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When I first started making jewelry, I didn’t know what a gemologist was. I purchased my cut and faceted gems through jewelry supply shops and gem merchants and didn’t think twice about it. I trusted that the gems were actually what the merchant said they were and of the quality that was disclosed.
It wasn’t until later that I heard the term gemologist, and at the time, I thought it sounded fake. Surely you can’t just put the suffix “-ology” at the end of one of your interests and declare it a course of study, right? It sounded too good to be true. I’ve since learned that gemology is quite real and that gemologists have been making my jewelry designs possible since before I knew of their existence. So what exactly is a gemologist, and what does a gemologist do?
Bottom Line Up Front
A gemologist studies the physical and optical properties of gemstones. A skilled gemologist should be able to observe and test a gem (with the help of equipment) and tell you what that gemstone is and how they can tell. There are many gemstone-related career paths for a gemologist, including identifying, comparing, grading, cutting, buying, and selling gemstones. I’ll cover them in detail below!
What Is Gemology?
Gemology is the study of gemstones. It’s considered a geoscience related to mineralogy, but gemology deals explicitly with natural and artificial gems and other precious stones. The study dates back to the 1800s, and the first course of study in gemology was founded in 1908 by what would later become the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, or Gem-A.
Gem-A’s founders wanted to reduce the risk of misidentifying stones as more common or inexpensive varieties, which could be a very costly mistake.
What Is a Gemologist?
To put it simply, a gemologist is someone who studies gemstones. Gemologists receive specialized training that makes them experts in all things gem-related, which allows them to pursue several different career paths, which I’ll cover below. A gemologist is someone who identifies, analyzes, and describes gemstones. Gemologists are often responsible for grading, certifying, and appraising stones.
How Do I Become a Gemologist?
There is no formal degree required to become a gemologist, though if you want to work in a lab, you’re most likely going to want a degree in some sort of lab science. Most professions that employ gemologists require a high school degree or equivalent certificate and a certification in gemology.
Once they’re hired, many gemologists gain the bulk of their knowledge on the job. Some professions offer apprenticeships for fledgling gemologists. Gemologists need a keen eye and attention to detail. Depending on the profession, interpersonal skills and “soft” skills can be beneficial to a gemologist. People often put their faith in gemologists to give them an accurate assessment of their gemstones or to repair sentimental pieces of jewelry.
Building trust with your clients is key to building a reputation as a gemologist.
There are several options for trade classes in gemology, but I would recommend one of the three below:
The Gemological Institute of America
The Gemological Institute of America, or GIA, is the leading American institute for gemology. They were established in 1931 as an authority on gemology research, certification, and education. In the 1940s, the GIA established the “4Cs” of diamond grading.
The GIA offers many different courses ranging from broad to specific areas of study. Their courses include gemology, jewelry, gem identification, and specialized courses in specific gems such as diamonds or pearls. They have more than half a dozen campuses around the world and offer online courses.
The GIA’s Graduate Gemologist Program is one of the most prestigious gemology programs in the world. It covers everything you need to know to begin a career in one of the many gemology professions (more on those below!) The program takes about 28 weeks to complete if you choose to take it in person and costs around $21,000, plus a materials fee. Topics covered in the GIA Graduate Gemology program include:
- Diamonds and Diamond Grading
- Colored Stones and Colored Stone Grading
- Gem Identification
- Equipment and Instrumentation
- Treatments, Laboratory-Grown, and Imitations
- Markets and Supply Chains
International Gem Society
The International Gem Society, or IGS, is a collective of gem professionals and enthusiasts. The society was founded to make gemology information affordable and accessible to everyone.
The IGS offers two different professional certifications and more than a dozen specialized “mini-courses.” If you’re a hobbyist or just looking to expand your knowledge, the mini-courses are a great way to learn more about a particular gem that interests you. If you’re interested in a career in gemology, their Professional Gemologist Certification Course is the best place to start.
The IGA’s Professional Gemologist Certification Course was designed to be a flexible and affordable option for those interested in gemology. It’s an online, self-guided course. While it’s not as prestigious as the GIA Graduate Gemologist course, the IGS course is an excellent option for anyone who can’t afford the GIA course or can’t commit to full-time study. The course costs $400 and is self-guided, so you can study at your own pace and spend as much or as little time on it as you’d like.
