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A Bizymoms' Exclusive Interview with Antoinette L. Matlins

1. How did your career as a Gem & Jewelry expert begin?

 I got off to a "sparkling" start, having been fathered by one of the "Founding Fathers" of practical gemology. While his background was chemistry and physics, he was a master at translating complex science into useful, practical information and equally masterful at developing easy techniques for gem identification. He was passionate about the field, and I inherited his passion. I spent my youth going with him around the country collecting rocks and minerals, panning for gold, spending time in his lab learning about all the awful "scams" as well as seeing some of the world's rarest and most magnificent gems. So I saw and learned about it all -- not just the beautiful, sparkling side, but the types of fraud and misrepresentation that have abounded in this field since time began! 

2. Did you have any mentors? If so, how did they help you?

My father was my primary mentor, teaching me the science behind the gems and how to use the instrumentation that is essential to know what you have or what you are buying -- what is the stone, is it natural or grown in a lab, has it been "treated" to enhance its appearance, and so on.  but other great people in the field have also shared their knowledge with me, and this continues to this day --people like the late Robert Crowningshield, who would speak with me candidly about what he was seeing at the GIA lab (such as "painted diamonds" or "fracture-filled" diamonds) and CR Beesley, founder of the renowned colored-gemstone testing laboratory American Gemological Laboratories (AGL). And my husband was essential in teaching me the "business" side of things: how to set up my LLC and why; how to structure the fees I charge for various services; basic marketing and promotion strategies.

3. Since you have written many books related to Gems and Jewelry, how has being an author helped you?

 There are various types of writers, and some simply interview "experts" and write about what they learn from others. While I also do this to some extent, I also do my own research in order to provide information no one else is providing. We -- my father and I -- were the first to write about the extensive use of treatments used to improve the appearance of many gems, and also about ways to detect them. My books have become the standard in the areas they address, and I am regarded as an "expert." As such, I cannot sit back and rest on what I've done, because the field is constantly changing. "New" gems are being discovered (such as tanzanite, discovered in the 1960s), new sources for gems are being discovered (such as Madagascar, for lovely sapphires), new treatments are being used, on more types of gemstones than ever before (such as surface coatings on colorless sapphire to make it appear blue), and new synthetics and imitations continue to enter the market. In order for the information provided in my books, and in the new editions, to be reliable and to reflect what is happening at the time of publication, I have a responsibility to know what is going on and to write about it in ways the public can understand.    

So knowing that every few years I must write a new edition keeps me constantly in the market, visiting mines, examining and studying gemstones from all parts of the world, and working with major laboratories to learn what they are seeing and ways they are identifying material -- and then trying to  make it simpler! This was the legacy left to me by my father.

As an author of the types of books I write, I am considered an "expert" and so I must be an expert, and this requires constant vigilance; I must continuously hone my "expertise" by being in the marketplace all the time, looking at and studying what I see, and bringing issues plaguing our industry to the appropriate bodies to effect positive changes. It is my responsibility to see and examine the material, to know how one compares to the other, and of course, to be on the lookout for new synthetics, imitations and treatments and figuring out the "easy, practical" ways to detect them or to know that something is wrong! 

4. As a world famous expert, traveling around the world, advising individuals and companies on buying and selling gems and jewelry, how do you personally balance work life?

I think the key is to make sure your priorities are clear and that you have honest conversations with spouse and children. In my family, my husband and I are both "expert" in our respective fields, and are each very successful. As you point out, this takes lots of time, so how does everything get done. In short, sometimes it doesn't! It's up to each of us to decide what will get done and what won't get done, and this depends upon where your priorities are. Sometimes the choices are easy, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes the family must make a "sacrifice" in order to enable "Mom" to do something important in her own life, and sometimes Mom has to make a sacrifice in terms of her own career to do something important for her husband or children. And there must also be clear boundaries. When we are on "on vacation" that means my family comes first! There is little time spent on work (since we both run our own companies, we don't have the luxury of being completely unavailable, but we make it clear to the managers that they are to call us only if it something important that they cannot handle and it cannot wait until our return). 

