Appraiser and director of the Northwest Gemological Institute and Northwest Gemological Lab, Ted Irwin joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to discuss how appraisers determine what a piece of jewelry is worth. Read the transcript below.

Sharon: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast, where we talk about everything jewelry. Today, my guest is Ted Irwin, founder of the Northwest Gemological Institute and Northwest Gemological Lab. He’s located in Bellevue, Washington, and he’s an independent appraiser. Ted, welcome to Jewelry Journey.

Ted: Thank you for having me on, Sharon; however, I do not get credit for being the founder. I joined the company two years into its existence.

Sharon: How long have you been with them?

Ted: Since 1980. The company was actually founded in the fall of ’78. I was with a retail counter selling jewelry, and they were encouraging people to become graduate gemologists, which I did. I found it far more fascinating than selling jewelry over the counter, so when an opportunity opened at Northwest Gemological, I applied, and I’ve been there ever since.

Sharon: Well, that’s a long tenure. What attracted you to become an appraiser?

Ted: I think the technical side, the science of finding out what something is. Then, as far as researching what something’s worth, it’s a whole other ballgame. You learn the fundamentals of gemology. You learn how to identify stones, how to grade diamonds. Then there’s the application of value, and that’s something you really must learn on your own. There’s very little formal education out there, so there’s a lot of research that goes into knowing what this ruby is or what that sapphire is.

Sharon: I’ve always been interested in it from a market research perspective. It’s interesting, the sleuthing that’s involved. How did you get into jewelry? Was it just stumbling into a retail position?

Ted: I was kind of forced into it. My soon-to-be wife said get a job and I applied to what became a retail position. My first exposure to selling anything over the counter was jewelry. I found it very interesting, but I had to learn everything from the ground up. I had some great tutors at the store I worked for. I had a client walk in one day and say, “Do you have any bangle bracelets?” I looked at her and just stared. I said, “A bangle’s a tiger, isn’t it? What’s a bangle bracelet?” I had no clue. My manager took me under his wing, made me start by setting all the watches in the store. Soon I became the watch expert. I was the go-to person for Pulsar digital brand or how this Seiko, this Satyr, this Rolex worked. I got attuned to one segment of the jewelry market and then I started learning about gemology. I learned how diamonds are graded because I was interested in sitting down with the clients looking for, say, bridal sets. One of my specialties was directing them in diamond grading and learning what their budget was, and telling them the four Cs, and all that kind of stuff. I probably bored them to death. But after a couple of years of sales, I stepped away from it because most graduate gemologists get over-technical and become poor salespeople and that was probably the case with me.

Sharon: That’s interesting. Were you doing appraisals when you were in the retail store?

Ted: I think I was working for a company called Friedlander & Sons, which was a local Seattle counter. They had a couple dozen stores at their height. I probably wrote two appraisals, the reason being I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had no business writing appraisals. Even if I was a graduate gemologist, I only knew a small amount of the business. We had an appraisal department in downtown Seattle and I was in the Tacoma store, so there really wasn’t an opportunity to do that. I ended up spending time with the appraiser in the main store, and that’s where I really got hooked on the scientific end of it and putting value to things. I started to learn gemstones one by one, which is how you must do it.

Sharon: And then you segued to the firm where you are now, Northwest Gemological Labs.

Ted: Yeah, as I said, in 1980, I applied for a position. One of the appraisers was leaving and it was a perfect opportunity. I got a lot of great mentoring; I learned by the seat of my pants and then I was sent out into jewelry stores. I had a lot of good training in-house. Then I got thrown into one of the more interesting markets, a company out here called Le Bon Marché, which is like Macy’s for the northwest. It had a fine jewelry department. Marcus Galleries out of New York was supplying their antique jewelry and their period jewelry for trunk shows. They would bring it in and do these special shows. It was fabulous stuff, a lot of platinum deco jewelry, lots of counting of diamonds, lots of determining what the carat weight was in addition to everything else that goes into it. Learning that vintage market really came early in my career. A lot of appraisers acquire that knowledge later, but it was getting it thrown at me left and right. I got great exposure to a lot of difficult pieces, what most people would say are difficult pieces to appraise.

Sharon: Wow, what a great way to start! You’ve emphasized the need for an independent appraiser. A lot of jewelry stores will tell you they didn’t appraise what you bought. I never thought about what the independent part means. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ted: It depends. I think the consensus is independent means you don’t buy or sell jewelry, and you can interpret that. A lot of appraisers won’t make trades or sell jewelry as an aside, but to be truly independent, you don’t buy and you don’t sell. In my sense, you don’t broker, either. You don’t really get involved in someone else’s jewelry other than just stepping in and evaluating it as a third disinterested party.

