Jewelry appraisal is a fascinating but difficult profession. Gail Brett Levine is one of the few people who has built a long and stable career as an appraiser, culminating in her role as Executive Director of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers (NAJA). She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about how she got started in the industry, how she found clients and what she has planned for NAJA in the coming year. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Gail Brett Levine, Executive Director of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers, or NAJA. Gail has extensive experience in antiques and jewelry appraisal. Today, she’ll tell us about NAJA and its importance in the jewelry world. Gail, welcome to the program.
Gail: Thank you so much. I’m so pleased to be here with you.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us a little bit about your jewelry journey. You started life as an accountant, is that what I read?
Gail: Oh my goodness! I worked on the dark side first. I was a CPA for—at that time, one of the big ten accounting firms—and I lasted my third tax season. I went, “Nope, not doing this.” So, I opened up an antique shop in Old Town, Alexandria, not knowing a thing about antiques—isn’t that gutsy?
Gail: And off I went.
Sharon: Why antiques? Had you been attracted to them?
Gail: We were a military family, so every two to three years, the army would give us a big carton to fill up with our belongings, and if it didn’t fit in the carton, it got left behind. If your little dolly couldn’t go with you, you got a new dolly on the other end. This was my chance to gather material, to have beautiful things, own them for a while and then find them a new home.
Sharon: From antiques, how did you get into jewelry specifically?
Gail: It started out with glass and China and small pieces of furniture. I was doing a lot of antique shows with a girlfriend and we went anywhere from Miami to Ohio—just craziness. We’d fill up the van and off we’d go, and it occurred to us as we were emptying the van with all the banana boxes and assessing the damage when you set up a show, wouldn’t it be easier if we just had jewelry? So, we both decided to emphasize jewelry and we bought jewelry from people we trusted, not knowing anything. If they said it was a garnet, O.K., it’s a garnet. You combed the show for comparables—we didn’t know that term back then—and if we bought something for $125 and we saw it at some place for $345, we’d go, “Look at that. We did well.” It was pretty gutsy, but when you have someone who leads you astray or enables you to be led astray, it’s fun. It was a great learning process. Then, following on the heels of a divorce, my daughter and I moved to New York. I went to GIA and became a gemologist because I found it was critical to know what you were selling, the little details.
Sharon: So, you went through the GIA program, and how did you get into appraisal from there?
Gail: When you graduated, they had career services and they said to me, “With your accountancy background, it might be a very good job to become an appraiser for H. Stern Jewelers.”
Sharon: For H. Stern, you said?
Gail: Yeah, H. Stern, the Brazilian firm. I was their North American appraiser. At that time—this is pretty sad—but at that time, what we did as a North American appraiser was, when people brought in jewelry they bought in Tel Aviv or Rio or in the islands and they wanted to have it appraised for U.S. value, we would just do currency conversion. That was it.
Sharon: So, they told you they spent $25 on it in Euros, and you just—
Gail: I know. This was back in the bad old days. This was back in the late 70s. Then, in the early 80s, that’s when things became more quantified because of the Appraisal Foundation. There was a very deep, abiding problem with real estate appraisers overvaluing property. There was a crisis, a real estate crisis, so the Appraisal Foundation was founded and personal property was swept up into it. We’re not real money like real estate, but we still had the same issues. It became more and more quantified as the appraisal organizations were founded and gave the backbone and groundwork for real estate and personal property appraisals to work from.
Sharon: It’s interesting because I don’t know how many people know there’s a separate organization for jewelry appraisers. When I talk to people who do jewelry appraisal, I don’t know how many of them are in NAJA. How was it started? Who started it?
Gail: The organization was started back in 1982 by Richard Baron. I believe it was in the early to mid-90s that Jim Jolliff took over from Richard Baron, and then in 2004, I took over. The other organizations do have gem and jewelry divisions, but they have different thrusts. Some of them have a real estate thrust or they have fine arts thrust or they have residential contents thrust, so we were just a sibling. That’s all we cared about. We didn’t care about couches and cars or artwork. We just wanted that beautiful object and that’s how we got started. Everything we do—our education course—is couched in terms of jewelry. Unlike some of the other organizations that have to be more generic, and they call it widgets or they have an objective and they don’t give a name to it, we give names to it. We tell you, “O.K., if you have the Star Sapphire”—Yeah, we go from there.