In our family we also believe in children showing respect for parental authority, while at the same time, as parents, showing respect for choices and decisions being made by our children. But hand in hand with this goes another fundamental acknowledgement: There is no "boss" in our family; instead, there is a division of work load and shared responsibilities, and of course, these are also ever-changing as we mature and our children grow. But it starts with simple, basic things. For example, i is not "Mom's responsibility" or "Mom's job" to make dinner for the family (although I love to cook), it is a joint responsibility. I'm "senior chef" but I make it clear that I cannot do it all, and need their help, whether it's peeling potatoes, monitoring the grill, setting the table, cleaning up after dinner. The same goes for household chores like laundry and ironing, keeping the house orderly and clean (I never made my children's beds after they reached the age of 4 -- I would help them make their beds only until they were old enough to do it themselves), and the same goes for keeping their rooms neat.

In short, I believe that it's important always to make your spouse and children feel NEEDED as well as LOVED, and if you can find ways to do this, and keep your priorities clear, you can find a working balance that meets everyone's needs. But I also believe that it is not possible to "do it all" -- there are some things that simply won't get done. But if your priorities are clear, the IMPORTANT things will get done. That's the way I see it anyway.

5. In your experience, what do you think is the most challenging goal for women in business?

Being women. Women are not men, and they don't think like men or express themselves like men. They should not try to "be" like men, but rather, have the confidence to be who they are and say what they think. But in my experience, in order to be "heard" by men, they must know what they are talking about, and be even better prepared than men. They must do their homework and know they are good at what they do, and confident that they can contribute and make a difference.

It's also important not to kill the male/female dynamic. I hate hearing women complain when some man in the company "compliments" the way they look. This is a nice thing; accept it for what it is and don't make a big deal about it (I'm not referring here to sexual innuendo or attempted manipulation, etc, which is a very different story).                        

It also seems more difficult for women to keep their personal life out of the office, but it is inappropriate; whether your 'boss' is a man or woman, they tire of it quickly and it will affect their image of you, and your success.                          

6. What experiences in your life inspired you to help others?                        

I think knowing about my father's experience as a child influenced me more than anything else. When my father was just a child in elementary school (in Wash DC), he found a rock in the dirt alley behind his home and his teacher couldn't tell him what it was. So he hopped on a streetcar and went to the "National Museum" (now known as The Smithsonian) to find the man in charge of the hall of gems and minerals to find out what he had. He found him, Dr. Foshag. Dr. Foshag told him what he'd found and explained it was common and not worth keeping. He tried to explain to my dad that it was important to know what was worth "collecting" and what was not, and mentioned that the museum received rocks and minerals from all over the world and they couldn't keep everything, nor did they want to keep everything, because not everything was worth keeping. The next afternoon, Dr. Foshag was looking out a window and noticed a little boy (yes, my dad) rummaging around in the trash bins! When he realized who it was, he went to get him and my dad explained that since the museum was throwing away things even better than what he'd found in the alley, that he was just trying to find something even more interesting. Dr. Foshag tried to explain it differently, but my father was confused. He pointed out to Dr. Foshag that he'd been told that what he'd found wasn't worth keeping, and what the museum through away wasn't worth keeping, so where did someone get something worth keeping? And then, Dad asked if Dr Foshag had any "duplicates" that he could give him in exchange for his doing work for Dr Foshag! Dr Foshag was so taken with my father, that he gave him four specimens -- nothing 'valuable' but very interesting because of their crystal shape, color, and optical properties. My father came and worked for him everyday after school for the following two weeks -- "work" that Dr. Foshag had to work hard to find for him to do! During that time, Dr Foshag learned that my father was the son of an Italian immigrant family, and that he lived in a 'rough' neighborhood, and he tried to influence Dad to join a scout troop that the museum had organized, the focus of which was "discovery" -- especially gem collecting trips. My dad got hooked. And his entire world changed. His passion and knowledge were both nurtured by Dr. Foshag, who did it wholly out of the kindness of his heart. My dad went on to pursue the world of science, and my dad touched the lives of thousands of people -- and always had time for scout troops and school programs and science demonstrations, etc -- because he never forgot what one man, Dr Foshag, had done for him. And dad always stressed to us that each one of us has the possibility to make a difference in the world, one person at a time!                         

