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Ninja Babes, Ping Pong, and Lithuanian Seagull Day: Welcome to AGS Conclave 2019

Before this novella begins, I’d like to share a little anecdote with you. Shortly after arriving in Seattle, I ran into Toby Pomeroy, whom I consider to be a leader in pushing for environmentally sustainable and socially responsible jewelry in our industry. When I saw Toby, I greeted him with a big hug as I always do and told him what a wonderful surprise it was for me to see him there at Conclave. “Do you know why I’m here?” He said to me. “Not really, no. Why did you decide to come this year?” I replied. “I’m here…” Toby said, “because last year, I read your recap of Nashville’s Conclave and I thought to myself, ‘there is no way I’m missing that next year.’”

So, if you’re wondering if you can get through this entire blog post, you can. I promise I’ll make it worth your time. And if you’re someone like Toby who either hasn’t attended a Conclave or hasn’t been to one for quite some time, well, this one’s for you. Here’s hoping I see you in Denver next year.

With that said… this is my complete recap of the American Gem Society Conclave, 2019.

DAY ONE – The Great Oyster Shakedown

When I first heard that the 2019 edition of the American Gem Society Conclave was going to be held in Seattle, Washington, I had a feeling it was going to be a little different that the four others I’d previously attended. And as with every year I hear about Conclave, I knew I had to be there.

Seattle, for those unaware, was always an extraordinary city, and while it’s now home to Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft, there is no denying that its roots run deeper than big corporations and popular coffeehouses. Seattle is the home of the Grunge era of music, glass artist Dale Chihuly, and some of the best sashimi in the United States.  It’s a growing city that – while always popular – seems hipper than ever, even with its regularly gloomy skies.

My trip to the Emerald City started with an airport meetup. Award-winning jewelry designer Erica Courtney and I decided we’d share a car to Conclave’s host hotel (along with Sheila Siu) and once there, we grabbed our good friend Alan Hart of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain to head out for a little sightseeing. (And by “sightseeing” I mean the sight we saw was the inside of Erica’s friend’s wine bar for several hours and one or six bottles of bubbly.) After (hiccup) leaving the bar, I headed to my AirBnB where I was staying with my two roommates whom we’ll call “The Joshuas” for the sake of this article. Once refreshed, I headed back to the Sheraton Grand Seattle for the first of that evening’s two Conclave-associated gatherings: The Mentor Mixer.

Back in 2017, the American Gem Society along with the AGS Young Titleholders decided to set up a mentor program which would match established and experienced AGS members with specific Young Titleholders. The general idea – as with most mentor relationships – is for the relationship to work both ways. The mentor gets to share their knowledge and guide the mentee while the mentee does their part in keeping the mentor up to date on what’s new and fresh. So the Mentor Mixer is the perfect way to kick off Conclave because it brings together many of the industry’s icons (I’m looking at you, Bill Farmer) as well its new blood.

Following the mixer, a slew of us hopped into an Uber Black (as B&B Gems’ superstar and AGS speaker Dave Bindra sat in the front seat and played D.J. [this would turn out to be a recurring event throughout trip] while the rest of us rocked out to his jams in the back seats) and headed across town for the AGS International Guilds party. The Guilds – for those unaware – are sort of like “chapters” which are set up in various cities throughout the country. Guild members gather periodically and will invite speakers to teach classes or host seminars throughout the year. As one such speaker, let me say that being part of a Guild is a great way to keep the AGS’s ethics and ideals in the forefront of our minds after the yearly Conclave comes to a close.