Sharon: Do you focus more on antique jewelry or any kind of jewelry? It’s the organization I’m talking about.
Gail: We have a four-day conference every August. One day, usually the first day, is devoted to appraisal theory and methodology and appraisal principles. We have a town hall meeting which involves the audience and we have speakers that have something germane about appraising itself. Then, I try to have one day on antique imperial jewelry because that’s such a broad category. We always try to have something hands on because there’s nothing better than holding the object and putting your loupe to it. The other two days are pretty broad-based in terms of maybe product knowledge. The last one we had was about garnets and tourmalines and the difference in them and how to appraise them. It’s quite encompassing. It’s kind of daunting to put together a four-day program, but every year I do it.
Sharon: So, you do it in July and August, and then you do it at the Tucson show, right?
Gail: Right, two days before AGTA begins, the big gem fair at the Tucson Convention Center, we have the two-day event. That’s because Tucson is an international and national event. With every product being brought in, that’s really the nuts and bolts of the good, better or best and the value in differences. We have pearl people come in. We have this one guy who is the market maker on Rainbow Moon’s film. It’s fascinating.
Sharon: Who are your members? Do most people come into to the organization already being involved in appraisal, or do they come in because they’re just interested in jewelry? How do they get to you?
Gail: Most of them—I would say 85% of them—are graduate gemologists. While they were in school, with Career Fair on both sides of Carlsbad and here in New York, they get to talking to people about how are they going to express their graduate gemology diploma, and some of them will say, “I don’t know. I like the idea of appraising.” So, they’ll come in and try us out for a couple of years, and then realize that it’s a bit more arduous than they expected or the income level is not as high as they thought it was going to be, and then they rotate off. Being an entrepreneur and an independent appraiser is kind of hard. It took me a good 10 years to become established.
Sharon: Established as an appraiser?
Gail: Yeah, it’s a lot of scrambling. You really have to convince a lot of people why you need them. How I got my start here in Queens is, I went to the Bar Association meetings for Queens County, and it is pretty much a closed community. They know when you don’t belong, and they know that you’re a stranger in their midst. I always made it a point to ask a question and if I couldn’t figure out an intelligent question to ask, I would say, “Can you repeat what you said about that?” so people would turn and look at me. Then, at the coffee break, a few would come to me and say, “Why are you here?” And I would say, “Because you need me.”
Sharon: Were you going to any particular practice area of the Bar Association? Were you going to trust and estates attorneys who might need appraisers?
Gail: I did trusts and estates, I did marital dissolution and I did geriatrics.
Sharon: Wow! That’s a challenge. Working with lawyers ourselves, it’s a challenge, because if you’re not a member of a club—I mean, if you’re not a lawyer yourself—
Gail: And a woman. Back then, you know, they were like suspicious. They were like, “What is she doing here?” They were more curious than anything else, and when I said to them, “It’s because you need me,” “Oh yeah?” and then I’d give them my elevator speech. It’s very confronting to do something like that. It’s like cold calls.
Sharon: Does NAJA gives its own certification in jewelry appraisal?
Gail: Yes, we were very fortunate that Jim Jolliff, the second executive director, did write the entire course. He did a fantastic job and like I said, that’s our bedrock. In 2015, the chair of education, Deborah Finleon, revised it with us involved, but she was the point person. Just last March, we had the first lessons online for the millennials, because they don’t want to carry books, and by November, the entire course will be online. It was a bigger deal than we thought it was going to be, truly. We were very naïve. We thought that revising the course, we would hand it to them and look at our watch, “O.K., so when it’ll be ready? By when?” And they went, “Not so fast.”
Sharon: Do you need to be a GG in order to get the certification, a graduate gemologist?
Gail: No, we do encourage you to become a GG, but a lot of our newer members are students or in the process. We also have a lot of career changers, and surprisingly not the older set; it’s a lot of 30-somethings that maybe are like me. They found that accounting is not for them, so they say, “Ah, let me try this.” They’re doing a home study course at GIA and at the same time, they join NAJA just to see how it fits for them. They’re very smart.
