A Great Idea
For David and Ann Henderson, owners of Henderson & Co. Jewelers, Mechanicsburg, Pa., fair trade plays a small but growing role in their business. When the Hendersons started carrying stones from Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Wash., David thought more customers would appreciate what they represented-laborers paid honest wages and with fair working conditions. "Consumers buy Fair Trade coffee, so I thought [fair trade] jewelry was a great idea," says David. "If [retailers] all got involved and pushed the virtues of fair trade, then we’d all have better relationships with our customers."
For now, 15 percent of the Hendersons’ inventory is FT (diamonds are noted conflict-free on supplier invoices). But David promotes the gems on his Web site and with in-store signage. He also tries to speak about FT jewelry in his community-at church groups, in advertising, and in local media. He plans to sell more FT lines, including a new line of U.S. mined gemstone beads, also from Columbia Gem House. "Many customers don’t know we have such nice gems in this country," says Henderson.
Fair trade has brought some memorable sales. One couple from Rhode Island sought out Henderson because it was a client of Columbia Gem House. The couple wanted gold rings made of recycled metal, and a fair trade, conflict-free diamond. "We took step-by-step photos while making the ring," says Henderson. "They were so thrilled about it that they contacted us a year later to buy their wedding bands."
In the small mining town of Grass Valley, Calif., James Arbaugh and his wife, Nicole, were surprised by the turnout for their first fair trade jewelry seminar, which the owners of Stucki Jewelers hosted in August 2007. "What was supposed to be a small, in-store event had to be moved to the lobby of a local hotel," says James Arbaugh. "Roughly 120 people showed up."
Arbaugh estimates that only 10 percent were regular customers. The other 90 percent wanted to learn how fair trade issues are affecting the jewelry industry. "Up until that point, I don’t think many customers gave it much thought," Arbaugh says.
In dedicating 10 to 15 percent of their promotional budget to fair trade seminars, the Arbaughs must present information on social and environmental issues that take some of the shine off jewelry. "We walk a fine line between romance and reality," says Arbaugh. "But when people realize our store offers them fair trade jewelry as a consumer option, it gives them another reason to shop with us."
Fair trade-minded customers in his market "aren’t heavy jewelry buyers," Arbaugh says. "They may buy one to two pieces of finer-quality jewelry in a lifetime, whereas people who are less driven by fair trade issues, if at all, buy two to three pieces a year."
The Arbaughs are asking their vendors more questions about the materials that make up a finished product, from using recycled gold to gemstones sourced from conflict-free countries. "Personally I think it’s the way it should be done," Arbaugh says. "From the foods we eat, buying local and organically grown foods, to consumer goods that are produced in environmentally sustainable ways. This is the way we live our lives as do many in our community."
Fair Trade and Social Responsibility
Julie Thom, daughter of John and Leslie Von Bargen, owners of Von Bargen’s Fine Diamonds and Jewelry, with stores in Vermont and New Hampshire, distinguishes between fair trade jewelry retailing and being a socially responsible jeweler. "Fair trade focuses on social issues, such as fair wages at the mining source, whereas as social responsibility encompasses this as well as environmental impact and sustainability. Fair trade is just a component of what we do, because we care about miners in Africa as much as we do people in our community."
Thom joined the family business six years ago. She and her husband, Jason, opened the Hanover, N.H., store and manage it and the corporate Web site’s virtual store. In 2007, they changed the company’s mission statement to convey a new social responsibility philosophy.
At first Thom had concerns about "taking a stand," she says. "We didn’t want to get targeted for presenting ourselves as socially responsible. We knew we weren’t perfect, but we were also pushing our business in the right direction." In summer and fall of 2009, they began using the store’s new tagline: "Romance, it’s a renewable resource."
Thom is still reluctant to wear fair trade on her sleeve. Like many jewelers, embracing social responsibility simply feels like the right thing to do.
Dealing with customers typically follows one of two scenarios. "If it’s a young bridal customer we usually show the collection and bring up fair trade if it’s something they are interested in," Thom says. "Other customers bring up fair trade early and directly. Given our products and the qualified vendors we carry, we can take the fair trade discussion as far as the customer wants to go and show them collections that will appeal to them.
"We’ve actually closed more sales because we’re fair trade," says Thom. "Customers appreciate our heightened awareness and are more at ease once we’ve established social responsibility issues."