Sharon: Does the insurance company care if you’re independent? Why do I need to make that choice?

Ted: Well, think about this. If you’re getting an appraisal from the person that sold you the jewelry, you’re going to pay X. The appraisal’s probably going to come in — and very often comes in — close to XX. If a real replacement must happen, the insurance company goes back to the market. They find what this thing costs to replace and they find out it’s X, and you just paid premiums on XX. You’ve doubled what your premiums needed to be. That might be $50, $60 a year, but I get clients that have had the same policy for 10, 15, 20 years. Some insurance companies have an auto adjust feature of two percent or five percent a year, and they’re paying so much more for their insurance than they need to because the actual replacement is a far cry from that. A jeweler very often wants to make their jewelry look like a good deal, and the dollars on the appraised end are, let’s say, fluffy.

As a matter of fact, an hour before this call, I had a client with a two-carat diamond that was sold close to what everybody in the market sells it for, maybe a bit less. The appraisal came in about 70 percent over that, and he had been paying premiums over the last few years. My appraisal came in close to where the market is for an actual replacement; it’s a little bit of margin, but not a ton. So, the insurance premiums are the focal point for me, because once you educate someone as to what they need in an appraisal, it’s not the number as much as the description for actual replacement. The insurance company doesn’t care about the number. They’re going to go out and replace with like kind. That’s their obligation.

Sharon: You mentioned antique jewelry. How do you figure out something like that? How do you appraise something when it’s one of a kind, or Edwardian or Victorian? How do you develop your appraisal?

Ted: That’s a market approach. If it’s a contemporary piece, if it’s something bought and sold every day, that’s easy to do market analysis on. When you get into the more individual items, that’s where the expertise comes into play. It’s recognizing who made the piece. Is that important to this piece? Are we replacing it with something found in the marketplace or just a similar comparable? You must analyze what’s out there. You’ve got to have auction resources. You’ve got to have secondhand sellers. In my case, I have a network of people in the business because you cannot know every piece of jewelry. You can’t know every maker. In the appraiser chat rooms I’m in, the common question is, “Anybody recognize this mark? Who made this piece of jewelry?”

Obviously, if it’s a name brand, like Tiffany, you have to find something comparable. If it’s up to date, it’s really easy. If it’s current production, you go to the Tiffany website. You call your buddy at Tiffany and find out what this similar or exact same ring will cost. If you go back fifty years, you don’t have a comparable unless you do the research. Did they sell something similar at Christy’s or Sotheby’s or one of the other auction venues?

Sharon: Do you increase the appraisal if you say, “Oh boy, it’s really going to be hard to find something close to this?”

Ted: If the purpose is insurance and finding a similar replacement out there, then yes, you have to take into account the difficulty in finding a match or at least a comparable. Every piece is individual, so when you say “antique jewelry,” there’s no blanket formula. You don’t just say, “Well, it’s old, so we’ll add 30 percent.” The prices may be lower. It just depends on the article itself. First, you have to recognize what it is and then find pieces out there that have been traded. What did this sell for? You also look at what is actually in front of you. If trading seems to be low for the component itself, or if your piece has a higher-graded stone or a better-quality colored stone, you have to take those things into account as well. It’s not just the structure of the piece, but what is within the piece as well.

Sharon: I know you know a lot about antique and estate jewelry, but jewelry appraisers will often say they can appraise jewelry of any period. What do I need to ask to make sure I’m getting the right person?

Ted: You might talk to them about their background and what kind of resources they use. Do they attend estate jewelry conventions? I just got back from the big Vegas show, which is a sizeable show on the West Coast, and I talked to vendors to see what is in the marketplace and get a feel for values. Appraisers might be researching individual pieces as well, but keeping in touch with vendors who carry this stuff is vitally important.

Sharon: Are there certain designations that I should look for?

Ted: The fundamental designation of any appraiser is a graduate gemologist degree, which shows they have some gemological credentials. If they’ve graduated from Gem-A out of London, that’s highly respected as well, more scientific actually. Anybody can join an association, but showing membership in, say, the American Society of Jewelry Historians, shows they’re interested in that and in contact with the people involved there. That’s an excellent association that specializes in vintage and antique jewelry. Membership shows they actually have colleagues they could talk to about pieces.

