Wednesday, May 6, 2020

After a transatlantic flight and train into Antwerp, she approaches an unassuming building. Inside, it’s all steel and bulletproof glass, armed guards silently watching. She surrenders her passport and is given a key card. With it, she gains entry to one of the most exclusive spots in the diamond capital of the world. She buys a dozen.

Large pear diamond

Karen (Brown) Kuhlman (BBA04) is not your typical finance alum. And her annual international diamond buying trips aren’t what you’d expect of a small-town Iowa employee, but she has made it her reality by following her passion and getting her education at the University of Iowa.

When Kuhlman entered the university as a first-generation student, she knew she wanted to study business, but it wasn’t until an “Intro to Finance” class that she realized that finance was for her.

I really like numbers,” Kuhlman said. “And I liked the freedom and flexibility of what you could do with a finance degree.”

On her winter and summer breaks she spent time helping out at the family store: Don’s Jewelry & Design in Washington, Iowa. Her father, Don, had worked there for decades before buying it outright and renaming in 1999, just a year before Kuhlman started her studies at the Tippie College of Business. Situated overlooking an idyllic town square in Washington, Iowa’s historic downtown district, the locale has been a jewelry store since 1897. Ownership has only changed hands twice over the business’ 120+ year history.

Downtown Washington, Iowa.

“I had full intention of doing something else,” Kuhlman said of working in the family business. “But as I got further along in my studies, there were some real world applications from what I was learning in my finance courses that I was able to apply to the business. As I kept going with it, I realized that the jewelry business was a viable option and something I had a passion for.”

Kuhlman’s return to Washington bolsters the revitalization effort for Washington’s historic downtown. The town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places starting in 2013 and several University of Iowa graduates have returned to work downtown, no small feat when the small-town norm is a mass exodus of young educated people.

Karen Kuhlman inspecting a diamond in Antwerp.

The jewelry store was a good fit for Kuhlman because she enjoyed applying her education, and because she got to travel right away—a draw for any recent graduate. She travels to gem shows and conferences across the country and, of course, to Antwerp, Belgium. While there are other international spots to buy diamonds, Kuhlman reports they are mostly for the wholesale side. And Belgium is the place to be. 

"Nearly 80 percent of all the diamonds travel through Antwerp at one point or another—whether in its rough or its polished form. And it's been that way for 550 years," Kuhlman said.

Her father is glad to have her at the store.

“Karen has really brought a lot of business savvy with her from college,” Don Brown said.

“With finance, it’s all about analyzing everything,” Kuhlman said. “I was able to come in and see some areas where there was opportunity for improvement and to grow the business.”

Karen Kuhlman holding a diamond ring.

Kuhlman has been in a managerial position for 15 years and currently oversees the day-to-day operations and finances. A succession plan is already in place for her to take over for her father, who has been there for 51 years.

When Kuhlman returns from Belgium each year, she has customers eagerly awaiting what she found. In addition to buying stock for the store, she is a personal diamond buyer for many clients, inspecting hundreds of diamonds for the "4Cs": carat, color grade, clarity, and cut.

Next time you’re in Washington, Iowa, Kuhlman will be waiting for you behind the glowing cases at Don’s, ready to introduce a little sparkle into your life.

Washington town sign in front of a corn field.