Exit Interview: JA’s Matt Runci on the Future of Independent Jewelers

After a weekend of being feted by the industry and receiving awards from both the Jewelers Vigilance Committee and the Jewelry Information Center, Matt Runci, the longtime (17 years!), now-retired CEO of Jewelers of America—and before that the Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America—took a moment to talk with JCK and take stock of his distinguished career in the world of jewelry associations. Last week, we covered his remarks about the World Diamond Council. But we also talked about the future of independent jewelers, as well as how they can respond to the social issues that came to dominate his tenure:

Heading a jewelry association that had many mom-and-pops as members, what do you see as the future of the small jeweler?

Last weekend, I talked to a small jeweler from Massachusetts who I had not met before. She had increases of 20 percent a year for the last six years. It’s not that she happens to be located in an area that is thriving economically—to the contrary. But I also talked to other people who did everything they could and said they were flat with last year. 

There is evidence that the independent jeweler has a bright future. It all depends on how they approach their business and whether they are willing to change and whether they are willing to do things that perhaps years ago they would have never thought of doing. If you really want to continue to thrive and grow you have to look at things like social media; your magazine does such a wonderful job at covering those avenues. The independent jewelers have a bright future and I suppose the key is availing themselves of what is out there.

You said at the JVC luncheon last week that the industry needs to take more active steps to ensure it keeps up with evolving consumer confidence demands. What steps should retailers take?

I think a lot more work is needed in this field. If there is one thing I would like to do in some fashion, it’s to help provide people with a sense of the choices that are out there so they can select the ones that fit their business needs at the moment. And I think that’s about education. I am enormously proud of the Responsible Jewellery Council but I don’t think it’s the single answer for everybody. There are a lot of different things out there right now. 

For a really large business, it isn’t currently possible to segment a steady volume of supply in large enough qualities to be able to meet the need. I’m not sure that fair trade [jewelry] can be the answer for a bigger business but for a small business it could be.

What kind of insight do you think you can offer?

It may be about helping people understand the value of the RJC approach, and with the option of chain of custody, helping people understand how this fits into their business. It’s also helping people understand the Diamond Source Warranty Protocol and where that tool fits. You can open a toolbox but unless you understand what the job is to be done, you may not really understand which of these tools make sense for your business. So what is needed is education, but also an understanding of what is out there. 

And what should they do to ensure a clean supply chain? 

The first step is to self-assess what, if anything, they are currently doing. The answer may be nothing, we are just kind of depending on our suppliers. I think we need a systematic approach to giving everyone, no matter what level of the industry they are at, a sense of what is out there, and what they provide. I think if someone takes that on—maybe GIA or one of the other associations—that will add a lot to the ability of individual businesses when they self-assess so they can understand what more they should be doing. 

Any businessperson has to wear the hat of the operator of that business. At the end of the day, it can be awfully hard to step back and take a strategic view of things. That is where more education is needed. So right now, it’s difficult; but maybe in a year or so there will be more available.   

Any highlights of your career you wish to talk about? 

There are a lot of high points. Some of the things that come to mind: Just to go back to the beginning—getting Americans to the Basel fair. By today’s world or perspective, that must seem so strange to people. But I don’t think that people can appreciate it was an accomplishment in its day, and that started my thinking of staying in the industry and not just moving on. I think another one of those episodes was having the chance to work with other people the industry on the efforts [to remove and cap] the luxury tax on jewelry.

Coming on to help JA and rethink its purpose to give meaning to the organization was just a terrific opportunity. I had a chance to work with a lot of terrific people. I have enjoyed working with independent jewelers as well as a lot of major corporations.

I’d also say responding to the call from the state associations to help them be more effective with their memberships. It was disappointing to watch state associations wither as people turned their attention elsewhere, and the state association meetings declined in importance to a lot of jewelers. But it’s good to see that some have endured and continue to thrive. 

At JA, we came to the realization the conflict diamond experience was not just an event, that it represented something of an awakening for our industry. Perhaps the most exciting moment of my career was when we called a meeting and shared the results of the research we had commissioned to the heads of all these large corporations, and we heard them say, we agree with your analysis and conclusions and we need to have one organization [which became the RJC]. I really wondered if these large corporations or companies would be able to agree to work together when some of them had proprietary systems. But it was really the thrill of my career to have everyone in the room say that we believe these issues are critical.

It’s amazing if you are lucky once in your career, if you reach for something and you believe it is right, and it grows and develops. To actually see the spark ignite and continue to burn there at RJC was great. So there’s been a lot of great stuff—a few disappointments along the way, but really no regrets. 

You have to know you can’t succeed 100 percent of the time, but on average more of the things that we did were effective than not. 

Anything else you want to say to the industry? 

Thank you for the opportunity to play a role and I wish the industry continued success.

JCK News Director