While there was plenty of delicious-looking food at the party, a handful of us had one thing on our minds: oysters, so we decided to gather a couple of folks and head out in search of said Seattle shellfish. Well, that “couple” turned into about twenty people, and on a Sunday night at 9:30, we knew we’d have a tough time getting in somewhere. But our resident Seattleite, Monica Stephenson of ANZA Gems, suggested we try the famed Tom Douglas restaurant, Dahlia Lounge. And while the looks on the servers’ faces were of utter shock (and a tiny bit anger) when we arrived (a half hour before they were to close – hence the anger), we managed to still get seated and pretty much ordered all the oysters (and wine, and gin, and tequila) they had to spare. But what I learned very quickly about this – my third – trip to Seattle, is that even when you think the night is coming to a close, it most definitely is not, especially when jewelry and gem people are involved, and even more especially when your uber driver whips out a gold-plated microphone THAT WORKS and you and your multiple companions sing “Now That We Found Love” by Heavy D and The Boys (RIP) all the way back to the Sheraton. Yeah. Day one went something like that. And I’ve got the video to prove it.

DAY TWO – Did She Just Do “The Worm”?

On Monday morning, The Joshuas headed over to the Sheraton a little before I did so I decided to catch a LYFT. My driver – Joe – was a super nice, talkative young guy. In fact, he was so darling I was thrilled to have gotten him again some seven hours later. That’s right. In a city of roughly 725,000 people, I got the same LYFT driver twice. Maybe Conclave should be held in Vegas instead of Denver next year, ‘cause I’m liking my odds these days.

That morning’s breakout and featured speaker sessions included but were not limited to the subjects of brand ambassadors, emerald origins, emotional intelligence, watchmaking, Millennials, platinum casting, and marketing. If you don’t get why Conclave is so valued, read my previous sentence again and maybe you’ll understand a bit better. There is no place in the American jewelry industry that will allow you the wealth of knowledge like that with which you’ll walk away upon your departure from Conclave. Trust me on this. I’ve not lied to you yet.

When it came time for the opening luncheon and keynote address to get under way, I noticed there was a soft, barely audible voice demurely interviewing attendees at the entrance to the grand ballroom. Why, it was Conclave emcee, Joel Zeff! Or as we industry folk refer to him, “Shy Joel Zeff”. Joel was greeting luncheon guests in sort of a “less annoying Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet” type of way and man, he really was doing a phenomenal job of laying down some hard-hitting questions to AGS members. One particularly deer-in-the-headlights-inducing inquiry came in the form of several attempts at finding out if the attendees knew who the current American Gem Society president actually was. Full disclosure: they did not. Fuller disclosure: that was a gift from the improv gods for dear ol’ Jeff Zell (#ifyouknowyouknow) which only strengthened the bromance already existing between John Carter and him. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when they were standing in the mens’ bathroom next to one another last year. Actually, scratch that last line. I think I need to wash my mind out with soap now.

Monday’s Keynote speaker was a man by the name of Dan Thurmon, and my guess is that – had he been alive and in attendance – P.T. Barnum would have really enjoyed this guy. Dan talked about balance in one’s life (work, family, etc.) while juggling balls (bowling and electric) as well as knives, riding a unicycle, and doing backward handsprings across the stage. (Sheesh. I can barely tie my shoes most days.) Entertaining? Absolutely. And while – and this is 100% true – my very own husband can also juggle while riding a unicycle, I’m not sure I’ll try any of that myself at home. Nor should you.

As The Joshuas and I made our way back to our house after the day’s final sessions, we discussed what we’d be wearing to that evening’s events: The Supplier Showcase and the Young Titleholders’ Trivia Night hosted by Hearts on Fire. It was in the car that one of the Joshuites suggested we wear the matching gem-themed pajamas we had made specifically for Conclave, which is when the three of us agreed that yes, we would indeed be *those* people who are willing to stand out and look like the buffoons we’re known as being in order to make those in our company feel gemtastically gleeful. It worked, and we upped Marc Altman’s trivia team t-shirt game in the process. (BRING IT, FLINTSTONE.)

For some reason, this year’s Young Titleholders/Hearts on Fire Trivia Night was being held at a ping pong bar – yes, there are ping pong bars, apparently – by the name of SPIN, that was in walking distance from the hotel. The centerpiece of each table was a glass cylinder filled with orange ping pong balls, which, if you have ever met anyone in the jewelry industry post-happy hour, was about as fitting as if it were a bucket filled with Silly String, Redi-Whip, a Nerf gun, and water balloons. In other words, no one was getting out unscathed and the potential for bruising was pretty substantial.

