John Hollerbach - the gemmologist
Jane McGuire

John Hollerbach - the gemmologist

How to become a Gemologist

First published date April 25 2014 Amended date September 23 2015

First things first, what is gemology? The combined art and science of studying, cutting, valuing, buying and selling of some of the world’s most precious natural and artificial gems and gemstones. Think diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds and you are on the right track. Gemmologists work in all areas of the jewellery industry, identifying specific properties in expensive stones, clocks and watches.

To get a better idea we caught up with John Hollerbach in his Whitechapel studio, a lecturer in gemology at The Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design. With many students through his door each year, ready to learn the difference between the valuable and valueless, we thought John would be the perfect person to talk to when it comes to learning more about gemology.


Gemology is not an obvious career choice, how did you get into it?

As a young man I was involved in the antiquities businesses of my local town and I spent a considerable amount of time in auction houses and galleries. I spent my time examining objects of art, jewellery and furniture and learning the associated design and history.


So this has always been a passion for you, how did you make the jump from hobby to career?

I studied for a Restoration and Conservation degree and graduated as a Bachelor of the Sciences. I then went on to study for a Professional Graduate Certificate in Education and began spending more time teaching whilst working as a professional restorer in my studio.


Tell us about some of your favourite projects as a professional restorer...

Omega Swiss watches are an enjoyable side line.


What do students learn on your course?

This short course is intended for those who wish to develop the skills to identify and differentiate the key principles that separate the valuable from the commercially valueless in the jewellery and precious metals field. Students will have the opportunity to work on their own objects as well as those provided by myself.

They examine materials that are used to reproduce jewellery items and these objects are examined in terms of aging and fundamental scientific differences. I get participants to engage in formative group tasks that involve handling and scrutinising genuine and reproduced objects. My students gain a foundation in quick identification of materials, and develop a practical and scientific approach in identifying genuine, fake and reproduced objects. Using simple techniques students will be able to assess the age, material properties and commercial value of jewellery, also developing knowledge of UK hallmarks and the associated hallmarks on some foreign jewellery.


As a complete beginner what is the first thing you would teach me?

The first step would be the identification of genuine jewellery.


What are the benefits of studying the course?

Students gain a diverse group of skills and can choose a specific area that they may wish to develop in the future.


What advice do you have for people interested in studying a course like this?

Buy with your head and not your heart! And always be willing to learn.


How long have you been working in this industry?

Broadly speaking, most of my adult life.


What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get a job in your industry?

Trust your eye and remember precious minerals are finite so are inherently valuable; so if they are well designed, they will in turn be desirable and more commercially valuable. Plan your career but be versatile.


Can you describe a typical day in your working life?

Breakfast, answering emails and addressing students questions. Work in the studio for half a day and then travel to university or college to lecture. Address learner development in the evening and respond to business calls and emails. Also visiting online auction houses.


What do you think is the most important skill required to do your job?

Patience and a love of beautiful, natural resources.


Finally, can you tell us why you love gemology in one sentence?

I love quality craftsmanship and enjoy beautiful yet complex objects made and designed in the earth, from the fine minerals of this planet.


If John has inspired you to take your first steps into the world of gemology here in London, take a look at the gemology courses available. Alternatively, if you want to study on a course with John himself at The Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design you can view A guide to Gemology, Clocks and Watches, Precious Metals and Hallmarks here.