I think contacts are probably one of the biggest things for me, because you have to know what your shortcomings are. Where appraisers tend to get into trouble is they think they know everything, and they don’t. After forty years, I know I don’t know everything. There’s a lot of information I have to learn when I get a piece I’m not familiar with, so being able to research it is really the key. I’m a member of the American Society of Jewelry Historians, one I mentioned. I’m also a member with other gemological associations. Asking or looking on someone’s website and seeing what kind of associations they have is important. Some do appraisal theory, which is good. I’m an independent certified gemologist appraiser to the American Gem Society, and they have a very rigorous program for the professional personal property appraiser. It’s one of the few really solid foundational courses there, but it doesn’t teach value. It teaches you how to document, how to look into markets, and how to do an insurance appraisal versus an appraisal for an estate or dissolution of marriage. Those are all critical elements, too. So, the appraiser has to know different kinds of jewelry and different markets for that jewelry. We’ve talked insurance appraisals exclusively, but there are a lot of other reasons you might need an appraisal, so you have to know those markets as well.

Sharon: That’s interesting. I’ll be a lot more aware when I look at somebody’s website in terms of what I should be looking for. If you buy something and feel you got a good deal on it, and you want to get it insured, should you get it insured for more than you paid? What would your appraisal show? Would it show the market value no matter what I paid for it?

Ted: That’s the key to being an independent appraiser. I don’t care what you paid for it. I always ask for that information up front, and I might impart, “Well, you got a great deal on this. This is way under market,” but I’m going to give you the same number either way. You might have overpaid for something and that might be information you’d like to know. In an appraisal, we’re always trying to cover what was paid for something, but there might be an aberration where someone paid way too much. Sometimes you get a really good deal. There might be various reasons for that, but the independent appraiser should be looking at the same number regardless of where the piece came from, unless it’s branded. If you paid $10,000 for something I’m about to appraise for $20,000 because everybody else sells it for $20,000, that’s the way it is. We get a lot of internet purchases, a lot of bad stories, but then we get some good stories where someone really got a deal, maybe at an auction or from a private party sale. Being independent means staying away from being influenced, whether you’re influenced by a jeweler or a sales receipt.

Sharon: You mentioned the web. Where does your business come from? Do you get a lot of people who find you online? I’m sure you have a lot of referral sources, being in the business so long.

Ted: Yeah, a lot of referrals from jewelers. We do some work for jewelers’ clients. Our work is almost exclusively for the owner of the jewelry, and probably three-quarters of that is people who walk in the front door of our laboratory in Bellevue, Washington. The other quarter comes through jewelers, usually little independent jewelers. It’s mom and pop jewelers who take in appraisals on our behalf; we do the appraisals for their clients, they deliver, that type of thing. When I started out in the business, we probably did 90 percent of our business for jewelers and, in fact, jewelry stores. A lot of appraisers today still go into jewelry stores. You walk into the mall and see an appraisal event. I used to do that. I stopped doing it twenty years ago — it turned the business into a hands-on situation with the public, and I wanted a site where we had full control of our laboratory resources and weren’t distracted by little kids running around your desk and that kind of thing.

Sharon: I know you do education in your office as well as the Northwest Jewelry Conference. Can you tell us a little bit about both of those?

Ted: The lab and the school are in the same location. The classroom will seat a dozen students comfortably. We usually run gem classes for six to eight students at a time, so it’s intensive, small group instruction. We do a weekend class, so all of sixteen hours. It is an introduction, but it shows you how to grade diamonds at the microscope. We have a fully-equipped classroom. The diamond grading class goes through the four Cs, so you’re plotting diamond inclusions under the microscope, learning about color, and creating stones against master color diamonds. We also talk about other topics important to anyone grading diamonds, like if something isn’t a diamond. We talk about zirconias and synthetic moissanite. We show them synthetic diamonds and the properties and the basic identification that’s available, so they understand what synthetic diamonds are about.

We have another class in gemstone identification. It teaches you the fundamentals of how to run the equipment that a gemologist uses every day, so it’ll teach you how to use a refractometer, polariscope, dichroscope, and other things that go into the identification process. If I give you a transparent, red stone, you’ll learn how to identify it. Is it a rubelite tourmaline, or a ruby corundum, or a red piece of glass, or a synthetic ruby? We have a two-level class for that, because one weekend of gem identification is a good introduction, but you need to spend — in my case, a lifetime — learning about color. We do another class on gem evaluation, which talks about the actual pricing of stones, what an appraiser does, what a dealer looks at. We talk about real values in the marketplace and how people price, and then we go through rubies and emeralds and sapphires. I provide wholesale price lists and that’s the extent of the in-house stuff.

Sharon: Who’s taking those classes?

Ted: Everybody. We get a fair number of jewelers in the diamond grading classes, but probably a mix of 50-50 people in the profession versus consumers. Interestingly enough, the gem identification class is almost exclusively consumers who want to know more about stones.

Sharon: That’s very interesting, wow!

