CARLSBAD — Just over the hill from LEGOLAND, behind security gates, lays the headquarters of the Gemological Institute of America, the nation’s leading expert on gem quality.
The nonprofit institute trains thousands of aspiring gem experts, educates the public and even federal agents about gems.
Along with the educational courses, the GIA is a research institute. Larnie Antrim, guest services manager, said the majority of the institute’s funding comes from laboratory services.
Commercial businesses and people send in their diamonds, gems and jewelry to find out the quality of each gem and whether or not it’s real.
She said sometimes, people send in family heirlooms and get an unpleasant surprise.
“There are a lot of fakes out there. There was no GIA out there (in the 1920’s) to be able to test and tell the difference,” Antrim said.
The institute was founded in 1931 by Robert and Beatrice Shipley after the two realized the need for a comprehensive approach to sharing gem knowledge.
It is the birthplace of the modern diamond grading system, the four c’s, which grades diamond color, carat weight, clarity and cut.
Before that system had been invented, jewelers had different grading systems that weren’t translatable from jeweler to jeweler.
However, there is one thing the GIA doesn’t do and that is gem appraisal.
Antrim said it would be unethical to determine the quality of a gem and also determine its worth.
“We identify it, we tell you what it is but it would be a conflict of interest if we also put a price on it,” Antrim said.
The institute serves as an unofficial watchdog to the gem industry, Antrim said.
About 10 years ago, officials from the GIA noticed a large influx of padparadscha sapphires at trade shows.
The gems are very rare and valuable so it was suspicious more of these gems were turning up, yet no new source had been discovered, according to Antrim.
The GIA purchased a half million-dollar machine, which does laser ablation and discovered that the gems were frauds.
“Our researchers are constantly trying to stay on top,” Antrim said.
The GIA also has a junior gemologist program for students through fourth and sixth grade.
About 20,000 children throughout the region have come through the program, Antrim said.
Since the kids are learning about life sciences, the tour aids their learning.
The children use different tools, like microscopes and lights, to look at different stones.
The program has been so popular that the GIA purchased a van so Antrim could bring the program to schools with no transportation budget.
Part of the institute’s mission is to educate the public, so free tours are offered daily. People wishing to take a tour must schedule it 24 hours in advance.
The museum has rotating exhibits. Currently, the Dream Fantasy Bras from past Victoria’s Secret fashion shows are on exhibit.
However, since the bras aren’t actually purchased by anyone, the jewelers who designed them usually take out the natural gems and diamonds for individual sale.
The replicas of two bras from 2002 and 2003 are on display. Heidi Klum wore one of the originals.
Along with educating the public, the institute also helps domestic FBI agents with diamond grading classes.
Since jewels are an easy way to transport wealth, they’re often used for criminal activity, according to Antrim.
“If they’re going to go undercover, they need to look like they know how to hold a jewelers loupe and how to fold (a diamond) into parcel paper and they need to know if they’re dealing with the real deal,” Antrim said.
The services are offered to the FBI for free since the GIA is a nonprofit institute.