For Jeff Corey, the jewelry industry's image problems hit home on what should have been a relaxing ski trip.
"I was sitting next to a woman as we were going up on the lift," remembers the owner of Day's Jewelers, an eight-store chain based in Waterville, Maine. "I mentioned I was the owner of Day's Jewelers, and she said, 'My family had been doing business with you for years' and said she ordinarily hopes to receive a piece of diamond jewelry for the holidays. But then she said, 'I saw that movie Blood Diamond, and now I don't want a diamond anymore.'"
Later, Corey organized a group of local young people and asked them their feelings about diamonds. He was "amazed at their negativity."
"When you charge so much money for something that is so small, it's really easy for people to buy into this talk of the cartel and Blood Diamond," he says. "I think jewelers have underestimated the consumer feeling on this."
Indeed, retail experts say that, even if consumers don't bring up these issues regularly, you shouldn't assume they don't care about them.
"These may not be big vocal issues at the counter, but that doesn't mean they are not important," says David Peters, Jewelers of America's director of training and education. "Right now people are too distracted by the financial situation to worry about things like child labor and the environment. But as the economy gets better, people will have the luxury to refocus on these issues."
And, with the recent publicity about dirty gold and conflict gold, these issues might be multiplying. Even the conflict diamond issue is making something of a comeback, with articles appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, and elsewhere about alleged human rights abuses in Zimbabwe's diamond fields. (See "Kimberley Process Decision on Zimbabwe Stirs Controversy," JCK, January 2010, p. 22.)
The number of socially conscious consumers is growing, particularly among younger people (see box). But many believe the jewelry industry hasn't done enough to communicate with this group. Yet experienced marketers say that even people now turned off to jewelry and diamonds can become customers for your store. But it takes a sustained effort and a dedication to meeting these issues head-on. Among the frequently offered advice:
First, do the right thing. The one point everyone stresses is that you can't fake commitment. Read up on these topics. Follow industry dictates on programs like the Kimberley Process. Inquire about your vendors' sourcing, and get documentation of their policies. And consider joining or supporting industry groups that are active on these issues, such as Jewelers of America, Jewelers Vigilance Committee, the Responsible Jewellery Council, CIBJO, the Diamond Development Initiative, and the Diamond Empowerment Fund.
"Ethical is not something that you market, it's something that you live," says Brian Leber, Leber Jewelers, Chicago. "It's more about being good than advertising that you are good."
Consider carrying ethical products. The amount of ethical and environmentally friendly products in the jewelry industry is growing. These include recycled gold; fair trade gemstones; diamonds branded as coming from Botswana, Namibia, and Canada; and products that donate a portion of their proceeds to charity.
After his ski-slope encounter, Corey began selling diamonds branded as mined and manufactured in Botswana, with a percentage of sales going to a Days-created Diamonds for Peace fund. The diamonds became such a hit that they are now featured in his stores' advertising.
"The Botswana diamonds are so far just a small percentage of our stock, but I believe they have branded us as a jeweler who cares,"says Corey. "Our diamond sales are way ahead of last year. Because people think, if you're going to buy a diamond, all else being equal, why not buy from a company that is socially responsible?"
Speaking out on ethical issues has become a prime selling point for Marc Choyt, owner of Reflective Images in Santa Fe, N.M. He now gets a majority of his customers from the Internet, including people who read his blog at fairjewelry.org.
"People really do care about these things," he says. "But they don't think to ask if your materials are recycled or to ask about sourcing."
But he says consumers become enthusiastic when they hear that eco-friendly products are available. "This is very much an untapped market," he says. "I think there can be five or six times more people doing it than are doing it now. And I think that would be positive for all of us, because it would get the word out and things would start to shift more."
His site offers a free e-book The Ethical Jewelry Handbook: A Resource Guide for Jewelers Wishing to Adopt Exceptional Standards.
Involve your staff. Choyt recommends that a store enlist one person to spearhead its ethical polices. "Look for that person who is excited about these things and has passion about these things and really wants to take this on," he says.
Days Jewelers spends a lot of time educating its staff on current controversies-even for issues that turn out not to have much resonance, like Burmese rubies. "We spent a ton of time explaining what the conflict is in Burma and the situation there," he says. "It is important for us that our staff is not just reiterating rhetoric but that they are educated and can educate the consumer."
At Goodman Jewelers, in Madison, Wis., when relevant articles appear in trade magazines and elsewhere, staff members are required to read them and then initial them. "We don't want our staff surprised when people come in and ask about these issues," explains John Hayes, the store's owner.
Inform people about your policies. While there is disagreement about whether jewelers should bring these issues up to consumers, the relevant information should be available to consumers who want it. So if you're doing the right thing, let people know. Make sure you have a conflict diamond policy posted on your Web site and included with your promotional materials, and mention other ethical policies consumers should know about.
Show your commitment locally. The old maxim "Think globally, act locally" is particularly true for jewelers. "Focus on causes in your area that demonstrate your commitment to issues," says Peters. "So when a customer reads how you're involved in these issues, they will assume you are doing the right thing and won't even bring the issue up."
He cites one jeweler who has his employees take part in a beach clean-up, showing a commitment to environmental issues. "It's part of their Web site, it's part of the materials," he says. "They are positioning themselves as a local leader in environmental activism."
Corey requires his managers to be involved in some type of local civic group and encourages employees to do the same. "I think people take notice of that and see that jewelers are not so bad," he says.
If confronted about your policies, don't be defensive. Whatever your feelings about these issues, they are significant concerns to a growing number of consumers. So treat them with the seriousness you would treat any consumer objection.
"Always argue from a positive space rather than a negative space," Peters says. Don't, for example, argue that all products are morally compromised. "You never try to rationalize evil by saying other people do evil," Peters says. "You have to understand the depth of feeling on these issues."
Jewelers of America chairman Matthew A. Runci adds that when these queries come up or programs air, the industry shouldn't feel picked on. "This isn't just about jewelry," he says. "It's about food, clothing, pharmaceuticals. It's about emerging consumer values. I think we are moving toward a time where, as part of business entry, you have to demonstrate that you are part of a responsible supply chain."
And if you can't guarantee that you're part of a responsible chain, some think it's best to admit that. "If someone has a question and you don't know, just say you don't know," says Leber. "People don't expect 100 percent answers, but they expect 100 percent honesty."