The Path to Success in the Gem Trade

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?

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. There are many different possible choices to make about different schools, different areas of the trade, different possibilities, and it’s not always so easy to offer helpful guidance. What I can say, from my experience, is this: it’s not so easy to find a job 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 pay check? 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 are 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. If you hate flying and leaving the creature comforts of home then 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? Do you want to be a bench jeweler and make/repair silver and gold pieces? Do you want to be a gem trader and buy and sell gemstones around the world? Do you want to design jewelry? Do you want to 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 but 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 a secretary.

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 there are jewelry shops in every city in the world. 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 how to 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.

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

The next possibility is schools. There are many gemology schools, large and small, and they all need a full staff of teachers to be able to train the next generations of potential gemologists. But let’s be realistic. GIA, the biggest gemology school, has 10 campuses around the world. Each campus probably employs 5–10 teachers. 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 in various parts of the globe. Let’s guess that they employ 30 people to teach throughout the world. We are 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 a job. While we are on the subject of schools, let’s consider the requirements of a gemology teacher. I will preface by saying that this information is purely based on my experience in English speaking countries for English-based schools. I would say that schools are looking for someone who definitely has a gemology degree, speaks clear English, has great communication and public speaking skills, can self-manage, can create content, and has some personal trade experience that they can offer their students besides what they learned in gemology school.

GIA London Photo by Justin K Prim

So, what is one to do when they have a passion for gems and 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 and has a lot to do with each person’s skills and personality. For the person with no formal training, it would not be a bad idea to go to school. Is it absolutely necessary? Definitely not. I have met many gem traders in Tucson and Bangkok who have no formal training but have tons of direct experience with gems and who are very, very successful. But if you know nothing, school is definitely a good step, though an expensive one. I have written extensively on gemology schools here and here.

Direct experience is the best thing you can give yourself. If you are on a limited budget or don’t want to pursue the path of 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 that are involved with that part of the trade. 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 a different industry to work in. The gem trade is not the kind of industry where you get a degree, you send out a resume/CV, and then wait for employers to call you. In my experience at least, this is just not usually how the trade works. It’s very old fashioned in some regards and people want to meet you in person and consider your reputation as well as your work experience. People 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.

Knowledge becomes crucial, whether that’s through formal training or self-education. After you’ve read the books, the magazines, the online articles, and watched all the videos, it’s time to 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 and there are also lots of smaller hubs such as the communities that surround gem mines and markets. These are going to be 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. There are tons of small cities with small regional markets that one can visit and learn from.

Gem Market in Pailin Cambodia Photo by Justin K Prim

If you want stand out from rest of the recent grads with GG’s, AG’s, and FGA’s, being able to say that you’ve visited mine market towns like Pailin, Mogok, Chanthaburi, Luc Yen, Ilakaka, and Merelani and that you have personal contacts and connections there is definitely going to make a big impression. Not to mention that the process of visiting and experiencing these places is going to teach you so much that you could never learn in a classroom. Who knows, maybe you will visit Madagascar and find an opportunity there that will change your life. Maybe you will do like I did and go to Bangkok for gemology school and find an opportunity to keep you there.

The route to a gem trade career 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 will be to a potential job opportunity. To be perfectly clear, most people in the gem trade are self-employed. The two biggest places I’ve worked at are in large trade shows like Tucson and Denver and in Bangkok, which is the hub of the worlds colored stone trade. Most of the gems that get bought and sold are by very small, family owned and operated businesses. Most people hire family members or family friends when their companies are big enough to need and be able to afford extra help. There are definitely 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 have seen this process work for friends and it makes logical sense. Make a business card with your contact info and your educational credentials if you have them (and if you are attempting this method, I hope you finished school already). 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, but make an impression. Express your passion and your interest and your desire. Make them remember you and then leave a card so that after the show when they are settled back at home and considering that they need to hire someone, they will immediately think of that interesting person (you) they met at the show.

When you are outside of the inner workings of the trade, it seems very hard to find the doorway in. Once you’re inside, the trade is small and fairly tight knit and you quickly learn that almost everyone knows everyone. I encourage anyone that wants inside to fully embrace their dream, 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 that is open to learning and receiving new information will help you with whatever you attempt to do. Good luck.

For those that have been through gemology school or want to avoid it but need more knowledge to kickstart a new career or career change, I am involved with a new venture that’s opening in Bangkok this summer called the Institute of Gem Trading. 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 sounds like something you’d be interested in, send us a message on Facebook or watch our social media in the upcoming months for official announcements about IGT and it’s upcoming courses.

Justin K Prim is an American lapidary and gemologist living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. He has studied gemcutting 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 Lapidary 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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