If you’ve spent any time in the jewelry industry, you’ve probably come across the “GG,” or Graduate Gemologist, distinction. What you might not know is the history of that designation or where it comes from—which happens to be the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Through its educational programs, laboratory, and research, GIA is the world’s foremost authority on diamonds, colored stones, and pearls. Kimberly Overlin, Dean of Students at GIA’s headquarters, joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the history of GIA, what its educational programs entail, and why jewelry enthusiasts should consider attending. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Kimberly Overlin, Dean of Students at the Carlsbad, California campus of the Gemological Institute of America, better known as GIA. Today, we will learn all about what GIA has to offer those interested in jewelry and gems. We will also learn that there’s actually jewelry life on the West Coast, and hear about the beautiful Carlsbad, California campus. Kimberly, welcome to the program.
Kimberly: Thank you so much for having me. I’m honored to be on your show.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Can you tell us about your own jewelry journey? Did you get to GIA because you like jewelry, or was it that you were in education? How was it that you got here?
Kimberly: I did have a love of jewelry, and I think I got to GIA in a way that was probably untraditional at the time I was there. I joined as a student in 1998, and when I was there, the majority of students were from family businesses. They had been raised in the industry, and they knew they would eventually end up at GIA before rejoining the family business. I was managing a high-end restaurant. We had regular customers that came in, and I would talk to them regularly, and they were part of the jewelry industry. They knew my path was not going to be in the restaurant industry forever, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a passion or a calling for anything, and they said, “You should go to GIA. It’s an amazing industry. It’s an amazing education.” I didn’t do much research, to be honest with you. I knew it was in California, and I knew it was beautiful.
Six months later, I found myself at the Carlsbad campus, completely overwhelmed but really excited. From the first day I was in class, it was exciting, and it felt like home to me. The classes were quite small, and I was meeting so many interesting people. I was a student for a year and a half, and when I graduated, I had gained this passion for the industry and an appreciation for what it meant. I appreciated the things they were doing with stones, how they affected people that buy jewelry. It touched people so deeply. I also fell in love with California and I didn’t want to leave. I was very fortunate to be hired at GIA.
Sharon: Where were you from?
Kimberly: I moved from New Mexico. I grew up in Vermont and moved from New Mexico out to California.
Sharon: Quite a change. I keep saying “beautiful,” because it’s a spectacular campus in terms of the ocean view and all that. Was it located there when you went to school?
Kimberly: It was. It had just moved down from Santa Monica, I think, a year prior to me joining. Yes, there’s an incredible ocean view. It’s up on the top of a hill, two miles from the beach, and it really is breathtaking.
Sharon: It’s hard to concentrate on classes.
Kimberly: It can be, yes.
Sharon: Can you tell us about GIA, what it does and what the programs are? It’s known for a lot of different things.
Kimberly: It is. GIA is certainly known for its education, but from its inception in 1931—nearly 90 years—we’ve been known for our mission of consumer protection and providing information to the consumer to protect their interests. We do that in three main ways we’re known for. The first is our lab services. We take in stones and give them an unbiased, third-party evaluation. The consumer and seller have somebody deem the stone a particular cut, clarity, carat weight, or determine the region a colored stone is from, whether it’s been treated or natural. All the facts about the stone are worked out through GIA’s laboratory and provided to the consumer and the seller. It really provides a service people can believe in.
We also, obviously, have education. From the beginning, we’ve been educating people that want to join the industry, but also people that are interested in collecting or buying jewelry. The third arm is research. We have Ph.Ds. and researchers on staff that are constantly looking at the industry, looking at stones, looking at changes and new finds and treatments. All those three are connected, and they provide information to anyone that would need it.
Sharon: When you’re talking about the lab, that’s GIA certs, as they’re known. It’s certifications for diamonds and things like that, right?
Kimberly: We call them reports. They are reports, and that is what our laboratory provides, yes. It’s not just for diamonds, but we provide reports for gemstones and pearls. I think we’re most well-known for our diamond reports.
Sharon: What if someone has just graduated from high school or finished college and then turns around and says, “That’s not getting me anywhere”? How long are your programs? Do you have to come to a campus? Where are your other campuses, which I would presume are not as beautiful?
Kimberly: There are two ways for a student to learn through GIA, and one is through distance education. We have many, many people that are either working in the industry or have obligations where they can’t attend at a campus, so we provide the graduate gemologist program via distance learning. Students can study on their own timeframe, within a certain period that is allotted for completion, and it’s all online. They have an instructor that’s assigned to them. They can ask questions; they can call them; they can email them and get instruction in the way that makes sense for them.
