The Talented Mr. Shipley

Shipley figured the best way to start his national movement was among those who understood him best: his former retail colleagues. Shipley’s most important meeting in the Midwest in 1932 was with the Retail Jewelers Research Group (RJRG), which he had helped start in the 1920s. Its support was crucial. Shipley “had reached the end of his financial rope [and the] funds supplied by Mrs. Shipley,” says an unpublished 1980 RJRG history. Also, the Group’s members included the most respected and influential jewelers in America.

Shipley made the sale, and nine RJRG members were among the first to pledge their support. Thanks largely to such backing, GIA’s first national advisory board—which became the GIA Board of Governors—was formally organized in 1932. Most board members remained committed to GIA for the rest of their lives, taking the courses, making donations of money and equipment, directing its operations, and helping form its policies.

With the support of the RJRG, leading jewelers on the West Coast, and a growing number of students, Shipley was ready for New York City. Of Shipley’s many stops in the Big Apple, his most important was at Jewelers’ Circular. There he met with the magazine’s editor, T. Edgar Willson. Active in a score of organizations, Willson was a founder and director of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee and, as his recent editorial had made clear, an outspoken proponent of gemological education.

Shipley’s message so impressed Willson that he took Shipley into the office of publisher Peter Fahrendorf and had him tell it again. Shipley’s plan, Willson later said, brought together “a lot of information that has heretofore been scattered in the hands of a few individuals and not been generally available.” Shipley and Willson both faced “rebuffs and discouragements” for promoting gemological training, wrote Fahrendorf in 1952, but Willson strongly believed in Shipley’s ideas and “backed [him] completely in our editorial columns [and gave] the most whole-hearted cooperation, from the very beginning.” That support included free ads, sympathetic coverage, and space for articles by Shipley during GIA’s formative years.

Willson also became actively involved in the young GIA, serving on the board that set the criteria by which students were examined for their Certified Gemologist title. When he, like Godfrey Eacret, died suddenly in 1935, Gems & Gemology praised “his interest in the development of gemological education.”

Support from Jewelers’ Circular continued even after it merged with The Keystone and became Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone (JCK) in 1935. However, Shipley’s later relations with JCK and its editors were sometimes bumpy. He felt they “weren’t giving GIA all the publicity needed,” while JCK‘s editors “looked at problems from the overall industry-wide point of view,” maintained Fahrendorf. Still, despite occasional differences, Shipley always recognized the magazine’s key role in establishing GIA. “It was Willson and Jewelers’ Circular, and the Retail Jewelers Research Group, who helped me put it over nationally,” Shipley said in later years.

Others in the trade press—from national publications like National Jeweler, The Keystone, and Manufacturing Jeweler, and regional ones such as Pacific Goldsmith, Northwestern Jeweler, and Midcontinental Jeweler—followed Willson’s lead and promoted the Institute, acknowledged Beatrice Shipley in an August 1933 editorial in Gems & Gemologists. With support from the industry in place, she continued, the gemological idea “began to permeate the nation.”

At their first meeting in New York, Willson would introduce Shipley to Meyer D. Rothschild, president of American Gem & Pearls Co. and probably the most important U.S. gem dealer at that time. Rothschild was another advocate of accurate gem information and author of A Hand-Book of Precious Stones (1889), which he gave free to his customers. In an environment where many gem dealers challenged the very idea of teaching jewelers about gems, Rothschild’s support was essential.

Excited by Shipley’s vision, but “anticipating trouble if the big gem dealers didn’t approve of what we were doing,” Willson called Rothschild and set up an immediate appointment. As he and Shipley walked the few, busy New York blocks to Rothschild’s office, Shipley recounted in 1977, Willson suddenly stopped and looked intently at Shipley.

“You simply can’t go to Mr. Rothschild without a hat,” declared Willson, himself a stylish dresser. “Let’s go into this store and buy you [one]!” This was, after all, the early 1930s, and well-dressed men still wore hats, especially to important business appointments. Shipley’s hat had blown off weeks before, as he drove through Iowa cornfields in his open car to visit a jeweler.

Always low on funds in those first years, Shipley was taken aback by Willson’s demand. Still, this appointment was too important to lose on a technicality. They went into the store. “Fortunately, it was summer, so I was able to buy a ‘straw boater’ for just $3, which I paid for myself,” he said. And so Shipley literally went hat in hand to ask the most important gem dealer in the U.S. for his support.

Rothschild wasn’t a man who suffered fools gladly, and he had seen his share of charlatans in the gem trade. But he trusted Willson’s judgment, so he listened politely to Shipley’s presentation. However, he showed no hint of enthusiasm. Instead, he told Shipley he would think about it, thanked him for coming, and bid him goodbye.

Willson and Shipley left, mystified. The next morning, Willson phoned Rothschild, who asked, “Can this fellow make any money out of this?”

Willson assured him that Shipley’s plan could work. “All right, then,” said Rothschild, “I approve.” A short time later, he wrote Shipley that he was “very much interested in the objects [sic] of the Gemological Institute and wish[ed] you every success,” an endorsement GIA publicized. He later donated the numerous color plates from his gem booklet to GIA for its use.

At the end of his tour, a tired but jubilant Shipley returned home. A memo written by San Bernardino, California, jeweler and GIA supporter John Vondey summed up the results: “Mr. Shipley returns after a two-month trip, during which he reports 20 leading firms of America have affiliated with GIA, officers of all retail organizations have endorsed the Institute, two national magazines have pledged assistance and leading scientists have volunteered to be on a national education board.”

It was an impressive start.