Trivia night started with some simple rules (don’t use your phones, make sure no one sees Priyanka using her phone, and whatever happens, don’t drop the crystal trophy if you win) but what we never saw coming was the throwback to “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” which came in the form of Hearts on Fire’s Lindsey Davis who performed the “worm” move at the front of the room. That set the tone, people. The night only got better after that.

Thanks to the members of our team (some say we came in 2nd place but I like to say we came in 1st place, once removed) which included John “I was late to my own event” Carter, Joel “I still get prizes even when I lose” Zeff, Craig “Livin’ in the South” Danforth, Jennifer “Hey, I got the Pez question right” Pusenkoff, Stephanie “And I got all the other questions right” Kennedy, and three random guys no one knew (seriously… were they even in the industry? I feel like they snuck in on AGS’s dime). All in, Day two of Conclave was a rip-roaring good time that taught us a thing or two about how quickly and powerfully the women in the jewelry business can throw a jar of ping pong balls at a person’s face, particularly if his name rhymes with Shmichael Crichards.

DAY THREE – The Dangers of Meeting Gem Dealers in a Forest

While the majority of the jewelers assembled in the Emerald City launched tiny plastic spheres at one another for fun, I decided to leave immediately after trivia was over so that I could get up bright and early for Tuesday’s Keynote Breakfast event which I absolutely did NOT want to miss.

It’s not often a person gets to see celebrities anywhere near as funny as comedians Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood of the hit improv series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” (oh, uhh, other than the Conclave emcee, of course), so The Joshuas and I arrived in time to grab seats right up front in the hope that we’d get picked for the audience participation part of the performance (editor’s note: we did not). However, our disappointment was short-lived once we saw that our friend Anna Samsonova was the first victim volunteer to be selected. There is no way to be able to put into words just how hilarious this skit was. All you need to know about this is that it involved two members of the audience who had to physically (and cautiously) move Brad and Colin based on what they were saying. Oh, and, you should probably know that what they were saying had to do with National Lithuanian Seagull Day. Really. You had to be there. Trust me on this.

Another gem of a moment (all puns intended) during the comedic presentation was when Colin and Brad selected Alexis Padis and Stephanie Kennedy to do the sound effects for their story about jewelers who have to meet some shady gemstone dealers… in the forest. Because as we all know, the forest is where the finest of all the gemstones in the world are found. (Insert eyeroll emoji here.) Oh, one more memory: Charles Stanley dancing backup to a rap about “Babes Wolverine” which also featured the talents of Michael Richards and Clayton Bromberg. GOOGLE IT. Just sayin’.

The rest of the morning’s sessions included discussions about transparency in relation to gemstones, identifying lab-grown diamonds, the up side to texting your customers, hiring millennials, selling to women, and many others. Again, as mentioned above, as it relates to all things diamond, gem, and jewelry, Conclave covers every base every day, and does so with the help of experienced speakers.

Tuesday’s Titleholder’s Luncheon (sponsored to the American Gem Trade Association) started with AGTA CEO and 2018 Shipley Award winner Doug Hucker joking about how he could sell tickets to those who’d like to beat the pulp out of emcee Joel Zeff when Joel screams into the mic first thing in the morning. Clearly this became a running joke for the rest of Conclave, but in reality, the joke turned into an opportunity for Jewelers for Children to raise a bunch of money in raffle tickets thanks to Zeff at once point pressuring folks in the crowd to buy them and to Doug agreeing to match a certain number of raffles sold. The Titleholder’s Luncheon also recognized those who became new AGS Titleholders as well as those who had reached a certain number of years holding that title. Also presented at the lunch were the Young Titleholder of the Year Award which went to a deserving Meredith Schlessinger, CG, for her work with the Young Titleholders, and special recognition also went to Lisa Bridge, CG, for the part she has played over the years in developing the Young Titleholder Community. The Guild of the Year Award was presented by Marc Altman to Susan Barnett and the Michigan Guild, and The Sallie Morton Award was presented to Phillip Bosen, CG, for his work with the International Guilds.

