A sense of history, culture: essentials for gem experts

What does it take to become a jewelry expert? ``There are excellent courses offered by gemological schools around the world,'' says Franois Curiel, vice-president, jewelry, at Christie's Auction Gallery in New York.

``But this alone is not enough, Experience can only be acquired by working in an auction house or in a retail or wholesale establishment. Our jewelry experts and specialists have studied thousands of jewels and have traveled widely to examine them. It is this invaluable training and exposure to the finest pieces which distinguishes them as experts.''

Denise I. Highiet, a young West Coast expert who was formerly head of jewelry at Butterfields Auction Gallery in San Francisco and now heads the estate jewelry company of Murray & Appel, has her own formula for getting ahead in the business. Any career seeker with aspirations to success in the antique jewelry business, she has said, should start out with a good all-around education. The next step: study gemology and become a graduate gemologist, then serve an apprenticeship -- at least two years -- preferably in a small firm that specializes in antique jewelry and first-class precious stones.

Continue your education with course work in business, suggests Miss Highiet, and broaden your background with courses in antique furniture, silver, paintings, etc. so that you can evaluate jewelry in light of each era's other decorative arts.

Miss Highiet's concluding piece of advice: ``Spend your weekends in museums and at fine auctions.''

Edward Munves, head of the 73-year-old firm of James Robinson Inc. in New York City, agrees that ``the most important thing for getting into this business is a good liberal-arts education. This gives you a sense of history and a sense of general culture in every field, including philosophy and the arts. My 27-year-old daughter, Joan, is the fourth generation to join our firm and she came with a degree in math and general studies from Brown University, where I, too, graduated.

``After coming here in 1980, she took technical courses at the Gemological Institute of America. She worked with me and with my father, the late Edward Munves, until he passed on last year. We consult together constantly in the store and she travels with me on buying trips.

``She is getting the most careful training, but I feel that a minimum of 10 years of such experience is necessary before one can begin to think of themselves as an expert. The learning process actually never ends. My father felt he was still learning new facets of his business when he was 80. Becoming an expert is a long haul and there are no shortcuts.''

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