Meet George, America’s first gemologist

Updated: Jul 19

July is such a great month to celebrate being an American. I always start to feel my patriotism kick in a little bit harder than normal. I get all emotional about our flag, Mount Rushmore, and our military. We eat lots of apple pie, and enjoy fireworks.

American history has more than its share of amazing talent, and today I want to tell you about George Frederick Kunz, America’s very first gemologist.

You may be asking yourself what a gemologist is. It’s someone who can identify gemstones. Yours truly is a gemologist, and let me tell you, the road to becoming one is not easy! There are lots of gemstones in the world, and a good gemologist will be able to look at any one and tell you what it is. Garnet or ruby? Emerald or peridot? They’ve got you covered! They may have to do some tests, or use their microscope, but that’s all part of their training.

Quick Gemologist History Lesson

Of course, being an official gemologist is something that’s relatively new. The very first school to call their graduates gemologists was the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (you’ll have to forgive the Brits for their spelling errors….), and that was only back in 1908. So gemologists as we think of them today have only been around for 100 or so years. The very first American graduate was a guy named Robert Shipley. He graduated in 1929. Once he returned to the States, he started his own American school for gemology. A classic American entrepreneur! Even though that was back in 1931, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) still exists today. And in my opinion, it’s the best place to become a gemologist.

Gemological Institute of America
My alma mater, where they train gemologists, Carlsbad, CA

Anyway, let’s get back to George!

A rockhound makes a good gemologist

George was born in New York City in 1856, long before any institution was training gemologists. He was a rock collector from an early age, and the expanding New York City was always digging up something for a tunnel or road. That gave George plenty of opportunity to find rocks. One of his first big finds was a 9 pound, 10 ounce garnet crystal, which now sits in the American Museum of Natural History. By the time he was 20, his collection of rocks numbered around 4,000, and weighed in at over two tons! He sold the whole set to the University of Minnesota for $400. George was awfully proud of this, and felt he had established himself as a “recognized mineralogist.” (Note that he didn’t call himself a gemologist, because that term wasn’t being used yet.)

George Kunz, America’s first gemologist
George Kunz, America’s first gemologist

Basically, he was a pretty cool guy, and I could go on and on, but to me, there’s really three important things that stick out.

#1 – He worked for Tiffany

When he was just 20, he was trying to find a buyer for some green tourmaline he had found up in Maine. Tiffany, at the time, sold only “precious” stones – diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. (I’ve talked before about how ridiculous the term “precious” is – read more here). Undaunted, George walked into their New York City office and persuaded the big boss, Charles Tiffany himself, to buy the tourmaline. This was the beginning of a relationship where Fred found and acquired gems, and then sold them to Tiffany. They started to work together so frequently that when George was just 23, Tiffany offered him the job of Gem Expert