The average student takes about a year to complete the course while studying part-time.
The Gemmological Association of Great Britain
Gem-A has its own gemology course. They split the class into a Gemology Foundation, which covers the basics of gemology, and a Gemology Diploma, a wider and more in-depth course of study that builds on the Gemology Foundation course. You must have completed the foundation course to be eligible for the diploma. They also offer “short courses” and workshops to cover specialized subjects in depth.
The courses are available online or at dozens of accredited teaching centers worldwide. The costs of both courses are variable but average around £3,233 ($3,983) for the foundation and £3,995 ($4,922) for the diploma. Each class takes between four and nine months.
If you have a particular career track in mind, make sure you explore some specialized courses in addition to your gemologist certificate. Most of these institutions also offer classes in diamonds, opals, pearls, faceting, and jewelry design.
Gemologist Courses Head to Head
|Time Commitment||28 Weeks||Self-guided, but approx. 1 yr average||8 to 18 months|
|Depth of Study||5/5||4/5||5/5|
|Location(s)||Online, seven campuses worldwide||Online||Online, dozens of campuses worldwide|
|Specialized Courses||Diamonds, Colored Stones, Pearls, Lab Classes, Jewelry Design, etc.||Over a dozen specialized “mini-courses” in specific gems.||A rotating selection of short courses and workshops.|
If you’re a recent high school or college graduate and are very serious about becoming a gemologist, you can’t do much better than the GIA course. It’s expensive and a full-time commitment, but it’s one of the most thorough and prestigious gemology courses globally and is a great way to jumpstart your career.
If you can’t commit to the high cost of the GIA course or can’t commit to studying full time, the IGS course is the way to go. You can take the course at your own pace, making it perfect for someone making a midlife career change while still working full or part-time, an enthusiast, a lapidary, merchant, or other gem professional looking to expand their knowledge.
If you live outside the United States, I would recommend exploring what Gem-A offers in your country.
What Jobs Can a Gemologist Do?
There are many jobs that a gemologist can do! I’ll look at some of the most common ones in depth below. Many gemologists combine two or more of the professions listed below (gemstone retailer and appraisals, or wholesale buyer and jewelry design, for example). It’s also common for gemologists to pursue a niche and specialize in a specific gemstone, such as diamonds or opals.
Jewelry and Gemstone Appraisals
Jewelry and gemstone appraisers examine a gem or piece of jewelry and determine its worth. They need to be knowledgeable about the properties of gemstones, their common flaws, and their desirable traits. Appraisers also need to stay up to date on the market in order to perform the most accurate appraisals.
Gemstone and jewelry appraisals are often used for insurance purposes or when conducting sales. A good appraiser will be as objective and accurate as possible in their work. Appraisers make around $50,000 to $70,000.
Gemstone Merchandiser or Retailer
Gemologists can serve as salespeople in a retail setting. They help advise customers on their purchasing decisions and advise jewelers on which techniques to use in their designs. Trustworthiness and excellent customer service skills are needed in these positions. Gemstone retailers and merchandisers can make between $30,000 and $70,000 annually.
Wholesale Gemstone Buyer
Wholesale gemstone buyers get to travel the world in search of gorgeous gemstones. Although the job is less Indiana Jones and more booth hopping in convention centers and markets, it’s still an excellent choice for anyone interested in travel. An eye for detail and knowledge of the market and trends are critical if you want to be a buyer. Wholesale buyer salaries vary greatly, but the national average is around $60,000 a year.
Lapidary artists work with stones and gems. They typically specialize in faceting, carving, tumbling, cabbing stones, or some combination thereof. Faceting (cutting the facets on a gemstone to bring out its brilliance) and cabbing (cutting stones into cabochons — the flat bottomed dome shape often used for stones like opals and moonstones) are the two most useful lapidary specialties for jewelry manufacturers.
Lapidary artists can make around $20,000 to $55,000, though if you combine manufacturing jewelry with sales to create your own custom jewelry line, the sky is the limit.
