JCK’s 150th: Gemworld VP Stuart Robertson on the Colored Gemstone Revolution

JCK magazine is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year! To commemorate that milestone, we’re talking to 150 veteran jewelry professionals in 2019 for a feature series meant to distill the voices of some of the industry’s most enduring and successful professionals.

We can’t print every interview in its entirety in the magazine—so we’ve been posting full interviews here on JCKonline.com every Thursday.

This week we hear from award-winning gemologist and appraiser Stuart Robertson, current vice president of Gemworld International and research director for the company’s publication, GemGuide.

JCK: How long have you been in the jewelry industry, and how has it changed since you joined?

Stuart Robertson: In 1980, while in high school, I started working part-time for an independent jewelry store located in the shadow of the University of Chicago in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood. It was here that I learned a wide range of trade-related skills, from cleaning and polishing jewelry, doing minor jewelry repairs, working with manufacturers and trade shops on quality control, inventory, and retail sales techniques.

This turned out to be the beginning of a career that’s now lasted nearly 40 years. Now I’m in my 21st year at Gemworld International Inc., a market research company that reports on the price trends of diamonds and colored stones.

During my time in the industry, there have been many changes, some positive, others not so much so. One of the more notable is the industry’s reliance on memo. When I first started, memo was a way to offer a customer a quick look at a product that a shop might not otherwise stock. During the years that changed. Many retailers seem to expect to place a sizable amount of product in their showcases that they are not committed to buying and keep it there for long periods of time. In my opinion, this has fundamentally changed the business, since it’s made wholesalers uncompensated “financial partners” in retail businesses.

It’s no surprise that profit margins have generally declined, and the way retail consumers access jewelry products have expanded during the past few decades, in part due to this practice. I believe the increase in wholesalers tapping directly into retail consumers during the past two decades coincides with challenges presented from risks associated with long-term memo.

The practice of working with memo goods has worked well for some supplier and retailer partnerships. This is especially true for some designers.

Another difference I noticed during the past couple of decades is how jewelers market gems and jewelry. In the past, trade members understood a fair amount about these products. We sold the beauty and quality of gems backed by solid relationships with suppliers. Today, the industry seems to be increasingly surrendering its responsibility for product knowledge to third parties such as labs and nonindustry certification firms.

Selling paper reduces the need for product knowledge. It places the emphasis on price as the chief selling point. But it also raises the question of what we are actually selling to consumers today, gems or paper? If the latter, the result will be further consolidation of the market with most retail doors controlled by just a handful of firms.

One of the more positive trends I’ve experienced is the broadening of the market. When I started in the industry, diamonds dominated sales followed by ruby, sapphire, emerald and a few other semiprecious stones such as aquamarine and garnet.

Currently, diamond still dominates the market, but we have also observed a rise in demand for colored stones beyond the “big three.” Paraiba tourmaline, pink sapphire, mandarin garnet, tsavorite garnet, spinel, and blue zircon are only a few among an array of gemstones that have experienced strong market growth in recent years.

I’ve also observed an increase in the use of nontraditional materials in jewelry. Among these are enameled steel bangles, ceramic and gold rings and bracelets and also resins and silver bracelets and necklaces. All of which express colorful, bold, elegant looks in interesting-yet-affordable designs that are particularly popular among millennials.

Today, consumers are buying the look and they want it to be individual to them. Brand reputation alone isn’t enough anymore. Many consumers want to connect through the story of the gem and jewelry.

What’s your experience with JCK magazine?

JCK is an important source for industry information. I was always partial to the monthly print format of the old days. On the other hand, the online format is much appreciated, as it allows critical information that industry members need to know to be received more quickly. JCK effectively uses the online platform to inform readers of important stories in real time…. Today, the magazine tends to focus more on style and jewelry trends than it did in the past, but trend information is very useful to both jewelers and consumers to help plan successful product sales and purchases.

What was your first impression of JCK magazine, and how has it changed over the years?

It has changed its focus to report more on style. We used to see fewer but longer articles. The topics covered were also broader and often included appraisal issues, gem treatments, and source locations in more detail. But the industry has evolved, and so it was important for JCK to evolve with it. The more recent focus on trends and styles is really what retailers need access to.

Top: Stuart Robertson (photo courtesy of Stuart Robertson)

Catch up on all of JCK’s 150th interviews:

Bill Furman, longtime JCK magazine ad sales manager
Kathryn Kimmel, senior VP and chief marketing officer of GIA
Katie Kinsella Murphy, owner of Kinney + Kinsella
Frank Dallahan, publisher, The Retailer Jeweler
Jen Cullen Williams, managing director of Luxury Brand Group
Sally Morrison, chief marketing officer of Lightbox
Susan M. Jacques, president and CEO of GIA
Marie Helene Morrow, president of Reinhold Jewelers
Jenny Luker, U.S. president of Platinum Guild International
Beth Gerstein, co-CEO of Brilliant Earth
Russell Shor, GIA senior industry analyst
Walter McTeigue, cofounder of McTeigue & McClelland
Caryl Capeci, president of Hearts On Fire
Eddie LeVian, CEO of Le Vian
Peggy Jo Donahue, freelance writer and former JCK editor-in-chief
Rebecca Moskal, jewelry marketing veteran

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JCK Senior Editor

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