Every year, the Northwest Jewelry Conference draws some of the jewelry world’s best speakers, experts and educators—and this year’s conference will surely be no different. Host Sharon Berman got an exclusive preview of the conference from founder Ted Irwin on the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast. Read their conversation below.
Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today I’m pleased to be talking with Ted Irwin, an independent jewelry appraiser, Principal of Northwest Gemological Labs, and founder of the Northwest Jewelry Conference. The seventh annual conference will take place August 9-11, in Bellevue, Washington. If you haven’t been to the conference before, Ted has an engrossing lineup of speakers with a lot of great networking. It’s also held in a beautiful venue, Cedarbrook Lodge, not far from the Seattle Airport, but you wouldn’t know it once you’re at the lodge. Ted will give us the scoop on the conference in today’s podcast. Ted, thanks so much for being here.
Ted: Thanks for having me back, Sharon.
Sharon: It’s great to talk to you again. In a previous podcast, you talked about your love of gems and your jewelry journey. Can you tell us what made you decide to start the Northwest Jewelry Conference?
Ted: My weekday job was appraising jewelry and I occasionally got a job teaching gemology, so I guess I didn’t have enough to do. I needed a couple hundred hours to invest in a venture that might eventually break even. Since the mid-80s, we’ve been doing seminars with Karen Lorene and Rhinestone Rosie, a couple of local noted historians. My gemology students had an interest in finished jewelry and we had a few collectors, so there was an obvious benefit for them if we could do seminars on a regular basis talking about jewelry history, improving your collections and spotting fakes. Those were all things that Karen segmented into different topics for them. Rhinestone Rosie deals in costume jewelry, and she’s a well-known historian who gave presentations on appreciation of costume, what to look for, the fact that it can be quite valuable and highly collectible. Those are my two anchors in the local scene.
The way, I thought, for the West Coast to have something a little more dramatic, a little more encompassing of other instructors, was to start a conference. I talked to Karen about this a number of years ago and she convinced me before I did that—she introduced me to her friend, Christie Romero. Christie does full weekend classes, 16 hours, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, on historical timelines and how to identify certain materials and how that might apply to historical dating. That’s what people are most interested in—where did this come from, where was it made. So, I saw a real need to expand on that. Christie did that for a couple of years here in Seattle. Then, Karen introduced me to Peter Shemonsky, who had a very extensive résumé. He was a bench jeweler, platinum smith and gemologist, and he wrote jewelry history courses for appraisal organizations. He is very well-versed. Your listeners may have viewed him on the Antiques Road Show, because he’s done a number of years with them. So, Peter had the breadth of knowledge where he could do weekend courses, so he did that for a couple of years.
I was with Peter in Tucson at the gem show one year—it must have been 2012—and we were having dinner with my wife and Diana Singer. Your listeners might know Diana; her family’s been in the estate jewelry business forever in New York City and she’s been a frequent lecturer around the country. She’s a very good historian in her own right, and she deals with jewelry on a daily basis in her business. So, she’s buying, selling, restoring, talking to gem dealers and her passion for the topic is what comes through the most. If you have listened to a lecture from Diana Singer, you know she’s very vibrant. She does her research; she knows her material already, but she goes to great lengths to prepare excellent lectures. I recruited these two—I call them my core faculty—to help me establish the topics we’d like to see and the speakers we’d like to bring in.
I knew it would need to be different than the conferences I’d been attending. A lot of the conferences I went to were gemological in nature, so a little drier, not really historical but more scientific. I tried to take away what I learned from those conferences, what activities would make people interested. I gained and, I guess, stole ideas from some of the conferences that I thought had good formats. I thought, for this kind of crowd, for estate jewelry collectors, for dealers, for appraisers, that’s the core I wanted to attract to this. I needed to have some variety. I needed to have dynamic speakers who knew their stuff, because I was trying to attract people who also knew their stuff. To get someone like that to come to a conference, there needs to be a benefit; there needs to be something unique. We really strived to work with instructors on developing a unique, or if not totally unique, a spin on something they knew about. From the date we started, we knew that it would be a long, growing endeavor.
