JTV Goes to London for the 2012 Gem-A Conference

Published on JTV.com: November 2012
A Personal Perspective on Travelling with Co-Founder Jerry Sisk
By: Tim Matthews, CEO & President

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Travelling abroad with Jerry Sisk is fun! My good friend and a Jewelry Television co-founder, Jerry Sisk, was a delightful travel companion as we ventured abroad to London, England, for a conference sponsored by the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (also known as "Gem-A").

I had the unique opportunity to travel with a world-recognized expert in the gem world and to engage with other professionals and experts in the trade, all in the beautiful venue of London!

Since Gem-A is based in England, some in the United States may not be familiar with Gem-A. Many would be surprised to learn that Gem-A is the world's longest established provider of gem and jewelry education, since 1908. Gem-A offers diplomas in Gemmology and Diamonds through courses taught around the world and recipients enjoy global recognition of the status that these diplomas confer. Those receiving diplomas after rigorous course work and laboratory examinations may apply for election to Fellowship (FGA) or Diamond Membership (DGA) of Gem-A.

So, what's Jewelry Television's relationship with Gem-A? Apart from our employees having earned FGA or DGA status with Gem-A, Jewelry Television enjoys a unique relationship as the sole retailer of the GemBasics course on colored gemstones that leads to recognition as a Gem-A Colored Stone Associate (C.S.A.). GemBasics is a great way to learn about gemstones, whether as a hobby or the start of a new career. Gem-A developed this course in conjunction with Jewelry Television to appeal to the large number of our customers who seek fresh and reliable gemological education.

Jerry and I left Knoxville for the 2012 Gem-A Conference late on Friday, November 2, having a short layover in Atlanta en route to Heathrow. The overseas flight was just over eight hours with a mid-day arrival on Saturday in London. The afternoon gave us a breather as we settled into Hotel Russell where, incidentally, the conference speaking sessions were held on Sunday.

After settling into our hotel Saturday afternoon, Jerry and I had a small window of time for some sightseeing prior to our scheduled dinner with a select group of Gem-A executives and guests. Since our trip was full of scheduled activities centered on the jewelry and gemstones business, we wanted to do something different and decided that we would make a quick visit to the Imperial War Museum. Jerry and I were excited about this little side trip because we are both history buffs and this would also give us a chance to get out and see something unique.

We soon departed the hotel and set out for the closest bus stop, knowing that the Museum was conveniently located on one of the principal bus routes. London has wonderful public transportation system with many options for visitors, including the London Buses network originally introduced after World War I. It did not take long for us to catch one of the double-decker buses bearing its archetypal bright red paint, route 59 from Russell Square.The Imperial War Museum's collection of "big guns" and instruments of war was certainly impressive, and we took the opportunity to snap a photo of Jerry next to one of the big guns we saw. Of course, I think of Jerry as a "big gun" because he has incredible knowledge about gemstones, having recently authored a definitive "Guide to Gems and Jewelry". Jerry also was recognized by JCK as one of the most powerful among the movers and shakers in the gemstone business.

In any case, Jerry and I enjoyed the Imperial War Museum and its displays of impressive guns. But to me, I was most impressed with the art collection and the explanation of how censors during WWII actually censored war-era paintings to prevent confidential information from passing inadvertently to the enemy. This intersection of art and intrigue reminded me of so many interesting gemstone stories and hidden delicacies in gemstones like the horsetail inclusions in Russian demantoid.

After too short a visit to the Museum, we were next on our way to dinner at Greig's Restaurant in the heart of Mayfair near Berkeley Square. We shared a wonderful dinner in a quaint private dining room with Gem-A executives and a small group of guests. I had the fortune of sitting between James Riley, the new CEO of Gem-A, and Dr. Gaetano Cavalieri, President of CIBJO, giving me a special opportunity to become more acquainted with these industry leaders and learn about their fascinating careers and organizations. James Riley possesses an incredible amount of trade knowledge, particularly focused on diamonds. I found it fascinating that Dr. Cavalieri's family business in Italy and Sicily originated in 1821. Imagine the legacy and family knowledge that comes with being in the jewelry business for almost 200 years!

