During the depths of the Depression, a middle-aged man with little more than ambition and charisma revolutionized the gem and jewelry industry. Robert M. Shipley established the Gemological Institute of America in 1931 as an education and research facility dedicated to the study of gems. From humble beginnings in his Los Angeles apartment, GIA would go on to become a global leader in gemology.
Shipley began his career as a retail jeweler in Wichita, Kansas. Although he cultivated the image of a gem expert, several embarrassing episodes revealed his lack of training. Divorce and the failure of his business during the mid-1920s sent him in search of a new life in Paris studying art. There he met his second wife, Beatrice, who introduced him to the right people and got him started as a museum lecturer. At the same time he discovered his love of teaching, Shipley enrolled in gemological correspondence courses offered by Great Britain’s National Association of Goldsmiths.
Inspired by the NAG courses and painfully aware of how little most retail jewelers knew about gems, Shipley returned to the United States with a vision: professionalizing the jewelry trade through education. GIA was the first organization of its kind in the United States. While traveling across the country to promote GIA courses, Shipley also established the Institute’s laboratory and instrument services.
In 1934, Shipley founded the American Gem Society as a professional guild of knowledgeable jewelers. That same year he established Gems & Gemology, GIA’s journal of gemological research. Shipley retired in 1952, but his far-reaching vision would influence future generations of gem and jewelry tradespeople.