20 Years of the JCK Show: An Oral History

The inside story on America’s largest jewelry show, as told by the people who were there from the beginning.

It seems astonishing now, but at one time the idea of JCK magazine starting a trade show was considered a Vegas-size gamble. For decades, the Jewelers of America show—held then, as now, in July/August at New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center—reigned as the premiere U.S. show.

But in July 1991, JA sold the show to the Blenheim Group, whose business was trade shows and not jewelry. The $36 million deal was portrayed as a great coup for Blenheim (which was later acquired by Miller Freeman). The industry, ­however, wasn’t so sure. The staff of JCK, then part of Chilton, which was owned by Capital Cities/ABC, sensed an opportunity. 

Charles Bond, former publisher, JCK: “People had a lot of issues with the old JA show. They thought Blenheim didn’t know anything about the industry. People thought the show was too late, too close to the Christmas season.

“[Industry marketing consultant] Ed Coyne said, ‘Why doesn’t JCK start a show?’ He gave me the names of a half-dozen manufacturers who said that it would be great if we did a show. [Capital ­Cities/ABC was] owned by Disney at the time and they said, ‘We will support you if you let our show division do the logistics.’

“At the time, the Diamond Promotion Service was headed by a guy named Earl Lynch. I went to lunch with him and he said, ‘If you do a show, we will support you.’ I figured if it was good enough for him, we might as well go ahead.” 

Once the staff of JCK decided, “Hey, gang, let’s put on a show,” questions surfaced. Where would the fair be located? When should it be held? How would it be different from what was already out there? Bond and company then made two key decisions: While jewelry shows were traditionally held in late summer, this one would be held in late May/early June to take advantage of the mass-merchant buying cycle. Their choice of location was also off the then-beaten path: Las Vegas, which was hardly the business destination it is today.

Bond: “A lot of people said: Please don’t do another show in New York. [Former JCK editor in chief] George Holmes suggested New Orleans. So I went down there, and I really didn’t like the setup, and they didn’t really have any openings for May.

Then I said, ‘What about Las Vegas? They have the Consumer Electronics Show.’ The hotel rooms were much cheaper than New York, plus there were a lot of places for people to take clients out. It was just one of those whims, but everyone liked the idea.”

Space was secured at the Sands Expo and Convention Center—at that time, one of the only venues in Las Vegas that could house a trade show. Organizers originally envisioned a regional show with only 400 or so booths. Despite the support of key industry players, the early days proved tough going.

Elizabeth Chatelain, president, MVI Marketing, San Luis Obispo, Calif.: “I remember Charlie Bond and [former JCK international sales director] Lee Lawrence invited all these exhibitors to a meeting in Los Angeles. And everyone was telling them what a terrible idea this was. They said New York is the hub of the industry, and in Vegas, the retailers will spend all their money gambling; they wouldn’t have any money to buy anything.

“So my husband, Marty [Hurwitz], stood up and said, ‘You guys are nuts. Las Vegas is going to be the No. 1 convention city in the world, and you guys better get in on this.’ Las Vegas was already on an upswing; there were a lot of new hotels being built, like the MGM Grand. The Pacific Rim was also becoming a force, and Vegas was closer to that than New York. And when Marty was done, the only people who clapped for him were Charlie Bond, former JCK international sales director Lee Lawrence, and one exhibitor.”

Bill Furman, JCK group sales director: “The idea behind the show, and this is going to sound corny, was: ‘For the people, by the people, and of the people.’ We really wanted to be sensitive to exhibitor needs. When we first started talking about the show, people told me where the door was. They were so paranoid of upsetting the existing shows. We were also right in the middle of a recession. They said, ‘Why do we need another trade show?’ But they had never been treated the way we intended to treat them.”

Planning for the first show was primitive by today’s standards—­Lawrence didn’t use a computer, and the floor plan was laid out on ­bulletin boards in his office. But JCK management set out to make everything top-drawer. The magazine’s editorial staff planned an extensive conference program. Organizers formed an industry advisory board, which is still active. The show was designed to be industry-friendly.

