2013 AGS Conclave Provides Retail Blueprint

If there was a single moment that underscored the prominence of the modern independent jeweler at the 2013 Conclave—the American Gem Society’s educational and networking conference (held April 24–27 at the Phoenix Arizona Biltmore Hotel)—it arguably happened in a session called “Today’s Engagement Ring Shopping Experience.”

Addressing a standing-room-only crowd, Laura Cave, director of trade marketing for The Knot, reported that the largest segment of engagement ring buyers, 42 percent, purchased from independent jewelers in 2012. Only 9 percent bought online—a stat that’s remained unchanged from 2010.

“One thing is clear,” she said. “People want to buy diamonds in person, under a light, from a trusted salesperson. And that’s probably not going to change.”

Of course, feel-good vibes typically abound at the annual Conclave. “I couldn’t do what I do without this event,” said Dave Blevins, owner of Juniker ­Jewelry Co. in Jackson, Miss., who comes chiefly for gemological seminars such as “Unusual Synthetic Gems,” led by GIA staff gemologist Nathan Renfro. “All the new treatments and stones would be so much more difficult to figure out without Conclave.”

Cathy Calhoun, owner of Calhoun Jewelers in Royersford, Pa., joked that the banquet of ideas she gleans from the conference are “enough to make my employees hate me when I come back.”

After hearing marketing guru Jim Stengel speak, Calhoun was planning a total rework of her TV ads to reflect his call to incorporate clear-cut ideals into every facet of a business.

Stengel, whose presentation was based on his book, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, believes brands are led by artists (not straight-up businesspeople) with ­“emotional intelligence.”

After airing jazzy ads from Red Bull, Park Hyatt, and other big brands as examples of “ideals-driven businesses” (aka ones with strong points of view that infuse their message into everything they do), Stengel proclaimed any business lacking a clear persona to be, well, doomed.

“There’s a new narrative and new behaviors and if we don’t keep up with that, we risk being obsolete,” he said. “Do you have an inspiring ideal that is driving growth? If you don’t…that’s where you need to start—that’s where sustainable growth comes from.”

Other standout sessions included “Winning Bigger With Better Customer Service,” led by Louie ­Gravance, a former executive for Walt Disney Co. Gravance’s high-octane narrative ping-ponged from staffing—“We spend too much time trying to engage the actively dis­engaged employee,” he said—to sales techniques: “Sometimes to be in the show, you have to play a role—do you think doctors are not grossed out by our nudity? Of course they are; they are performing and creating a context for us to do business.”

Scott Guginsky, vice president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, led one of the juiciest seminars, “Inside Real Jewelry Crime,” which was chock-full of terrible tales of elaborate robberies, South American crime circles, and even a crooked jeweler or two.

New to Conclave this year was the Discovery Room, which hosted quickie seminars (30 minutes or less) on topics like advances in diamond cutting and quick sales conversation starters.

Seminars aside, Conclave’s rep as an invaluable networking event was once again fortified. “There is no other industry where you can sit down with industry icons and major scientists in the field and become friends with them,” said Blevins.

“Business happens here all day long, every day,” added Calhoun, who, after four years of trying to persuade legendary jewelry appraiser Cos ­Altobelli to write his memoirs, finally succeeded in her campaign over drinks with Altobelli in Phoenix. “After hours and hours and hours of talking, he finally agreed,” she said. “Conclave made it happen.”