When the FGA Meets Jewellery PR
There are many different career paths for the person interested in gemmology. Olga González FGA DGA, CEO of Pietra Communications, recalls how her Gem-A training led to a career in public relations. This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Gem-A’s Gems & Jewellery Magazine.
Choosing a career is a daunting task, with thoughtful consideration taken when deliberating on one’s future and livelihood. Growing up, rocks fascinated me. Back then I did not have any gemstones of my own, so I remember going out in the yard, collecting rocks from the ground and painting them with nail polish to make my first ‘coloured gem’ collection. I was proud of them and kept them in my windowsill. They were not, however, presented as the key to a career.
On the surface, it can seem like students have to choose between making money and following their passion, as if they must choose one over the other. I can understand; I was given a choice between three possible professions: doctor, lawyer or architect (because I was talented with my Lego, apparently). Gem-A Students reading this article may have opted for passion because, like me, they have a fascination with gems and jewellery. During a Foundation class with Pat Daly, I saw a horsetail inside a demantoid garnet. I was fascinated by the whole other world inside the gem, and I found myself hooked on gemmology.
To be sure, few things are as exciting to those of us with a love of gemstones as being a gemmologist. Jewellery is unique — it is the only luxury item with both sentimental and inherent value, passed down from generation to generation. It commemorates love, people, milestones and loss, and the gemstones that are part of so many pieces are a wonder. Within the trade there are an endless array of possibilities for career paths, even ones that overlap more traditional studies, like business. This year marks the tenth anniversary of my New York City-based agency, Pietra Communications, which offers various communications-related services to the trade. The most popular by far is our work within the space of public relations, placing brand products and news in editorials across print and digital media and positioning clients as industry experts in their niche.
In 2006, I moved to London for graduate school at Christie’s Education. The master’s program in art connoisseurship covered European fine and decorative art from the Renaissance to the 1960s, and I was engrossed in it. While studying, I was accepted into an internship in the curatorial department of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, helping then curator Rosemary Ransome-Wallis. Rosemary was extremely passionate about gold and silver, and under her tutelage I learned to identify goldsmithing techniques and was allowed to take charge of several projects. The Goldsmiths’ Company has a collection of contemporary jewellery, which piqued my interest, and Rosemary gave me the opportunity to judge a jewellery competition, advise on buying for the permanent collection and organise my first press preview event (for the Treasures of Today contemporary silver exhibition in Oxford). That was the start of my jewellery PR career.
On the last day of my internship, Rosemary told me she was sure it was my destiny to work in the jewellery trade. She gave me the number of Dr Jack Ogden, then-CEO of Gem-A. I did not know at the time that Jack would become a mentor and friend. I was nervous about calling since I did not know what to say. Thesis writing at Christie’s was my life, but I wanted to continue with my education in gemmology and was seeking advice on how to start a career in the UK, where I wanted to stay. I cold-called Jack and asked if he would be open to meeting and reviewing my resume. He enthusiastically agreed.
During our meeting, Jack mentioned that there would be a position opening soon at Gem-A, as the Membership Manager was going on maternity leave. Serendipitously, my last position was as a Membership Manager for the Girl Scouts in New Jersey, where I implemented new programs that exponentially grew membership there. I told him I would apply, but that I was more interested in a path related to marketing and events. At that time there was no such position, but 2008 would mark Gem-A’s one hundredth anniversary, so something special was on the radar. I started working part-time at the Association and enrolled in the Foundation Course while writing my thesis at Christies.
After finishing my master’s degree, I began full-time work at Gem-A in Membership before becoming the first Marketing and Events Manager. It was an exciting time to be a part of an incredible company, and it was gratifying to take on multiple projects. Reporting to Jack Ogden was an exercise in observing great leadership. He was a visionary who openly embraced change and encouraged staff to be innovative. From Jack, I learned the art of thinking on my feet, which is essential to surviving in the world of public relations. He taught me to question everything. As a jewellery historian and expert in ancient jewellery making techniques, I appreciated how he would analyse gems, jewellery and artefacts that came his way, always thinking outside of the box. That level of curiosity and dedication to continuous education are practices I continue in my own business.
Gem-A wanted to update their look in anticipation of the one-hundredth anniversary, so I moved fast and worked many late nights. During my first week, I produced the idea for a new logo that incorporated the Gem-A Coat of Arms. I worked with a third-party vendor on a redesign of Gems & Jewellery. Our vision included putting a model on the cover, developing marketing materials, and creating a new website, for which I wrote all the text and launched in under three months. Finding venues for Conference, planning a candlelit anniversary dinner and auction, designing ads, speaking to press and writing press releases were all part of a typical day. As a regular contributor to G&J, I worked closely with the late Mary Burland, another brilliant mentor. She taught me how to use InDesign and Illustrator to create layouts for issues.
After working at Gem-A during the day, I took in-house evening courses. I was lucky that I was able to attain my FGA while working in communications in the gem trade. I felt I was set for a life in the UK until my application to extend my visa was rejected. I didn’t see it coming, so I found myself starting over.