Jewelry designers often start as lapidaries or bench jewelers. They design original jewelry pieces. Sometimes jewelry designers make their own pieces, but many work with other jewelers to bring their designs to life. The amount of money a jewelry designer can make varies quite a bit.
Bench jewelers are the most common type of jeweler. They often perform repairs and clean jewelry pieces, but some create new pieces as well. They tend to work in association with a jewelry store. It can be tedious, backbreaking work, but bench jewelers spend every day helping to preserve and repair people’s most treasured pieces. Bench jewelers generally make around $30,000 to $65,000 a year, depending on their services.
Auction House Professional
An auction gemologist is similar to an appraiser in a lot of ways. You need to look at a gemstone or piece of jewelry and determine its value. If you’re working for an auction house, your responsibilities will include assisting with buying and selling pieces, often in an exciting, high-stakes setting. Auction house gemologists can expect to make around $50,000 to $65,000 a year.
A museum specialist works as a curator for gemstone exhibits. Some of the same tools necessary to be an appraiser would be helpful going into a museum career. Museum gemologist salaries vary depending upon the museum and location, but most specialists can make $30,000 to $80,000.
A lab researcher or lab gemologist works in a lab studying the formation of gemstones and their physical and optical properties. A lab gemologist’s responsibilities might include identifying gemstones, grading gemstones, and writing reports.
Lab research positions usually require at least a bachelor’s degree in a lab science. Lab gemologists tend to make approximately $40,000 to $65,000 annually.
You can be a gemologist who trains other gemologists! As with any other specialized industry, instructors are needed to pass on their expertise to a new generation of specialists. GIA instructor salaries range from $69,000 to $86,000.
Investing in Gemstones
Some people choose to invest in gemstones rather than stocks or precious metals. Knowledge of market trends and associated risks is crucial for this. Note that there are no formal standards for “investment grade” gemstones the way there are for other goods.
What Equipment Do Gemologists Use?
Gemologists use many different tools for different tasks. These are some of the most common ones:
- 10x Loupe — A 10x loupe is one of the least expensive and most useful pieces of equipment in a gemologist’s arsenal. It’s the pocket-sized hand-held magnification device gemologists use to look for flaws in diamonds and other gemstones. A 10x loupe is the standard for diamond grading.
- Tweezers — Other than a loupe, a pair of tweezers to hold gemstones is probably a gemologist’s most essential tool.
- Gem Microscope — A microscope is used to examine gemstones up close and study inclusions. Specialized gem microscopes exist specifically to examine gemstones.
- Polariscope — A polariscope is a tool used to observe whether a stone is singly or doubly refractive, one trait that distinguishes moissanite from diamonds.
- Dichroscope — A dichroscope is a small, simple tool used to observe pleochroism in gems. Essentially it allows a gemologist to observe different colors when the gem is held at different angles and is one of the ways to differentiate certain gems that may look the same to the naked eye.
- Spectroscope — A spectroscope is a tool used to measure which wavelengths of light a gem absorbs. It can be a way to differentiate whether a gem is natural or synthetic and can indicate whether or not your gemstone has been dyed.
- Refractometer — A refractometer is a tool that measures the refractive index of a gem. The refractive index is a measurement of the speed that light travels when passing through the gem in relation to its rate in a vacuum.
- Ultraviolet Lamp — Ultraviolet light can help identify certain gemstones and some common gemstone treatments.
- Stone Cloth — A quality polishing cloth is essential to ensure that your gemstones are clean.
Answer: You don’t need a formal degree to be a gemologist, but you need to take trade classes and earn a certificate. Both the Gemological Institute of America and the International Gem Society offer courses in gemology.
Answer: Gemology and geology are not the same things. Geologists study the Earth, and gemologists study gemstones. Some gemologists have degrees in geology, but the degree is not necessary for a professional career in gemology.
Answer: A lapidarist is someone who cuts and polishes gemstones. They are sometimes referred to as a lapidary or a gem cutter.
A gemologist is essentially someone who studies gemstones, but there are many different things a gemologist can do based on their level of expertise and personal interests. If you’re interested in a career in gemology, there are several accredited courses that can get you started. Finally, I’d like to thank all of the gemologists out there! Without you, I would have no idea which orange gemstones to use for my next pair of earrings!