Shadow Diver Addresses Centurion Jewelers

Richie Kohler, one of the pair of divers who helped solve the mystery of a German U-boat sunk off the coast of New Jersey during World War II, was the first featured keynote speaker at the Centurion Jewelry Show, which opened January 26 at the Westin La Paloma Resort in Tucson, Ariz.

The keynote, sponsored by the Diamond Promotion Service, opened first with a presentation by Claudia Rose, the DPS’s director of strategy. Rose highlighted a number of findings from the DPS’s Retail Landscape Study (see “State of the Industry Report” in JCK’s September 2006 issue) and explained how Kohler’s talk about breaking barriers and getting beyond one’s comfort zone tied into changing the retail shopping experience.

Kohler regaled the audience with an account of how he discovered a German U-boat during a dive 60 miles off the coast of Point Pleasant, N.J. From the day of discovery, it took six years to figure out what, exactly, was there. The exploration was all privately done, as neither the U.S. Navy nor the German government had the budget to send divers down to explore it. Three divers, all good friends of his, died in the exploration of the wreck, and it fell to Kohler and his partner, John Chatterton, to finally determine that it was a U-boat, which he realized when he unearthed a piece of dinnerware that had the Nazi eagle and swatstika insignia on the back, and a date of 1942.

“I’m a real salvage diver,” he explained. “Every diver’s dream is to find a virgin shipwreck, but I also was well-known for the collection of stuff I brought up from wrecks and displayed on my mantel.” When he discovered the dish, he really wanted it for his mantel—until he explored further.

Their discovery was re-enacted on the television program Nova, and they subsequently became the subjects of the program “Shadow Divers” on the History Channel.

Diving a submarine is very different from any other kind of shipwreck, explained Kohler. In most shipwrecks, any lost lives are absorbed by the ocean. But a submarine is a long narrow tube of steel, with a lot of stagnant water and silt inside. As a result, he found a lot of well-preserved human remains in this wreck–the 56-soldier crew, whose bones were still inside their uniforms.

From that moment, his goals changed. No longer just content to salvage a piece of World War II history for his mantel, Kohler wanted to find out who these men were, which sub this was and, most importantly, be able to go back to the soldiers’ families and tell them exactly what had happened to their loved ones.

“A lot of you are probably thinking, ‘But they’re the enemy!’” he said. “In 1942, they were. But in 1991 (when the sub was discovered) they were just kids who died far from home and whose bodies were never found.”

His passion—he called it an obsession—with solving the mystery unfortunately led to the breakup of his marriage, but he felt drawn, perhaps by his German ancestry, to put the questions to rest. He did ultimately find out who 17 of the men were, and has contacted their families—and remains in contact with them to this day. He did receive permission and select one small dish for his own memorabilia, but the rest of the wreck now remains undisturbed, a hallowed soldiers’ gravesite under international law.

After his talk, enthusiastic questions from the audience ranged from the emotional to very technical diving questions to what kind of watch he wore for the dive (a Rolex). Then Rose again took the stage to tie in Kohler’s talk to the need for innovation at the retail front.

“It’s really important to challenge your assumptions,” she said. When the DPS queried dozens of jewelers about what they felt set their store apart, an overwhelming number responded, “trust.” It’s not enough, said Rose. Trust is important, of course—and any store that consumers don’t trust won’t stay in business—but it’s a starting point, not a point of differentiation.

In their Retail Landscape survey, the DPS found many jewelers had a lot of excuses for why they didn’t do anything particularly innovative (security issues, lack of time, lack of financial resources, and so forth), and many who felt that fashion trends were irrelevant to their business.

Jewelry stores must create the fantasy of how women will look in the product, like fashion stores do, she explained. Jewelry is an emotional purchase—even in a fashion setting—but too often it comes down to bargaining over the product.

“There’s too much selling of the deal and not enough selling of the dream,” she said. The industry also needs to elevate its design quotient, she said. Consumers have a much higher expectation of design, owing to the presence of design-driven stores like Target, H&M, and Ikea, she said.

She wrapped up her presentation with a recap of the DPS’s new partnership with SpotRunner, to create easy-to-use, affordable, compelling television advertising spots for jewelers.