A Champion for Colored Gemstones
Published in Summer 2005 issue of The Loupe
ICA President Joe Menzie takes his love of color to emerging nations
By Mauricio Minotta
It’s near closing time at Joe Menzie’s booth at the GJX Show in Tucson and he can use a bite to eat and an earful of blues and jazz.
After negotiating with clients, holding impromptu meetings and finalizing details behind the International Colored Gemstone Association’s (ICA) next big marketing campaign, he’d like to take refuge with a little live music.
That’s the way Menzie winds down after a long day in New York City. The only problem is, the jazz clubs he visits for dinner in Greenwich Village are more than 2,000 miles away. He settles for a cigarette outside of the GJX tent to tell the story of his 32-year-career in the colored gemstone industry. It’s one about passion that grew the more he learned about gems.
“Without exaggeration, it took me many years of asking questions, learning and looking at gemstones before I could honestly say I started to understand pricing and the gem industry,” Menzie says. “I’ve been in the business for more than three decades, and I’m still learning because it is constantly changing.”
Menzie worked as a social worker before he was “pulled into the industry” by his grandfather, Charles Winson, a New York-based colored gemstone dealer in the 1950s. He joined his grandfather’s business as an apprentice, but at 22, was more intrigued with the opportunity to work in the big city and to understand what drove grown men to have such a passion for little red, green and blue gemstones, he says.
He soon found the industry “very interesting,” which, like most things that motivate Menzie, was enough to whet his natural curiosity, he says. The more he learned from the seasoned dealers around him and by taking GIA Distance Education courses, the more enraptured he became.
“Before I could do anything, my grandfather told me I had to earn a GIA education. He was a big proponent of the Institute,” Menzie says. “I was very lucky to have very knowledgeable people around me. And since I was in New York, I had access to GIA legends like Bert Krashes and [G. Robert] Crowningshield.
“Eunice Miles also had such passion for the gemstone world. I would sit across from her desk when I studied and she would talk to me about gemstones,” he says. “She had a certain twinkle in her eyes when she spoke. You could feel her enthusiasm.”
His heightened curiosity benefited his learning process. A self-described product of the ’60s, Menzie says he questioned everything – and everybody – but was always open to change. There was a lot to understand, but Menzie was patient, he says.
“I learned that I had to absorb information, constantly look at gemstones and ask questions,” he says. “The old-time gem dealers were very encouraging, and they’d always tell me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it. It will just come to you.’ ”
Eventually it did. He left the family business by 1982 to join Golay Buchel’s North American precious gemstone division, where he learned about the international market during his many trips to Geneva, Hong Kong and Bangkok. The experience taught him many important lessons and exposed him to international sourcing and pricing. It also offered him the opportunity to meet people in the business from around the world.
“What I found most intriguing was that I could transport gemstones and make a business anywhere in the world,” Menzie says. “It is one of the very few portable items that transcend religion, culture and monetary currencies. Once you understand value-to-quality in fine gemstones, that’s strength.
“Also, there were so many nuances that drove gemstones from one price to another – color, clarity, origin, carat weight, rarity, as well as supply and demand,” he says. “I was brought up to believe you make your profit on the buying side, so to buy right was critical.”
He stayed with Golay Buchel for five years before striking out on his own to start Joseph M. Menzie, Inc. Today, his company sources precious gemstone material from the international marketplace for distribution among retailers and manufacturers in the United States.
Exploring New Markets
It wasn’t long before Menzie realized he was no longer learning enough about the changing jewelry industry, so he got creative and organized the New York Jewelers’ Group 14 years ago. The think-tank group, which is comprised of about 48 directors of New York City-based distributing companies from various sectors of the industry, meets every third Thursday of the month to discuss the latest issues in their respective areas.
The group’s exchange of information is a lesson he learned from his grandfather who would meet with his contemporaries almost daily for breakfast to talk about the business – what was selling and what was new.
“When you become president of your company, you don’t have anyone else above you,” Menzie says. “I didn’t have a mentor who could guide me. So now I meet with colleagues in diamonds, colored stones, pearls, estate, watches, fine jewelry manufacturing … you name it. We have a great cross section of the industry and we learn from each other. It’s really quite fantastic.”
Menzie takes what he learns to effect change in the industry as president of ICA, a post he was elected to in 2003. Recent developments in emerging consumer countries, and more precisely, the opportunities they provide the colored stone industry, are what have been on Menzie’s mind lately.
He’s working on two fronts, China and its emerging consumer market, and The Gem Millennium Campaign, a marketing program designed to stimulate heightened demand for colored gemstones internationally.
“[The Gem Millennium] will build opportunities and provide recognition for individuals, companies and government bodies who want to partner with ICA,” Menzie says. “We’ll be networking with the fashion industry and retail sector to create consumer awareness to buy color.”
China is a very different market, which the ICA will develop from its infancy, he says. It involves an aggressive long-range plan to build a brand that will function as a quality trademark for ICA gemstones and jewelry sold under it.
“To me, [China] is a very interesting market … it’s the future,” Menzie says. “If I can create a venue for [ICA] members that will brand their products with quality standards, then this model can be taken to other emerging consumer markets to promote the ICA, its members, and thus, stimulate growth for colored gemstones through a reliable and identifiable trademark.”
Menzie and ICA’s board of directors have made inroads in countries such as Korea and Russia; they also have Turkey and the United Arab Emirates on their radar.
“Joe Menzie has been working extremely hard to raise the ICA’s stature in developing countries,” says Roland Naftule of Nafco Gems, Ltd., one of the founding organizers of the ICA 20 years ago who served as its first president. “I think the concept is good and there definitely will be a tremendous need for the development of colored gemstones in those countries. I think he and the organization’s board is moving in the right direction.”
The ICA began as a small group of dealers and manufacturers who worked together to promote colored gemstones and helped solve issues that effected their sector of the industry, Naftule says. Today, it has about 485 members in 45 countries.
“Joe Menzie has taken ICA to a new level of international influence with the implementation of new programs designed to further the organization’s outreach and recognition,” says ICA Board of Director Edward Boehm and former U.S. Ambassador to the organization.
“He is very dedicated to the ICA’s mission. He has an incredible work ethic, and often works late to stay accessible to customers, ICA ambassadors and board members on the West Coast and in Asia.”
Menzie feels that part of his duty with the ICA is to share information with the industry. So the organization has hosted tours of colored gemstone mining operations for representatives from the media and trade, including GIA.
The ICA-sponsored trip to Brazil in 2003 provided an opportunity for a GIA team to return the following year and visit four major mines to observe and document how emerald and Imperial topaz is extracted from ore, then sorted, cut, polished and sold.
They returned with more than 22 hours of video, 3,000 photographs and the most up-to-date information that has already been incorporated into GIA’s education courses. [See The Loupe, Winter 2005]
“We are extremely grateful to Joe Menzie and the ICA for their efforts to make this trip possible and to the Brazilians for hosting us during this very informative trip for the purpose of education,” says Andy Lucas, product manager of Gemology at GIA.
The ICA board of directors is discussing a possible future educational trip for the gemological community, Menzie says, but for now, he’s talking about the marketing campaign in China – which isn’t always easy because he’s constantly being approached by clients and friends who manage to find him on his break outside of the GJX tent.
It’s been one of those days that call for some late-night music, he says.
“I like sitting at the bar, having a burger and just listening to the music,” Menzie says. “Jazz and blues just takes me away from everything. It helps me relax, no matter how daunting my day has been with my businesses or ICA work. It’s just interesting.”