The last class of the day, for me, was one I’d been waiting all of Conclave to see, and that was the Exotic Colored Gemstones class being taught by the inimitable Dave Bindra. If you’ve never been to any of Dave’s seminars, you’re really missing out on something special. Think of them as a marriage between your favorite rare colored gemstones and the old school R&B mix you play the first time you invite a date over for dinner and… uh… coffee. IT’S JUST THAT GOOD. Dave’s chill demeanor, soothing voice, and ability to mix humor with style and a killer soundtrack makes for a flawless presentation every dang time.

Tuesday night was what is known as the “free night” at Conclave, meaning people can attend dinners or private parties on their own, which is exactly what The Joshuas and I did. A huge “thank you” to ANZA Gems, the Seattle chapter of the WJA, and Accounting for Jewelers for co-sponsoring a killer shindig at the home of Monica Stephenson (and thanks to Monica and Dave for opening your beautiful home up to the multitude of us who attended). We drank lovely Washington State wines and ate beautiful foods while overlooking Puget Sound by the fire until it was time to call it a night.

DAY FOUR – The End is Coming (But First… WATCHES!)

The final day of Conclave is always filled with joy, sadness, and the occasional daytime glass of champagne (aka, #daybubbles). The earlier part of the day brought me (and several others) along on Monica’s journey into the gem mines of Africa via her breakout session before sitting us down for the Robert M. Shipley Award Luncheon. This year’s Shipley Award was elegantly (and at times, hilariously) presented by Bill Farmer to Kelly Newton of Newton’s Jeweler’s in Fort Smith, AK. Funny thing… I’ve not only visited Fort Smith (“What is a big city girl like you doing in a town like this?”) but I’ve actually visited Kelly’s store… TWICE! And Kelly is more than deserving of this award.

But let’s get to the part you’ve all been waiting for (not really, but it’s my blog and I can say what I want) and that’s the recap of how my watch panel went.

I had the honor of moderating a panel which included four gentleman whose voices ring loudly in either the jewelry or the watch industries. The idea behind this panel session – titled, “The Watch Market in 2019: Modern, Vintage, and the Future of Watches” – was to hear opinions of those representing four genres of the watch world: the retailer, the journalist, the collector, and the vintage expert. Topics largely discussed were Rolex’s popularity, the future of high-end watchmaking, Baselworld’s recent releases, affordable watch brands that are currently reaching the end consumer, and why buying and selling vintage can be a smart way to go. My panelists included three-time Conclave speaker Eric Wind of Wind Vintage, James Stacey of Hodinkee, watch collector Jeffrey Binstock, and AGS president John Carter. After the panel’s conclusion, a group of us ventured down to the Sheraton’s bar and let’s just say a mini watch fest broke out, with several AGS attendees gathering around to try on and compare some truly extraordinary vintage timepieces.

After a quick visit to the President’s Party followed by a wonderful meal with my panelists at Seattle’s famed Public Market, it was time for me to bid the city, my friends, and this year’s Conclave, adieu.

Many, many, MANY thanks to those who make Conclave possible. Everyone from the AGS staff to the committee to the photographers, media crew, lighting folks, speakers, and board members all band together and pull off something really special, year after year. It has been an honor to be included as one of the event’s speakers more than once and an even greater pleasure to be able to write about it and talk about it yearly on this blog and in my podcast. If anyone were to ever turn my podcast questions on me and ask me what my favorite industry event is, there is no doubt in my mind what the answer would be. I’d pick the event that would pull together people whom I genuinely value; the one that I feel does the most for jewelers as a community. I’d pick the event that offers every attendee a sense of belonging – AGS member or not – and the one that recognizes people for their worth and their value and not just because they think that recognition can sell tickets or a table. I’d pick the event that provides education, mentoring, and leadership as well as the one that isn’t afraid to have some fun and let its guests blow off a little steam. But mostly, I’d pick the industry event that has always made me feel like I deserve to be there; the one that has offered me a family to call my own.

Hands down, every time, I’d pick Conclave.

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