Sunday was our big conference day, chocked full of guest speakers and educational opportunities for the large assemblage of Gem-A delegates and guests. The speakers included Dr. Hanco Zwaan who spoke about new emeralds from Brazil, Bear Williams presenting on advanced instrumentation for small gem labs, Dr. Lore Kiefert informing us about West African corundum, Thomas Hainschwang sharpening our skills with new methods of synthetic diamond identification, Richard Hughes relaying a first hand account of the Chinese jade and nephrite mines and trading centers, Joanna Whalley exploring gem setting and enhancements in Renaissance Europe and Ron Ringsrud teaching us about the Colombian emerald industry. Of course, our own Jerry Sisk was a featured speaker, telling the audience about how passionately Jewelry Television is dedicated to expanding the market for colored gemstones and leading the industry in gemstone education and disclosure.

Other presenters at the conference included Richard Drucker, who spoke Saturday on how to gauge color in colored gemstones from a valuation perspective, a seminar that we missed unfortunately due to our late arrival time. Maggie Campbell Pedersen presented on Monday about identifying amber and distinguishing it from treated materials and imitations. Dr. Jack Ogden, former CEO of Gem-A, gave a fabulous presentation at Goldsmith's Hall on the history of gems and gem setting over the last 5,000 years.

The Gem-A conference was a great way to mingle with other professionals and learn fascinating new information about the trade. We learned about new mineral deposits, the obstacles and difficulties facing the supply chain, particularly in remote mining communities, and new methods of identifying gemstones and treatments. The many millions of miles logged by these professionals around the world make all the difference to our understanding of gemstones.

Going to a conference in London has lots of side benefits, not to mention the many beautiful and historic places we saw. If you want to start at a key intersection, Parliament Park might be a good place to begin. From the major intersection there, roads branch out to Westminster Bridge, Trafalgar Square, St. James Park and Victoria Station. The Gothic edifices of Big Ben and Parliament stand stately along the River Thames at one end of Westminster Bridge at its intersection with Victoria Embankment.

From the vantage point of the west bank of the Thames, a visitor peering across the river has a great perspective on the Eye of London (a favorite new attraction) Westminster Abbey nearby is England's most famous church, the site of coronations of kings and queens of England since William the Conqueror in 1066, and most recently, Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Intent on exploring, I left Jerry for a time and set out to wander around the City of Westminster in central London at The Mall near the Duke of York memorial. The Mall is a wide boulevard approaching Buckingham Palace from Admiralty Arch through the South & West Africa Gates and around the Queen Victoria Memorial to the Palace east entrance. I was fortunate to catch the changing of the guard and procession from the Wellington Barracks to the Palace, along with hundreds of other onlookers.

St. James Park, the oldest Royal Park, lies to the south of The Mall and is a favorite pastoral destination to stroll around, ranking highly among many tourist scouting reports. Its central location belies its stately tranquility with abundant green space comprising about 58 acres including bike and pedestrian paths and a lake harboring ducks, geese and pelicans. St. James Park is conveniently situated within walking distance of three palaces, St. James's Palace, Buckingham Palace and Westminster (now the Houses of Parliament). Visitors can alight from either the St. James Park or Piccadilly Circus tube stops for a leisurely walk to the Park.

Just across from St. James Park is one of my favorite destinations, the Churchill Museum and the Cabinet War Rooms. Sir Winston Churchill is one of my favorite leaders because of his dedicated passion for saving England in perhaps the worst crisis of modern times. The Cabinet War Rooms, comprising the wartime bunker used by Churchill and his cabinet in World War II, depict the stark reality of conducting the business of government during a war for the very survival of the country. This somber destination is a no-frills network of rooms with essential quarters, offices and communications gear used by Churchill to command the war effort underground. As a reminder of those difficult times, visitors to London will find memorials throughout the city, like the Cenotaph flanked by royal flags.

