Diamonds are a girl's best job

25th April 2003 at 01:00
Ross Davies reports on an on-the-job-training success story amid the precious gems of London's Hatton Garden.

ANNE Bailey knows better than most people that sapphires are not necessarily blue.

"I've got a soft spot for pink diamonds," she says, "but, since you ask, I suppose my favourite gem has to be padparadscha sapphire. It's got a pinky-orangey colour that just amazes me."

Although only 30, Ms Bailey has worked and studied her way up to a prominent position in the fine end of the gem trade, a success story of on-the-job training.

She is now a director of Hirsh Ltd, a maker and retailer of fine jewellery in London's Hatton Garden and Burlington Arcade, where the price of diamond necklaces starts at pound;2,495.

As well as managing the business, Ms Bailey is also a valuer, designer and buyer - activities which routinely take her to Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Switzerland and the United States.

"There's no family link with the jewellery trade," she said. "My mother and father are farmers. I've been fascinated by gems since I was at school.

It's amazing how something so small can be so incredibly valuable. Gems are a hobby as well as a job."

On leaving Harris Church of England school in Rugby, aged 17, she went to work at NJ Selby's, a local jewellery retailer in Lutterworth.

There, she learned to repair, engrave and value jewellery. The firm paid for her to become a Fellow of the Gemmological Association and Gem Testing Laboratory of Great Britain, known less clumsily as Gem-A. It awarded its first diploma in 1913, when the first cultured pearls came in to threaten the natural variety.

Becoming a fellow required her to complete a two-year Gem-A diploma course in the science of gemmology, which she did through evening classes at the Birmingham School of Jewellery, now part of the University of Central England. On her days off, she did a separate course in jewellery-making.

She moved to London, where Anthony Hirsh, managing director of Hirsh Ltd, backed her to take a further one-year Gem Diamond Diploma which qualifies her for the rigorous job of grading diamonds to check that they are all they are claimed to be.

Ms Bailey feels more people should be given the same chance to get qualified. There is much at stake if people don't know what they are doing.

Some synthetic emeralds are so realistic that even a laboratory can find it hard to distinguish between them and the real thing.

"It makes a big difference in the gem trade if you're qualified and knowledgeable," she said. "You have to know what it is you're selling, as people can bring in loose gems or made-up jewellery which someone not in the know would have great difficulty in recognising, let alone valuing.

"The Gem-A course gives you the knowledge to test rare and unusual gems correctly and to obtain conclusive results. You may not know the dealer, so it pays you to know more than he or she does."

The British are Europe's biggest buyers of jewellery after Italians, and shops in the UK turn over about pound;2 billion a year alone.

Ian Mercer, Gem-A's director of education, said: "Employers lose good people to firms who will help them take courses. With the state the market is in, smart people want to have that bit extra to offer, and a Gem-A qualification represents that."

Courses cost between pound;635 and pound;4,800, and many students have to fund themselves. Gem-A is non-profit-making and receives no public funding.

It works through 40 teaching centres worldwide, financing itself through course fees, membership and by conducting laboratory tests.

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