The Path to Success in the Gem Trade


Summary
What is it about the gem trade that calls to us? Is it the sense of romance that’s embedded in the tradition of jewelry? Is it the adventure and allure of rare and special treasures like gemstones? Maybe it’s the travel and adventure required to get the stones from the mine to the market? Or maybe even the esoteric and magical powers of stones? There are a million reasons why someone might desire to work in the gem trade, but how does one achieve this?
Reading time: 10 min 29 sec
success in the gem trade - gemstone ring
The romance of beautiful treasure. Stone and photo by Justin K Prim.

The path to a career in the gem trade is definitely a confusing thing. You have many choices to make about schools and different areas of the trade. You face many different possibilities. It’s not always so easy to offer helpful guidance. What I can say, from my experience, is this: finding a job in the gem trade isn’t so easy.

What Kinds of Careers Can You Find in the Gem Trade?

First of all, you need to figure out what part of the trade you want to work in. Do you want to be self-employed and have freedom (with all the risks and responsibilities that come with that), or do you want to work for someone else and have the (hypothetical) safety of a steady paycheck?

Explore different possibilities by meeting people that do things in different areas of the trade. Figure out what area suits your personality and interests. Be honest with yourself. If you’re shy and scared to talk to people, you might not be able to cope with a sales job. If investing your money into risky ventures like a parcel of spinels makes you feel sick, then you probably aren’t cut out to be a gem trader. Hate flying and leaving the creature comforts of home? You probably won’t like being a field gemologist or an international broker.

Do you want to work in a jewelry store as a sales person? Maybe you’d like to be a gem trader and buy and sell gemstones around the world. Do you want to be a bench jeweler and make/repair silver and gold pieces? Maybe you’d like to design jewelry or cut gemstones. Do you want to teach? Do you want to be a manager or administrator in a gem related company? The possibilities are nearly endless. (However, I’m guessing that if you’re reading this article, you aren’t trying to get into the gem trade to be a manager or secretary).

Working in a Jewelry Store

The most obvious job would be to work in a jewelry store. Jewelry stores are probably the biggest source of employment in the trade because every city in the world has them. There are millions of jobs out there for someone who wants to sell jewelry. You don’t need formal training, but you do need to understand how to communicate and make sales. I’m sure that someone with the right personality could learn these things on the job, as well as the knowledge necessary to sell jewelry to a customer.

Working in a Gemological Lab

But what if you don’t want to work in a jewelry store? Compared to other industries, the gem trade has few companies large enough to hire extra people. In my experience, it seems like the biggest employers are schools and labs. However, working in a gemology lab most likely requires a Master’s degree in a physical science, so that probably rules out the majority of interested people.

Working at a Gemology School

The next possibility is working at a school. There are many gemology schools, large and small, and they all need a full staff of teachers to train future generations of potential gemologists. But let’s be realistic. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the biggest gemology school, has 10 campuses around the world. Each campus probably employs 5-10 teachers. The Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS), the oldest gemology school in Asia, has one campus and probably employs 8 teachers. Gem-A, the famous British school, has one main campus plus satellite campuses across the globe. Let’s guess that they employ 30 people to teach throughout the world.

So, we’re talking about teaching jobs for 150 people total in the bigger schools, plus a handful more for the smaller local gemology schools around the world. This is a very small window for the world’s fresh gemology grads who are looking for jobs.

While we’re on the subject of schools, let’s consider the requirements for teaching gemology. I will preface this by saying this information is based purely on my experience in English-speaking countries for English-based schools. I would say that schools are looking for teachers who definitely have gemology degrees, speak clear English, have great communication and public speaking skills, can self-manage, can create content, and have some personal trade experience that they can offer students beyond what they learned in gemology school.

GIA London - success in the gem trade
GIA London. Photo by Justin K Prim.

Learning About Gems

So, what do you do if you have a passion for gems but no definitive plan or path? As I mentioned, it’s hard to give useful advice because the path through the gem trade is a very personal experience. It has a lot to do with each person’s skills and personality. If you have no formal training, going to school wouldn’t be a bad idea. Is it absolutely necessary? Definitely not. I’ve met many very, very successful gem traders in Tucson and Bangkok who have no formal training but tons of direct experience with gems. However, if you know nothing about gems, school is definitely a good — though expensive — step in the right direction. I’ve written extensively on gemology schools here and here.

Direct experience is the best thing you can give yourself. If you’re on a limited budget or don’t want to pursue a gemology degree, then maybe it’s better to self-educate. What does this mean? Well, if you have already figured out what part of the trade you want to work in, then learn everything about that job. Read books, watch YouTube videos, go to lectures, and most importantly, meet as many people as you can who are involved with that part of the trade.

