Welcome to the Smithsonian of Stones.
Near Legoland in Carlsbad, another realm of fantasy and wonder aims at a more mature — and often more wealthy — audience. This is the world headquarters of the Gemological Institute of America, a 35-acre gated compound holding a king’s ransom of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and other precious sparklers.
The bling isn’t here to dazzle customers, as the institute doesn’t sell jewels. Instead, it trains industry professionals and studies jewels. The institute’s labs are renowned for assessing diamonds, evaluating everything from the Hope Diamond to specks that weigh less (but are worth far more) than a paperclip.
“The GIA is so successful because they are a total and complete and impartial tester of jewels,” said Jim Jessop, president of Jessop’s, the 125-year-old San Diego dealer in diamonds and jewelry. “They give the consumer the assurance that what they are told they are buying is indeed what they are buying.”
Success didn’t come overnight, or without the occasional hiccup or scandal. But entering its 87th year, the GIA is a central player in a glittering international trade.
“They have millions of dollars a day in jewels moving in and out of that building, just for grading,” Jessop said. “When you hear of a diamond selling for $40 million, that diamond will come with a GIA grading document.”
“GIA” rhymes with “CIA,” and security at the headquarters would make Langley proud. The institute is open to the public, but not to passers-by. Reservations are required at least 24 hours in advance.
At the parking lot entrance, a guard checks names off a list. Once inside the main building, another guard consults another list, then snaps a photo for the visitor’s personalized pass.
Employees undergo even tighter security measures. Diamond graders work behind “man trap” doors — the door ahead of you is locked until the door behind you closes — and are monitored by cameras.
Yet the institute maintains a warm, colorful vibe. A rotunda displays rotating exhibits (the current “Centuries of Opulence: Jewels of India” showcases 50 pieces that span 300 years).
One hallway is lined with the work of former GIA photographer Bill Atkinson, whose magnified views of opals and jaspers mimic Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock canvases.
A “petting zoo” of white and rose quartz from Brazil and gold marcasite from China borders the cafeteria, which feeds visitors, employees and students who enroll in the GIA’s courses.
“We have been described by some as the Harvard of gemology,” said Stephen Morisseau, director of corporate communications. “We’re more modest, but I think what makes the GIA unique is that we do research, education, laboratory services and instrument development.”
The range of services and holdings is staggering. Let’s say you need the 16th century Spanish goldsmith Juan de Arfe y Villafañe’s treatise, “Quilatador de la plata, oro y piedras.” A first edition is here in the Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library, the world’s largest trove of materials on precious stones.
“The library is one of the core intellectual components of the GIA,” said Robert Weldon, a former GIA student who became the library's director in August.
Or perhaps you are in the market for the De Beers Centenary Diamond, the 273.85 carat gem that has been insured for $100 million.
Before making this purchase, the institute recommends obtaining a written analysis, such as the GIA Diamond Grading Report. This expert, independent assessment notes the stone’s “4Cs” — color, cut, clarity and carat weight. These now-traditional standards were created here.
“We also developed the jeweler’s loupe — yes, the one you see in the movies,” Morisseau said.
The GIA makes money, but not a profit. A nonprofit organization, it had expenses of $193 million in 2015, the last year for which a full accounting is available.
Those expenses included an $81 million payroll for the GIA’s 3,000-plus employees. Susan Jacques, the CEO, pulled down $632,000 that year.
“Anything we are not using to pay our expenses goes back into our research,” Morisseau said.
That's a fair chunk of change. Total revenues in 2015 were $207 million.
This global enterprise — the GIA has offices, labs and classrooms in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and North America — had humble beginnings. In 1927, Robert M. Shipley divorced his wife, left his Kansas jewelry store and moved to Europe. There, he took courses offered by Britain’s National Association of Goldsmiths.
After two years, Shipley returned to the U.S. with ideas on how to modernize the gem trade. A friend, San Diego’s Armand Jessop — Jim Jessop’s great uncle — suggested that Shipley share his views in a series of public talks.
“From those lectures, he developed a course,” Morisseau said. “That became a correspondence course and that became the foundation of the GIA.”
In 1931, Shipley and his second wife, Beatrice, launched the GIA from their Los Angeles apartment. With the country mired in the Depression, it seemed a bad time to start a new enterprise dedicated to a luxury item. But Shipley figured otherwise.
“The one thing that would give jewelers an advantage in being able to sell jewelry at this hard time was education,” said Weldon, the GIA’s library director.
The institute soon outgrew its founders’ apartment. The GIA moved to Santa Monica and then, in the mid-1990s, Carlsbad.
The institute’s reputation took a hit in 2005, when several employees in the GIA’s New York laboratory were fired after a four-month internal investigation into allegations that staffers took bribes to inflate the values of diamonds sold to Saudi royalty.
“It was a real shock and a tremendous scandal,” said Jim Jessop. “But the GIA took action, immediately and very harshly.”
The employees were sued. New security checks were instituted. Although the GIA’s then-president was not implicated, he was forced out of office.
“Before and after this,” Jessop said, “they've had a tremendous track record.”
In 2013, ‘14 and ‘15 the institute was selected as one of the “world’s most ethical companies” by the Ethisphere Institute.
Trust is crucial in this business, as is discretion. While the GIA is always grading stones — its laboratories collect more than $140 million a year in fees — it never reveals those gems’ ownership or reported value.
Not even to the diamond graders.
“No one involved in the grading process knows who the gem belongs to,” Morisseau said. “We take our clients’ information — and their desire to protect the privacy of that information — very, very seriously.”
Sounds like the CIA.