7. Please share with us some of the negative buying experiences that people have shared with you?                                

Unfortunately, all too often consumers have negative buying experiences when buying gems and jewelry, especially when traveling to exotic places "close to the mines" or when looking for a "bargain."  Dinner conversation in our home usually focused on what dad saw at his lab that day and all too often it was a "bad news" story rather than a good one. Once it was about the lady who was excited about a pair of emerald earrings she had purchased from the NY wholesale diamond/gem district, at a fraction of the price she'd have paid at Tiffany's for "the same thing" -- the "bargain" price was only $16,000 -- but when dad examined them they were not emeralds but, rather, fakes (they were something called "doublets" which were made with 2 pieces of colorless, synthetic spinel glued together with green glue). A few years ago, a woman called me very upset about a diamond she had purchased in another wholesale gem/jewelry center at a "bargain" price -- about 1/4 the price of what was being asked in retail jewelry stores -- that an appraiser told her was "fracture filled" and not the quality or value that she had been told. She was calling me because she thought the appraiser was incompetent and wanted to report it to someone. I examined the diamond and it was, in fact, "fracture filled" and had been sold to this woman without disclosure of this fact (a fracture-filled diamond is one that has unsightly cracks that have been "filled" with a glass-like substance through a high-tech process; the net result is that the cracks can no longer be seen, and the previously "dead" diamond is now as sparkling as any other). In other cases, consumers are duped into believing that they are getting a diamond of a particular quality at a price better than anywhere else, only to find out that the quality if not what it was represented to be, and the "value" is therefore not what they thought it was either. And consumers buying colored gemstones, especially when traveling near mines or getting "bargains" in "wholesale gem/diamond" districts, frequently get ripped off with "look alikes" (gems of low value that are the color of a more valuable gem), synthetics, and gems do heavily treated that they are ready to fall apart.

8. As buyers, how can we identify and escape gem and jewelry fraud and
misrepresentation?

As buyer of gems or jewelry, it is critically important to understand that not everything is what it appears to be. The gem world is very complicated scientifically--there are many different gemstones that occur in the same color,  but some are more valuable than others because of their rarity and durability; there are many imitations and synthetics being sold as genuine; there are gemstones that are formed by nature, but "improved" through any of a wide number of treatments. And assuming the gem is what it is represented to be, differences in "quality" -- the 4Cs -- cannot be readily seen with the naked eye so it is easy to represent the quality to be better than it is.

First, to be happy with any gem and jewelry purchase, you must do your homework in terms of knowing what you really want. For example, if you want a ruby, is this because you want a RED stone and think that ruby is your only choice? Of, do you want ruby because it's your birthstone? If it's a matter of wanting a red stone, then you need to know there are many "red" stones, and you can have fun learning about the stones available in the color you want, and how they compare to one another in terms of rarity, wearability, and cost.

 Once you know what stone you want, you need to understand the factors that affect the "quality" assessment, and the impact of each factor on beauty and cost. You can do this by comparing stones -- side-by-side -- and learning to see or appreciate subtle differences. Go to the best stores in your area and compare, and ask questions like, "Why is this stone more expensive/less expensive than this one, and so on. Hopefully, you'll have a sales person who is knowledgeable and can answer your question. Often, independent jewelry stores will have more knowledgeable people, often someone who is a gemologist. We recommend only buying from a store that has a gemologist on staff or working with them in come capacity. 

