Luxury Jewelry 101: Interview with the Practical Gemologist

Educating our readers about the ins-and-outs of the jewelry industry is one of our biggest goals here on the Opulent Jewelers blog, so we were very excited to conduct this interview with Kathleen Marino, aka the Practical Gemologist! Kathleen has literally a lifetime of industry experience to draw from, plus both the academic and professional credentials to back it all up. Read on and learn from one of the best!

Practical Gemologist Photo

Opulent Jewelers: Thanks for speaking with us, Kathleen! Could you tell our readers a bit about yourself and your work at The Practical Gemologist?

Kathleen Marino: Of course, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about something that I am passionate about! I grew up in the gemstone and jewelry industry. My family owned and operated an amethyst mine in Northwestern Ontario for over 35 years. This meant I was able to be a part of the entire process, from taking the stone from the ground, to faceting it, to designing jewelry and then also working in wholesale and gemshow type environments, as well as retail sales. When I attended university, jewelry never quite left my mind. I received my Masters in Historical Archaeology from Sheffield University in England, where I focused on Anglo-Scandinavian decorative metalwork - essentially jewelry and other types of adornment. I went on to become a Graduate Gemologist at the Gemological Institute of America, working with an appraiser to learn the ins-and-outs of gemstone and jewelry appraising, and working for Heritage Auctions as a gemologist and cataloguer.

After leaving the fast-paced auction world, I was offered an amazing opportunity to write articles and product reviews for the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers, and in doing so I knew I wanted to shift my focus to education. I have always believed that an educated consumer base is necessary for the jewelry industry to thrive. I really wanted to build a place where I could demystify what gemologists do, as well as introduce consumers to new and interesting things in the gem and jewelry world. Ultimately, I created The Practical Gemologist to open up to a much broader audience.


Opulent Jewelers: As an expert in the field, what sorts of luxury jewelry are you most taken by these days, and why?

Kathleen Marino: I love that we are seeing more color coming back into vogue! Designers are being more playful with shapes and designs again. Generally, there is a sense of fun and whimsy. Chopard and Bvlgari are both great examples of this at the moment.

I am probably the most excited that men wearing lapel pins, brooches, and stick pins has finally taken hold in the United States. Just as with women, it can afford men a sense of individuality in a sea of seemingly identical menswear. The bonus to this look is that it brought more attention to vintage jewelry. With the added attention, more people are talking about and realizing just how much variety (and to be frank, affordability) vintage jewelry has to offer. On the topic of vintage, I am also a big supporter of buying pieces to last a lifetime. There is a growing movement away from throwaway consumerism in general, and I am so happy that it is finally taking a stronger hold in the jewelry industry. When you purchase classic, good quality pieces, whether they are new or vintage, they are wearable for a lifetime, and will hopefully become heirlooms to be passed on to younger generations.


Opulent Jewelers: For everyday buyers who don't have professional training, what are some simple things they can look for to help distinguish high-quality Diamonds from lower-quality ones when they are out shopping for jewelry?

Kathleen Marino: One of the most common questions I get is “Which on the four C’s (Cut, Color, Clarity, and Carat‎) can I sacrifice?”. Most people don’t realize that they all have to work in harmony. You have to learn to trust your eyes. When you walk into a jewelry store, you must realize that they use lights that significantly enhance the reflections off the surfaces of the diamonds. Make sure you look at that stone under various light conditions if possible. Daylight is best. You can also cup your hand around the stone and block out some of the light to the point where it would be normal light conditions. This can help you see if the diamond is really returning a beautiful flash or if it is just reflecting the lights in the display case. You want a nice balance of dark and light in the stone; this is called brilliance. Keep in mind that there should be a balance; it should not look predominantly dark or give off a messy white look. Both of these scenarios can indicate a poor cut, or poor clarity. You should also look for what we call fire. Fire is the flash of colors you see in the diamond: the brighter and more varied the colors, the better. Lastly, the sparkle you see when you move the stone is called scintillation. Diamonds are known for this sparkle; if it seems dull or lifeless, walk away. Trust your eyes!