We started in my gemology classroom, which I can set up for a dozen or so with desks and microscopes. For seating of this nature, we could probably double that. So, I knew where my capacity was going to lie if we used that venue. For the first year, no worries. We had six instructors and all of 15 students, so we fit comfortably in there. We were able to do workshops. We tried to have interactive stuff going on. That first year was a big testing ground for us and people seemed to enjoy it.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the same people come back. If they have to skip a year, they’re very upset that they missed one, and they want to come back to the next one and the one after that. A lot of my students—I like to call them participants—do this over and over again and try to make this a yearly visit to Seattle. Seattle in August is not a bad time to hold this. My first one I did in October, which was not so good a time, and I got a lot of feedback. We adjusted our schedule to a time where I thought people would like to come to Seattle, so I set it for the weekend after Seafair, which is the big Seattle event of the summer. Once that’s done, we’re kind of done with summer. I thought we’d choose a good visiting time, so people could get out and have sunshine and do some adventuring as well. A lot of the people who come make it an extended trip, and we have a deal with the hotel to extand their rates beyond the conference dates. I think people are getting more comfortable doing that. As you said, Cedarbrook Lodge is the ideal venue for this kind of program.
In 2015, we outgrew that gemology classroom. We were elbow to elbow. We had half a dozen instructors, but now we had close to 2,000 students. We were at the edges of the wall looking for breathing room, but it was still very well liked. The atmosphere was one of camaraderie. We were stuck together for a weekend. Now, my office has a lobby, and the lobby can be turned into a buffet line, because I thought it was important to make people happy food-wise, and to make sure we had the best food I could cater. My wife, Laurie, was basically our catering coordinator for those first three years, and it got hectic because we had her doing virtually everything at the kitchen in the kitchen at my office. We have a decent-sized lobby and we arranged tables and buffet lines and that kept people happy, but occasionally, we’d also do some of our hands-on workshops there. We ran one in my laboratory, where we were identifying treated and synthetic stones, which went into a historical timeline of the development of synthetics in the jewelry market. We had precision-cut replicas of the world’s famous diamonds out in the hallway of the building. This was a weekend, so the building was all shut down, and we basically had the run of the place. So, we spread our demonstrations and discussions out into the lobby, the hallway, and in other parts of the building. I knew I needed to start looking for a venue, and I wanted it to be comfortable for people but not too large. We had done some of our previous seminars in the Hilton and such, and it seemed overwhelming as far as space for what we were trying to do. I wanted a venue that spoke to a small group, a boutique hotel. My friend’s son was getting married and they had been investigating all these reception places, and he said, “Well, Cedarbrook Lodge is the place. You’ve got to check it out.” I did and it was absolutely perfect.
The catering is all done by a first-class restaurant that has won awards. The executive chef beat Bobby Flay once. So, we have that element in place, and they’re very accommodating on diets and restrictions. The creature comforts are taken care of. You have a wonderful facility to stay at, so everybody’s going to be relaxed and comfortable, and there’s lots of outdoor spaces. One of the things I really wanted to bring to this conference was a sense of intimacy and an opportunity to network. My instructors are with us the whole weekend. When someone agrees to speak at the conference, they’re not only presenting a first-class lecture on a selected topic—topics, by the way, are selected by the participants themselves; we’ll get into that in a minute—but we’re putting people together in a social environment as well as a classroom business environment. We have this dynamic of giving intensive lectures, but then being able to sit back and talk about them. I found that you really ought to have breaks between sessions. I go to gemological conferences, and there might be two or three speakers in rapid-fire succession, and people are always standing up; they have to go the restroom; they have to get a snack. So, I thought, “Let’s do a topic. Let’s do it really well. Let’s have time for questions and answers and discussions, and let’s have a leisurely break before we start this again.” I don’t know if we’re at a half-hour break schedule; it’s hard to adhere to, but we have 20 to 30 minutes where people can unwind, ask more questions and start new discussions. I thought that was a critical element to have.
