Can the Largest Diamond Manufacturer and the Largest Retail Market Work Together to Promote Fine Jewelry?

When representatives from Indian diamond associations met on July 7, one of the motions they made was to join with diamond miners and other segments of the industry to make promotional efforts on behalf of diamonds and diamond jewelry. It is a conversation that has been happening for years, and this past May, it was happening in an airport hotel in Chicago.

The Indo/U.S. Jewelry Business Conference, organized on behalf of Indian Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) by Rick Bannerot and Whitney Sielaff of S&B Partners, LLC, brought together a group of Indian manufacturers and American retailers to make connections and talk about the future of the industry. 

Attending the conference were 15 Indian manufacturers, many of them De Beers sightholders and Rio Tinto Select Diamantaires, and seven large U.S. retailers, including Sterling, Reeds Jewelers, Ross-Simons, Fred Meyer Jewelers, and the Independent Jewelers Organization, representing 15 percent of total annual U.S. fine jewelry retail sales.

Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, consul general of India in Chicago, opened the conference with a pledge of support from his office and an emphasis on prime minister Narendra Modi’s enthusiasm for the diamond and jewelry industry and business relations with the U.S.

Manufacturers met with retailers in a series of one-on-ones and had product on hand to show them, but the point of the conference was not to get orders, said Bannerot; it was to build relationships and continue a dialogue that is happening throughout the industry. Again and again, that dialogue returned to how the two countries might work together to promote the category.

A partnership seems natural—the U.S. is the largest consumer market for diamond jewelry, and the GJEPC reports that India manufactures 65 percent of the world’s polished diamonds in terms of value, 85 percent in terms of volume, and 92 percent in terms of number of pieces.

In discussions with the three speakers—diamond industry consultant Ben Janowski,  design consultant Barbara Raleigh, and research consultant Ben Smithee—and a closing town hall meeting, attendees proved willing and ready for collaboration.

“We were delighted with the genuine spirit of cooperation and frank communications that developed,” said Bannerot. 

In her presentation, Raleigh encouraged manufacturers to focus on what the customer wants: a product that is priced right, that is on-trend but long-lasting, and that creates an emotional connection. “Within every trend, there is a classic that is timeless,” she said. “It’s your job to find that.” 

Smithee spoke about the current and emerging fine jewelry consumer, offering a crash course on millennials and their spending, buying, and communication habits. He emphasized the need for individual innovation for each of the attendees. “While I do believe in rising tides lifting all boats, I think there are opportunities for everyone to create their own value,” he said. 

Janowski gave the keynote presentation of the conference, an overview of the industry as it stands today. Of the challenges facing the industry, he signaled out a barrage of bad press (“Jewelry is an easy target; oil is worse, but it gets away with it because it’s a necessity,” he said); uncertainty of pricing; declining productions; unbalanced demand; the introduction of man-made diamonds into the market; the retreat of banking; political unrest in Zimbabwe, Russia, Congo, and Angola; and economic uncertainty in major sales hubs, including the Middle East, Russia, Brazil, and China. 

An uncertain landscape, to be sure. But it was lowered public opinion of diamonds and the uncertainty over how to promote them (and who should be doing the promoting) that dominated discussions throughout the conference.

“De Beers did good work to build the image of diamonds, but they don’t do that anymore,” said Janowski. “We have to take its place. What this industry needs is creative merchandising and programming.” 

“[Right now] our industry is not as strategic when it comes to developing marketing plans,” said John Berglund, group vice president for Fred Meyer Jewelers, during the town hall meeting. “Category sales increased when the ‘Journey’ campaign hit, but we haven’t seen that jump since it ended.” (Ad agency JWT designed the Diamond Promotion Service [DPS] campaign in 2006; the De Beers-backed DPS folded in 2010 when De Beers redirected its marketing budget toward Forevermark.)

Some small progress has been made toward promotion of the category: At the end of May, the world’s largest diamond miners joined forces to form the Diamond Producers Association for promotion of the category (though JCK’s Rob Bates and others warned it wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be another De Beers); and at the JCK Las Vegas show at the end of May, De Beers announced it would be bringing back its iconic “A Diamond Is Forever” campaign for Forevermark. And, of course, there is the motion in India to explore promotion.

GJEPC chairman Vipul Shah called the U.S/Indo relationship a “critical link” in the international fine jewelry supply chain. “We envision this type of event as an ongoing platform … to build one-on-one sourcing relationships and to address broader issues to increase efficiency and profitability within the sourcing process,” he said.

“The whole point of this conference is to work on this link, the flow of business between India and the U.S.,” said Sielaff. “We made great first steps in addressing the need for industry-collective marketing and branding and are confident that the inherent value in this new working group will pave the way forward for future cooperation on this and similar relevant issues.”

The Indian diamond associations delegation will meet again in a month; the Indo/U.S. conference is in its planning stages for next year.