Michelle Rahm is many things: an accomplished business owner, a seasoned gemmologist, an Internet jewellery sales pioneer and an award-winning leader in the GIA Alumni Association.
But when Rahm visited Madagascar in 2014 to learn about its mineralogy and tour mining localities, she didn’t expect to also become an advocate for the nation’s children. “I never imagined that a business trip to Madagascar would change my life,” she says.
Rahm’s business began when she decided “on a whim” to sell a few pieces of costume jewellery online in 1997. “It was an experiment to earn a little extra money for Christmas while my other start-up business was in the works,” says the Colorado resident. “But the jewellery sold so well right away, I never went back to the other business.”
She tried wholesaling items like hot cocoa and coffee, but jewellery and watches always performed best, so she zeroed in and founded JewelryImpressions.com.
As Rahm found success in online jewellery sales, though, so did others.
“The Internet was becoming more accepted as a means of commerce, and I wanted an edge over my competition by having real credentials in the trade,” she says. When Rahm found herself at the Jewelers 24 Karat Club golf tournament with Douglas Hucker, CEO of the American Gem Trade Association, she asked his opinion on whether she should pursue her Graduate Gemologist diploma.
“He strongly encouraged me to do so,” says Rahm, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin - Platteville. “Within six months had I signed up for classes, and had finished the programme a year later.”
Rahm soon noticed the effects that a GIA education had on her business: as her knowledge increased, her sales evolved from costume jewellery to fine jewellery and loose stones – and she was able to communicate with customers in an entirely new way.
“My GIA education allowed me to speak intelligently about gems and diamonds to my clients,” she says. “There is a trust factor there that consumers don’t find with other retailers who do not have their GG. I feel like my diploma helps me to stand out in the sea of jewellery retailers, especially those selling on the Internet. When I have the opportunity to speak to customers, they realise that I have the education to back up what I say.”
Rahm continued to engage with customers, seizing an opportunity in 2009 when she recognised that many of them were buying loose stones to be set in engagement rings. She created OurCustomWeddingRings.com, which sells engagement rings set with coloured stones.
She also threw herself into involvement with the GIA Alumni Association – she’s president of the Denver, Colorado-area Mile-High chapter – and into continuing education classes and workshops. It was her quest for ever-expanding knowledge that led Rahm to that life-changing trip to Madagascar, where she was thrilled to visit sites like the Ilakaka alluvial sapphire deposit that she had studied for her GIA coursework.
What impacted her the most, though, was a surprise. “It wasn’t the sparkling gems that caught my eye,” she says. “It was the children.”
Rahm felt an instant bond with the “beautiful” children she met with such “rich spirits”, but was overwhelmed by their lack of access to clean water, nutritious food and other fundamental necessities for survival. She returned to the United States with a resolve to learn about clean water projects and the other basic needs of the Malagasy people.
The real “gems” of that nation, she says, are its children. She joined forces with partners in Madagascar and Colorado and founded GemsofMadagascar.org, a non-governmental organisation with a “holistic approach” to humanitarian work. The non-profit, which was officially created in 2015, will offer first aid and hygiene training, develop community gardens and clean water systems, and construct buildings, among other needs that will give local children a better chance of a bright future. The first two projects will launch this summer: a clean-water system that will supply eight villages, and a church and community building construction project for another village. There are plans for more clean-water systems in the next year.
Rahm has travelled back to Madagascar several times in the last couple of years. In addition to her work with her own business and as a leader in the Alumni Association, Rahm is thrilled at the many opportunities and paths that have developed from a “whim” of a decision to sell some costume jewellery online.
“I absolutely love my career,” she says.