In the Diamond Mind: Susan Jacques

A Conversation with Susan Jacques, President and CEO, GIA
(Gemological Institute of America)

By |
President and CEO of the Gemological Institute of America, Susan Jacques

Warren Buffett once called to offer her a job. She grew up in Zimbabwe and, after graduating from high school, she became a typist instead of going to college. Following her gut and fascination with gems, as an adult she took a chance and moved from Africa to California to earn her Graduate Gemologist diploma at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) exactly 40 years ago. With a penchant for fancy color diamonds, a passion for consumer protection and stories so fantastic they could be mistaken for movie scripts, Susan Jacques seems destined to lead one of the most influential organizations in jewelry, the GIA, including its 3,400 employees, 11 grading laboratories and seven schools around the world.

Q: What’s the story of your first diamond?   
The first important diamond I have been blessed to own is my engagement ring. My husband and I got engaged over Memorial Day weekend 30 years ago. For my engagement stone, we selected a beautiful Fancy Deep yellow, oval cut diamond. I love it. It looks like a sunflower and it’s like a ray of sunshine on my finger. I treasure the beauty of colored diamonds, one of my favorite gems.

Q: What excites you most at the moment?
These are very challenging times, yet I am grateful for the blessings in my life. During the shutdown, I have been fortunate to be living on our family farm in Nebraska, and spending an amazing amount of time with my husband and two of my three sons. My middle son has been working remotely and my youngest, who is 13 years old, is studying remotely. The gift of time with family is very special. We have been going for walks and I have felt such strong emotion for the glorious natural world in which we live.

I’m also excited by the strength and resilience of the human spirit. The outpourings of love and support that I have seen during this time inspire me. So does the creativity and ingenuity of people, who are finding new ways to connect and to build communities during these difficult times.

Q: What is your intention for the year ahead?
First and foremost, I intend to do everything I can to keep our staff, students and visitors safe and healthy. This includes our 3,400 employees, visitors to our 11 labs and students at our seven schools around the world as we begin to reopen after the pandemic.

I remain dedicated to our mission of consumer protection. We, at GIA, are not strangers to turbulent times. GIA was founded in 1931, soon after the U.S. stock market crash of 1929, with the goal of ensuring the public trust in gems and jewelry. We achieve this through education and research efforts. I am confident that the jewelry industry will come back after the recent challenging months, because people will continue to use jewelry to celebrate the milestones of life; we will continue to want gifts to pass down from generation to generation. Sustainability and traceability will become increasingly important, and that is an area we have been focusing on for some time already.

Finally, continuing to make our independent grading reports available to the industry. With travel restrictions, there will be many more online sales, both from businesses to consumers and from businesses to other businesses. As people increasingly buy sight-unseen, the grading report will become that much more important and through it, we can help ensure that people understand exactly what they are purchasing.

I am inspired by the work of our students. One of the most intriguing and interesting designs I’ve seen recently, by talented GIA graduate Yi-Hsuan Chiang, is of the winning design for the 2019 Gianmaria Buccellati Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewelry Design,” said Susan. The design features amethyst, diamond, moonstone, conch pearls, coral, black opal and baroque pearl. Photo by Emily Lane/GIA.

What’s your greatest indulgence?
Travel! I love to see new places. My husband and I were planning a trip to Africa for our anniversary this year, which has been postponed but not canceled. I was born and raised in Zimbabwe. Our plan was to visit nearby Botswana and also Zimbabwe, including one of my favorite spots in the world, Victoria Falls. I love Africa and I always joke that my next career will be driving a jeep in a game reserve there. There is nothing more magical than driving through a game reserve and seeing Mother Nature at her finest.    

Q: What diamond destination is at the top of your list?
The Argyle Mine in Australia. Unfortunately, I doubt that trip will happen as the mine is likely to shut this year. I would love to see where so many colored diamonds have come from, ranging from brown and yellow tones to fancy pinks, violets and reds. It would have been incredibly special to visit the mine. 

I’ve had the opportunity visit five different diamond mines and to see the beginning of the diamond journey. Once, down at the bottom of a mine, I said to the young gentleman taking me on a tour, “The sale of a diamond would be that much easier if everyone could see this.” Consider that most diamonds are more than one billion years old. Most objects that are one billion years old are in museums, not on your finger! There is such an extraordinary story and romance behind these stones called diamonds.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in jewelry?
I found my passion by stepping out of my comfort zone and by seizing opportunities. When I finished high school, I took a job as a junior typist at a jewelry company in Zimbabwe. I was captivated. Eventually, I took a risk and left Africa to study at GIA, which was located in Santa Monica at the time. The course began on June 17, almost exactly 40 years ago. A classmate had a retail jewelry store in Omaha, Nebraska and after finishing at GIA, I took the step of moving there to gain retail experience. I ended up staying for three decades before joining GIA in 2014. In life, when doors open, we have no idea of the path on the other side. It takes courage to step through a door. But we can always return to our comfort zone, and knowing that has helped me to make the tough decisions.    

Q: What moment still blows your mind? 
The day I got a phone call from Warren Buffett, asking me to come into his office and meet with him. Warren owns Borsheims, where I worked at the time, and I had never met with him individually before. I was so surprised. Warren asked if I would become president of Borsheims and I spent the next hour explaining why that was not a good idea. I told him that I never went to college, that I might fail and more. He convinced me to take the job and I reported to him for two decades. He was a great mentor and is a very wise man. He taught me to take calculated risks and to grow over the years.

Q: What life lesson has been the hardest earned, and taught you the most?
One piece of advice that has become my life mantra was given to me by Warren: “Do not say or do anything that you would not want to be read about on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper by your family, friends, colleagues and clients.  It takes years to build your reputation but only minutes to lose it.” In business and in life, it’s important to have high integrity and a strong moral compass. Reputation is earned from the choices we make each day and each choice can destroy it or enhance it.

The Robert Mouawad Campus in Carlsbad, California is the World Headquarters for the Gemological Institute of America.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
Take calculated risks, and perfection isn’t always possible. The other day a quote struck me, “We are not perfect and that’s why pencils have erasers.” Being willing to take risks and to let go of perfection helped me step outside of my comfort zone. I’m so grateful I did.

Q: What’s next for diamonds?
I believe that there is a bright future for diamonds, one in which the trends that we have seen in motion only accelerate. People will continue to demand more education, transparency and accountability from our industry. The self-purchasing woman will be increasingly empowered, although she has always been important. In the past, even when a man was the buyer, the woman was often the driver. The personal relationship with clients will continue to be critical.   

In response, it’s important to tell the stories of jewelry, including the story of natural diamonds. Especially the stories of the good diamonds do in communities around the world. We need to step away from commoditization to share the passion and emotion of our business with people. As the world continues to move online, we must seek out ways to use digital technology to continue to create the personal connections and relationships that mean so much.