Cut can obviously affect these factors, but so can clarity. To keep it simple, clarity hinges on the amount of inclusions (a range of internal blemishes or imperfections), the types of inclusions, and the position of the inclusions. Think of clarity in terms of categories, from best to worst: minute, minor, noticeable, and obvious. VVS stones fall into the minute category; if you are not trained, you will probably not see these inclusions with your naked eye or even with a loupe. VS stones are minor; you will not see these with a naked eye and you will mostly likely have a hard time finding them, even with a loupe. SI stones have noticeable inclusions; these may be seen with a naked eye, but they should never be visible under the table (the top flat facet of the stone), and they should not reflect all over the stone, making it seem like there are inclusions peppered throughout the stone. I stones are obvious; you will see inclusions with your naked eye and these inclusions can often dull or eliminate the sparkle of the stone. I would add a loud word of warning about I clarity stones: they will look ok under those lovely lights in the store, but as soon as you get home and the stone gets a little greasy from wear, it will look dark, flat, and dull.

I know that is a lot of information to take in, but I just have a few last pieces of advice. Do not buy below an SI1 clarity; I stones are becoming lower and lower quality and consumers in the United States need to be demanding quality, the only way we can do that is through making educated purchases. Buy the best quality you can for your budget; sometimes buying several small great quality stones over one large lesser stone can give you a better and more impressive look. The ultimate takeaway is not to be afraid to ask questions of the seller or other professionals, and expect full transparent answers.


Opulent Jewelers: Diamonds are always in style, but what are some other beautiful precious stones which you see becoming more popular in the jewelry industry over the coming years?

Kathleen Marino: Color is definitely a big thing across all the jewelry markets. Leading the way is the ruby. Its popularity has been climbing for the past year or so, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping.

Pearls have been something of a dark horse over the last 3 years and I think they are just starting to become fashionable with younger generations, so that will be an interesting trend to watch. The demand for opals is also something that I think will continue to grow. With the discovery of Ethiopian opal, it will be interesting to see how the market reacts.

Social media and the internet in general has helped spread love for “underdog” gemstones that were previously not getting as much recognition in the mainstream jewelry industry. Being able to see varieties beyond a jewelry storefront has really opened people up to a much bigger rainbow of choices. For example, ever since pink diamonds came into vogue, morganite and kunzite have seen increased popularity as a less expensive alternative. They then became popular it their own right and I don’t see the pink craze dying down easily. Relatively inexpensive stones like iolite, amethyst, tourmaline, topaz, moonstone, etc., are becoming the darlings of designers, and consumers are responding to the increased diversity.


Opulent Jewelers: You have a Master's Degree in Historical Archaeology, specializing in Decorative Metalwork of the Anglo-Scandinavian Period. Are there any contemporary jewelry brands or trends which you see as evoking that unique era?

Kathleen Marino: There is definitely jewelry that evokes the primitive techniques that were used during that time period. Humans have been making jewelry for tens of thousands of years, and we’ve been working with gold since around 6000 BCE. All of the techniques that we have today have surprisingly changed very little. The refinement of tools is what has really changed and allowed us to mass produce in a more uniform way. There are jewelry artists and brands that have made an effort to utilize older techniques and are producing an interesting mix of ancient and modern looking jewelry. For example, established branded jewelry artists like Gurhan and Yossi Harari work with very high karat gold and utilize techniques like hand hammering to make jewelry that really evokes what we find in ancient archaeological hordes, but there is a definite modern twist.

I find that a lot of up-and-coming designers are playing with primitive rustic designs that really show the human influence in the fabrication of the piece. To me, these pieces of jewelry can be really special in a way that mass produced jewelry can’t touch. Every stroke of the file and every strike of the hammer can remind us of the time, effort, and passion that goes into what we wear.

Opulent Jewelers: Where can our readers go to follow you online?

Kathleen Marino: People can follow and contact me through my website or through @ThePracticalGem on Twitter and @katbertina on Instagram.