A financial guide and travel story
First things first, the proof is in the numbers. According to the GIA website, the net cost (tuition, housing, food, books, transportation, and miscellaneous spending money) of obtaining a GIA Graduate Gemologist degree in Carlsbad, California, is $34,503. In 2016, I did my degree across three countries for less that $15,000. This article is part guide and part story relating the specifics of how I accomplished this feat of financial wizardry and how you might do it, too.
As an American who has decided he can’t move forward in the gemstone industry without some sort of certification, there is really one choice when it comes to educational institutions. Yes, there is the highly respected Gemmological Association in London (Gem-A), and the financially friendly Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences in Bangkok (AIGS), but for someone looking a gem-related job in the Unites States, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) is the only school that employers recognize and trust. Believe me, I resisted this because the thought of spending $34,000 in six or seven months was not only hard to swallow, it was impossible for my financial situation. I asked around on forums and in person and everyone told me the same thing: American employers don’t know these other schools or these other certifications. Everyone wants a to hire a Graduate Gemologist (GG) from GIA. Once I realized that this was my only real choice, I started started crunching numbers and hunting for any trick or shortcut I could find to help save me money.
I first started by thinking internationally. The cost of GIA tuition is not the same in every country and the experience you will have at each campus is going to be different based on the city, the teachers, and the culture of the country. For reference, the cheapest on-campus tuition is in Mumbai and it’s $12,017 in 2016. The most expensive tuition is in New York and it’s $22,670. Taiwan and Bangkok fall nicely in between and I immediately knew that Thailand would be part of my plan. Besides the reduced cost of tuition, Bangkok is the center of the worlds gemstone trade and the campus is a half hour commute from the main gem trade building. I figured that if I wanted to find job opportunities and connections in the international gem industry, Bangkok would be the best city I could be situated in. Also, the cost of living is much cheaper than anywhere in the States. $22,000 plus flights, housing, and food was still more than I could justify, though, so I kept looking for tricks.
I started to realize that another possible option was to take the courses online. No matter what country you are in, the Distance Education program is around $9500. This was a much more palatable number but I feared I might miss out on the full experience if I did the whole class alone from my bedroom. So I decided to do both and I also decided to get creative with how I did it since I love to travel and experience new cultures. I am really happy with the choices I made considering how much money I spent, all the great things I got to see around the world, and the feedback I got from other students that did the entire course on campus. I think I chose the perfect marriage of all the options.
The GG program is broken up into two sections, Diamonds and Colored Stones. In general, the On-Campus Colored Stones class takes 5 months and the Diamonds class takes 2 months. I decided that the most cost effective way to do the program was to do the shorter class on campus and the longer class at home. But I didn’t stay home. Coming from San Francisco, the cost of living couldn’t be much higher, so the idea of quitting my job to sit in an expensive apartment learning about stones all day didn’t make sense. I did some extensive research into the cost of living all over the US, Europe, and Asia to figure out where would be the most exciting and economical place I could hole up for 5 months. The numbers pointed to India. You really can’t live much cheaper than you can in India, and Jaipur is another major gem cutting city so it wouldn’t hurt at all to be there for a while. When you got bored of homework you could take a walk and see all the stones you had been reading about.
For my situation though, I had the opportunity to move to Scotland with my girlfriend and her family and pay the same amount of rent as I would have in Bangkok. This was my special situation, so I recommend Jaipur for anyone wanting to follow in my footsteps. I flew out to Scotland at the end of the Spring and started my first Colored Stones class online. The benefit of taking classes online is that you save money, you can go at your own pace, you don’t have to wake up early, and you can take as many breaks as you need to during the day. My plan was to finish the class as quickly as I would have if I was on campus, so 5 months was my timeline. This means you must be very disciplined, you must read for 5+ hours a day, you must not procrastinate, and you must not get too distracted. I get distracted easily and I discovered that doing the course reading in the bathtub was the best for me because then I didn’t have the option of walking around, getting up for a snack, or easily browsing the internet. I put the laptop on the ledge next to the tub, kept one hand completely dry so I could advance the online pages and read for sometimes up to nine hours in the bathtub. All in all, I think I did 50% of the Colored Stones class from the bath!
Aside from my coursework, I was also helping with a home remodeling project and creating an art installation in Scotland, so I was not spending 6 days every week studying. I think I could have shaved a week or two off if I was a more disciplined student, but still, I did it in a good amount of time and I had a lot of fun on my days off. The other good thing about being in the UK, and this is comething to consider when making your plans, is that London was only a train ride away. You need to attend two different on-campus, week long lab classes during your online course, one to learn color grading and one to learn how to use all the tools for gem indentification. I was able to take one of these in London which gave me the opportunity to visit the London campus. If you were living in Jaipur, you could take a train to Mumbai to fulfill this requirement.
By the time that Autumn came, I left Scotland and headed for Thailand to start my Diamonds class at the GIA campus in Bangkok. I took my second online lab class in Bangkok and then Diamonds started the following week. The Bangkok campus is nice and my apartment was only a 20 minute walk from the school which made my commute easy and free. I got the cheapest possible private room which was about $120 per month but it had no air conditioner which I don’t recommend at all. My experience over the 2 month in class was excellent. I made new friends from all over the world, I met people that work in the GIA laboratory upstairs, I spent countless hours browsing stones in the gem market, and I ate tons of delicious Thai food.