Sharon: Your online course, is that more focusing on the appraisal aspect?
Gail: The first five lessons are appraisal theory and methodology. Then lessons six to 19 are how to appraise rings, how to appraise antique jewelry, how to start an appraisal business. It’s quite encompassing. We’re very proud of it.
Sharon: Can anyone join NAJA? If you’re just interested in jewelry, can anybody join? What are your requirements?
Gail: They can join as a candidate and enjoy all the benefits, but if they want to join as a member, you have to submit your appraisals for review.
Sharon: What about going to your conferences? Can anybody go to your conferences?
Gail: Anyone can go to conferences.
Sharon: Your next one, do you know the dates of the one for Tucson?
Gail: Yeah, it’s going to be February 2nd and 3rd.
Sharon: They are really substantive. Whenever I look at the agenda, it’s like, “Wow, this is not fluff.” I can imagine the amount of work, as you were saying, to put it together—four days is, of course, a lot more. In this new age of online—maybe not so new anymore—where are you taking NAJA? Where do you want to see NAJA go? What’s the vision or the strategy going forward?
Gail: I believe that it’s going to be either starting before because we are so tightly focused. You’re not going to be required to know and pass tests on fine arts or on residential contents.
Sharon: You’re saying residential contents. Is that right?
Gail: Right, complete estates need to be—when grandma dies and she leaves a house with all its contents, everything has to be appraised inside. That’s residential contents. We’re going to be producing some podcasts, like you are, on different aspects, like antique garnet jewelry or memorial jewelry, mourning jewelry. Really, the sky’s the limit. The genre of jewelry is so vast. I would love to do something on Verdura.
Sharon: Wow, yes!
Gail: You never know where it’s going to go.
Sharon: Absolutely, there’s so much. It’s such a range, from mourning jewelry to Verdura to the colored jewelry today.
Gail: Of course, the challenge for gemologists is the lab-grown diamonds and the more and more treatments of gemstones. You have one foot in gemology and one foot in appraising, and it’s synergistic. You can’t do one without the other. Gemology would tell you what it is, and appraisal would tell you what marketplace to appraise it in.
Sharon: Marketplace in terms of?
Gail: For instance, if you have a colored diamond, where do you research colored diamonds? What is the most viable market out there to go and research? Colored diamond dealers don’t have price lists. They don’t like giving out price lists, actually. It’s challenges like that.
Sharon: It sounds like this wouldn’t be somebody—to get your certification, you really would need to be a graduate gemologist.
Gail: You really do. You have gemology diplomas from other countries, too, like Canada and England, and they’re just a tough as GIA, just as tough.
Sharon: Right, I’ve heard some are even more difficult.
Gail: Yeah, like the GMA.
Sharon: Well, Gail, thank you so much. This is very interesting. I’ve known about NAJA for a long time, and I’ve always looked at the conferences and said, “Oh, that’s sounds so interesting.” Some of it sounds very technical, in a technical way beyond me, but some of it sounds very, very interesting, too. Thank you so much for being here today and for describing—
Gail: And I really appreciate the invitation to be with you today. It’s been a privilege. Thank you.
Sharon: You’re welcome, thank you. Was there anything else you wanted to tell us about the organization or that you want us to know about it?
Gail: Well, mainly it’s for people who have their graduate gemology diploma. It’s the beginning of learning. You’re school smart; now you’ve got to be street smart, and the only way to keep up with what’s going on is to be there, to be at jewelry shows, to be at conferences, to be at Tucson. You work at a disadvantage if you don’t. The world does not operate in a vacuum and technology is moving faster than we are. For you to be able to get the inkling that there’s been some treatment to the stone you don’t know, you’ve just got to be there. You’ve got to keep learning.
Sharon: Yes, there is so much. Having just taken some of the GIA courses, I think unless you’ve really worked with the stones a lot, the book learning only goes so far. That’s a very good point about how the education starts when you’re—you get one kind of education, and you move on to the next one.
Gail: Yeah, you’re only book smart, and that’s a good beginning, but you need more.
Sharon: Well, I hope to get to one of the conferences because it looks so interesting. Thank you so much for being here. To everybody listening, we’ll have Gail’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com as well as links to NAJA.
This 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 review 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.
END OF AUDIO