Lee Lawrence, former JCK international sales director: “At first, the corporate show division put the show together. And I saw the map they were planning, and they put a guy selling high-priced colored-stone jewelry next to somebody selling something low-end. They had no understanding of the business. So we went to Cap Cities, and asked for a bigger role in the show. And eventually, they said okay.

“We really wanted to do right by people. All of us had many years in the industry, we had many friends in the business, and we knew what made people tick. We didn’t want to just take people’s money, but do what we could to help them.”

Still, it wasn’t until Sterling Jewelers decided to send their buyers that the tide finally turned in favor of the fledgling show in Las Vegas.

Bond: “We had a meeting with the president of Sterling in Ohio, and he asked, ‘When do you plan to have the show?’ When we said at the end of May, he said, ‘That is right when we prefer to have it.’ They were going to put on their own show for their suppliers at the Akron Country Club. So he said, ‘If you have it in May, we’ll cancel our show and go to yours.’ ”

Lawrence: “When Sterling came in, all their suppliers wanted to be there. And once that steamroller started, it was just a matter of when we stopped selling booths.”

The first show, named Jewelry ’92 (not JCK), drew nearly 1,270 ­companies, who took out 1,640 booths. It was the largest trade show launch in 10 years. Even so, exhibitors recall considerable ­preshow jitters.

Bond: “We weren’t sure how many retailers would be there. We had good advance registration, but that doesn’t mean that people will come.

“The first day of the show we had a breakfast meeting, and someone came to me and said, ‘We have a problem. There are people lined up for two blocks outside.’ So I got all the JCK staff together, and we went down the line, giving out free lunch tickets and apologizing.

“And when the doors opened, people just poured in. All the exhibitors were incredulous. They had never seen such a show.”

Neither had retailers.

Clockwise from top left: Dave Bonaparte, group vice president of JCK Events, with 2007 keynote speaker Suzanne Somers; the entrance to the Plumb Club after it made its show debut in the mid-1990s; the show floor during a busy year; former JCK magazine staffers Robert Weldon, Suzy Spencer, and Russell Shor outside the Frontier Club in 1992; an early advisory board meeting.

David Cornell, CEO, Cornell’s Jewelers, Rochester, N.Y.: “I remember going to the first JCK and just being overwhelmed at the size of it. There was so much. You felt like the kid in the candy store.”

Bill Jones, president, Sissy’s Log Cabin, Pine Bluff, Ark: “There was an energy and excitement to it. You felt it the minute you walked in the door. And the first thing I thought was: How can you have so many billions of dollars of jewelry under one roof? Just the security aspect was incredible.”

More than 6,000 buyers attended Jewelry ’92. The biggest sign of the show’s success: When it ended, exhibitors cheered.

John Kennedy, Jewelers’ Security Alliance, New York City: “When the lights went down, you just heard spontaneous huge applause from everybody in the hall. It was extraordinary. I knew then this was going to be a huge success.”

When explaining why the show took off, exhibitors inevitably point to its location, time, and “friendly” feel.

Jones: “Vegas has an allure. There’s nice weather, entertainment, lower costs. Going to Vegas became as much a vacation as it was work.”

Russell Shor, senior industry analyst, Gemological Institute of America, and former JCK editor: “It was a whole bunch of things coming together. For many people, New York was an ‘in and out’ show. You would come, buy, and leave. But Vegas, you had a lot of people hanging around for the whole show because there wasn’t a lot of industry there and you had to make a special trip. So people tended to stay the week and that led to a lot of the events.

“We really made an effort to please everybody. The first year, a bunch of Indian companies came in and they had never exhibited in the U.S. before. I remember making runs to a local Indian restaurant to get them vegetarian food because there was nothing there that they would eat. We would do things like that for people.”

Throughout the 1990s, the show kept growing. In 1993, it drew 1,450 exhibiting companies and 11,000 buyers. In 1994, the show grew to include 1,600 companies spanning 2,450 booths. By that point, 1,000 companies had joined the waiting list.

