As a graduate gemologist and jewelry appraiser, Jo Ellen Cole has seen pieces from all places and time periods. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about her career and explain why branded pieces fetch higher prices, why the California jewelry market is unique and what collectors should know about gemstones. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome back to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Jo Ellen Cole, owner of Cole Appraisal Services. She’s a graduate gemologist and a member of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers. She has extensive experience assessing gems and jewelry of all periods. I’ve watched her put her experience and skills together, along with an array of instruments to identify and differentiate gems and minerals. It’s truly a marvel, and it makes one realize that not all gemologists are created equal. I’m so glad to have Jo Ellen as a guest today. Jo Ellen, welcome to the program.
Jo Ellen: Thank you so much for having me. I am really thrilled to be here.
Sharon: We’re really happy to have you. You’ve mentioned that you did not immediately come to jewelry as your profession. Can you tell us about your journey and how you came to jewelry?
Jo Ellen: I didn’t come out from a jewelry family. My parents were not involved in jewelry whatsoever. I just developed my own interest in it. We had some friends of ours staying from England when I was growing up in the Valley, and this guy was a silversmith. That’s what first got me interested. Then, I was studying classical music at the time and became overwhelmed with the competition, so I was searching for something else to do. I was at a party and I met somebody from this school where you could learn how to grade diamonds and colored gemstones, and that intrigued me. I searched for that school, finally found out it was in Santa Monica, right near my house, and proceeded to sign up.
Sharon: The school was GIA—
Jo Ellen: Gemological Institute of America.
Sharon: Gemological Institute of America, which is no longer in Santa Monica, but now down at a beautiful location in Carlsbad.
Jo Ellen: It’s in Carlsbad, but there are 13 satellite schools around the world. It has an international presence.
Sharon: That’s right. It’s in Hong Kong and where else?
Jo Ellen: Israel, Amsterdam, England, Italy. It goes on and on.
Sharon: I didn’t realize that. You didn’t mention piano. You studied as a classical pianist, if I remember correctly.
Jo Ellen: Yes, I did and I enjoyed it, but the competition is so incredible for that kind of a position, and I didn’t want to deal with the competition after a while. Although, when I was going to school at the Gemological Institute, to help support myself, I used to tune pianos for a living because I have perfect pitch.
Sharon: Wow! That comes in handy.
Jo Ellen: It did.
Sharon: Can you tell us about your work as an appraiser? What do you do? Who are your clients? Where does your work come from? Tell us about that.
Jo Ellen: I first studied with Charles Carmona at Guild Laboratories in downtown Los Angeles for several years. He was a mentor for me.
Sharon: I’m going to stop you, Jo Ellen. It was hard to hear what you said. Charles Carmona at Guild Laboratories?
Jo Ellen: Yes.
Sharon: O.K., I’m sorry, go ahead.
Jo Ellen: He really taught me everything I know, for the most part, in terms of appraising. We still have a very good relationship and I speak with him often. He’s been a truly wonderful mentor for me. I suggest anybody going into any trade, if you can find a mentor such as the one that I described, get a hold of them at all costs. They really help you in your career.
Anyhow, I learned how to appraise there. I also worked at a grading laboratory in the early 80s, when diamonds were going through their investment period, so I got some grading experience there. After I worked for Charles, I worked at the Gemological Institute of America for 10 years, first as a research librarian and then as the collector curator for the stone collection, which they use for displays as well as scientific research. After I left there, I decided it was time to go out on my own, and I started my business for appraisal services down in San Diego County. When I first started, I would literally go door to door to different jewelers asking if they needed my services, and that way I got to know the jewelers in the area and found some people that were very nice to me and allowed me to do appraisals out of their stores. After a while, I had polished that company up.
I always had an interest in working for the auction galleries, so I actually worked at an auction gallery up in the Oakland area for a year, and then spent another year working for Heritage Auctions in Beverly Hills. That gave me a really good grasp of the luxury market as it stands today. I learned all about how branding of jewelry is very important in terms of holding its value. After Heritage, I restarted my business, and most of my business I get through banks, auction galleries and private individuals as well as some jewelry stores. Again, a lot of it has to do with your contacts and your interest in pursuing someone, in terms of finding places that will attest to your appraisals.
Sharon: I just want to make sure I heard something correctly. You said that you learned how branding played a part in the value that a piece of jewelry retains?
Jo Ellen: Yes, very much so. Appraisals are dictated by different levels of value. When I do an estate appraisal, for example, it’s at what they call “fair market value,” which is a willing buyer, a willing seller with no restraints whatsoever. Those values are generally lower than what you would find in a jewelry store, and what I found consistently, time and again, is that something that has a signature, say, of Tiffany & Co. will be valued maybe a third more just because of that name, versus an equal item, even of equal quality. If it doesn’t have that name on it, it just doesn’t carry the value or the link for the actual value of the makeup of a piece. There is no name to go on. For these branded names like Tiffany or Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels, they’re very important under the current market.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. Somebody was telling me recently that they only buy Chanel clothing because of the high resale value.
