Loupe it or lose it: Why training matters, even for the most veteran appraiser

December 1, 2013

By Mark T. Cartwright

Most of us enter into every experience with expectations and presuppositions. Sometimes they serve us well; sometimes they can get in our way as we try to do our jobs.

Unfortunately, diamond grading is one of those experiences in which we may be hindered by our assumptions. It may be that some of those presumptions are made on an almost subconscious level. Other times, we’re aware of our biases, but our egos lead us to believe we can rise above them. The most insidious thoughts are those that involve pleasing, or at least, not disappointing our client.

Perhaps the second most harmful thought forms are those that blind us to our shortcomings and limitations. I believe one of the most significant impediments to excellence in our profession is the belief that continuing education is not a necessary and vital part of our professional ethics. My goal for this column isn’t to try to teach anyone about diamond grading, but to whet your appetite to continue to learn and hone your skills through regular training.

I was very fortunate to have been among fewer than two dozen people to attend the initial offering of a two-day course sponsored by the American Society of Appraisers (ASA) created in conjunction with the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). It was entitled ‘Advanced Diamond Grading,’ and because all the attendees were highly trained and experienced gemmologist/appraisers, the topics and training were indeed advanced.

The course’s instructor opened with a brief statement of purpose that has been haunting me since it was uttered: “If you hope to replicate our (GIA’s) laboratory results, it’s important you learn to replicate our methodology as closely as possible.” It seems obvious, right? If we were speaking of a science experiment, it would be a no-brainer. However, how many of us can actually claim we are in fact grading diamonds for colour, clarity, or cut in exactly the same way any of the major laboratories do?

If we were being totally honest, how many of us can claim to even know exactly how the major labs grade? Since it’s doubtful we’re in step with their methodologies, should we be surprised when we find ourselves in disagreement with their results? If you’re like me, you’ve said, or at least heard someone say, “Wow, the lab really missed that call,” or “Are you serious? How did they come up with that grade?!” Of course, the underlying premise in that kind of statement is, “I’m right, the lab is wrong.” However, is that true or just our egos talking?

Seeing things clearly

The small crystals near the 9 o'clock position are consistent with the VS clarity grade the diamond was assigned.[2]
The small crystals near the 9 o’clock position are consistent with the VS clarity grade the diamond was assigned.

Many of us are trained, credentialed gemmologists, and for most of us that means a ‘GG.’ Speaking for myself, I had always assumed that as long as I followed my training, I was grading diamonds like GIA Gem Trade Laboratory (GIA-GTL). Among the many, many things I learned during the course of the 16-hour class was that until very recently, the grading process used by GIA-GTL was considered proprietary and a ‘trade secret’ (and some things still are). In other words, what gemmology students were taught and what GIA lab employees were taught were very similar, but not the same. So let’s embark on an absurdly abbreviated attempt to see if there’s something about diamond clarity grading we’ve forgotten or perhaps were never taught.

The process of clarity grading is far more complex than many of us may believe or remember; let’s briefly review what we should already know. The five components of every clarity grade are: size, location, relief, nature, and number. Each is taken into account in determining the grade and none is more important than any other. After initially being considered as independent coequal parts of a whole, they are ultimately combined to create an impression that will be our initial grade.

Feathers can be seen extending from this bruise. When combined with a single pinpoint, the clarity grade range of VVS is indicated.[3]
Feathers can be seen extending from this bruise. When combined with a single pinpoint, the clarity grade range of VVS is indicated.

The actual methodology begins with the binocular microscope using whatever magnification level is necessary to locate and identify the clarity characteristics. In general, this is best accomplished by dividing the stone into sections using the facets’ geometry as a guide. We might examine the gem ‘face-up,’ ‘table-down,’ through its side or, more likely, all of the above if we’re dealing with a loose stone. Keep in mind the best ‘dark-field’ effect is seen with the stone at or slightly below the level of the light well diaphragm, and it is rocked and rotated throughout the process.

For VS-1 and higher-clarity diamonds, dividing the stone into sections is a necessary and integral part of grading, as we focus from one surface through the stone to the opposite surface to verify that we’ve missed nothing. For VS-2 and lower-clarity diamonds, sometimes it’s just as easy to use a prominent inclusion as a guidepost to recognize when we’ve examined the entire stone. Remember, we’re trying to get an initial impression of the clarity range while identifying the ‘nature’ of the inclusions. Feathers, dark inclusions, or those that are visible (or their reflections) through the table will influence the final grade the most, while twinning wisps, clouds, non-reflecting colourless or white inclusions, or graining tend to have less impact.