When life is at a crossroads, I always pray, “May the right doors open, and the wrong doors close.” Doors opening and closing is precisely how my business began. My career path is one I never could have imagined, yet I am grateful for the wild ride it has been.
Growing up, my father often said, “Whatever is meant for you, no one can take away from you.” After coming back to the United States, I interviewed for four months before working in-house with a firm again. Some find themselves entering the trade because of family, either taking over a business or being exposed to it from their parents. At that time, I wished that was my story, because it would have been easier navigating with some groundwork in place, but I am grateful for the experience of building a business.
A funny thing happened as I worked for other companies: I was contacted by designers to design their websites, write press releases to launch their collections, do brand copywriting and plan events. Then a number of occurrences shifted my perspective. First, I threw my back out and needed to get a discectomy. I would be bedridden for months, but also needed flexibility during recovery to do physical therapy post-surgery. Second, side work was coming in rapidly via word of mouth, from designers to manufacturers to gem dealers. Third, in one week people in my life kept insisting that I start my own business. Clients offered retainers to start my own agency so I could work more for their brands.
During that time, trade members Herta and Elena Kriegner spoke frankly and encouragingly about their passion for entrepreneurship, as did our mutual friend, the late Christian Toggenburger. His sudden passing was a stark reminder that life is too short not to choose a path that brings happiness and fulfilment. I decided to dive in. While out on the town with friends, I toasted the start of my new business, which I announced on the spot. The next day, I started the paperwork to incorporate. It was impulsive, and there was no business plan or forethought. Ten years later, I can say it was the best decision I ever made. Elena and Herta have become trusted collaborators — Elena is an incredibly talented bench jeweller, and Pietra Communications commissions her to make corporate gifts and custom pieces, while Herta is an exceptional graphic designer with whom we work on our customers’ design projects. For years, we have worked together and inspired each other.
My gemmology degree is something I use every day, sometimes in unexpected ways. Within my own company, I promote businesses I personally believe in and where I have product expertise. Before attending Christie’s and Gem-A I received a bachelor’s degree in English and art history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. After receiving my FGA, I went on to complete a certificate in Appraisal Studies at New York University before completing Gem-A’s DGA.
For years, I worked in TV/film/theatre, and I have travelled all over the world. As a result of all this experience, Pietra Communications provides services for the gem and jewellery trade (about 80% of our clients), but also works in the fine art, fashion, media and travel sectors (though these fields are not publicly promoted). To this day, our growth is due to word of mouth, and our new customers are mainly referred to us by other clients.
Training my staff on the company’s expertise, specifically in gemmology, is a part of my day-to-day life. If we are working with a client that designs with gemstones, I explain the background of a given gemstone and why this design or story of this stone is significant within the history of jewellery. Clients who are designing against an editorial calendar will often come to me for advice on which stones to use, especially when they are not gemmologists. I advise them on hardness and setting, sharing what material may work best for certain pieces as well as consulting on lore and symbolism that could enhance the brand story.
Every day our agency sorts through media opportunities, where editors contact us about a story they are already writing, looking for our clients to fill in content. For example, they may be writing a holiday gift guide, or seeking an interview with a gemmologist about synthetic diamonds. At times, I do interviews when writers need an expert opinion from a gemmologist and none of my clients can provide a quote in time for a deadline. Also, I write for trade and consumer publications on gem and jewellery-related topics. At times it leads to adventures, like visiting mines and expanding my knowledge in person.
Gemmological knowledge also comes in handy for photo shoots and celebrity styling. Since I know how to speak about the pieces and how to handle jewellery, I often teach about gemstones at shoots. I can answer questions from those who want an in-depth understanding about what they are wearing.
For event planning, a Gem-A education is also useful. Whether providing advice to bakers (What colours would be realistic in this geode cake?) or mixologists (What are clever ideas for gem-themed cocktails?), knowing one’s stones makes it fun to host a gemmy party. Between clients and associations, we are constantly planning events. One of our first events was the publicity for a jewellery exhibition at the Forbes Galleries, called Jewellery in the Space Age, where we suggested some designers for the curator and helped with some acquisitions, such as getting a Cartier Lunar Module to New York for the event.
Currently, I am the president of the Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA) New York Metro chapter; I am also a past president of the Public Relations Society of America New York chapter. No matter where your gem education takes you, it is important to pass the torch on by teaching and mentoring others. With WJA, I work with fifteen incredible board members to oversee thirty-seven committee members across communications, events, membership, mentorship, diversity and inclusion, as well as sponsorships and partnerships. Using what I learned at Gem-A, I bring ideas to the table for educational events or suggest hot topics in the trade. We offer members relevant in-person and virtual gatherings that support their businesses and develop their education.
Growing up, I’d never heard of gemmology as a discipline. Now I use my gemmological education in my work, volunteer life, and by collecting. I collect gems, mineral specimens and contemporary jewellery, and it brings me joy, especially when I wear the jewels. Which doors can be opened through gemmological education? The sky is the limit.