Ted: Off campus, we have the Northwest Jewelry Conference. That’s at Cedarbrook Lodge near SeaTac Airport in Seattle, and we started that six years ago. Let’s back up to the 1980s. I used to bring in instructors to teach seminars, usually three-hour seminars on antique jewelry, estate jewelry, even costume jewelry. We have a couple of wonderful experts in the Seattle area. I invited a woman, Karen, who has a local shop. She is one of our local authorities on estate jewelry and she taught for me for a number of years. Then there’s Rhinestone Rosie, who’s a northwest legend on costume jewelry. She provided some interesting insights on costume jewelry for the collectible approach, like how to spot good buys, how to spot fakes or pieces that have been altered drastically. Both have taught around the country.

I was talking with Karen several years ago and I said, “I’d really like to have a multi-speaker conference where I can bring in experts, really high-level people, into a small group so participants get a lot of face time with their instructors.” She said, “I’ve got a friend of mine, Christie Romero,” and if you know anything about estate jewelry, you know the name Christie Romero. She came up and she taught a whole weekend class on history and it was fantastic.

Sharon: It must have been.

Ted: There were a couple dozen students. Now, unfortunately, Christie passed, and Karen introduced me to a gentleman, Peter Shemonsky. Peter has a wonderful estate jewelry résumé. He wrote the International Society of Appraisers coursework on period jewelry and he’s a bench jeweler, an accomplished gold and platinum smith, so he can make the stuff. He’s an expert on metal fabrication and identifying when things have been altered. He’s a graduate gemologist, so he knows stones. He’s been in the auction market for umpteen years, so he knows that market. As an appraiser, Peter is my go-to guy when I have questions in the estate jewelry world, and if he doesn’t have an answer, he knows the person that does. That’s why that network has really benefited me as an appraiser throughout the years.

The conference itself became a multi-speaker conference in 2013. We conducted the first few years at our facilities here in Bellevue, and the first year we had thirteen participants and six instructors. They got a lot of good time with their instructors. We didn’t spend money on advertising, but we tried to get the word out as we could, and it was all through word of mouth. It gradually grew, and this is our sixth year. We are doing it in a larger venue, in a boutique hotel, so the feeling is comfortable. Northwest woodsy is my description of the place. They take really good care of us and they have excellent, award-winning food. Everything setup-wise is great for this.

I’m bringing people in from all over the world to instruct on specific topics that the people who take the classes are selecting. I’ll throw out an idea, “Maybe we should do something on art deco this year,” and they vote on it. We’ll ask if they have a preference on what jeweler to cover, because each year we focus on a jeweler. We started with Tiffany, we did Cartier, we did VCA. We try to bring in experts specific to that jeweler, perhaps someone who worked with them. We had the archivist from VCA come in two years ago. This year, we have Amanda Triossi coming to talk about Bulgari. If you want to get a book on Bulgari, she’s a coauthor for a couple of major books on that. She has curated their stuff. She’s done histories. She works with the family. She knows the topic, so she’s coming in from Rome to do a couple of sessions with us.

We start the program with a reception and meet and greet with cocktails and appetizers. Then we have a lighter topic or unusual topic where you don’t have to take notes vigorously. You can relax and enjoy it. Last year I brought in Robert Weldon, a photographer for the Gemological Institute of America. He’s photographed the most fabulous jewelry in the world, loose gemstones, finished jewelry, big collections. I wanted to find out what a photographer looks for in judging a picture, composing it, and making it look as fabulous as they do. One of his stories was about the Cheapside Hoard, which was a buried treasure found under the jewelry district in London in the early 1900s. It had been archived and curated at Museum of London primarily, and they did a fabulous exhibit a few years ago there. The curator is coming from London to present on that topic because the previous class said, “We want to have more on that specific thing Robert Weldon touched on in his talk from 2017.” So, the coursework — I guess if you want to call it that — for this conference develops from the participants.

Sharon: Having attended it several years ago, I know how much personalized attention there is. Like you say, the ratio of teachers to students is one that I wish happened everywhere, because there’s a lot of individual attention. I know it fills up early, so we’ll have your contact information in the show notes. I would suggest to anybody who’s interested to get in touch with you right now. I don’t know if you can squeeze people in this year, or if they can at least get on the mailing list for next year, because you start promoting it pretty early.

Ted: We’re wait-listed at this point. My goal was 48 participants. If we go over that number, it doesn’t work as a small group, so we’re at that point right now. The participants are going to discuss with me what direction we want to go — if we want to keep it how it is, which I’ve found to be the perfect stride, or if we’re going to adjust down the road. But at this point, yes, we are sold out.

Sharon: It sounds great, and I want to thank you so much for being on Jewelry Journey. That wraps up another episode. Please join us next time, when we’ll have another thought-provoking guest. Please check the show notes for Ted’s contact information, for information about the lab, about any of their sessions, and, of course, for the Northwest Jewelry Conference. Thank you very much, everybody.