The Jewelry Industry Summit Is Getting Rave Reviews. But What Now?

Does the industry need yet another association?

By all accounts, the Jewelry Industry Summit, held March 11–13 at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, was an extremely positive event that provided a much-needed forum for the industry to discuss how it fits into the new environment of ethical consumerism. The question is: Where does it go from here?

I have attended many meetings on these topics that were organized with the best of intentions but soon petered out. A few factors make me hopeful this particular event might have a greater impact: First, it was run by two facilitators. They were widely praised for specifying both an agenda and an end point.

JCK publisher Mark Smelzer particularly liked the format, which downplayed presentations in favor of an “appreciative inquiry” style that stressed participant interaction.

“It was a night-and-day contrast to just sitting in an auditorium,” he says. “We were seriously engaged and challenged.”

Second, while the summit drew the usual suspects—industry members and others who have already hopped on board the ethical consumer trend—it also lured a few who aren’t traditionally involved with these issues. In at least a few cases it got them excited about the topic.

While some in the colored gemstone sector—generally composed of both small companies and small miners—have expressed reluctance about these events, the representatives of gem associations who attended say they appreciated the dialogue.

“It was a great summit,” says Jeffrey Bilgore, president of the American Gem Trade Association. “I don’t think there can ever be anything wrong about getting industry professionals in the room and talking about important topics.”

Of the few presentations, many singled out that of Lynsey Jones, director of responsible sourcing at VF Corp., a leading sportswear manufacturer, who showed that our industry is not the only one under pressure on these topics.

To its credit, the summit didn’t just dwell on the risks of the industry not engaging on these issues, though those are real. (Take a look with what is happening with Sea World.) It also talked about showing how jewelry and gems can and do benefit people in the poorest parts of the world, and using that to engage millennials with our industry. 

There will always be a split between those who feel the industry has done enough and just needs to get the word out about all the good things it does (from Jewelers for Children on down) and those who feels it needs to do more. (One issue that the group agreed to focus on was an old one: silicosis, a disease that afflicts workers who cut gemstones.) Those two thoughts are not as contradictory as they may appear: Any serious industry-wide attempt to address these issues will likely do both.

So the question is: Who would run that effort? Is the summit the right vehicle? By the end, the summit had 150 or so people excited to do something. There will likely be more summits and possibly even events at the upcoming Vegas shows. But will this lead to another association? If there is anything that elicits groans from industry members, it’s that.

“A new association is possible but not necessarily required,” says Cecilia Gardner, president and CEO of Jewelers Vigilance Committee, the driving force behind the summit. She hopes the major associations will convene to discuss possible initiatives at an upcoming forum.

The Responsible Jewellery Council may also be a possible candidate to bring this forward—though, for now, it has a narrow brief: to certify companies that comply with its standards.

“Clearly there was an appetite for some momentum,” says Andy Bone, RJC CEO. “I don’t think it is clear yet where it is heading and what the final destination is. It is such early days to know what role, if any, we can play. We are here, ready and willing, to play whatever role might appear in the future.”

CIBJO might also play a role. Director of communications Steven Benson says that his group has been “beating the drum” for social responsiblity for a decade, but notes that it “would insist that any socially responsible programs that result should be inclusive and not in any way restrict entry according to the size and financial capacity of the jewelry or gemstone companies involved.”

In addition, any serious attempt to tackle these issues also needs to be global and involve businesspeople from the affected countries. Representatives of several international groups attended the event, though this was clearly a U.S.-driven forum.

At the end of the two and a half days, a stewardship committee was formed to plot the way forward. The summit also developed an action plan to look at educating sales associates about responsible sourcing; researching consumer attitudes; and communicating, via social media, about responsible jewelry. Other groups will look at silicosis and forming a responsible gem-mining site in Brazil.

It’s an ambitious agenda, and the trick will be sustaining and channeling the positive energy and good will that has been created, without falling victim to the standard industry pitfalls, like association turf wars and a lack of financial resources.

Regardless, the summit deserves a lot of credit for restarting a dialogue that had mostly seemed stalled.

“The industry has done a lot, but there are still a lot of things to be addressed,” said one attendee, noted gemologist Antoinette Matlins. “But the point is, we have to start addressing them. Jewelers want their customers to feel good. And feeling good is connected to not doing things that are bad.”

Blood Diamond did horrific damage to our industry,” she continues. “It made people start questioning who is getting rich off our diamonds. We need to counter that with a positive message. Other industries have done it, and there is no reason why the gem and jewelry industry can’t do it, too.”

JCK News Director