Overheard at the 2018 GIA Symposium

If you couldn’t make it to the 2018 GIA International Gemological Symposium, held in Carlsbad, Calif., Oct. 7–9, never fear. I sat through as many sessions as possible and typed what was said as fast as my crude hunt-and-peck technique allowed me.

The event was divided into two key tracks: research and business. The former focused on seven themes: colored stones and pearls, diamond geology, diamond identification, gem characterization, general gemology and jewelry, gem localities and gem formation, and new technologies and techniques. On the other hand, the business sessions, led by a host of Harvard Business School professors, explored three themes: authentic leadership, disruptive innovation, and customer centricity.

The closing session, dubbed the “Futurescape Forum,” kicked off with a rousing video address by New York University professor and marketing strategist Scott Galloway and segued into a conversation between David L. Ager, managing director of Harvard Business School’s executive development program, and six industry leaders about what’s coming down the pike for the trade.

Below, I’ve compiled some of my favorite quotes from the industry bigwigs and big thinkers who participated in the conference.

“Only a dead fish swims with the current! It’s craziness, to swim against the current, but it means you are not a dead fish. But 95 percent of people want to be in the current. Because they don’t trust themselves, they don’t have courage. Why people who go against the current, usually they become different. And if in business life, you are first, different, unique, you win.”

Jean-Claude Biver, outgoing president of the LVMH watch division, on a video clip shared by David L. Ager, managing director of Harvard Business School’s executive development program

“Whatever customer insights you come up with, you cannot execute them on your own. You need an ecosystem to help you execute. Think about all the people enabling you to serve your customers—a win-win mentality—so the whole platform works for your customer. It’s sustainable because everybody’s pulling in the right direction.”

Krishna Palepu, Harvard professor, during the “Customer Centricity” case study seminar on Apple

“About 60 percent of customers of high-end products would pay a premium to know the origin of materials and to know [a piece of jewelry] was produced in a sustainable way. Tracking back gemstones to the original mine seems to be a significant factor to attract a premium.”

Klemens Link of Gübelin Gem Lab, during the “Proof of Provenance” seminar

“What happens when multiple focused competitors come into a market where the incumbents are trying to be all things to all people? This is the threat. You might lose a small segment of customers to one focused competitor, and another firm gets another small segment. If you’re not making tough choices, it leaves them open to other people to make them.”

—Harvard professor Dennis Campbell, during the “Customer Centricity” case study seminar on Commerce Bank

“There is enough research that shows celebrations, milestones, holidays—when linked to gift giving—have a very potent [impact]. It’s a very important way in which the industry should pitch itself. It’s true of every socioeconomic stratum. People may not afford a 4-carat diamond, but they can afford something else.

“And an additional asset is that gemstones have a permanence. That permanence, from an environmental gift-giving perspective, is very important. If you have a gift that has greater transference, which can go on for generations, it has a lower ecological footprint. That’s one aspect of the gemstones arena that needs to be better marketed in order for you to realize consumer benefits from the green marketing sector. This kind of messaging is really important to convey.”

Dr. Saleem H. Ali, a professor at the University of Delaware, during his keynote address, “Gemstones and Sustainable Livelihoods: From Mines to Markets”

“Origin determination is an important aspect of the trade. I asked a couple people in the last two days and they said, ‘We don’t care about it, we only care if the stone is beautiful.’ Two minutes later, somebody brings out a stone and the first question is, ‘Where is this from?’ But origin determination is incredibly complex. Most importantly, you need reliable samples. If you don’t go, you don’t know.”

Wim Vertriest, a Bangkok-based supervisor at GIA, during a seminar on GIA’s field gemology program

“What is culture? The shared beliefs and values of employees that guide their discretionary behavior in ways that are beneficial for the sustained performance of the organization. It’s important to guiding judgment. If we’re centralizing decision-making, we don’t need culture because we’re proscribing what people do. Culture is what guides decisions in the absence of policy.

“What we know: Strong culture organizations exhibit higher ROI, net income, sales growth, and cash flows, on average.”

Dennis Campbell, during an interactive lecture on customer centricity

“Over the last year, we’ve grown our online sales from 5 percent to almost 11 percent. The very first decision I made as CEO was to buy a fast-growing online retailer of diamond jewelry, Jamesallen.com. That’s one of the things that’s helped us grow so quickly.”

—Signet Jewelers CEO Gina Drosos during the symposium’s closing “Futurescape” session, in response to a question about industry consolidation

“Everybody is looking for that customer connection. We still, at this point, own that connection. But that doesn’t mean it’s not being eroded. In doing so, we need to be aware of technologies. Fortunately, they’re getting a lot less expensive. Getting involved in technology is easier. We have to remain very sticky with the customer. But it’s also a chance for us to look at ways we can consolidate. In everybody’s community, there are a lot of great young designers. If we can house them, work in collaboration with them, we don’t have the big corporations to tell us no. We can be a lot more maneuverable, to start collaborating and consolidate along the way.”

Andy Johnson, Diamond Cellar CEO, during the symposium’s closing “Futurescape” session, in response to a question about omnichannel retailing and consolidation

“Somebody in our tech group wants to take summers off. Five years ago, I would have been against it, but if we say no, we lose somebody great. It’s forced me to think differently. She’ll get that job somewhere else. I’d rather have her here for nine months instead of zero.”

Jason Goldberger, Blue Nile CEO, during the symposium’s closing “Futurescape” session, in response to a question about hiring young people with an entrepreneurial spirit

“I’m sure lab-grown diamonds will have their place, either in the industrial space or for consumers who don’t have the bandwidth to spend at a higher price point, or very small sizes used in things like watch manufacturing. But at the end of the day, if you go to sell a lab-grown diamond to a retailer, an auction, you don’t get anything for it. Whereas if you sell a mined diamond, you always get something for it. This fundamental value of gems will continue forever.”

Rahul Kadakia, international head of jewelry at Christie’s, during the symposium’s closing “Futurescape” session

“We know diamonds positively impact 10 million people’s lives around Africa every year. And you mustn’t think for a minute that laboratory-grown diamonds are carbon-neutral.

“That’s one reason we’re working on a very important blockchain initiative: to tell consumers, what is the story? There is a huge amount of good coming out of mining. I’m not sure the story is being told.”

—De Beers Group CEO Bruce Cleaver, during the symposium’s closing “Futurescape” session

Top: David L. Ager, managing director of Harvard Business School’s executive development program, leads a symposium business track session on the career and legacy of Jean-Claude Biver, outgoing president of the LVMH watch division (photo courtesy of GIA).

JCK Magazine Editor