In 2015, I started selling gemstone jewellery through my online sales outlets and while this was incredibly exciting to start with, I soon realised that selling things that you don’t really know about can lead to situations where you are unable to answer questions from your customers.
And as someone who is constantly looking to learn and add new skills to my repertoire, I knew it was time to find a course to expand my knowledge. I did a one day course on diamonds in February 2015 and while I learnt a little bit, I knew that I needed much more than a one day course to get anywhere close to where I wanted to be.
So I began looking around at courses that were available and there were quite a few online and short courses about but if I was going to do this, I wanted to do it properly and get a recognised qualification at the end of it. Being Birmingham born and bred, I am very fortunate to have the Jewellery Quarter and the School of Jewellery just down the road.
So I checked out the School of Jewellery website and saw the Gem-A foundation course on offer and after doing some research into Gem-A (The Gemmological Association of Great Britain), who are the oldest established gemmology training institute in the world. I knew this was the was I was going to go.
Gem-A Foundation Course
I enrolled on on the Gem-A foundation course over the summer of 2015 and was given a start date for the October, little did I know at this point that I would begin a pretty long relationship with the School.
A week before the course started, I received a big box through the post and upon opening it, I realised it was my course notes, equipment and a small selection of gemstones and crystals (some of which are in the image above). On my first flick through of the notes, I knew that there was a lot to learn and I was going to have to do some serious studying!
The First Class
As when embarking on anything new, there was a mixed sense of nerves and excitement when I was making my way to the first class and walking into the school, knowing I was starting a new journey just emphasised these feelings and emotions. It certainly was going to be a different way to spend a Monday evening!
We were taken up to out classroom, which was a little room on the top floor of the school and the first thing I noticed was that I was the only guy in the room, I was liking gemmology already! Three other lads would join the course over the next couple of weeks, but there was still a female to male ratio of 3:1. After we had all sat down, we were introduced to our tutor.
Davina, is a very talented geologist who went on to study gemmology at a later date and she was quite honest that crystals were her area of specialism and she has her own business dealing in crystal specimens. She laid out what we would be doing over the next 8/9 months before taking our end of years exams. At this point, you could see the dread on some peoples faces.
We also got to look at our first stone and it is something that has been imprinted in my memory ever since! A blue, garnet topped doublet. Which for those who don’t know, is a piece of glass with a small piece of garnet on the top and at first glance, looks like quite a nice blue gemstone.
After leaving that first class, I was a mix of excited and determined. I knew I had a challenge in front of me and I wouldn’t be able to coast through this like I had with every other course I had done since leaving school.
The First Couple of Months
Honestly, the first couple of months are a bit of a blur as there is some much to learn, not only are you learning about the equipment you are using, how to use it to test gemstones and also the theory behind it all. For one night a week, there is a lot of information to take in!
When I wasn’t running my business, I was reading course notes or practising with my equipment to try and not only get the hang of it, but also to use it quickly as wasting time faffing around with equipment in the final exam wasn’t going to help me.
By the time we broke up for Christmas, I think everyone was ready for a break! By this point, I had passed my first or possibly second? Online quiz, which is a set of questions with either multiple choice or typed answer questions, that you have to answer in a set time. I still remember the first one I got wrong as I typed opague instead of opaque!
New Year, New Building!
Going back to school in 2016 was an incredible experience! After being cooped up in a room that really was too small for our class, the gemmology faculty moved in to the top floor of the new Birmingham Assay Office building.
We had gone from just about having a desk to ourselves and having to share equipment such as refractometers and microscopes, to having our own large desks and a selection of equipment each, this made studying much more enjoyable.
Once we had got over how great the new facilities were, we were back to it. We carried on working through our course notes and practising every week to complete our work books on the practical side.
Before we got to the Easter break, it was time to sit our mock exams. While some of the class were panicking about this, I knew that it would be a great benchmark to see where I was in terms of what I had learnt and also what I needed to focus on. I was also kind of looking forward to seeing what the exam conditions were going to be like as I hadn’t sat a proper exam since my GCSE’s over a decade ago!
Anyway, we come back after Easter and I am a little nervous to see how well/badly I have done and I get the two paper back and I would have just scraped an overall pass. I was really happy with this because I knew I had a couple of months till the real exam and also what areas I needed to improve.
The Final Exam
Going into the final exam, I did have some nerves but also a degree of confidence (some of my classmates may have said arrogance!) in myself and my ability. This had been born from doing well academically, ever since I had gone back into a learning environment when I was 21.
The exam was definitely a challenge but I could answer more than I couldn’t, so I had a pretty good feeling when I handed my papers in, that I had done enough to pass, get my certificate and allow me to go on and do the second year and try and get my full Gemmology Diploma.
