Alan Hart took the helm at Gem-A (the Gemmological Association of Great Britain) in mid-2016.

Here the CEO tells PJ what innovation means for the association, and discusses its prestigious educational programmes for both beginner and advanced gemmologists.

What does innovation mean to you and what part does it play in your company culture?

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Innovation for us is being able to respond quickly to any external challenges and develop continual improvement of our offers and how we deliver them.

With this we need strong connections with the industry and environment in which we operate, understanding our customers (for want of a better word) and their needs and adapting and modifying our products, services and how we deliver to address these – being able to move with the times is important to us.

Gem-A operates within an international context and services a diverse audience already within the industry and those starting anew.

Innovation as I’ve described is a crucial part of our company culture – Gem-A has a long history and especially during the last decade and my time as CEO we have successfully made our flagship courses accessible globally in five languages through a wide range of study options.

From my perspective it is vital to be continuously evaluating and evolving.

Knowing your landscape and planning ahead is extremely important to be successful, but being able to react quickly is crucial, almost perfectly shown by the swift impact of covid-19, where beforehand you may have had longer to adapt and change.

By necessity, we have had to quickly focus on and accelerate our current online offering and move more towards blended learning for our onsite courses without compromising the more hands-on in-person practical approach of our qualifications.

Good communication and consulting with our audience (students, members, partners) and gathering feedback is a key part of innovation for the organisation.

We have a strong global community of members who use their FGA and DGA post nominals with great pride – and we want to continue supporting our membership through our recognised publications, continuing professional development and hopefully networking opportunities (pandemic permitting).

Our Journal of Gemmology magazine is fully peer reviewed and cited, which has added to the gravitas and international standing of the Gem-A as a thought-leader.

In what ways are you innovating from a product or design perspective at the moment that you can share for 2021?

Increased focus on growing our online distance learning (ODL) programme globally through Gem-A HQ and improving the ODL programme and resources available to students on these programmes.

We strongly support our global accredited teaching centres in the delivery of Gem-A education during the pandemic through a blended-learning approach, where the theory is taught online and practical in-person as a viable model of delivery.

We are also focusing on including more online learning options in the form of webinars and short courses at introductory and advanced levels.

We ran a successful webinar series in 2020 and we would like to develop and improve these offerings in 2021 and beyond.

New markets are extremely important for us and we have developed our footprint in new regions, notably the Middle East and North America through Gem-A USA, which also has a 501 (c) (3) charity status in the US.

What are the key influences when it comes to new product development and do you see these changing?

Rise in technology, our increased reliance and how we leverage it to continue providing our services without compromising on the quality of delivery and provision of education, which has become much more evident throughout this pandemic.

When you look at new product development, use of technology is key – digital education provision where you can study in your own time and from the comfort of your home or office or anywhere in the world has become the norm.

We are focusing on including more online learning options in the form of webinars and short courses”

However, gemmology is a hands-on and practical subject, I still feel there is space and a demand for the more traditional classroom setting and learning, which I see from the many requests from our global students and our in-person training through our accredited teaching centres.

So, while Gem-A has developed and continues to improve its online and blended learning offering, we also continue growing and supporting our in-person training.

As we come out of the pandemic, we will see a return to students looking for the traditional classroom learning and not just online.

The industry is moving fast and gemmology continues to develop and change with new gemstones, synthetics, treatments, et cetera.

Gem-A wants to stay ahead of the curve and ensure that our core offering adequately includes these changes within our qualification to keep them current and relevant. All efforts are being made to move in this direction.

How do you seek to differentiate yourselves from competitors?

Gem-A is world renowned for the scientific robustness of its qualifications; a strong theory and practical element that has been long established and recognised.

The recognition of these qualifications within the industry and elsewhere and becoming a member of the Association after successful completion of our prestigious diplomas with the letters of FGA or DGA after your name is very much recognised as a mark of excellence.

Our education is known to be difficult but designed to give you the knowledge and tools to be an accomplished gemmologist and move forward in many areas of our industry.

In essence, this is our brand and with it you become part of a global community – accessing experts, learning and new opportunities through networking, industry contribution.

Innovation can also occur from a non-design perspective e.g. through technology changes, marketing, customer support etc. Is there anything innovative you’ve been doing for retailers in this regard?

We are looking to develop a short online course specifically for retailers to train their staff. This is in development, which is all I can say for now but it is very exciting.

It has been a challenging 12 months for the industry – what key trends do you expect to see within the jewellery industry this year?

The pandemic has given us huge challenges, and most of us have had to pivot and adapt. The jewellery industry is strong and will bounce back.

Many retailers that I have spoken to globally have moved their operations online and have been successful at it, which shows that there is still a demand for good products.

Trust and transparency will be key moving forward (consumer confidence). Our consumers are also knowledgeable and often hugely engaged, but as we know the online world often contains a lot of information, but possibly not a lot of facts.

As we come out of the pandemic, we will see a return to students looking for the traditional classroom learning and not just online”

This is why gemmology education is so important: a) so that shop floor staff can speak confidently with customers, and b) retailers know what they are selling.

I think it’s important that education touches on aspects that directly impact harmonisation and coordination within the industry.

Clearly articulating and not being afraid to tackle and address issues of social responsibility, diversity and inclusion are really important to allow us to all thrive.

How has the pandemic affected your business strategy – what’s your main focus now?

Like all businesses, Gem-A has also been impacted by the pandemic, luckily even pre-pandemic one of our focus’ was growing our online offering so this has dovetailed quite well.

As a charity, we need to ensure that we develop and move forward, while importantly giving back in terms of supporting the industry and trade.

We need to ensure we stand by and develop the trusted value we deliver. What has changed is priorities and resource allocation, which we are looking at more closely.

What is the key to successful partnerships between suppliers and retailers – do you think the needs of both parties are changing as the industry becomes accustomed to a ‘new normal’?

For what we do, our main relationship is with our accredited teaching centres (ATC) who have specifically been recognised by Gem-A as trusted partners to deliver our qualification in the regions within which they operate.

Historically our ATCs only provided in-person training, but with the pandemic, we’ve had to make provisions for our ATCs to offer blended learning i.e. theory online and practical onsite as an interim measure.

Our ATCs have had to respond to the pandemic and make their own modifications to continue offering Gem-A courses.

With many variations in local government COVID restrictions and constantly changing patterns this hasn’t made the task easy.

However, mutual support, understanding, flexibility, transparency and most importantly good communication is key to a strong relationship and this is what we’ve focused on with our ATCs and this has worked very well.

A strong relationship will survive any challenges thrown at it and with our ATCs and other partners we will only come out of the pandemic stronger, leaner and better able to support our global students and Membership.