Inside the World of Gem and Jewellery Appraising

From left: Teri Brossmer, Gina D'Onofrio and Carole C. Richbourg share a behind-the-scenes look at the appraisal profession with students at GIA's campus in Carlsbad. Photo by Kevin Schumacher/GIA
Students filled the lecture hall at GIA’s campus in Carlsbad recently, eager to hear about the world of gem and jewellery appraising. Classes had already ended for the day, but students were ready to learn more ‒ a trait, it turns out, that is necessary to be a successful appraiser.

“We are perpetual students. We are always learning, and we love it,” said Teri Brossmer, an independent appraiser and GIA Graduate Gemmologist (GG), who kicked off a panel discussion along with two other appraisers from the American Society of Appraisers (ASA). A drive to continue your education is vital for appraisers because you regularly spend time studying new discoveries, learning about gem treatments and understanding the laws that affect your business, she said.   

Brossmer began her career in gems and jewellery in 1979 when she approached a local jeweller and asked how she could make a career in the industry. He suggested she contact GIA. When Brossmer returned to the store with a course catalogue the jeweller was so impressed by her initiative that he hired her on the spot. She earned her GG and ultimately received her appraising accreditation through ASA.

Brossmer said appraisers use their gemmological and jewellery knowledge, combined with valuation theory – a process to determine the monetary market value – to give a credible, defendable opinion of value. She pointed out that unlike other jewellery professionals, appraisers don’t have a particular product to sell.

“We’re selling our experience, knowledge and opinion,” she said. “I get paid for my opinion – but it is a well-researched opinion.”

Appraisers don’t just get to be opinionated and curious, she told students; they need to have a variety of skills.

“Appraisers need to be multi-talented,” she said. They need to be part scientist, part computer tech, part business person and part historian. History skills come into play when they recognise gem treatment and jewellery techniques, and spot when something is out of place.

“You’ve got to know that when you turn over the incredible ‘art nouveau’ piece and see the CAD/CAM skin on the back that you’ve got a problem,” Brossmer said. “You need to know when certain techniques were possible throughout history.”   

She added that aspiring appraisers also need to be part diplomat, or as she put it, a “jewellery therapist,” since jewellery is often purchased to commemorate a significant occasion and frequently has special meaning attached to it.

She shared the story of one of her first clients, a recently engaged woman who had brought in her ring to be appraised. Brossmer, unfortunately, immediately saw that the stone was not a diamond and told her client, who was shocked. “After that, I learned diplomacy very quickly,” she said.      

Brossmer has expanded her expertise to include appraisals for law enforcement organisations. She branched out early in her career when an FBI agent told her about a new law that required seized property to be evaluated by independent appraisers. Brossmer evaluated hundreds of pieces of jewellery for her first case, and the FBI was happy with her work.

“Before long I was getting calls from the FBI, DEA, U.S. Customs and even the Food and Drug Administration,” she said. “As it turns out, appraising seized property is very big business.”  

Brossmer said every day can be a new experience for appraisers, especially working with law enforcement. She often works in remote warehouses without heat or air-conditioning, sometimes in temperatures near freezing or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). On several occasions she’s had to testify in criminal cases, and a few times she’s been involved with evaluating gems and jewellery immediately after a police raid.

Students listened in awe to Brossmer’s unusual experiences and thrilling cases with law enforcement, before two other appraisers joined her for a panel discussion led by student questions.

Students listen attentively and take notes during a panel discussion on gem and jewellery appraising. Photo by Kevin Schumacher/GIA

Carole C. Richbourg, an independent appraiser from Los Altos, California, started her career in a retail jewellery store. She earned her GG diploma through distance education and started her own appraisal business in 2004, working almost exclusively with private consumers in northern California.

Gina D’Onofrio, originally from Sydney, Australia, said she “fell into the appraisal business” after a wide range of jewellery experiences – from selling opals to antique jewellery, and from retail management to jewellery design. She said once she studied gemmology she was hooked. “Little did I know my experience was becoming very well-rounded and was setting me up with a good knowledge base for appraising jewellery,” she said.  

Students asked the appraisers specific questions about how to increase their knowledge in antique jewellery, how to start an appraisal business, what computer software to use and their favourite gemmological instruments.

Richbourg encouraged students to get retail experience, which she said is invaluable because it provides the opportunity to handle jewellery and become more familiar with the “feel” of it. This helps appraisers make an instinctual first determination on authenticity.

D’Onofrio stressed the importance of networking, and the friendships that can often lead to new professional opportunities.  

All three of the appraisers said that one of the most rewarding experiences of appraising comes from the stories gems and jewellery reveal. One of Brossmer’s favourite experiences was the opportunity to document American actress Ginger Rogers’ personal jewellery collection.

“Not only did I get to see this personal glimpse into her life, but because she had been a star for such a long span of time, you could see the progression of jewellery design over the years. There were incredible pieces from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s,” she said.   

D’Onofrio admitted she is a hopeless romantic. “I love the discovery, the history, the stories behind the jewellery and the people you meet. I think it’s the best part of the industry.”

Kristin A. Aldridge, a writer at GIA, is a graduate of GIA’s Pearls and Accredited Jewellery Professional programmes.