What we’ve set up is a two-and-a-half-day stretch, starting with a reception and appetizers. We have a bar, and you get to meet and greet your fellow students and instructors. Then, we have the first lecture that evening, and what we’ve done the last couple years is open it up to more people. I partnered with GIA alumni to bring in people who couldn’t afford the tuition for three days, but they can at least come for one evening and get a taste of what the event is all about. So, we opened the Friday evening reception to a broader audience. The facility has a perfect auditorium for that. This will be the second year we’re doing that with GIA, and hopefully we’ll get some new blood and new interest into the conference.
The cost is not just our tuition, which is one of the higher tuitions in the conference market, but also the travel. Most of our people come from out of town and there are expenses associated with that. So, I thought we had to put on a really first-class conference with top-flight people. I found out early on that you don’t know if you can get someone unless you ask them, and we have a high success rate of people saying yes. One year we brought out Jeffrey Post from the Smithsonian. He speaks around the country, and I had been to a conference and met him in Canada. I made a phone call, and I dropped the name of a benefactor he had, which never hurts, and he said, “Sure, I’ll come talk about the national collection and the Hope Diamond,” which he curates. That was a very interesting year, if you want a story. I’ve been rambling a lot and you should get to talk.
Sharon: No, it’s very interesting. It certainly is a first-class conference. Have you seen a difference in the people who attend? Have they been coming from different geographic locations, more collectors, more industry professionals?
Ted: From the start, we had a pretty good mix. We had collectors, dealers and appraisers, and most of them were local. That’s what I expected at the Northwest Jewelry Conference; I didn’t think much farther than Portland or Yakima. We were going to be fairly local, but we actually got a couple of appraisers, one from Hawaii and one from Texas that first year. We did have some interest out there, but it remained fairly local. The next year we picked up more people from the L.A. area. Today’s attendance, I would say, is predominantly California, Washington and Oregon. It’s stretched out on the West Coast, but the biggest change would be in the East Coast representation. There are a number of people from as far away as New Hampshire and New York, and the Midwest as well, which surprised me. We’re getting the word out a bit more and getting more notoriety, so we’re getting a broader geographic range. I had a colleague come from London, and we had a gentleman from China who is in jewelry history and was looking at opening the first museum dedicated to that. He knew Amanda, one of my instructors, and made the trip from Shanghai. We’ve been getting some international interest, and I only see that growing. As far as diversity goes, there are more people from the auction market and—
Sharon: I’m sorry, auction market, did you say?
Ted: Auctions, yeah, people who are dealing with the auction houses. They’re historians in their own right. They’re very knowledgeable in this field, but they come in at all different levels, too, and this is one of the areas where they can meet more peers and get information important to their job.
Sharon: Yeah, it’s a great place.
Ted: The respect from that market was big for me. More serious collectors are plugging in, too. They know their stuff, but they’re making contacts with people they’ve read about that they haven’t met. They want to have more interactions with them down the line.
Sharon: Can you tell us about this year’s conference and the speakers, the topics and the lineup?
Ted: I think I mentioned that we get our topic ideas and our presenters largely from the people who are attending. At each year’s conference, you can’t leave until you fill out Ted’s questionnaire, and you have to give us input on what you’d like to see. I’ll float some ideas and see if they like them, but very often they will be influenced by what they have just listened to. Someone will be talking about a topic and boom, that’s a new session for next year, and we have to figure out who’s the right person to do that. We get a discussion going and people recommend someone they’ve heard of or someone they know. We tally up and collate all this information and see what people want to do next year.