The Gem Trade is a People-Oriented Business

The gem trade is a 100% people-oriented business, so if you aren’t interested or capable of networking, socializing, and being part of a global community, then you should look at working in a different industry. In the gem trade, you can’t just get a degree, send out a résumé/CV, and then wait for employers to call you. In my experience at least, the trade usually doesn’t work like that. It’s very old fashioned in some regards. People want to meet you in person and consider your reputation as well as your work experience. They want to know who you are as a person, so you need to find a way to make yourself desirable and interesting through your knowledge, skills, and maybe most importantly, your passion.

Visit the Centers of the Gem Trade

Gaining knowledge becomes crucial, whether through formal training or self-education. After you’ve read the books, the magazines, the online articles, and watched all the videos, take it to the next level. Go to the trade. There are many major hubs, such as Bangkok, Paris, Tucson, New York, Hong Kong, and more. Lots of smaller hubs also exist, such as the communities that surround gem mines and markets. These are close to the source of the gems, such as in South America (for emeralds and all types of quartz), Asia (for rubies, sapphires, spinels, and many more), Africa (for just about everything, including diamonds), Australia (opals, diamonds, and more), and Russia and Canada (for diamonds). You can also visit and learn from tons of small cities with regional markets.

Gem market in Pailin, Cambodia - success in the gem trade
Gem market in Pailin, Cambodia. Photo by Justin K Prim.

Want to stand out from the rest of the recent grads with GGs, AGs, and FGAs? Being able to say you’ve visited and have personal contacts in mine market towns like Pailin, Mogok, Chanthaburi, Luc Yen, Ilakaka, and Merelani will definitely make a big impression. Not to mention that experiencing these places will teach you so much that you could never learn in a classroom. Who knows, maybe you’ll visit Madagascar and find an opportunity there that will change your life? Maybe you’ll do like I did and go to Bangkok for gemology school and find an opportunity to keep you there.

The route to a career in the gem trade is more like a jungle path than a road. There are twists and turns and many ups and downs. The closer you get to the heart of the trade, whether in a small mining community or a large trading hub, the closer you’ll get to a potential opportunity.

Visit Gem Trade Shows

To be perfectly clear, most people in the gem trade are self-employed. The biggest places where I’ve worked are large trade shows like Tucson and Denver and in Bangkok (the hub of the world’s colored stone trade). Very small, family-owned businesses do most of the buying and selling in these places. Most of these businesses hire family members or friends when they’re big enough to need (and afford) extra help. Of course, there are larger companies with big offices that need staff to do all the various things that offices do, but it’s not always so easy to find them.

Mine to market: mining the gems, cutting the gems, and selling the jewelry. Photos by Justin K Prim.

Probably the best way to find companies is through trade shows. I’ve seen this process work for friends, and it makes sense. Make a business card with your contact info and your educational credentials if you have them. (If you’re attempting this method, I hope you’ve already finished school). Go around the trade show and have a conversation with every single booth that you might like to work for. Don’t just drop off your card. Make an impression. Express your passion and interest. Make them remember you and then leave a card, so after the show when they’re settled back at home and considering hiring someone, they’ll immediately think of that interesting person (you) they met at the show.

Success in the Gem Trade Means Being a Student Forever

When you’re outside of the inner workings of the trade, finding the doorway in seems very hard. Once you’re inside, the trade is small and fairly tight-knit, and you quickly learn that almost everyone knows everyone. I encourage all who want to get inside to fully embrace their dreams, shed their fears, save their money, learn what they can, and then dive in. Passion can be worth more than education, if you meet the right person or find the right opportunity, but education never hurts. Being in the gem trade means being a student forever, because there are always things to learn and things always change. Keeping a mindset open to learning and receiving new information will help you with whatever you attempt to do. Good luck.

The Institute of Gem Trading

Institute of Gem Trading - success in the gem trade

For those who have been through gemology school or want to avoid it but need more knowledge to kickstart a new career or career change, I’m involved with a new venture in Bangkok called the Institute of Gem Trading (IGT). The purpose of the institute is to provide modular training in various aspects of the trade that aren’t traditionally offered in gemology schools. We want to provide new students and professionals in the trade the opportunity to go deep into subjects such as analyzing and buying rough gems, faceting gemstones for maximum profit, and running an international gemstone business.

If this interests you, send us a message on Facebook or watch our social media for official announcements about IGT and its upcoming courses.

Acknowledgements

This article was originally published on the IGT website, May 2018, and has appeared on Medium.com.

The International Gem Society would like to thank Mr. Prim for giving us permission to post his article here.

About the author
Justin K Prim
Justin K Prim is an American lapidary and gemologist living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. He has studied gem cutting traditions all over the world as well as attending gemology programs at GIA and AIGS. He is currently working on a book about the worldwide history of gemstone faceting. He works as a Faceting Instructor for the Institute of Gem Trading as well as writing articles, producing videos, and giving talks about gem cutting history.
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