We also have on-campus programs, and we have seven campuses. We have, as you were saying, our beautiful Carlsbad campus, which is our world headquarters. We have campuses in New York, Bangkok, Hong Kong, London, Mumbai and Taipei. Students can attend on-campus around the globe, wherever it’s most convenient for people or wherever the students want to attend. Our Carlsbad campus has the largest population, and we have a lot of students that come from international locations to attend on campus here.
We also offer different programs. We have three programs that are six months each. In our graduate gemologist program, students learn how to grade and identify gemstones, diamonds, pearls and things that go along with the study of gemstones. We have a six-month graduate jewelry program, and that teaches students how to manufacture jewelry. They’re sitting on the bench. They have their own tools, their own equipment. They’re learning how to set stones and manufacture jewelry from the ground up, from scratch by hand, and learning how to repair jewelry. It’s a fun and exciting class. They’re soldering from the first day; they’re setting stones.
We also have a jewelry and technology program that is six months. It’s where students learn how to design jewelry using a CAD program, CAD software. Not only are they learning how to use that software, but they’re also learning how jewelry is manufactured, so they can design pieces that can be manufactured, that can stand up to wear. They’re using stones that won’t be damaged in the settings, and they’re also learning how to actually create prototypes from the CAD designs.
These are the three longest programs. They’re six months each. Our programs are all full time, 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. It’s a really intensive, hands-on program. We also teach two shorter classes on campus. We have a nine-week jewelry design class, and that’s where students study the art of hand rendering. They’ll use paints and colored pencils to sketch their designs in 3D format. We also have a shorter CAD program. Again, the students are learning how to use a computer program to create jewelry, and that’s a seven-week program.
Sharon: In the interest of full disclosure, I did the online program. With the online program, you have to come to a campus for labs, right?
Kimberly: You do, yes. With the distance learning, there are three one-week classes that students must attend on one of our campuses. They can do that throughout their studies. You would just take the distance learning course, take labs, and once you complete all of those, you would earn your diploma.
Sharon: I loved the distance learning. It had been a long time since I had to study or focus on something like that, so I thought it was great. Because Carlsbad is the world headquarters, you also have a fabulous museum and other things besides classrooms.
Kimberly: We do. I always say our entire campus is a museum, essentially. We have some amazing displays, and we do have a museum area where we generally have our star display. It’s called the rotunda; when you enter the building, you can’t miss it. Every single hallway, every nook, every cranny has a display. There are gemstones, but there are also lessons in each of those displays that teach you about where those stones are from or treatments that are done to them, different things. It’s fascinating. During their breaks, I see our students wandering up and down the halls time and time again. We also have a library at our Carlsbad campus. It is a world-renowned gemological library. It has rare books, every book you could imagine that has to do with the jewelry industry. No matter what your interest, you’ll definitely find something in there.
Sharon: Do particular campuses have a strength? For instance, if you’re interested in CAD, would you say, “You should go to the Bangkok location”? Or are they all fairly equal in terms of learning?
Kimberly: They’re equal in learning. Our programs and our curriculum are identical. No matter what campus you go to, you’ll get the exact same education. Our instructors are all amazing around the world, and they all have the same teaching materials to give to students. Of course, they all have slightly different backgrounds and experiences they share throughout the classes, but the learning itself in the classroom is 100% the same no matter where you go. The difference is in location. Bangkok is sort of the world headquarters of colored stones, so if you want that type of experience, then you would go there. New York is in the heart of the diamond district. Our campus is right in the middle, so some people love that. London is a unique experience.
Being our headquarters, I think the benefit of coming to Carlsbad is that the student population is larger. There are international students that know the industry and can teach students about cultures and the industry around the world. We have our executives on the Carlsbad campus as well, and they tend to attend students’ events. We have leaders in the industry that are often on campus for meetings, or just because they want to visit the world headquarters, and oftentimes they’ll give lectures to students. I think every campus has its unique benefits, but the education is all the same.
Sharon: Where does one live when you’re at these different campuses? Are there dorms, or do you have to figure it out?
Kimberly: We don’t have dorms, and students do have to find housing. At each campus we focus on student service and providing help for students. We know they’re coming from somewhere that is not where our location is, generally, so we’ll give them pointers. We’ll walk them through things. We’ll talk to them and see what their level of interest is in certain areas and provide guidance.
