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A Fan of Sparkle

Historical jewels from the collections of Mona Lee Nesseth's clients.
Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved glittery things, scarcely dreaming that someday she’d procure and custom design some of the world’s most important fine jewelry for connoisseurs and collectors.

It was after Mona Lee Nesseth received her CSULB marketing degree in 1980 that she had an epiphany and figured out how to combine her selling skills and art background with her love of ornamentation.

Mona Lee Nesseth

Mona Lee Nesseth is holding a diamond-embellished fan once belonging to Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst. Photo by Victoria Sanchez

Nesseth is an internationally recognized Graduate Gemologist—a rigorous certification earned from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA)—who specializes in helping private collectors acquire exceptional historical and contemporary jewelry and gemstones. Many of the pieces, including some she’s designed, are exhibited in museums, and the jewelry industry calls on her expertise for evaluations and as a guest speaker.

In the rarified market of private jewelry consultants, Nesseth earned her reputation by word of mouth from satisfied clients, backed up by solid experience.

“I think the secret of my success is that I cater to my clients,” she said. “Nothing is too small or too big,” from cleaning their jewelry and changing watch batteries to organizing charity fundraisers. “I’ll go to the nth degree for them. My cell phone is on 24/7, so even when I’m out of the country, I’m still available.”

She even hosts special events for clients, often featuring world-renowned jewelry experts, and she arranged an unprecedented “curator” dinner for eight clients in the Harry Winston Gallery, located next to the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. “There aren’t many special gifts I can give my clients, but I can give them a memorable experience,” she said.

“Part of my success is that I’ve educated my clients. I spend years teaching them about the history of jewelry and of the stones they are interested in acquiring so that they understand why one stone is a certain price and why a superior stone may cost more money,” she explained.

Nesseth earns their respect through honesty. “I always advise them to buy jewelry because they treasure it,” not with the expectation that it will appreciate in value. “I tell them, ‘I know the value of what I’m selling it to you for today. I can’t guarantee what the world market will do in the future.’ I’m very discriminating. If it’s not the best, I don’t recommend it. I have clients that buy sight unseen based on their trust in me, so I only offer or recommend gems and jewels that represent my pursuit of excellence. I may search for a specific collector’s stone for years,” and always obtains GIA Laboratory reports.

“The scariest aspect of my business model is that there are no guarantees of future sales,” she continued. “I’m only as good as my last sale. For me as an entrepreneur, my most important assets are my knowledge, integrity and expertise, my aesthetics, my contacts and above all, my customers. But I never forget the most important basic, which is outstanding customer service. Often, you go into stores and you have to beg to be waited on. I think that’s the downfall of a lot of businesses.”

The daughter of a DeLorean Motor Co. executive, Nesseth grew up near CSULB and even drove a prototype of the stainless steel car to campus, but initially frowned on studying business. “I changed my major six times,” she recalled, eventually settling on marketing after all. She sold ads for campus publications and organized a variety of Associated Students’ activities, which she credits for honing her event planning skills.

But her world turned around after graduation. “The car company had just started up, so I wanted to work for my father and he said women didn’t belong in the car business,” a view she found disappointing.

By chance, a friend had introduced her to the GIA. “I thought I’d go back to school and get my Graduate Gemology Diploma. My goal was to design jewelry because I had been studying art since I was 10. I thought it would be a good way to combine my selling and artistic abilities. My timing was perfect because women were just starting to be more prevalent in the field. My gemology diploma was the hardest thing I ever achieved. It took six months, but it was equivalent to learning two years worth of scientific data.”

After a few years in the trade, Nesseth eventually landed the coveted position of personal assistant and Graduate Gemologist to legendary Beverly Hills antique and estate jeweler Frances Klein. “It was the best education I could ever have gotten,” Nesseth said. “Frances bought prolifically, but before she paid for it, I had to do the gemological work” of evaluating quality, estimating stone weights, testing and counting each stone and performing metallurgical tests on the pieces.

Klein’s salon gave Nesseth entrée into the world of celebrity and private collectors and was where she affirmed not to judge people by their appearance. “The sales people would pre-qualify and turn over the customers they didn’t think were potential buyers—the ones in shorts or jeans—and I didn’t discriminate. I figured my job was to share my expertise with them,” which led many of them to become some of the best customers.

Over time, Nesseth earned GIA’s jewelry design certificate and worked for other jewelers before finally launching her own business. Nowadays, she continues her search for the best jewels, but many of the most desirable pieces are becoming scarce as foreign buyers snap them up.

But people don’t need to be wealthy to find happiness in jewelry. “I love costume jewelry and I love real jewelry,” she said. “If it sparkles and has bling, I think it’s fabulous. I encourage my clients to buy the best quality within their budget. The emphasis should be on quality, not size.”

Be cautious about imitation gems or treatments to artificially enhance color or clarity, she added. “Buy from reputable people. That’s the most important factor. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Gems and jewels are commodities, so certain levels of quality will have similar values. I always obtain GIA (www.gia.edu) laboratory reports in advance of finalizing my sales. “My joy is finding the right home for magnificent jewels,” she said. “And, happy clients wearing wonderful jewels are the best advertising I can imagine.”

Top photo: 10.91 ct. Paraiba tourmaline and diamond ring; tsavorite and diamond necklace; diamond swag necklace by Harry Winston, © GIA. Reprinted by permission. Patek Phillippe enamel dome clock; turquoise snake bracelet—turquoise, rubies and gold, Victorian period, circa 1880. Photos courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum and Erica and Harold Van Pelt.