Rapaport Magazine

Highway to GIA

Newly appointed President and CEO of the GIA Susan Jacques discusses the career path that led her to the institute and reveals her plans for the future.

By Amber Michelle

Photo © GIA
Building a career is a long and winding road that can sometimes take an unexpected turn that catapults one in directions that hadn’t ever been considered. And that is the beginning of the story for Susan Jacques, the newly appointed Gemological Institute of America (GIA) president and chief executive officer (CEO).

The Early Years
   Born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Jacques left high school with no clue about what she wanted to do. Her mother insisted that she go to secretarial school, so that she would always have “something to fall back on.” Subsequently, Jacques got a job as a junior typist at the headquarters of Scottish Jewelers, located just outside of Rhodesia’s capital city of Harare. The company had seven retail locations and she worked for the executive assistant to the managing director. In 1979, when Jacques was 19, there was a civil war in Rhodesia, which subsequently led to it becoming Zimbabwe. Not comfortable keeping his three teenage daughters in the country during the unrest, Jacques’ father sent her, along with her two sisters, to London for a year. In London, Jacques worked for the hotel division of EMI Leisure.
   After her year in London, Jacques returned to Zimbabwe and went back to Scottish Jewelers looking for a job. The firm had an opening in the marketing department, so Jacques took it. “I was working for Peter Winhall, the marketing director. He was taking a GIA correspondence course in gemology, so I decided that I wanted to pursue that as well,” recounts Jacques. “But I didn’t want to wait for the six weeks between courses, so I convinced my parents to send me to the U.S. to study. I went to GIA Santa Monica with four other people from Zimbabwe in 1980.”
   While studying at GIA, Jacques made a friend who would change her life —Alan Friedman. His family owned the jewelry store Borsheims in Omaha, Nebraska. On the way back to Zimbabwe, after completing her GIA coursework, Jacques stopped in Omaha to see Alan and his store before flying home. In 1981, Jacques returned to Southern California where she got a job at a small lab, USGSI, working with Sarah Beth Koethe.
   “It put all of the practical applications of what I had learned at GIA to use and cemented my technical skills in gemology,” says Jacques. The year 1981 was the big boom in investment stones, but along with 1982 came a bust and Jacques found her job downsized, which proved to be financially challenging.
   Struggling to pay rent and make car payments, Jacques called her friend Alan Friedman. He suggested that she come work at Borsheims in Omaha. “I packed my car and drove to Nebraska, intending to stay for one year,” recalls Jacques. “But I stayed 31 years. I got incredible experience. I was mentored under Ike Friedman, Alan’s dad. He was a tremendous mentor. I started as an appraiser and sales associate, then I became instrumental in a lot of the buying.”

When Susan Jacques accepted the role of president and CEO of Borsheims in 1994, she asked Warren Buffett if he had any advice for her. Buffett gave her the same advice that he sends to all his Berkshire Hathaway managers in a biannual memo: 
“We can afford to lose money — even a lot of money. We cannot afford to lose reputation — even a shred of reputation. Let’s be sure that everything we do in business can be reported on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter to be read by your family, friends, coworkers, clients, etc. It took decades to build our reputation but we can lose it in minutes.”
Says Jacques of the advice: “Although the entire quote is framed in financial terms, I certainly feel the same way regarding GIA’s reputation. In addition to the research that supports our education and lab services, and GIA’s more than 2,000 dedicated staff around the world, our reputation is vital to the success of our mission of ensuring the public trust in the gem and jewelry industry.”
The Buffett Effect
   The situation shifted in 1989 when Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, bought Borsheims. Change came once again in 1991, when Jacques’ mentor Ike passed away and her friend Alan left the company. By this time, Jacques was senior vice president of Borsheims. In January 1994, Buffett called Jacques to his office. “He offered me a job as president of Borsheims. I really had no idea, when I went to his office, I thought it was just a meeting for the executives,” recollects Jacques. “I was 34 years old and I had never been to college. I accepted the role with the caveat that if it didn’t work out, I could go back to what I was doing before.”
   To this day, Jacques is not entirely sure why Buffett chose her for the job. She speculates that it may have been that he believed in her strong work ethic and respectfulness of others. “I have been exceptionally fortunate and lucky. Timing and luck are big parts of life,” she notes.
   During her tenure at Borsheims, Jacques became widely known throughout the industry, sitting on the boards of several organizations, one of which was the GIA. In June 2013, after Donna Baker stepped down from her post at the helm of GIA, the board installed Jacques as the interim president and CEO during a search to fill the position. Five months later, in October 2013, the GIA board of governors officially named Jacques GIA president and CEO. She continued as the interim until January 2014, when she stepped fully into the position.