We try to feature a jeweler each year. The narrow winner this year was Bulgari. Bulgari is obviously a main house, and one of my collector attendees knew Amanda Triossi and she said, “Look, if you want to talk about Bulgari, this is the only way to do it. She’s fabulous.” I said, “Where is she?” “She’s in Rome.” “Oh, wonderful.” I paid the expenses. When I invite someone out, I say, “You’ve got lodging. You’ve got airfare. There’s no out-of-pocket for you.” They are dedicating their weekend to us and that’s a big deal. So, I contacted Amanda and I was surprised she said, “Yes, I’d love to come out.” We corresponded for months to coordinate this and get everything done. Amanda gave a fabulous talk on Bulgari. She’s coauthored a couple of books on Bulgari and has taught and curated and worked with the family, so she was very well-versed on the topic. As tends to happen, my instructors often want to come back, “Oh, next year I could talk about this.” So, Amanda gave the Bulgari talk, the history of earring talk, which is another book she’s written, and she taught historical timelines and history of western jewelry through Sotheby’s. She has a broad knowledge. One of the topics that was brought up at last year’s conference, when we were talking about designs of jewelry, a lot information comes from one jeweler, Joel Arthur Rosenthal, or JAR. JAR jewelry is a really, small eclectic niche. You’re not going to be out buying JAR jewelry.
Sharon: I’d like to, but no.
Ted: He’s got a private clientele. He has an unmarked studio in Paris, and he’s kind of hard to deal with, but he’s also a good friend of Amanda Triossi and she knows his work inside out. There are very few people with that inside knowledge who would be able to speak about someone like that. That’s a unique perspective, and certainly something that a number of students were interested in, which caught me by surprise. When you’re talking about Tiffany or Cartier, that’s obviously an historical timeline, but here we have an irascible living jeweler. He doesn’t give interviews; he doesn’t talk to people except his clients. He creates one-of-a-kind stuff, very elaborate. You can see his influence on a number of current contemporary jewelers, like pavé setting and floral designs. That should be a very unique perspective from Amanda, and that’ll be our Friday night opener. Hopefully, we’ll get a very nice attendance for that. The conference itself, though, is limited to 48 students, so the rest of the curriculum will apply to just them. Another topic near and dear to her heart is jewelry from the 60s and 70s. Diana did a retrospective on 60s jewelry a few years back, but from Amanda’s perspective, she’s going to tie it to a collection that’s going to be on display in Cincinnati. We’re looking at 2020 now, and she’ll not only present her vast knowledge on the period, but she’ll also tie it to pieces that are in the exhibit and talk about how things are curated behind the scenes. It’s stuff that I certainly haven’t been privy to, and it will give us a little bit better insight on how these shows and exhibitions are put together.
That thread is going to transfer into a session that Peter Shemonsky is going to do on modernist art jewelry of England and Europe. He’s been involved in a very extensive collection of contemporary, artsy stuff. We had a very good session with Karen Lorene on art jewelry a few years ago, so that was definitely of interest to people. Since Peter’s intimately involved in this, we’re going to get a behind-the-scenes look at how that collection may be presented and how they come up with the values for this stuff. Some of it is one of a kind, so it’s hard to compare. As an appraiser, it’s a nightmare. He’ll talk about comparables, what’s insurable for the collection and how it’s on display, and valuation for whatever personal or tax purposes the owners have. We’re leaning a little more toward contemporary jewelry than we normally do. Peter’s also going to do a session called “Rough, Tumbled, Carved and Polished” and he’s going to talk about the lapidary arts in jewelry. He’ll look at a fabulous de Caron piece with carved rock crystal. Who carved it? What was involved in the design? The lapidary arts are instrumental in a lot of the fabulous pieces you see. You might see a David Webb scarlet bracelet with all this carved tourmaline or what have you, and somebody had to make that. Peter’s going to go over the major artists and some of the different forms they might do, from carving to simply polishing cabochon cuts. How’s a cabochon made? Peter has done some lapidary work at the bench, so he can speak from the perspective of the artisan about what these famous designers and lapidary artists have been doing over history. They are creating art out of common stones, making them highly valuable just because of who made them.