The next step is to reduce the microscope’s magnification to 10X and to relocate the inclusions you’ve found to assess their visibility and overall impact on the stone’s beauty and durability. There’s no way to ‘tally’ the clarity characteristics’ individual impact on the grade; as we examine the stone, however, our internal dialogue will undoubtedly be pushing us toward a conclusion. The important thing to remember is that each of the grade’s five components has an equal role to play in the final decision and all the inclusions need to be considered as a whole assemblage. We were probably taught the buzz words: minute (VVS), minor (VS), noticeable (SI), and obvious (I) to establish the clarity grade range based on our initial impression; however, precisely repeating the process is necessary to be consistent from stone to stone.

The shallow feather visible in a star facet (at the 2 o'clock position) has relatively low relief in this lighting environment.[4]
The shallow feather visible in a star facet (at the 2 o’clock position) has relatively low relief in this lighting environment.

The last step in the grading process is to finalize the grade or the level within the grade range. Generally speaking, except possibly in the flawless grades, this is done with a fully corrected 10X loupe. There is a specific technique and lighting environment required to accurately perform this step. In our class, the fluorescent overhead light that was attached to the microscope was fully rotated so it was pointing downward and extended off the front of the microscope’s stage with the diffuser plate installed. In real life, it should be possible to adapt the technique to other light sources. (Just remember the instructor’s opening remark about the importance of replicating the methodology to achieve the result.) The diamond is held in tweezers in preparation for being examined ‘face-up’ and positioned approximately half an inch below the front edge in the centre of the light. Having a black background behind the stone is important and can be accomplished using a cloth, paper, or whatever one can devise that will be consistent. The loupe is brought into focus and as the stone is gently rocked and focus extended from table to culet, it is simultaneously moved approximately one-half to three-quarters of an inch farther under the light and back to the starting point. The stone is then repositioned in the tweezers and the process repeated.

At least for me, learning the fine details of this technique opened a door to a whole new understanding of loupe grading. I discovered I had often been ‘generous’ when grading diamonds that were near a grade boundary because my loupe grading technique was lacking. Many times during the two-day class, we were encouraged to practice the various techniques that were being taught as often as possible using diamonds that had grading reports. How could I not offer the same advice?

Making the grade

The same inclusion seen using the 'loupe grading' technique is much more visible. This diamond was graded SI-2 by the lab.[5]
The same inclusion seen using the ‘loupe grading’ technique is much more visible. This diamond was graded SI-2 by the lab.

My experiences over the two days provided me with many ‘Aha!’ moments, as we delved into topics like cut grading, colour grading, detecting treated and synthetic diamonds, and much more. Although I attend at least 20 hours of continuing education classes each year, I left Carlsbad, Calif., with the distinct feeling that a gemmological diploma should be like most advanced appraisal designations and require renewal/recertification after a specified time interval.

There are too many of us who received our diplomas decades ago who are still convinced that we’re right and the labs are wrong. As I explained at the beginning of this column, my goal isn’t to try to teach anyone how to grade diamonds—that would be virtually impossible to do in this medium. I do hope this brief foray into my understanding of some of the nuances of clarity grading ‘the GIA way’ will provide a spark that may incentivize a reader or two to seek out opportunities to improve their skills and competency, and perhaps experience their own ‘Aha!’ moments.

Mark Cartwright[6]Mark T. Cartwright, ISA CAPP, ICGA, CSM-NAJA, GG (GIA) is president of The Gem Lab, I.C.G.A., an independent American Gem Society (AGS)-accredited gem laboratory. He has been a jewellery designer, goldsmith, gemmologist, and appraiser for more than a quarter century. Cartwright can be contacted via e-mail at gemlab@cox-internet.com[7].

  1. [Image]: http://www.jewellerybusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/loupe-grading-2.jpg
  2. [Image]: http://www.jewellerybusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/round-diamond-microscope-well.jpg
  3. [Image]: http://www.jewellerybusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/bruise-on-VVS-diamond.jpg
  4. [Image]: http://www.jewellerybusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/oval-diamond-microscope-well-lighting-1.jpg
  5. [Image]: http://www.jewellerybusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/oval-diamond-fluorescent-lighting-1.jpg
  6. [Image]: http://www.jewellerybusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Mark-Cartwright.jpg
  7. gemlab@cox-internet.com: mailto:gemlab@cox-internet.com

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