Jo Ellen: That’s very true.
Sharon: Yeah, except I don’t like Chanel. It just depends. Besides the fact that it’s an arm and a leg, it’s if you like it or not.
Jo Ellen: Right, is it your style or not?
Sharon: But it does prove the point of holding value.
Jo Ellen: Absolutely. I would just never suggest that you would buy things for an investment in terms of jewelry. You should buy it because you like it, because of the pleasure, because of whatever reason you’re getting it, but do not purchase it solely for investment, because that is a road you don’t want to go down.
Sharon: I’m sure people have learned the hard way, and I’m sure you’ve seen that too.
Jo Ellen: Yes, many times.
Sharon: So, you’re a graduate gemologist. Can you tell us what this means? You attended GIA, but there are no degrees, right?
Jo Ellen: When I went to GIA, there were two ways to learn the gemological curriculum that they offer, and one was by distance education. Now they have it all on the computer, and they make it very easy for people to learn via distance. The other way to learn their curriculum is to actually go there for six months. They divide it into seven weeks of diamonds, and then the rest of it is committed to gem identification and colored stone. Now, these classes have varied over the years. They continually update their information for their classes and change the structure, but the information is pretty much the same. When I first started going to GIA, it was hard for me because I had never studied before. I either got it or I didn’t get it. So when I did go to GIA, it taught me how to study. At the time I was there, they had essay questions and now they don’t. Now they just have multiple choice or true/false, but at the time, I had the essay questions to contend with, and I feel it gave me a much more rounded education having to prepare for that. Although I didn’t like it at the time, it turned out to be very good for me, and it encouraged me to go on to learn at the British counterpart to GIA, which is the Gemological Association of Great Britain, now known as Gem-A . I also received a title from them called the FGA, which is the Fellowship of the Gemological Association of Great Britain. I hold both those titles, and it’s given me a very rounded education in terms of gems and understanding their structure and the inclusions that you can find in them and that sort of the thing. I’ve been very happy with the educational benefits I’ve taken.
Sharon: That’s a lot more than most people have. The Gem-A, didn’t you mention that that was harder than the GIA?
Jo Ellen: Much. Yeah, it is. The GIA course—and I’m not knocking it in any way, shape or form. It was a great thing for me to take the GIA course first because it taught me how to study and it introduced me to the subject, but when you go to the Gem-A—and they’ve actually softened their program a little bit—they focus more on morphology, crystallography, chemical composition and that sort of thing, whereas GIA doesn’t bother with that. To a certain extent, you don’t need to know it. I just was curious about it.
Sharon: I certainly have watched you in action and I know that you put it to use.
Jo Ellen: It’s my little portable laboratory. It’s fun.
Sharon: Yes, in the interest of full disclosure to our listeners, Jo Ellen and I met when she was tutoring me for the GIA Gemstone. What do you call it? I can’t even remember.
Jo Ellen: The 20 stone test.
Sharon: The infamous 20 stone test, which she will be happy to tell you about. Jo Ellen, we’ve talked about—and this came up because I know your mother’s in the book business—
Jo Ellen: Yes.
Sharon: We need a jewelry library and books today. People ask, because isn’t everything online? What are your thoughts about that?
Jo Ellen: As you know, I strongly suggest having your own personal library. What you find on the internet, a lot of it is very good information, but some of it is not necessarily correct. When you look into a book versus looking at something on the internet, information tends to be much more permanent, so there’s a lot more editing before something is actually printed. I’ve found books to be much more valuable in terms of having proper information. You get to understand the way the books are set up, so once you’ve seen the book, you know how to use it and where to go for the information you need, whereas you can spend hours on the internet and still not find what you’re looking for if you don’t use the right search for it. I’m not knocking it. I think that’s a very good way to get quick information, but I would always back it up with making sure that I’ve done the research through a library.
Sharon: That makes sense. Yeah, not everything online is truth, or maybe it’s quickly outdated.
Jo Ellen: There’s so much misinformation because somebody has an agenda and they’re trying to sell something, so they will state something one way versus what is actually happening.
Sharon: That’s a good point.
Jo Ellen: There’s a lot more room for, I wouldn’t say abuse, but coloring it the way you want it to look.
Sharon: That’s a good way to put it. How much does somebody like me, who collects jewelry, or the plain vanilla collector, need to know about gems?
Jo Ellen: Well, you’re pretty sophisticated as a collector, and to you, it isn’t so much that it’s glass or gemstone. To you, there’s a certain element that you know, and when you see it you go, “Oh, I’ve wanted one of those,” and you go for that. I am fascinated when I watch you look through jewelry because you have opened my mind in terms of different aspects to look for, versus just, “Oh, it’s pretty.”
Sharon: We’ll have to talk more about that.
Jo Ellen: It’s been very interesting to watch. I forgot the original question, I’m sorry.