At the GIA
   “The GIA has a unique role in the industry,” says Jacques. “With my colleagues, I plan to build on the foundation that the GIA has built over the past 80 years and to adhere to the GIA mission to ensure public trust in gems and jewelry. Foremost, that will include expanding our grading capacity without compromising integrity and excellence. That will also extend into our roles in education and research.”
   Jacques stands firmly on maintaining the high standards for which the GIA is known, while at the same time implementing plans to ease the long-standing issue of lengthy turnaround times for diamond grading. It is a complaint that has been persistently vocalized by diamond traders and others in the industry for numerous years. Jacques observes that this is an issue of “huge concern” to the GIA. She points out that under her predecessor Donna Baker, the GIA took its services global in an effort to help shorten the time it took to grade diamonds. The GIA has gone from being centered in New York City and Carlsbad, California, to expanding its presence in 16 cities in 14 countries. In addition to New York and Carlsbad, there are labs in Bangkok, Gaborone, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Ramat Gan and Tokyo. There also are 11 educational campuses located in New York, Carlsbad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, London, Moscow, Mumbai, Osaka, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo. The GIA also has two take-in facilities, one in Antwerp and another in Dubai.
   “There is an incredible demand for our services,” states Jacques. “We will continue with quality and consistency for each stone being graded. Today, given what the industry is facing, there are extra steps that need to be taken when grading a stone. We check every gem submitted for grading for synthetics and treatments, and that takes longer.”
   Jacques notes that currently, including administration, research, education and grading, the GIA employs a total staff of 2,000 globally. There are plans to increase the number of graders by 50 percent in the next 12 to 18 months. Jacques points out that the lab provides money for research and education, two very important components of the GIA.
   “Technology and instrumentation are very important. Research has to be done to develop technology that will speed up grading,” observes Jacques. “Part of the New York operation is a new research center that is instrument-based. DiamondCheck is one of the instruments that has been developed and it helps allay fears of synthetics. It is great technology that is user friendly and its accuracy is incredible.”
   Retail is certainly an arena in which Jacques is highly knowledgeable and her background gives her a keen insight into how important the GIA is to stores. She is well aware of how crucial consumer confidence is to the industry as a whole and to retailers in particular. “What I’ve loved about retail is that it is the final 18 inches of the global pipeline. We have an immense responsibility to the consumer. At Borsheims, we relied on the GIA to train staff and to set the standards for the 4Cs. We were able to educate customers on the 4Cs so they could understand the basis of the quality of the product that they were buying from us and how they could evaluate which of the 4Cs — carat weight, color, clarity or cut — were most important to them. Consumer confidence is the most important part of the retailer’s job and an independent GIA grading report gives retailers tools to assure confidence.”
Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain
Women’s Jewelry Association — Lifetime Achievement Award 2010
National Jeweler’s Hall of Fame — 1997
Omaha Business Hall of Fame — 2013
Jewelers of America Ethical Initiatives Committee Member
Friends of the Diamond Development Initiative – Honorary Chair

She has served as a board member for:
   Jewelers of America
   Jewelers Vigilance Committee
   Jewelers for Children
   Creighton University — Board of Directors
   Ethical Alliance — Trustee
   World Presidents’ Organization
The GIA Brand
   Certainly within the industry, the GIA is a well-known entity and an established brand. Jacques reveals that the recognition of the GIA extends its brand reach well beyond the trade and notes that it has a strong awareness among consumers. She also observes that the institute’s website is a very big component of its brand enhancement.
   “GIA is an exceptionally well-recognized brand with the public,” says Jacques. “We have a tremendous website with easy access and it is very intuitive. It enables us to connect globally and educate people on the importance of reports. We recently introduced GemKids, which is a wonderful website that brings GIA to schoolchildren. Teachers can download our program resources and use them in the classroom. The nature and beauty of gems fascinates everyone, especially kids. Our alumni also help with our outreach. When they get a job and hang their diploma on the wall, it attributes to them and their organization the high standards of the GIA.”

Creating Confidence
   Jacques references consumer confidence as the biggest challenge facing the industry today. According to Jacques, upholding best business practices is a very important part of maintaining consumer confidence and she feels that it speaks to the heart of the GIA mission. “This is not a product of need, it is one of desire, emotion and symbolism, although I believe that emotion and symbolism are needs. And we, as an industry, need to pay attention to best practices in the supply chain to ensure confidence. When conflict diamonds came up in the 1990s, the industry was reactive. Hopefully, we have learned from that. If there was the same social media then that there is now, there may have been a very different outcome in that situation.”
   In both her business and her personal life, Jacques is guided by one of the tenets of Warren Buffett, who always says, “Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right.” She believes that people must use their moral and ethical compass along with honesty when making any kind of decision.
   With a significant part of a career behind her and a continuing career journey ahead of her, Jacques offers the following advice: “Follow your passion. It is one of the attributes that will ensure your success. Truly love what you are doing and success comes naturally.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - April 2014. To subscribe click here.

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