A person looking into a microscope
Examining a gemstone © Gem-A

The Gemological Institute of America considers itself the world’s foremost authority on gemmology. Founded in 1931, it is best known for its gem-grading laboratories, which are deemed the industry standard. GIA also offers education in gemmology, either remotely or on its campuses in the US and abroad, in such cities as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and London.

But what is sometimes overlooked is the fact that the UK is home to an earlier body: the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, or Gem-A. Established in 1908, near London’s Hatton Garden jewellery district, it was the pioneer of gem education.

GIA is the better known of the two, though. So, when a group of international students graduated from the BA in jewellery design at London’s Central Saint Martins in 2022, they turned to GIA to expand their knowledge and skills in gemstones.

Kathy Chan headed home to Hong Kong and learnt gouache painting on the GIA jewellery design course there, while Christina Ng enrolled at GIA London on its graduate diamond programme. “I chose GIA in the end mostly because of its international reputation and its strong connection to the industry,” Ng says. “I first knew about GIA through their lab reports and seeing headlines about them and collaborations with jewellery maisons and auction houses.”

Meanwhile, Keen Kulveera-aree completed a GIA coloured stones course in Bangkok last year and has signed up for a GIA diamond course. She only found out about Gem-A while at GIA. “I believe both places offer similar courses with an option to study in person or online,” she notes, adding that she discovered Gem-A has an accredited teaching centre (ATC) in Bangkok, at The Gem and Jewelry Institute of Thailand.

“The two organisations are inextricably linked,” explains Alan Hart, Gem-A’s chief executive, stressing their symbiotic relationship. Gem-A specialises in education and operates a decentralised business model working with partners, while GIA directly controls its training and differs in terms of size, marketing, and strategy.

“We participate in each other’s conferences and events,” adds Hart. “For example, many of our speakers at the Gem-A conference [each November] are from GIA, and many GIA graduates attend our conference. We know GIA staff very well, just as they know us, and we share our passion for gemmology through similar channels.”

Previously known as the Gemmological Association and Gem Testing Laboratory (GAGTL), Gem-A closed its lab in 2007, shifted its focus to research and education, became a charitable membership organisation and switched to its current name. Today, its tentacles stretch far and wide overseas, and Hart estimates that, since 1981, 25,000-plus students have taken its courses.

Gem-A is regulated by the UK exam watchdog Ofqual and now has 39 ATCs around the world in partnership with universities, trade organisations, and leading gemmology labs. These include Birmingham City University in the UK, and institutions such as China’s National Gemological Training Centre and the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan and Beijing.

A graduation photo with some graduates holding their diploma
Gem-A’s 2023 graduating class © Gem-A

It also operates an introductory course, GemINTRO, comprising 11 online-only lessons, priced at £220. “It is for those who have an interest in gemmology and for those who are working within retail and related fields,” explains Hart. With misinformation rife on the internet, the mission of Gem-A is also to provide accurate gemmological information to the public via its website. “Gem-A is scientifically robust and presents the facts,” he stresses.

In addition, Gem-A runs a peer-to-peer network of 1,800 global members who have been awarded the gemmology diploma, leading to fellowship of Gem-A (FGA). Graduates who complete the diamond diploma can also apply for DGA membership. Members holding both include BBC Antiques Roadshow jewellery expert Joanna Hardy, who sits on Gem-A’s board, Jewellery Valuers Association chair Shirley Mitchell, and Charlotte Pittel, who graduated from Central Saint Martins’ jewellery design BA in 2000 and runs a jewellery business spanning design and valuation.

Pittel operates in Hatton Garden as Mazarin & Cie. “I did the GIA’s gouache course when I was working as a designer at Garrard,” she says. She then turned to Gem-A. “The diplomas are very science-led — I went for it because it is considered serious and highly respected in the industry,” she explains. “Getting both qualifications gave me a huge sense of pride and my clients’ confidence in me. The conferences may seem pretty geeky, but the speakers are inspirational and present the latest gemstone research from around the world. With Gem-A, it’s not just about doing a course, but about constant education.”

Members are kept up to date via The Journal of Gemmology and Gems&Jewellery publication, both produced quarterly by the association. They can also access the association’s extensive gemmological library, which is one of the largest in Europe.

David Nassi, a New York-based lapidary whose company, 100% Natural, wholesales fine natural-coloured gemstones, holds both the GG Graduate Gemologist diploma from GIA and the Gem-A gemmology diploma, which he obtained in 2015.

“I wanted a more scientific approach,” says Nassi, a former board member of the American Gem Trade Association who was appointed to the volunteer position of president of Gem-A USA in 2023.

Gem-A USA was established in 2020 with charitable status to grow the association’s business and make Gem-A education more accessible in the region. “My mission is to get the organisation established and grow the educational opportunities here in the US,” says Nassi.

“With Gem-A, I think a lot of growth has happened in China in the last five years. In the US, interest is spread out. There are gemmologists all over the US. Because Gem-A is so respected globally, and especially in Europe, it will help move things forward here. There’s a lot of opportunity, which is why we’re making this push and there’s a lot of hunger here for the more advanced gemmology programme that we offer.”

This, together with a partnership with the International Institute of Gemology in India since October 2023, confirms Gem-A’s position as a global association in growth mode, though without the heft or manpower of other organisations. “We are the hub of a diverse set of industries — including mining, jewellery, and technology — that advances material sciences,” concludes Hart. And yet, Gem-A remains “a small organisation with a total of 20 staff — including overseas — that punches above its weight”.

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