In the passing away of K.T. Ramachandran, the Chief Gemmologist of the Gemmological Institute of India (GII), I lost someone I considered a rock of integrity that had stood fast in a swamp of loose ethics, billion-dollar scams and uncertain times in the Indian gem and jewellery industry.
Ramachandran, who qualified as a gemmologist in London, founded the GII in 1970, when the Indian gem and jewellery industry didn’t have time for gem science, specific nomenclature and the assurance of scientific testing. With and unenthusiastic industry and pitiful funding, Ramachandran, who was passionate about gemmology, nevertheless, scraped together equipment and some space to open a lab and a gemmology school.
He was joined by Jayshree Panjikar, another passionate gemmologist, and the two of them created an institution that today, despite not having the sort of industrywide brand value that other globe-girdling institutions have, is nevertheless known for its unswerving integrity.
I first met Ramachandran in 1987, when the communications firm I was with was contracted by the Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council to launch Solitaire magazine. As the magazine’s launch editor, I had to learn about the gem and jewellery industry from the ground up. Ramachandran was, naturally, the go-to person for all things related to gem-testing and gemmology.
I realised that because Ramachandran himself set the tone, the GII, despite not having swanky premises and offering high-paying careers, was nonetheless an institution that would not compromise its integrity — even if it didn’t have the budget for security systems to protect its staff.
I recall being with Ramachandran and Jayshree one day when an angry man barged into their shared office and started yelling and threatening them for having certified a stone he had submitted as fake. In time-honoured Indian tradition, he bandied his important connections and the sort of power he wielded and that he considered the GII report an insult.
Ramachandran never wavered. I recall he never raised his voice and even continued to smile while he told the man that it wasn’t about him, Ramachandran, or Jayshree, but that science doesn’t lie. If the stone didn’t pass the tests, it could be nothing other than a fake.
I was actually concerned for Ramachandran and Jayshree’s safety. But thankfully, after lots of vigorous gesticulating and thumping the table a couple of times, the man left.
I mopped my brow and asked Ramachandran and Jayshree if they were okay and if we needed to report the incident to some authority. Both laughed and said they had been threatened and intimated several times before. I was floored.
Years later, when I decided to improve my industry knowledge by doing a gemmology course myself, I became a student at the GII. That was when I discovered that rock solid integrity first hand. A fellow student, who like me already had industry exposure and wanted to upgrade his skills mid-career, told me that he wasn’t really interested in gemmology or learning about diamonds and gemstones. He just wanted an industry certification that would allow him to get ahead in his career. His attendance in class was spotty to say the least.
I remember telling him that despite his disinterest, if he wanted that certificate, he would have to really learn something and pass the final examination. He said he would simply put some money in the right hands and get himself a certificate. Shocked, I told him he was making a big mistake. “Not in this institution,” I told him. “I know both Ramachandran and Jayshree and you are way off course if you think you can get yourself a certificate that way.” He brushed me a side with a contemptuous laugh, informing me, “This is India and anything you want can be bought”.
In due course, the final exam came round. I remember with pride that though there were sectarian riots that day and transport had come to a standstill in many parts of the city, with vehicles being burnt in several places, the entire class turned up. Several others had, like me, walked kilometres when transport options ran out. My fellow mid-career qualification upgrader was there too.
What, I asked him in surprise, was he doing here? He had a slightly dazed look on his face when he told me, “You know, you were absolutely right! You can’t buy a certificate here!”
I had to struggle to keep a straight face. But I think he read a lot in my expression. He could see the “I told you so!” as I celebrated this solid affirmation of Ramachandran’s and the GII’s integrity.
“So what are you going to do about the exam?” I asked.
He was game, I’ll say that for him. “I’m going to write the exam as a sportsman. Just to participate. I don’t know a thing!”
He then told me he would have to find some other place where he could buy himself credentials!
This little personal anecdote and the memory of Ramachandran and Jayshree calmly standing fast in the face of threats, is something I’ve held on to through a variety of happenings where ethics and integrity have gone down the drain. Some years ago, Jayshree left to set up her own institute in Pune. But Ramachandran kept his steady hand on the GII’s tiller.
The GII is a vastly different place to the poorly funded institution I qualified from. The GJEPC is now a major shareholder and it doesn’t lack for funds, or equipment and has vastly upgraded premises. But for me, what maintained its value is the fact that K.T. Ramachandran was still at the helm all these years.
The leukaemia that ended Ramachandran’s life knocked out a pillar from under me and my career as well. RIP my friend.