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Boyajian’s Vision Lives

Jan 5, 2007 12:00 AM   By Martin Rapaport
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RAPAPORT... As former GIA President Bill Boyajian leaves the GIA, he talks to Martin Rapaport in a one-on-one interview.

Martin Rapaport: How did you first get involved with the Gemological Institute of America (GIA)?

Bill Boyajian: I was working in the jewelry section of a Fresno, California, department store during college and my boss told me about the Gemological Institute of America. I was a good salesman and really enjoyed working with jewelry. This was about 1973, when I was 21 years old. I was very impressed with the GIA organization and signed up for its courses. There was about a nine-month waiting list at the time. I graduated from college and started at GIA three weeks later, when I was 23. On the first day, as soon as I walked in, I knew I wanted to work at the Institute. I fell in love with the organization right away.

MR: Why did you go into jewelry?

BB: My father was a drilling contractor and I worked for him during high school and part-time during college, and I had another job in a local liquor store, of all places. A well-dressed guy came into the store every night and bought a half a pint of VO. I got to know him and I worked up the courage to ask what he did. And he said he managed a jewelry department. I asked him if he ever needed any help and he said, “yes, occasionally,” so I gave him my name and number and forgot about it. Eight months later, he called me and asked if I wanted a job. I jumped on it and really loved it — I enjoy working with people — and that’s when my boss told me about GIA. I started working at GIA on August 25, 1975, right after I received my G.G. Diploma.

MR: What made you want to work at GIA?

BB: I loved the idea that I could learn so much about gemstones, and I was intrigued with diamonds and colored stones. I loved the bridge that GIA built between the business of the jewelry industry and the academic knowledge of the industry.

MR: Who hired you? What were you hired for?
BB: When I was getting ready to graduate, I applied for a job with Mr. [Richard] Liddicoat, telling him I was very interested in teaching. He said, “Do well on your final exams and come see me.” When he hired me, most of the young instructors were in home-study education. But he wanted to give me a well-rounded orientation of GIA. My first assignment was to teach classes on the road, with one of our senior people. When I came back, he asked me to reorganize the entire GIA gemstone collection. I also did a stint in the laboratory, grading diamonds and identifying stones for a few months. I finally landed in the resident gemology program, teaching classes for about four years; that was where I cut my teeth on really understanding gemology and learning how to convey it to students.

MR: How did your career evolve?

BB: I was anxious to get into management after a few years and asked to transfer to another department. I went to Mr. Liddicoat and said, “I feel like I need something new and challenging.” And he said, “Well, you can’t leave the resident gemology program; you are the resident gemology program.” Within a couple of months, he put me in charge and we never looked back. We took colored stones and gem identification by storm. I authored the modern-day A and B stone gem identification charts and Bob Kammerling and I coauthored a gem identification laboratory manual.

MR: How many people were at GIA when you started there?

BB: About 100 staff between West Los Angeles and New York. Now, there are almost 1,100.

MR: What was happening during the 1970s?

BB: It was a crazy time. We were hiring and hiring. We grew from a real mom-and-pop entity to a significant organization. We did everything we could to keep up with diamond grading. Many of the diamonds we graded back then were in the D flawless category, especially during the investment era of the mid- to late-1970s. Where they were coming from and where they were all going was a mystery. We know that by 1982, there was a huge overhang in the market and the diamond business really didn’t come back until 1985 and ’86. We couldn’t keep up with the number of students during the ’70s; we had waiting lists of up to a year. Everyone was taking gemology because of the investment craze. It created a huge groundswell of frenetic activity that I had never experienced before. And then the crash hit in 1980 and it was just devastating.

We had to cut classes as our student body dropped off significantly. All the hype that was built up from the investment era just came crumbling down. We went from 100 employees in the Santa Monica lab and the Los Angeles lab to ten. We were laying people off, and it was a very shaky time for us. Then Richard Liddicoat had a heart attack in 1983. Things couldn’t have gotten worse. We had to regroup and reorganize and try to keep our momentum on behalf of GIA.

MR: When were you appointed to GIA’s board? Tell us about your early days as president.

BB: When I became president in July 1986, I became an ex officio member of the board. As a young president, I felt that it was important to make sure everyone knew there was plenty of room at the top and that we needed to hire the best people we could. We needed to promote and put people in the right positions. We needed to empower them to get the job done. One of the most important things I did was in 1987-88, when we formulated a master plan for the future. We hired an outside consultant and he helped us develop a strategy for the future. We set a course to expand our laboratory, to grow, broaden and diversify our education and to expand our research division. We set a course to expand internationally because we were a very American-oriented organization. We wanted to get into fundraising and institutional advancement, like any other college or university. Particularly, we wanted to conceive of a campus setting where we had room to grow. That’s when the seeds of the Carlsbad campus were sown.
We set a course in 1988 to accomplish all those things by the year 2000. By the time of the Carlsbad move, in 1996-97, we had fundamentally accomplished most everything we had set out to do, including planning the International Gemological Symposium in 1999. It really was a fantastic decade for GIA, from 1988 to 1999. Despite the recession in the early ’90s, it was a period of growth, development and enormous change for GIA. I think we really grew up when we moved to Carlsbad. We put GIA on another level. I felt it was a level that GIA always existed on, but the move was a physical manifestation of the true GIA.

MR: Did donations play an important part in obtaining the campus?

