At just 24, Kennon Eli Young has seen both sides of the marriage sacrament: couples flush with impending vows, requesting custom rings, and divorcees seeking the value of their dissolved union. The Burlington native is a jeweler and a gemologist, with some of the most sparkling credentials in the state -- a graduate degree from the Gemological Institute of America, courses from the Rhode Island School of Design, and accreditation with both the American and International Society of Appraisers. Young, who has 20/24 vision and the steady hands of a coffee teetotaler, is also training to become one of only 46 "master gemologist appraisers" in the world.
Young's own fingers are wedding-band-free: He's single. (Though a girlfriend gets to keep some of his work.) With wedding season in full swing, Seven Days found Young and his rock collection in Burlington's Kilburn & Gates building and popped him a few questions.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you get into jewelry making?
KENNON ELI YOUNG: I was always good at science, so I started making simple silver rings and stuff at Mount Mansfield Union when I was in high school. Here's my very first piece. I wanted to make a bee, but I never got around to his wings. So it's an ant, maybe, with a stinger?
SD: Or maybe a six-legged dog? Anyway, what kind of pieces are you making today?
KEY: I work in gold, silver and platinum, copper, brass. I'm just starting a line of jewelry called Tatuq, for tattoo parlors, where people go in and spend large sums of their income on tattoos, but right now the jewelry is low quality. One of my pieces is a zombie arm keychain; it hangs out of your pocket like a zombie rising from the grave.
SD: Hmm, a little creepy. So . . . some of my friends are trying to decide between different metals, like platinum and white gold. What's your take?
KEY: Platinum is pretty much superior all around, save for the price. Platinum is about $1200 an ounce, gold's about $600. But if you're looking for a ring that's going to last you forever, platinum would be the way to go.
SD: What percent of your business is making jewelry?
KEY: About 40 percent. Mostly what I do here is appraisals, by appointment. I'm one of two accredited appraisers here in the state of Vermont, and in the top 5 percent in the U.S.
SD: How do you get that distinguished status?
KEY: With accreditation. You can get a tile from Home Depot and write your name on it with "Gems and Jewelry Appraiser." But with accreditation, you not only know the markets and what gives value, but also you're being held to standards and codes of ethics.
SD: What would be some examples of unethical behavior?
KEY: There are a million. Never get an appraisal from someone who sold you the piece, or buys and sells estate jewelry, or charges a percent of the appraised value. And this is how to never get ripped off at the jewelry counter: You say, "I really love this piece, but I would really like to make sure that you're offering it to me for a good price and that it is what you're telling me." You're going to need the appraisal for insurance anyway. And 99.8 percent of all sapphires and rubies in the United States are treated.
SD: I'm not showing you my engagement ring, then. It's got sapphires.
KEY: Don't be scared by treatments, because furniture is stained before it's sold. Some treatments are really evil, but some are just heat treatments.
SD: Evil treatments?
KEY: Yeah, like, beryllium diffusion. Or laser drilling, palmer impregnations, tons of them. Basically, you can take a brown stone that's worth about 50 cents a carat and go through these heavy treatments and then price it at $600 a carat or upward.
SD: Do you get lonely, working by yourself in here?
KEY: No, I have my gems to keep me company.
SD: How much competition do you have in Chittenden County?
KEY: The only other accredited person, as far as I know, is Gail Nelson in Quechee. Great gal, I love hanging out with her.
SD: So what do appraisers do when they hang out?
KEY: Oh, if you could hear my gemology friends and me, throwing out gemological jokes -- just the biggest dorks. I have a rock collection; I have a microscope. I love being a dork. But I also rock climb. I have a sailboat. I take flying lessons, play Frisbee and go snowboarding in winter.
SD: How much are you traveling?
KEY: I was in Greece and London last fall and I'm going to San Diego soon for a gemological symposium. It's the fourth one in 30 years and it's going to be absolutely incredible. My mentors helped me get a discount. This is one of the last professions that works through the apprentice system, which died out after the Industrial Revolution. Now people get out of college with no clue what to do. I have two mentors, one in San Diego and one in New York City.
SD: Are there old fogies out there who say, "Aw, that kid doesn't know anything?"
KEY: Yeah, trying to get respect from other people at my age is a problem for me. It's really frustrating. A marketer suggested that I grow a long beard and wear glasses.
SD: What's gemological school like?
KEY: The requirements for graduating are pretty strict. We had to read a couple hundred pages a night and took tests every week. The final test is called the 20 Stone. It puts fear in the minds of gemologists.
SD: Does the Northeast have any precious gems?
KEY: There are the Gore Mountain garnet mines, near where the Hudson River starts. It looks like the cliffs are bleeding.
SD: What are some of the biggest surprises you've found in your appraising?
KEY: Well, the worst part of my job is telling people that their things are not real or have been heavily treated. That's really sad for me, especially when they are really cherished pieces.
SD: What are their reactions?
KEY: Immediately they get mad at me. It's not my fault! But some of the exciting things I find are when people come in with these boxes of costume jewelry and they'll say, "It's all worthless," and I'll pull out a piece of Bakelite and say, "This is a $700 piece." There are treasures everywhere.