groups he had started was beginning to unravel. If Shipley and his early supporters wanted a professional society, they had to move quickly. In late 1933, Shipley and GIA officials hammered out the raison d’être for a national professional society based on guidelines devised by Godfrey Eacret. Then, in 1934, Robert and Beatrice Shipley cashed in their last convertible asset, a life insurance policy, and used the money to organize and promote the American Gem Society.

Among the new society’s objectives, declared the AGS news section of Gems & Gemology, were to promote professional education among members of the jewelry trade, elevate the ethics and prestige of the trade, and “make America gem and jewelry conscious.”

The last point was a major goal of the new society, because Shipley wanted not only to create a movement of ethical jewelers but also to increase their profits in those Depression years. His campaign urged jewelers to “revive [the public’s] dormant love of gems” through ads, window displays, and lectures to civic and educational groups. However, at times it was unclear—at least to some jewelers and those in the trade press—whether the new society was devoted to trade education or to selling jewelry.

Shipley, Beatrice, and GIA’s staff assumed the additional duties of running AGS, with Shipley as director and Beatrice as chief administrator. To choose leaders for the fast-growing movement, Shipley set off on a grandly titled “100-Day Tour of America.” This “preliminary organization campaign” was officially launched in Cincinnati during the annual convention of the American National Retail Jewelers Association (ANRJA) on September 9, 1934—”Gemological Day,” as it was dubbed by Gems & Gemology.

Shipley spent the next 10 weeks setting up regional organization committees. He gave educational lectures in 25 cities and held 50 dinner meetings with jewelers to encourage them to support the “Gem and Jewelry” campaign. At the same time, of course, he enrolled more students in GIA programs.

In 1934 and 1935, work also began on defining ethical conduct and gem terminology. The first issue of Guilds, AGS’s publication, appeared, and the Society adopted its own professional titles such as Certified Gemologist and Registered Jeweler. Regional certification boards and an admissions board were set up to screen potential AGS members. Meanwhile, the initial push to “Make America Gem and Jewelry Conscious” was put on the back burner while GIA and AGS focused on educating jewelers.

In late 1936, Shipley and his supporters decided there were enough GIA students and graduates to convene a gathering. He had “felt for some time that it would be beneficial for those who took his correspondence courses to attend some sort of get-together,” wrote Carleton Broer two decades later. There they could see “first-hand some of the things they had been attempting to assimilate by mail.”

A two-day Gemological Conclave was scheduled for April 1937 in the Midwest, where support was strongest and its students most numerous. This first Conclave, held at the Palmer House in Chicago, would prove to be a watershed event in the gemology movement’s early history. At the time, however, Shipley was again uncertain—as he was in 1930 before his first USC lectures—and he hoped that at least 35 people might attend.

Shipley’s concerns were unfounded. When the first-ever Conclave finally convened, Gems & Gemology reported, there were some 103 GIA graduates and students from AGS groups in 12 different states. Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone noted that the jewelers had assembled for “precedent-making gem study sessions” and described the Conclave as “an amazing commentary upon the vitality of the jewelry trade.” Indeed, at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night, “more than 90 student jewelers were still in their seats and attentively following the discussions.”

In addition, there were lectures by Shipley and Bob Jr. on gem instruments and gem identification techniques, talks on diamond mining, an account by famed diamond dealer Lazare Kaplan and his son Leo on how they cleaved the famous Jonker diamond, plus reports by jewelers of how they gained new business thanks to their GIA training.

With so much happening, fewer than two hours were set aside for AGS business, but “those two hours saw the beginnings of the Society organization as we know it today,” wrote Broer. “Conclave” was adopted as the official name for the meetings. Rules governing ethical business conduct by members were approved. Work continued on the organizational framework and on making AGS self-governing, and a national governing committee was formed.

One other action at that first Conclave with far-reaching consequences for the gem and jewelry trade was Shipley’s appointment of a diamond terminology committee, composed of diamond retailers and manufacturers, all GIA officers or students. The committee was chaired by H. Paul Juergens, who had helped organize the Conclave. Its purpose, explained Juergens, was to standardize certain terminology for diamonds, which in the past had been deceptive and confusing to the public.

The committee wasted little time. Within six months, based on its recommendations, the AGS urged its members to use “flawless”—rather than “perfect”—to describe diamonds. “Flawless,” said Juergens, meant “free from all internal and external blemishes or faults of every description under skilled observation in normal, natural or artificial light with a 10x loupe, corrected for chromatic and spherical aberration.” On the other hand, he said, the word “perfect” had become meaningless, adding that it was “questionable whether a scientific profession should use the term at all since nothing in nature can be absolutely perfect.”

Acting on the committee’s suggestions, AGS also banned other terms then used for diamond quality, including “clean,” “sound,” “eye clean,” “eye perfect,” “commercially white,” “commercially perfect,” and “perfect cut.” And so began the first steps toward the standardized gem and diamond nomenclature that would ultimately be used throughout the world.

“What began as a purely experimental meeting ended as a distinct success,” reported Gems & Gemology shortly after the first Conclave.

“For those fortunate enough to be there, it was an experience never to be forgotten,” wrote Carleton Broer, still reveling in the memory 20 years later. “For the first time a large group, all dedicated to the same aims, [was] able to exchange ideas, to come into contact with the leaders of the gemological profession, and to see and use the instruments that they had, until then, only read about.”

The first Conclave showed that the gemological movement was taking hold in the U.S. jewelry industry. Still, it was at the second Conclaves in April 1938 (in Chicago and Boston) that “the gemological movement came of age,” according to Jeweler’s Circular-Keystone. The first “had the aspect of novelty,” it noted, but the second ones were “proof of growth, sustained interest, and the individual achievements of students, registered jewelers, junior gemologists, and certified gemologists.”

Informality and fun leavened the instruction. Those first Conclaves, said Edward Tiffany, did “much to cement relationships among the industry.” Through a combination of education and good will, they helped knit the thin, widely spread skein of study groups, individual students, and gemologists together as a profession. Friendships with fellow gem enthusiasts from across America created a sense of community and provided cohesion for the still-wobbly national society. Jewelers and gem dealers who had labored on their GIA courses in their offices or homes at night, meeting only occasionally in small study groups, now realized they were not alone, but part of a national movement, one with the scientific tools and equipment to establish them as professionals in their communities.

GIA dominated AGS and its Conclaves from their start in the mid ’30s until the late 1940s. Although Shipley and his associates maintained that the two were separate organizations, in fact, they were two sides of the same coin. GIA provided the courses and gemological instruments for AGS members—who were, of course, GIA graduates. The Institute controlled the curriculum and instruction at Conclaves. The same jewelry and gem trade leaders often served as officials of both organizations, sometimes simultaneously, in the early years. The two shared the same building, the same office staff, the same filing system.

These close connections continued until the late 1940s, when GIA and AGS finally set up separate headquarters and officials.

Copyright © 2003 by the Gemological Institute of America. Reprinted with permission