Sharon: What kind of background do you need? Do you need a science background, undergrad and high school? Do you have to have a bent toward that sort of thing?
Kimberly: When I first came to GIA, what fascinated me about the institute, and really the jewelry industry in general, is that there’s something for everyone. There is no need to have any particular background. GIA’s enrollment requirement is that students have a high school diploma. That’s the only background they would need, but we tell students there’s something for everyone. If you are scientific, you will find a place in the industry, either in appraising or in a laboratory or behind the scenes. If you are business-minded, then sales might be your thing, or even social media or podcasting. If you are creative, then certainly jewelry design would be a niche for you, or even displays at a store. I think there’s something for everyone. We’re seeing more students that don’t come from family businesses, students that are much more like me. I didn’t have a passion for anything in particular. I didn’t have a path, but I found one in the industry, and I see that with students that are coming to GIA.
Sharon: I think a lot of people interested in jewelry would be—and I don’t mean this in bad way—they would be floored or overwhelmed or blown away by what is available on the campus. It’s not just how many diamonds you can fit in a ring; it’s science and everything else going on. It’s not just, “O.K., let’s design a piece of jewelry.” It’s so much more.
Kimberly: I think you’re exactly right. So many people, when they think of the jewelry industry, they envision standing in a retail store and looking at jewelry in cases. While that is absolutely an enormous part of the industry, it takes a million hands to get that piece there, a million minds and skills in many different facets. I think you’re exactly right. It’s been difficult, I think, for us to get the message that the industry has so much to offer out to a larger population. There are jobs abundantly available; it’s just sparking an interest in people based on what comes from within them.
Sharon: If you get a graduate gemologist certificate, that’s a GG, and that is like your passport. It’s such a prestigious credential in the jewelry industry.
Kimberly: I appreciate you saying that. It’s true, and we’re very grateful for that. We’ve been able to maintain that reputation throughout the years because we are current in the industry. We know what needs to be taught to our students for them to be successful in the industry. While we haven’t made enormous changes in the education, we’re teaching students how to identify gemstones; we’re teaching students how to work on the bench; we’re teaching students how to design and manufacture jewelry. There are definitely changes we’ve made, and we’re grateful our reputation has remained the same. Our graduates are the key to that. They take our courses—and hopefully they do because they know the reputation—but then they perpetuate that reputation because they go out in the industry, and they have the knowledge needed to further the businesses they work for and contribute to.
Sharon: Where does somebody begin? If they’re interested and they say, “Oh, this sounds interesting,” where do they start? Do they go online? Do they start by submitting an application?
Kimberly: I think that’s the best place to start. Everyone’s online these days, so our website is definitely the best place to start. It’s www.GIA.edu. We take great pride in being of service to students, taking people by their hands and answering all their questions and not leaving them to figure it out on their own. Starting with the website is the best place, but on that website, as they click through pages and dig deeper into their personal journey through the website, they’ll find a lot of contact information. At that point, we encourage students to reach out. Ask questions. A lot of our staff members have been in the industry for a long time. A lot of our staff members are graduates of GIA, and they can share a lot more information than something you can find on the website.
Sharon: I know the people who taught my classes were credentialed. They’d written books; they’d been doing it a long time. Thank you so much for letting us know about this. I would encourage anybody who is interested in the jewelry industry in any facet to look into it, because I’ve met so many people in different areas. In my travels in the jewelry world, whether it’s antique or art jewelry or retro, or whether you’re working with stones or not working with stones, it seems that so many people started out with the GG degree, even if that’s not where they ended up. Maybe they didn’t end up selling in Tiffany’s, but they used that as a starting point. That’s how I heard about it. When I first got involved in jewelry, everybody said they were GGs and I thought, “What is this?”
Kimberly: We offer those three programs, but like you’re saying, people take that education and insert their own passions for what speaks to them, and they make a career out of it in the jewelry industry. Your path could go a million different ways.
Sharon: It’s a fabulous foundation, because no matter what you’re doing, you want to be able to talk knowledgeably about whether it’s this stone or that stone, the way it’s formed. Especially today, with lab-grown diamonds and things like that, you have to know so much more about it. Thank you so much for being here today. I would encourage anybody who wants to follow this path to take a look at the website and begin the journey. Kimberly, thank you very much.
Kimberly: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
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