After a Lifetime in Jewelry, Cos Altobelli Retires

IndependentsFeb 10, 2021

After a Lifetime in Jewelry, Cos Altobelli Retires

Spurred by COVID-19, the jewelry-maker, expert appraiser and author closed his Burbank, California store last year.

In 2011, the American Gem Society named its library in honor of Cos Altobelli for the years of service he dedicated to the organization. It is located at AGS headquarters in Las Vegas.
Los Angeles—Cos Altobelli, the legendary jeweler and appraiser, had a retirement plan. 

He would keep working for a couple more years then, at the spry young age of 93, call it quits and ease into a life of golf and travel. 

But, like so many others, the pandemic derailed his long-laid plans. 

He opted to close his Burbank, California jewelry store in July 2020 and head into an early—by his standards only—retirement out of concern for his health and safety. 

“It’s a peculiar virus,” he remarked in a phone interview with National Jeweler last month. “You just don’t know.”

His retirement comes after a career of jewelry design, making, repairing, appraising and consulting that spanned decades, and generations. 

Altobelli grew up in Chicago, the son of a master jewelry craftsman, Luigi Altobelli, who had learned the trade from his father, Cosimo Altobelli, in Italy. 

He was repairing clocks by age 9, watches by 13 and making gold and platinum jewelry by the time he was 17. 

Despite the family tradition, and the early practice, jewelry was not Altobelli’s first choice of career. 

He wanted to be a baseball player and, in fact, used to lie to his parents about his participation in America’s pastime.

Altobelli said he used to tell his parents he needed to stay after school to do homework when he was actually playing baseball in a Chicago city league. 

He was so good at the sport, in fact, that Altobelli said he was offered a contract with the Cincinnati Reds Double-A team but ultimately had to decline. 

His father had purchased land in Los Angeles and, he informed the family, they were moving west to open a jewelry store. 

Altobelli Jewelers opened its doors in North Hollywood in 1948.

It was in California that Altobelli began to carve out his own path in jewelry, learning more about gemstones and, later, jewelry appraisals. 

“It was very difficult living with my father because he was a genius,” he said. “I had a long way to go before I could be near his level of talent.”

He earned his graduate gemologist diploma from the Gemological Institute of America in 1949. 

He took over the family business in 1963 and, in 1969, attended his first AGS Conclave. 

It was there, he said, that he became interested in appraising, a skill that would become a lifelong passion and lead to endeavors well beyond those of your typical jewelry store owner.
Over time, Altobelli created the AGS’s Certified Gemologist Appraiser (CGA) program, which includes a practical exam, where people examine pieces of jewelry, as well as a theory exam. He became a CGA himself in 1983. 

According to AGS, it was the first formal appraisal education program in the United States. 

“There was nothing like it before,” pointed out longtime friend and fellow AGS jeweler and CGA Cathy Calhoun. “Everything he has done for AGS and its members, and me as a young gemologist, he did all this for free. He never charged. 

“I wouldn’t have even got any further in appraising if it weren’t for Cos mentoring me. I could pick up the phone at any time, with any jewelry or appraising question, and he’s on it. Day or night, you get your response.”

Altobelli pinning Bill Boyajian at AGS Conclave in 2013 when Boyajian won the Shipley Award. Altobelli said he attended 50 consecutive Conclaves, from 1969 until the last one in 2019. (There was no Conclave in 2020 due to the pandemic.)
Altobelli pinning Bill Boyajian at AGS Conclave in 2013 when Boyajian won the Shipley Award. Altobelli said he attended 50 consecutive Conclaves, from 1969 until the last one in 2019. (There was no Conclave in 2020 due to the pandemic.)

Altobelli’s appraising talents have also landed him on the speed dials—or, in this day and age, the Favorites lists—of numerous attorneys as well as the IRS.

He’s done expert witness work for the IRS, appraising donations to determine if the value has been overinflated.

Law firms have retained him to testify in court cases involving diamonds, colored gemstones and jewelry more than 100 times, he said.

The most high-profile among them: the case of Drew Brees and the colored diamonds for which the New Orleans Saints quarterback claimed he overpaid.

Brees’ attorney retained Altobelli in the case and they won, securing a $6 million judgement for the future Hall of Famer.

He also wrote the book on jewelry appraising, literally.

First published in 1981, the fourth edition of “The Practical Guide to Jewelry Appraising” just came out and is available on Amazon and through AGS.

Altobelli’s appraisal work, including his contributions to AGS, are so numerous that it’s easy to forget he also ran a jewelry store in Hollywood for decades—he counted the late Bob Hope and Clint Eastwood among his clientele—and did property work for more than 100 movies and TV shows.

For the iconic 1993 hit film “Sleepless in Seattle,” he made the little diamond necklace Meg Ryan’s character, Annie, wears throughout the movie.

For “Hook,” Steven Spielberg’s 1991 movie starring the late Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts, Altobelli created the earrings for the pirates, the buttons for their uniforms, the engraved gauntlet Captain Hook (Hoffman) wore and more.  And he ran all over Southern California securing the pocket watches and clocks that haunted Hook.

Altobelli moved his jewelry store from North Hollywood to Burbank in 2008, and was still going into the office regularly as of last year, at the age of 90, until the pandemic hit.

“We would have let him work at least another year had COVID not occurred,” his wife, Kelly Altobelli, said. (When asked if he would still be working if Kelly hadn’t made him retire, Cos’s answer was a definitive, “yes.”)

The same can be said of his career as a skier, a hobby he gave up when he hit 90.

“I wanted to ski last year but she wouldn’t let me,” he laughed.

Altobelli with, clockwise from bottom, wife Kelly Altobelli, jeweler Georgie Gleim and jeweler Cathy Calhoun at the Laguna Seca Raceway. In addition to making jewelry, appraising jewelry and skiing, Altobelli also raced a Ferrari for seven years. He won at Laguna Seca in 1981, and retired then and there from racing.
Altobelli with, clockwise from bottom, wife Kelly Altobelli, jeweler Georgie Gleim and jeweler Cathy Calhoun at the Laguna Seca Raceway. In addition to making jewelry, appraising jewelry and skiing, Altobelli also raced a Ferrari for seven years. He won at Laguna Seca in 1981, and retired then and there from racing.

In January, Cos and Kelly relocated permanently, from L.A. to Las Vegas, where Cos said he’ll be working on his golf game and, with Kelly’s help, marketing his book.

As far as being a jeweler and appraiser, though, Cos said he is officially retired. 

He and Kelly have plans to buy a bigger SUV and embark on road trips to places like the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas and, of course, stop at some AGS stores along the way, where he’ll no doubt be a welcome, and familiar, face. 

In addition to being instrumental in creating the AGS’s CGA program in 1983, Cos has chaired the Appraisals Standards subcommittee since 1983 and continued to teach the program at Conclave through 2019. 

He also has been a frequent speaker at Guild meetings and a contributor to the recertification exam, as well as numerous other AGS publications. 

Cos received the organization’s highest honor, the Robert M. Shipley Award, in 1987, and the organization’s library at its Las Vegas headquarters bears his name. 

AGS and AGS Labs CEO Katherine Bodoh said the organization cannot thank the now-retired jeweler enough for his many contributions over the years. 

“Members of the AGS community use words like ‘legend’ and ‘icon’ to describe Cos,” she said. “The praise is well-deserved.”

Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

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