Once you are ready to make the purchase, insist that they put all of the "facts" in writing, on the sales receipt. This means that they indicate the identity of the stone(s), and what the quality is--all of the representations they have made to you. If a diamond, they must include the "4Cs" -- color grade, clarity grade, carat weight, and comment about the quality of the cutting. If it is a diamond with a diamond grading report, the existence of the report should be noted, along with the report number and date, on the sales receipt (diamonds are now being sold with counterfeit GIA reports). If a colored gemstone, you must insist that the identity and weight of the stone be indicated, and they must state whether or not the stone is treated, and if so, by what method has it been treated, whether or not the treatment is permanent, and whether special care is required. There is nothing wrong with buying a treated gemstone as long as you have all of the facts about the treatment and pay an appropriate price.                        

When you have concluded the purchase, you should then make an appointment with an independent gemologist-appraiser who holds respected credentials (such as the Master Gemologist Appraiser (MGA), Independent Certified Gemologist Appraiser (ICGA) to confirm that your purchase is what it was represented to be. If so, you'll feel wonderful and know you didn't make a mistake. If not, you'll have what you need to get a refund (NOTE: even in cases where stores have a "no refund" policy clearly stated, in cases of "misrepresentation" they MUST give you a refund or replace the item with an item of the quality described on the sales receipt.). One of the benefits of going to someone with respected credentials is that their expertise is respected in a court of law, and disreputable people know this and even though they may try to discredit the appraiser, they will refund your money rather than risk your taking them to court. I provide a list of respected appraisal certifications in all of my books because it is very important to pick the right appraiser -- someone with knowledge and integrity. Be sure to avoid appraisers in the "wholesale" districts where you just walk in off the street (especially if the seller has sent his "bonded guard" along to carry the piece). Many of these appraisers are in collusion with sellers. Finding a reliable gemologist-appraiser to whom you can go to verify your purchases is the key to making wise choices that will bring you pleasure for years to come.                         

9. What advice would you give to moms who want to buy gems & jewelry?

In general, with gems and jewelry, you get what you pay for, or LESS!
Don't look for "bargains" but for a "fair" price for the quality you are getting.

Shop at fine stores to get a sense of what something should sell for. If you find "the same thing" for much less, it is NOT the same thing; there is something wrong which you cannot see because you lack the gemological skill to understand what it really is!

                        

Don't buy on the internet or eBay unless you are able to arrange to for the piece to be examined by a reliable gemologist-appraiser prior to payment. You can make escrow arrangements, or you can see if the seller would be willing to agree to your sending payment to a respected gemologist or lab and their sending the item to the same, and if everything is as it should be, you keep the piece and the gemologist sends the check. -                         

Rather than shopping at mall stores, check out independent jewelers in your area, especially a firm which has a gemologist on staff. The mark-ups at independent jewelry stores are often better than at mall stores.                       

Beware of  the "big 70% off" sales. The prices were probably much higher than what you would find at an independent jeweler, and even with the discount, you might get a better value for something of comparable quality at the independent jewelry store.

Always get all of the facts "in writing" and verify them with an independent gemologist appraiser who has respected credentials. You can find such an appraiser by contacting one of these organizations: The American Society of Appraisers, the American Gem Society, the Accredited Gemologists Assoc, or the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers.                    

10 What are your future goals?                        

--To continue to educate consumers and people in every part of the gem and jewelry field through my books, TV appearances, association work, and lectures and workshops                         

--To continue to work toward establishing higher standards in the field and reducing fraud and misrepresentation                        

--To motivate people with a serious interest in gems and jewelry to work toward becoming "gemologists" who can then better serve the needs of the public, continue the work of establishing and maintaining higher professional standards, and reduce fraud and misrepresentation                        

--Expand my work in helping evolving countries develop their gem resources in ways that benefit the local people.                        

--And to expand the work I do for clients who appreciate my expertise and integrity and seek me out to help them acquire rare, distinctive and unusual gems and jewelry. 

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