Ok, that might be slight exaggeration but the 2 months between sitting the exams and getting your results feel like an age. Worst bit about it was, I knew I would get the results sometime around my birthday, so I was hoping to have a very good present through the post.
A few days before my birthday, an A4 sized, light brown envelope arrived and I knew this was a good sign as I had been told that if you failed, you received a small white envelope.
I slowly opened the envelope, and there is was. My Certificate in Gemmology and I would now call myself a Cert GA, I was incredibly proud of this and my score had also increased a good few percent since the mock exam. Now it was time for the full diploma!
Gem-A Gemmology Diploma
I knew as soon as I got my certificate through the post that I would be doing the second year but wasn’t sure if a) anyone else had passed and b) if anyone was going to do the second year.
Before signing up, I received a phone call from one of the girls from the first year, who I had barely spoken to all year and I’m still not sure how she got my phone number? But one conversation later, I knew at least one person was going to be doing the second year with me, turned out only 5 of the 13 or so who took the foundation exam would do the second year.
Even though we had barely spoken in the first year, Charlotte has become one of my closest friends and she made the second year much more enjoyable. She also beat my exam results in both years!
When we started out first lesson back, which was now going to be for two nights a week (Tuesday and Wednesday), we met out new tutor Andrew.
I had met Andrew briefly at the grand opening of our new gemmology section and he showed me a pink stone asked as me what did I think it was. I can’t remember but it turned out to be a Goshenite with Morganite grown over the top, I still haven’t forgiven him for this!
But Andrew is one of the best gemmologists I know and as well as becoming a good friend, he is still my go to whenever I have a question about gemstones and I don’t think I have stumped him yet!
If I had thought that the foundation year was tough, I was in for a rude awakening. Not only did I have to learn more in-depth about everything I had already learnt but I also had new stuff I needed to learn but I soon learnt that Andrew was more than capable of guiding me through this.
We were soon back into the swing of learning and the weeks and months went by, learning not only what was in the notes but also lots of useful extras along the way. It turns out that Andrew has one of the most varied and unique collections of gemstones and there wasn’t much that we asked to see that he didn’t have.
As part of the second year, along with doing the online quizzes, we also had to do an assignment and a gemmology related subject of our choosing. I chose to do it on Rubies as I have always found them fascinating and I think that it was writing this essay, that I developed a love of writing as it all seemed to come quite easily to me. So much so that the guide was 3,000 – 5,000 words, I had to stop at 10,000 and I wasn’t close to being finished!
The Mock Exam
I really enjoyed all the classes as there was always something new to learn but I did start to get to point of struggling to retain information. I don’t want to put anyone off studying this as it is an amazing course but you have to know a lot about a lot.
Going into the mock exam before Easter, I think I was feeling a bit overwhelmed but after Easter, these fears were lifted as I did much better than I though and could see where I needed to put some serious effort in to fill in some of the gaps.
Putting in the Hours
As the School of Jewellery, there is also a full time gemmology degree and I got the chance to go in and spend some time with the second years who were also going to be doing the same exam, during their revision time and every Tuesday for about 6 weeks, I was there from 10am – 8pm. Needless to say, these felt like long days!
I was a little nervous going in on my first day as I was only used to being there when most of the people in the building had gone home but the people I met during those revision days were some of the nicest, interesting and most diverse people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. They came from all around the world and all shared the same passion for gemstones.
Outside of these revision days, I was still putting in the hours. Whether it was reading the notes or doing a past paper. I was determined to pass this course and get my diploma.
The Final Exam
As with the first year, I went into the exam with a quiet confidence but this was pretty much dashed when I opened the first paper (one of three exams!) and saw that it was mainly about pearls and opals, the two stones I had spend the least time studying. Funny thing is, Opals are now one of my favourite gemstones.
I put down everything and anything I could on that first paper and came out feeling quite deflated as I knew I hadn’t done very well and I wasn’t the only one sitting there with my head in my hands. But during the lunch break between the two exams, I got myself back together, with the help of Charlotte and went in for the second exam.
Well this one couldn’t be more different, I couldn’t write enough down! It was almost like they had done this on purpose and I came out of that exam feeling pretty confident. Hopefully the second one would balance out my pretty abysmal first paper.
Then it was on to exam number three, the practical. This was the one I was most looking forward to as it was where my strengths had been all year and we had had some great exam prep with the help of Davina. In the practical it was going to be a combination of knowledge, ability and speed as you don’t get too long to spend studying the stones.
After this third exam, I was feeling pretty exhausted and in some ways I was sad it was over, I was also happy that it was as well.
As with the foundation year, there was about a two month wait between sitting the exam and getting my results.
Waiting for the postman everyday almost became painful but a few days before my birthday, am A4 sized envelope arrived.
This meant I had passed something but it wasn’t a guarantee I had passed all of it as you get a separate certificate for passing the practical.