In 1994, 500,000 square feet of exhibition space expanded by 370,000 feet, and the Sands garage was transformed into the show’s second floor. Soon even that space filled up, and the show became the biggest jewelry trade show in America.

In 1997, JCK’s parent division, Chilton, was sold to Reed Elsevier, which had its own trade show division, Reed Exhibitions. When many of the show’s originators, led by Bond, left to form a rival company, Reed veteran Dave Bonaparte was brought on board as the show’s new head.

Dave Bonaparte, group vice president of JCK Events: “I had been working on many Reed shows. Generally, when an acquisition would happen, I would oversee its integration into the Reed model—our sales culture and our marketing culture. When the JCK show came in, I quickly learned it would benefit the show to have consistent management. Jewelry is such a relationship-based business—more than any other industry—I felt it would make sense to have one leader. And today, I consider myself more part of the ­jewelry business than the trade-show business.

“The first challenge was to stabilize the event. There was a lot of unrest and a lot of people wondering what was going to happen. We had to quickly get in there and meet as many of our customers as possible and impress upon them that we were going to do what is right for their business. It was a very arduous process, but we were successful in gaining the trust and respect of industry leaders.”

That included securing the participation of the Plumb Club—the ­Englewood, N.J.–based group that, since 1983, has gathered together the industry’s leading manufacturers.

Marvin Markman, CEO, Suberi Brothers, and Plumb Club chairman: “We didn’t know the Reed people, and there was a long, protracted negotiation between the Plumb Club and Reed. But they made a good case for themselves and showed a commitment to support the industry. And one of the things that came out of that was the JCK Industry Fund, which donates money to industry groups.

“Jewelry is a cottage industry; there was no one else really giving money to the associations. And Reed came in and made the biggest commitment to funding the industry in its history.”

The JCK Industry Fund—which continues to this day—has given away more than $5 million to trade organizations since 1998.

Over the years, the show became more global in scope, adding 22 international pavilions and several other shows under the JCK banner, including LUXURY at JCK and Swiss Watch at JCK.

Eventually, the show became so strong that the child outgrew the parent. In 2009, JCK Las Vegas—a trade fair launched by a ­magazine—became a trade show that owned a magazine. Following the dissolution of the U.S. branch of Reed Business Information, Reed Exhibitions took control of the JCK Publishing Group and hired TMG Custom Media as the publisher.

As JCK Las Vegas approaches its 20th year, it is undergoing a ­radical change: relocating to a state-of-the-art facility at Mandalay Bay after 19 years at the Sands. It remains not only the most important jewelry show in the United States, but one of the leading shows in the world, an essential place to get a read on the industry’s heartbeat.

Olivia Cornell, president, Cornell’s Jewelers, Rochester, N.Y.: “The JCK show is a lot of hard work, but it also rejuvenates you. It stimulates you. When our then–19-year-old son wasn’t sure if he wanted to go into the business, I figured that if he wanted to feel the pulse of our business, he had to go to Las Vegas, because that truly is the fun part of this business. If you don’t enjoy Las Vegas, you shouldn’t be in this industry. And it turned out to be a defining moment in his life. He now has his G.G.

“When we first started coming, we didn’t know a lot of jewelers. But once you start going, you see familiar faces, and you get to chatting and you share experiences. You say, ‘I just bought this.’ Or, ‘If you like this line, check out this one.’ You build a ton of relationships, and that is what JCK is all about.”

Gary Gordon, Samuel Gordon Jewelers, Oklahoma City: “I think the show has created a sense of camaraderie and community in the industry that didn’t exist before. It has revitalized the trade organizations. They moved their meetings out to Vegas and their seminars were better attended. It has brought people together from all over the world. It’s turned the industry into a great big club.”

Many of the people interviewed for this article—including Gordon, ­Chatelain, Jones, Furman, Shor, and Kennedy—have been to every JCK show since its inception. 

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