Continuing down Whitehall I passed by Downing Street, hoping for a peek at the door to #10 but learning that the street has recently been secured by heavy iron gates and not easily accessed by visitors. Just past Downing Street, however, I saw a crowd assembled for pictures around the horse guards. From there it was a short distance to Trafalgar Square marked by its iconic monument to Lord Nelson.

Rejoining Jerry after a couple of hours of marveling at the sights, we met for Dr. Ogden's lecture at Goldsmiths' Hall. In addition to his lecture there, one of the highlights of our conference was the graduation ceremony at Goldsmiths' Hall for students who have earned degrees conferred by Gem-A.

The setting was breathtaking. Goldsmiths' Hall, in close proximity to the famous St. Paul's Cathedral, is a wonderful architectural landmark. I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph Jerry along with an impressive bust of England's King Edward III.

The interior highlight of Goldsmiths' Hall is the Livery Hall in which the graduation exercises were held. This hall is decorated with Corinthian columns of scagliola and is liberally anointed with gold leaf accents throughout, including the extraordinarily ornate moulded ceiling. The magnificent chandeliers light the room with modern electricity and are occasionally lit with candles in the same way as they were in the 19th century. Royal portraits of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria grace the walls. Extra care is taken of the gold buffet plates and cups that appear at the head of the room and are only displayed for special occasions.

The next day was very special starting with a private tour in the Minerals gallery of the British Natural History Museum. This architectural masterpiece of Alfred Waterhouse is home to a marvelous collection of rare gems, crystals and mineral specimens. On display we saw innumerable unique objects like the "snake stone" made of calcite formed inside an ammonite shell that takes on the appearance of the bones of a large snake.

Alan Hart, Curator of Mineralogy at the Natural History Museum (NHM), gave us a private tour including special specimens not on public display. Alan has worked at the NHM for over 30 years and holds a treasure of knowledge about its collection.

I've always thought of "The Vault" as a collection of the museum quality jewelry, gems and specimens offered by Jewelry Television, or items that we have that we keep in our vaults and only occasionally offer for sale. I didn't know that the Natural History Museum had its own "Vault" with some of the most exquisite mineral specimens and gems in the world. Alan was kind enough to take us through the "Vault" to show us rarities like the "Medusa" emerald crystal specimen from Zambia. The emerald crystals seem like frozen green ice in their quartz matrix but, interestingly, notice the layers of white quartz that appear layered in the emerald crystals themselves. Also in the Vault we saw a rare Martian meteorite found in the village of Tissint in Morocco in 2011, the largest Martian meteorite in the collection. Many other interesting items in the Vault included Nakhla Martian meteorite, the Aurora Pyramid of Hope (a collection of 295 naturally colored diamonds), the Latrobe nugget of cubic gold crystals weighing 717 grams, an incredibly rare 57.26 carat padparadscha sapphire from Sri Lanka and the Devonshire emerald weighing 1,384 carats.

After the Vault tour, Alan took our group on a few "side tours" inside the bowels of the museum to see some additional treasures not on public display. We stopped by to see Dr. Caroline Smith, a museum expert on meteorites, to learn about Martian meteorite material and other exceedingly rare specimens. One specimen struck me as particularly interesting, a meteorite dated to approximately 4.56 billion years ago, predating the formation of not only the earth but our solar system as well. You can imagine how exciting it was to hold a piece of history in your hand like that! She also passed out a Martian meteorite sample for each person in our group to examine.