Sharon: How much does somebody need to know about gems?
Jo Ellen: It depends on what your pocketbook will bear. If it’s an item that’s $30 and there’s a big, bright red stone in it, and you’re like, “Oh, I just love that piece;” it doesn’t really matter if it’s real. If you’re buying a ruby for $30,000, you’d better be aware of what you’re getting, and if you don’t know, you’d better have someone around that can tell you.
Sharon: I was going to say, this gets back to buying from somebody reputable, but I have heard horror stories of people, and maybe they didn’t know what they were selling, either.
Jo Ellen: That can happen, and it has happened. A lot of people are very reputable in the industry, and usually those people have reputations in the sense they’ve been in the industry for a while. They’re not just fly-by-night stores that are being set up for boobs. If you’re thinking of buying something from somebody, find out a little bit about them, how long they’ve been in business and how long they’ve been doing this. It does come down to reputation. Sometimes even the best guys can get it wrong, but if they’re truly good guys, they’ll want to make restitution to you for their mistake.
Sharon: Right, I think that’s probably the most risky aspect.
Jo Ellen: When you’re committing yourself to that, jewelry is not a cheap collectible, for the most part, once you really get into the pluses and minuses of it. When you put down your money for that piece that you absolutely fell in love with, you want to make sure that it’s what it’s supposed to be and what it was represented as. The way to do that, in part, is by going to somebody who you know and maybe have dealt with in the past or have had some referrals to. It is important in terms of who you know.
Sharon: Do people ask you, before they buy something, to appraise it or to look at it?
Jo Ellen: Usually what I try to do is look at it for them. I don’t really want to charge them unless it’s going to help them in the long run. If they say, “I’m looking at this stone. Could you look at this for me? Then, if I do decide to purchase this stone, I will have you do the appraisal on it afterward.” At that point, I’ll do the appraisal. That’s pretty much how I make my money, but because I work for myself, and one of the reasons why I love working for myself is if I don’t have to charge you, I’m not going to. I do make a good living doing this, and part of the reason for working for myself is that I like to maintain a certain standard of fairness, accuracy, that sort of thing. I’m one place where somebody can go and they’re going to get the actual truth.
Sharon: That’s good to know.
Jo Ellen: Yeah, because it’s worth it to me.
Sharon: The pieces you look at aren’t usually new jewelry, but what insights or advice would you give us for making other purchases?
Jo Ellen: I will say that in California, we’re really lucky. We have a thriving arts market here, a lot of modern versus antique versus artistic versus craft jewelry. There are a lot of different markets to choose from. It’s a different situation in other places, where if you go and do an appraisal for them, they might have a strand of pearls, a watch, a diamond ring and that’s about it. Here, there’s a lot more interest in color and in different styles of jewelry, so it’s a nice thing. I see different types of collections. We still get traditional collections here as well, but I see a lot more color; I see a lot more interesting signed pieces like Spratling, which you usually don’t see in the northeast. Spratling was a gentleman who started his atelier in Mexico, in the Guerrero and started a whole industry down there of silver. His items, in particular, are held as the—I mean, his pieces are just lovely. They’re beautifully composed; the design is always very clever and the materials are nicely used. Something like that, you’re going to see down here, whereas in the northeast, they specialize more in a solitaire diamond ring, maybe a strand of pearls, maybe a gold watch, maybe a cameo—a shell cameo, if they’re particularly adventurous, but it isn’t like out here.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. I was recently talking to somebody about the fact that Los Angeles can’t sustain a successful jewelry show or antique and estate jewelry show that you have in Baltimore, that you have in New York, that you have even in San Francisco. Nothing has been able to survive here, and you’re telling us about this variety of jewelry.
Jo Ellen: It’s really strange because I’ve been in the business since 1978 and they used to have a big L.A. jewelry show in the summer right around my birthday in August. I used to look forward to it, as my birthday present was going to the jewelry show. They stopped doing that and they said the attendance was low. I don’t know if it was because of the time, because August out here is—we’re in the hundreds sometimes; it gets really, really hot, so I don’t know if it’s just bad timing. I don’t know if it’s the organization that forms the jewelry show, but I agree with you, I don’t get it. I think there could be a very nice jewelry show here. There are gem and mineral shows that go through here on an annual basis that are fairly well-known, but nothing like Tucson. Yeah, Tucson is Tucson, and people flock to it partly because the weather is warmer down there at that time of year. It might have eclipsed California because they’ve taken up the slack that time of year, and California would be another place to go at that time of year. The most beautiful time of year here is in early spring, so maybe that’s why it hasn’t thrived here, but I agree with you. It’s been a problem for a good jewelry show to maintain itself here.
Sharon: Those are interesting thoughts, especially about the fact that there’s more color and more variety here. It’s something to think about. Jo Ellen, thank you so much for being here. It’s great to talk to you, and I could go on and continue our conversation. To everybody listening, we’ll have Jo Ellen’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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