I have never known myself shake as much as I did when I opened that envelope but I had done it, I had passed! This was the proudest day of my life, mainly because I don’t think I had ever worked so hard to achieve something.
Unfortunately, not everyone who sat the exam when I did passed but Charlotte did and as I mentioned earlier she did better than me and won an award for her score. I now understand why FGA’s are so highly regarded in the jewellery trade!
The Diamond Diploma
I’ll be honest, I had no intentions of doing this course. I had spent two years working hard to get my gemmology diploma and I was more than happy with that but somehow Andrew managed to talk me into doing it.
I think my initial reluctance to doing it was that I never really dealt with diamonds and at the time, I found them quite boring, as lots of gemmologists do but I signed up and got ready to embark on year number 3.
Going into my first diamond class was ever such as strange experience as I was in a building that I was familiar with and I knew most of the staff but I was doing this course with a new tutor and a new set of classmates.
The class for the diamond class was very small, which I found very surprising as diamonds are the worlds most popular gemstones but there was only 6 of us in the class. At this point, I also met my new tutor, Michelle who is a very knowledgeable gemmologist who knows a lot about diamonds.
Even though diamonds aren’t covered in-depth in the gemmology diploma, I still knew enough to be happy to have a go at one of the diamond exam papers and felt quietly confident in my ability.
The first couple of chapters of the Diamond diploma notes were pretty similar to the gemmology so I didn’t really learn much in the first few weeks and I think I got on Michelle’s nerves a bit as I would ask questions, quite a lot! She’s never admitted it to me but I’d hate to have someone like me in a class but all of my tutors remember me.
Even though I might have been an annoying student, I was more than happy to help some of the others in the class as this was the first course 4 out of the other 5 students had done and I soon found that I really enjoyed doing this.
Gearing up for the Exam
As we progressed through the year, I had an inkling that I could do pretty well at this course as there wasn’t really anything that I struggled to get to grips with, even band gap theory (I’m sure any gemmologist reading this will understand) didn’t phase me too much!
Even before the mock exam, I was looking at previous exam papers and seeing that there was a lot of questions that I could quite easily answer and this was only confirmed when I took the mock exam as my results would have been a solid score for most people.
But I wanted to go one better than just pass, I wanted an award. Might sound a bit egotistical but I don’t care, I wanted to win something!
So I really started putting in the work between getting our mock results and sitting the final exam but still helping anyone else if they asked.
The Final Exam
I went into this exam pretty confident I would pass but that wasn’t going to be enough. We had two papers to sit, a practical and a theory but we sat them a month apart due to the ways the diamond sets that we test work.
The practical went how I expected it to go, I was happy with how I developed a method for grading diamonds and had looked at enough CZ’s, Synthetic Moissanites and treated diamonds that I didn’t find them hard to spot.
But the theory didn’t go exactly as I had planned, I knew how long I needed to spend on each question. The problem was, I didn’t know when to stop writing, I’m not sure there was much blank space left on that paper. Except for maybe the last question as I was running out of time, I had messed up and left myself with half the time I need to answer the final question properly.
Had I just cost myself the award I’d worked so hard for?
It is a weird feeling being 99% sure you have passed an exam but not knowing if you achieved what you needed to.
As with all the other exams, there is a couple of month wait between the exams and the results. The difference with this was that we received our practical results much earlier and I received the A4 sized brown envelope telling me I had passed, but what about the theory?
Once again this came through just before my birthday but this time it was a small white envelope. I couldn’t have failed surely?
Phew, I’d passed and passed with distinction and was really happy with my score but would it be enough for an award?
Unfortunately not for one of the international Gem-A awards but I did finish in the top 20 in the world, which is incredible and to this day, I would love to know exactly where I finished.
But I did win the Gwyn Green award, which is basically awarded to whoever got the highest score at our test centre and is awarded by the Midlands branch of the Gem-A but I was still overjoyed by this as had achieved my goal. By the way, that is me collecting my award in the pictures above, if you haven’t gathered that already!
Studying these three courses was an incredible journey, I went from knowing only a little bit about gemstones to being confident in buying and selling gemstones within my business. I have also met some incredible people along the way including my tutors, Davina, Andrew and Michelle and of course Miranda who is the head of gemmology at the school.
Other people have included fellow students such as Charlotte, who as I said has become a close friend but also people within the trade such as Jason Williams, who is one of the UK’s leading gem dealers and its always an education whenever I talk to him. And I am sure that being a part of this world will allow me to meet many other amazing people.
I honestly would recommend anyone interested in gemstones, diamonds or jewellery to think about doing at least one of these courses as you will learn so much. Finishing the Diamond course left me feeling a little sad as I knew that journey was finished, even though Andrew still keeps trying to get me to do the degree top up!
But it was time to move on to something new, my jewellery journey was about to get a bit more hands on…..