Sharon: That sounds really interesting. Like you’re saying, it makes you think about the elements of a piece of jewelry. You think about the carving, but you don’t think that it’s separate from the designer.
Ted: Right, and that’s what we try to do in a lot of our classes: ask questions and bring up topics that you may not have thought of when you first look at something. “Oh, that’s pretty.” “O.K., why is it pretty?”
Ted: Diana gave an excellent lecture on why good is good. She’s done this around the country, and it’s about taking a different perspective when you look at something, so you can see if things are put together properly, and that can help you in knowing who might have made it or when. Speaking of Diana, Peter and Diana have been doing this since the first conference. This is their seventh conference. Think about this from a coordinator’s perspective: what are we going to do next? These two people I can bounce ideas off of. Like I said, I look at them as my core faculty, because they help me come up with a lot of the ideas and make suggestions. Peter had a timeline series suggestion that he did the first year or two. We called that “Another Place and Time,” where we looked at a specific moment in history and talked about social events and fashion and things that tied into the jewelry that people were wearing. That was one of Peter’s ideas that we’ve done with other instructors. They all help come up with interesting talks that people can use in their daily lives. Diana’s niche is making people excited about whatever she’s talking about.
Sharon: She’s very good at that.
Ted: Our attendees get that, and they sometimes tailor the topics they come up with to her personality. Last year she did “A Look at Jewelry of the Rich, Famous and Infamous.” She had all these great stories, and she said, “Ted, what people don’t really pay attention to is some of the fabulous Russian jewelry.” So, she’s doing a talk about rich, famous Russians called, “The Russians Are Coming.” She’s going to talk about the historical pieces of the oligarchs and royalty and what’s happened to them. Some of these pieces were broken up and put into different jewelry. Some have gray histories. Some of them we don’t know where they went. That’s going to be a really fun topic.
Sharon: Yes, definitely.
Ted: From a practical standpoint, Diana has a fabulous library and she researches her topics to the nth degree, usually up to the last minute, adding new stuff. I said, “How about something about people’s collections?” She’s got a broad knowledge in buying and selling, taking your jewelry collection from creation to dissolution, improving upon it, going in different directions or knowing when it’s time to say, “Oh, we can let this piece go,” or “I need to liquidate the whole collection.” She’s going to give us tips on what you do at each stage of your collection, and that should bring up some very interesting discussions, because a lot of our people—probably all of our people—have some sort of collection of jewelry. What goes into your buying decisions? Could you have made a better decision by looking at competing pieces? Why is one a much more collectible piece than another? Is it the designer? Is it the design itself? Is it the construction, where something’s right and something’s wrong; something’s changed and something’s original? That should be interesting.
Sharon: Sounds great. There’s really no place to learn about that.
Ted: There is now.
Sharon: Yes, until this.
Ted: One of my headliners is Carol Elkins, who is Senior Vice President of Jewelry for Sotheby’s. She’s on the West Coast, and she’s well-known for her historical jewelry knowledge, obviously because of what she does, but she has a particular fancy for carved gems, intaglios and cameos. Her topic is going to be exactly that, the historical timeline, things to look for to identify the period and artist, what makes a good cameo, what doesn’t make a good cameo. There are always people who are interested in the worth, so she’ll talk about the auction market for the particular gems she’s going to talk about. Is this a good time for cameos in the market? Is this a bad time? That’s something we did last year: what’s hot, what’s not in the auction market. She’s going to tie it specifically to that topic, cameos and intaglios, and give us some live auction values of what things are going for.
A couple of years ago, I brought in Ulysses Grant Dietz for a lecture on the jewels of Newark. He’s now retired Chief Curator for the Newark Museum, and he has a breadth of knowledge and is probably one of the most dynamic speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.
Ted: He holds your attention no matter what he’s talking about, and no matter what side adventure he goes on, it’s fascinating.