BB: It helped, but we could have built the campus without any donations. As a nonprofit organization, we were able to float $30 million worth of bonds, which gave us what we needed to make the move. GIA is in excellent condition today. That’s partly because of fundraising, but most important is the laboratory. Education, too, has grown tremendously over the years. Our research is critical. GIA has to support research, a library and information center, Gems & Gemology, and a host of educational and outreach programs designed around our nonprofit mission. GIA is an institution, not just a lab, as many people think; the lab is a key part of the overall organization, but GIA is so much more. These nonlab services are absolutely crucial for the stability of the industry and as a GIA service to the public.

MR: Did people think you would get the funding for Carlsbad?

BB: The board was generally very supportive; they saw the vision, they knew we were landlocked in Santa Monica and that property there was extraordinarily expensive. In my administration, our goal was to grow and extend our influence and our services and we had to make bold moves. Some people, especially in Los Angeles, thought it did not make sense to come down to a sleepy little town called Carlsbad. But the research we did showed that students would go anywhere to attend GIA. We were also launching schools all over the world. We were going to make GIA more and more accessible to anyone who wanted our training and we were going to try to make it as affordable as possible. Many people were very confused about our fundraising activities. They don’t understand that fundraising is to build scholarships, to support research and do more of the things that any college or university does in order to accomplish its goals for the greater good. My ultimate dream was to be able to allow any student, anywhere in the world, to be able to come to GIA.

MR: Was the lab always able to maintain quality?

BB: One of the constant challenges when you have two locations is that you have to constantly maintain consistent standards and move goods and people back and forth from coast to coast to ensure that. You have to have rigorous standards and internal documentation. We have all that at GIA. As you know, diamond grading is not an exact science; it’s part science and part art, and we believe we are the best and the most accurate grading laboratory in the world. We set the standards in color grading and have made the master sets for most all of the other laboratories around the world, and many jewelers, too. We do everything we can to ensure our quality through a very rigorous quality-assurance program.

MR: Do you think that GIA is appreciated around the world?

BB: The GIA is a world leader. It is respected. It is viewed as the standard-bearer. Even our occasional detractors recognize that GIA is the world leader. That is why there is such a high premium on what we do, and such a high degree of accountability. GIA is a nonprofit, so people should be able to comment. There’s no question in my mind that GIA is highly valued, and very highly thought of, by both the trade and the public.

MR: How has the new cut grade cert been accepted?

BB: Very well. Initially, we had good suggestions about minor details that should be changed on the new report. We listened very carefully, moved swiftly and implemented those changes. I sense no pushback. Most diamonds that GIA grades are in the top cut categories. We rarely see diamonds that are fair and almost never see a stone that’s poor. Yet, we have set up a system that accommodates the cut quality of every round brilliant diamond, as we should.

MR: Is this the final change in grading reports?

BB: The diamond report is going to stand on its own for some time with eventual cut grades for other diamond shapes, I suspect. I also think we are going to see a lot of strength in GIA’s colored stone services during the next few years, including cultured pearl grading in the very near future. These are two thrusts that we put a lot of effort into in this decade. You’re going to see GIA moving, not just in the area of diamonds, but also in cultured pearls, natural pearls and colored stones.

MR: Do you think there will be a GIA colored stone report similar to a diamond report with color, clarity and cut grades?

BB: I hope so, as I have been a strong proponent of colored stone reports for a long time. It is very difficult to accomplish and that’s why it hasn’t been done yet. It’s very difficult to build a consensus on the actual grading of colored stones. Eventually, I think colored stone grading reports will do for the colored stone industry what diamond grading reports did for the diamond industry, and that is to expand the market. Many people may be afraid. They’ll say, “I’m going to lose my margin, and I’m going to lose my business to the internet.” My view is that GIA’s job is to serve the public, to help the public make better buying decisions. If we help the public make better buying decisions, they’re going to buy more of our beautiful products. So you can’t have one without the other. GIA’s role has always been to establish standards. To make sure that we can identify any stone. To identify synthetic diamonds, diamond treatments, colored stones and colored stone treatments; that’s all part of the challenge and our mission.

MR: Your thoughts on leaving GIA?

BB: I have no regrets. I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish. I love the people of GIA and that is probably the thing I’ll miss the most. It’s the people, the challenges and being at the heart and center of what is happening in gems and gemology that I will miss. That was my heartbeat for many years, and it probably will always be so. I feel very privileged and fortunate to have had the opportunity to be with the Institute for over three decades, two as its President.

MR: Where do you see the GIA ten years from now?
BB: Ten years from now, GIA will continue to be the world leader in gemology. The school of business will have made a huge impact on the business of gems and jewelry. Colored stone, pearl and diamond services will have expanded greatly. The GIA will have a huge public outreach in exhibitions, gemstone collections and public education. The GIA will continue to expand internationally in countries where consumer markets are developing. GIA will continue to grow its alumni base, which is in the hundreds of thousands. There will be continuous challenges technologically and otherwise, but I believe in the leadership of GIA and I believe in the idea of GIA.

I want to stress this point: GIA is an idealistic concept from which reality was created by a true visionary in Robert Shipley and by a true gentleman and leader in Richard Liddicoat. I was blessed to be part of a great leadership team in this most recent generation. The idea of GIA is what’s so critical to be maintained, the idea of integrity, knowledge, research, training and standards. This will always be the hallmark of the Institute.
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Tags: Collections, Exhibitions, GIA, Jewelry, Laboratories
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