The benefits of taking the classes on campus is that you can go more in depth with the help of the teachers knowledge and experience. Also, you end up reviewing the course materials about three times instead of just reading it once so when the test comes at the end you are better prepared for it. The disadvantage, in my opinion, is that you must wake up early every day and be in class on time. If you get sleepy after lunch you must force yourself to keep grading diamonds and looking at tiny things in the microscope. You can’t skips days or go on a week long vacation. You don’t have to be as disciplined with your time managment as with the online classes but you have to be responsible because the tardy policy is somewhat strict.
I’m so happy I didn’t do the whole class online because you learn so much from meeting all the other people in your class. I met people from Thailand, Myanmar, France, Italy, Israel, China, India, and more and everyone is working in different parts of the gem industry. It’s great to see the industry in action from the people whose families have gem businesses. Also, it’s great to be social and have friends to celebrate with when you pass tests and to commiserate with when the stress of diamond grading is getting too high. The collective nervousness on the last day when we were all waiting for our final test results and then when we found out we passed was something I will never forget and something I would have missed out on if I would have been learning at home. On the other hand, I am happy I didn’t do Colored Stones on campus because it’s such a long class. I am happy to have been able to take breaks, naps, vacations and baths to break up the insane amount of information that you have to learn in such a short time.
One important thing to consider about taking Colored Stones online is that you need to buy your own tools. You save money on tuition but you need to spend about $700-$1000 on all the required instruments to be able to grade stones at home. I look at this as a benefit though because you end up having a really great gem kit and all the skills to be able to use it. GIA has a student kit that they sell but it’s incredibly overpriced considering that with a little research you can put together a kit of better or best quality instruments for much less. I spent a few weeks pricing tools and asking for recommendations online and in Thailand and this is what I came up with as the highest quality tools for the money:
Gem Tweezers: $1 in Bangkok Jewelry Tool Store
Daylight-Equivalent light source (bulb): $10 at any store
Mini Maglite: $20 on eBay, but they give you a free one in the lab classes
BelOMO 10x Triplet loupe: $30 (This is the best loupe under $100)
Gemoro Elite 1030PM Microscope: $249 eBay
Gem Cloth: $4 on Amazon but they give you a free one in the lab classes
GEMPRO Refractometer with polarizing filter and a removable magnifying eye piece: $695 (this is the best refractometer for under $1000 and this is a gemologists most important tool.)
Optic Figure Sphere aka Conoscope: $10 from Gem-A
OPL Dichroscope: $88 (the best for the price)
OPL Spectroscope:$81 (the best for the price)
Polariscope: $150 from eBay (any will do)
That list comes out to $1343 though I actually spent $550 because I was able to find a great vintage refractometer on eBay for $100 and a used version of the microscope on eBay for about $50 that needed new light bulbs. The refractometer is the costliest thing to buy on the list but don’t be tempted by the $99 Chinese refractometers on eBay. They don’t give accurate readings and are poorly made.
I’ve covered tuition and tools but this is only half the battle to save money. It might seem counter-intuitive to spend money on flights around the world in order to save a few hundred dollars on rent but it can actually make sense if you do it right. With a little planning, luck, and some financial tricks, this can be cheap and easy. The first step is getting a credit card with rewards points. I’ve written another article all about this that I recommend reading. Once you have your rewards points credit card with your initial 100,000 rewards points, you can start flying cheaply. I was able to get a one way ticket from Chicago to Glasgow for free with rewards points from one credit card and then when I was ready to fly to Thailand, I got a round trip ticket from London to Bangkok for $470 with the rewards points from another card. I paid all my tuition on these cards so by the time I was ready to fly back to the States, I had accumulated enough rewards points to fly to Chicago from Glasgow for about $200. I left the States in late May and am returning in January and all in all, I spent $770 on flights and $776 on rent for 7 months. The combined cost was the same as two months of rent in my San Francisco apartment!
For housing in Bangkok, there are options. The cheapest is a hostel but this probably isn’t a good choice while you’re in school. You need quiet time for reading and sleeping. I used Airbnb and got the absolute cheapest room that was close to the GIA building. I’m totally happy with the room except for it’s lack of air conditioning. It’s a bit like being in a tiny, grubby college dorm room which adds to the feeling that I am in school.
Being out of the States saves money in another way which is your sim card. The cost of using a cellphone in the States is about $80-$100 a month and the cost of a prepaid sim card with 3gb of data in Thailand, India, and the UK is less than $30 per month. Food in Thailand and India is really cheap, sometimes down to $2 per meal but more likely around $10–15 a day if you eat at restaurants at every meal and don’t buy alcohol. That saves you a lot.
My final tip is to apply for a scholarship. This isn’t that great of a tip because if you take classes on a campus that isn’t in your home country, you aren’t elgible for scholarships. The trick is that if you take classes online classes, you are elgible for a different set of scholarships. These scholarships can be utilized anywhere because GIA doesn’t know or care where you are at when you are reading online. I hadn’t considered a scholarship because I didn’t think I was elgible until someone at a GIA Alumni talk told me about the eLearning scholarships. I applied for one and was lucky enough to be awarded $2000 to put towards the online portions of the class. It might work for you, too!
If you’re considering going into gemology, I recommend it. It’s a fun world where you get to look at pretty stones and meet friendly people from all over the world. I’m totally happy with my GIA education and all the experiences I accumulated this year while I was learning. I have new friends, new business contacts, and new dreams to accomplish. Also, my hope that being in Bangkok would connect me with a job was fulfilled. I was offered a US based job that requires travelling all over the world and I start in a month! Good luck in accomplishing all of your dreams. It’s what makes life worth living. Financial tricks just makes them a little bit more attainable.