Ted: He’s one of the guys that said, “I’ll be back next year,” so I was thinking, “Hmm, why do you want Ulysses to pay tuition and be in the crowd?” I wanted to make sure he was there, so he talked last year. This year was a little more of a struggle. I had a topic, but I didn’t have a speaker. I wanted to do something on collectible silver jewelry, and I was running into dead ends, literally, with some of the experts who I found out were deceased or just fell off the face of the earth. I wanted someone really knowledgeable on this stuff. Ulysses had a number of silver pieces and a new collection coming in, a major collection with a lot of unusual Gorham pieces. It’s a manufacturer that might not have been big in that market, but there are a lot of pieces all of a sudden falling into his lap, because he still has a desk at the Newark. He’s going to talk about collectible silver jewelry and go over the various makers that we should be on the lookout for. A number of students had talked about an interest in this area. We could go into specific, Native American jewelry; we could go into Scandinavian jewelry, but this will cover a breadth of silver in the marketplace. We’ll see if we want to develop this into something more case-specific down the road, but this is an area that some of the collectors may not be aware of, and it’s especially useful for the appraisers and people that buy and sell jewelry. I just appraised a simple, little floral design silver brooch with some lapis in it, and I came up with a figure of $1,800. The materials were not very much, but it was a Georg Jensen piece and it was a fairly collectible pattern, so it wasn’t cheap. It’s about recognizing that kind of stuff.
The other thing we like to do is have an extended session with a workshop element to it. This year we’re going to be period dating rings from 1900 to 1950, specifically looking at construction techniques, patterns and hallmarks to put it in a relative timeline. All of us have an interest, in some form, in when pieces were made. We’ll have microscopes set up and they’ll have loupes. We’ll be looking at dozens of pieces and testing ourselves to see if we can place them in the proper period. That’s going to be presented by Suzanne Martinez and Starla Turner. You probably know Suzanne created Jewelry University, which is a great online resource for any of us connected with estate jewelry. She’s working in the retail environment, but obviously the stuff they take in the shop has to be appropriately examined, identified and dated. She and Starla are staff gemologists who have spent years developing the techniques to properly identify pieces, put them in their right period and value them. They presented this at AGS Conclave a couple of years ago, and they said it was very well received. They just happened to be in the audience last year and said, “Ted, we’ve got a topic I think your people might like,” so they became the instructors this year. That’s the usual development; we keep getting instructors coming from the cloud that have vast knowledge in a particular area that would be of interest for a future topic. It’s self-generating.
There’s tons of talent out there watching the lectures, and that becomes self-apparent. If you spend an hour or two with us, you’ll be able to tap into some pretty interesting and accomplished minds. That’s the big benefit I got when I was taking all of these gemological conferences. Sure, I was learning some stuff by taking notes, but I learned the most when I could get that instructor aside and ask some very specific questions of interest to me, and I could start a conversation about a topic in more depth or detail than was presented at the podium. That face-to-face contact is the biggest attribute that our conference provides. It has to have great food. It has to have a great venue. It has to have good topics, but the people make the conference. It’s not just the speakers, but the audience and the people you’re talking to at lunch or over a drink; that’s where you’re absorbing a lot of information you didn’t expect to know about.
Sharon: Absolutely and thank you so much for giving us the overview. There’s no sponsorship here; just coming from somebody who’s passionate about this conference and who has attended it a couple of times, I have to say it’s engrossing. Time flies by and the speakers are excellent, and they’re not only knowledgeable, but they’re also very, very good speakers, which is not something you always find. It’s a fabulous crowd, too, so Ted, thank you so much for giving us the scoop.
Ted: Thank you very much.
Sharon: We’ll have a link to the conference in the show notes so you can sign up. Another nice thing about the conference is its size, and it does sell out, so if you’re interested, it’s important to sign up quickly”. To everybody listening, 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. Thanks so much for listening.
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