Seattle Gemologists Import Pearls, Build Family Legacy

The Oba family – from left, Avery, Jessica, Yoshizumi and Amadea – is building its legacy in pearls. Courtesy Oba Family
Countless finished pieces traded hands at this year’s Tucson gem and mineral shows; among them were a handful of pearl and gemstone bead necklaces fashioned by an up-and-coming designer from Seattle: 6-year-old Amadea Oba.

Oba was arguably the youngest entrepreneur at the shows, but her 3-year-old brother, Avery, is hot on her heels. He’s already learning to shake pearls through sieves to sort them by millimeter size, say the pair’s parents, Yoshizumi “Yoshi” and Jessica Oba.

The elder Obas, owners of pearl importer Y.K. Trading, both graduated from GIA’s Santa Monica campus with Graduate Gemologist diplomas in November 1995.

Though the pair was originally scheduled to have different start dates, timelines changed and they ended up in the same classroom. Jessica Oba recalls meeting a polite young Japanese man her first day; her now-husband jokes that he knew right away they would be a good fit.

“Jessica was the best student in the class and I was the worst, so I knew I had to grab her,” Oba says. “I wasn’t really planning to meet my future wife at GIA – it must have been fate.”

Yoshi Oba grew up surrounded by the pearl industry in his hometown of Kobe, Japan. His father owned a pearl company, and Oba remembers hearing his father’s colleagues talk about GIA. Even as a young man, he says he noticed the respect a Graduate Gemologist diploma commanded among those in the industry.

Oba decided as a teenager that he would one day move to the United States and open his own business. He knew pearls, but wanted to learn more about other gemstones and other aspects of the jewelry industry. His first order of business was to learn English, so in 1990, Oba left Japan for his “adopted hometown” of Seattle, Washington.

Jessica Oba – lacking any family connection to the jewelry industry – had a lifelong interest in gems. Her first job, as a high school student in Oxnard, California, was working at a gift boutique that specialized in sterling silver and gemstone jewelry. Her curiosity was further piqued by the experience, and when an attentive manager handed her a GIA brochure, she enrolled in the Institute’s distance education courses.

Jessica Oba used her earnings from her high school retail job to continue coursework through her first post-graduation job with a fine jewelry store in nearby Camarillo, California.

“The correspondence work was satisfying and rewarding,” she says, “but I really longed to have the on-campus experience.”

So she moved to Santa Monica in May 1995 – where she met her future husband and business partner.

The couple moved to Seattle immediately after graduation in 1996. Yoshi Oba founded Y.K. Trading, and Jessica Oba accepted a job offer with a colored stone wholesaler. They married two years later, and Jessica Oba came on board to help build the family business.

Today, Y.K. Trading imports from Japan, China and Tahiti, and carries several types of pearls, including Japanese Akoya, Chinese freshwater, Tahitian and South Sea. Their primary customers are other small businesses, such as independent jewelry stores, designers and wholesale repair shops. They sometimes do specialty contract work – Jessica Oba strings pearls for other dealers, while Yoshi Oba drills and sorts large lots for other companies.

Their business works with a true international community, so Jessica Oba says their GIA experience comes into play regularly.

“The skills you learn at GIA are invaluable,” she says. “It provides a bit of shorthand when meeting other graduates – you instantly know there is this shared well of knowledge, and that increases your confidence when dealing with colleagues and clients.”

If their children’s early interest in the family business is any indication, the Obas may soon be using that gemological “shorthand” at home.

Yoshi and Jessica Oba use their GG skills to help them in their pearl importing
business, Y.K. Trading. Photo by Siegfried Markwart, courtesy Y.K. Trading

Jaime Kautsky, a contributing writer, is a GIA Diamonds Graduate and GIA Accredited Jewelry Professional and was an associate editor of The Loupe magazine for several years.