Dr. Smith explained how they could determine that a meteorite fragment originated from Mars. Essentially, its origin was validated by matching the tiny air bubbles trapped in the rock with atmospheric samples taken from our Martian probes, like the NASA Viking and MER missions. Because of Jewelry Television's interest in moldavite, a material also formed by meteoric impact in a way that trapped atmospheric gases in the rock, I asked her about moldavite and the size of the largest specimen in the museum. Interestingly, she described the museum's specimens as about the size of a large coin. At Jewelry Television, I knew that Bill Kouns was studying moldavite rough and had numerous pieces of rough specimens that exceed the size in the museum. It was exciting to confirm that Jewelry Television works with some of the rarest finds around the world, like our moldavite rough collection. Our tour at the museum was not limited to the Minerals gallery.

In a most exciting detour, we ventured into anthropology studies with a private showing of the skull of "Rhodesian Man" (homo rhodesiensis), discovered in a mine in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia) in 1921. This finely preserved specimen has been dated in the range of 125,000 to 300,000 years old and represents one of the most significant and oldest finds of human or nearly-human species in the study of the history of man.

After an exhilarating morning at the Natural History Museum, our last planned excursion was a private tour of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London (Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress), the historic castle on the north bank of the River Thames. Tower Hill was founded in 1066 following the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror. The innermost building shown here is the "White Tower", a keep that originally served as a royal residence. Across from the White Tower is Waterloo Block or Waterloo Barracks, the building presently housing the Crown Jewels in a part referred to as the "Jewel House."

No pictures inside the Jewel House were permitted (so we left with no pictures) but the tour was outstanding. Since our tour was private, we avoided competing with a crowd for close-up views of the Crown Jewels. What a pleasure to marvel at these jewels among gemological experts, discussing such topics as the cutting of the culet on the Cullinan I diamond, a 530.2 carat treasure also known as the Great Star of Africa, adorning the Sovereign's Sceptre. Our guides directed us to the Black Prince's Ruby (actually, a red spinel) in the Imperial State Crown which, curiously, has a hole bored through the top that is concealed in the crown by a smaller ruby affixed over the hole. You would be pleased to know that Jewelry Television's Learning Library is a great place to learn about treasures such as the Black Prince's Ruby. These precious state treasures, along with many others such as the Imperial Crown of India, the Crown of the Queen Mother, St. Edward's Crown, precious orbs, sceptres, royal vestments, swords, rings, serving dishes and a host of priceless jewels were truly a highlight of our trip. We marveled at the beauty and craftsmanship of each piece. Any opportunity to see the Crown Jewels again would be well worth the trip.

As we departed from the Crown Jewels area and stepped outside the Jewel House, the sun had fallen and the night lights of London illuminated the skyline. The beauty of Tower Bridge struck me and I tried to imagine the look of the Olympic rings from the bridge as it had been decorated when London hosted the Olympics last summer. Tower Bridge is sometimes confused with "London Bridge" (the next bridge upstream) but actually takes its name from its proximity to the Tower of London. The bridge is a stately reminder of the grace and classic historic beauty of this city.

As we left Tower Hill, the eerie lights reminded us of the history of this place of royalty where kings and queens had lived and died. In this photograph of Tower Hill, one can see that the large defensive moat around the exterior ring of defensive walls no longer contains water. When it did, however, we understand from our guide that the moat's design was defective to the point of collecting waste from the River (instead of allowing fresh water to circulate around) with the effect of becoming putrid and having an awful stench. The ambiguity of smell and sense, knowing some of the awful executions that also took place on Tower Hill and the brutal torture that occurred in its chambers, provided a stark contrast to the Crown Jewels, a kind of intellectual inflection point that caused me to reflect on the ambiguity of the moment.

Jerry and I headed out from Tower Hill for our last night in London and we landed up on Canary Wharf at Royal China for a fabulous Chinese meal. Canary Wharf also provided a modern visual contrast to all of the historic landmarks we visited during our trip, boasting a vibrant financial district and an impressive skyline of towering office buildings.

Our trip had truly been a wonderful experience, successful in bringing to our friends and delegates at Gem-A a greater understanding of who Jewelry Television is, and why we play an important role of leadership in the gemstones industry, while learning from our colleagues and enjoying the environs of a marvelous city.