Breaking Boundaries

As we were preparing this issue, a story which appears in the Luxury section caught me by surprise. Its topic: campaigns to rejuvenate the brand image of Cadillac cars and Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. In a jewelry magazine?

But after my initial reaction, I realized that the story makes good sense; there’s a lot we can learn from other industries if we’re open-minded enough. The trouble is that we’re really a very closed industry. At least part of the reason is that the high value of the merchandise we deal in makes it imperative we know and trust our colleagues. We like people with whom we share a common body of knowledge, where there’s a real comfort level in the relationship.

This is good. It leads to bonding and lasting friendships. It makes business easier and it creates trust. Try to think of another industry where a supplier will mail merchandise worth many thousands of dollars to a retailer in a distant city with no more than a memorandum to detail the transaction.

But there’s a bad side to this closeness. It encourages parochialism and a suspicion of outsiders. “Is he one of us?” people want to know of a stranger. The suggestion is that a person who isn’t of the industry somehow lacks stature, is not quite to be trusted. This arm’s length approach to “outsiders” is bad and it is worse when it’s extended to “outsider” ideas.

Smart jewelers know this. I recall a conversation with Matt Stuller some years ago in which he said he got some of his best ideas from attending trade shows that have nothing to do with jewelry. No one can question Matt Stuller’s success. Here’s a man who built a part-time college job into a multi-million dollar enterprise in record time.

Andy Johnson is another good example of a jeweler who constantly looks beyond our industry’s borders for ideas. This Columbus, Ohio, jeweler is a pioneering thinker and voracious reader who mixes regularly with young presidents from other industries to gather new ideas.

These men aren’t alone in reaching outside the industry for new ideas or other experiences. Jewelry is as entrepreneurial as any business can get, so it’s not surprising that many store owners are involved in other businesses besides jewelry. Many are into real estate, even if it involves nothing more than owning their own building. In just the past couple of months, I’ve talked with jewelers who also owned hardware businesses, auto dealerships and dabbled in the distribution of hospital supplies.

If you want to put the issue into dramatic terms, we’re talking about the difference between the Renaissance man or woman and the specialist. One has wide-ranging interests, is constantly in search of new ideas and treats a job as only one element of a full life. The other is very focused on one narrow slice of life and often so intermingles life and job that the two really become one. Such a person has little time for those who don’t share this intensity and focus.

If you want a good and useful life, my vote goes to the idea seekers, to those who don’t think in terms of mental boundaries. Such people generally are our leaders. They’re the ones who open new horizons, dream up new products and processes and reject conformity. They see people for who they are, not for what background they have.

This isn’t to say that those who don’t like change, who seek to stay within the familiarity of their business contacts and who are wary of strangers are wrong. It’s just that their way of life doesn’t promise much in the way of excitement or challenge. And those are two pretty vital ingredients in a life well lived.

One final note from the editorial pulpit: the boundary-breakers also seem to have more fun than the boundary-protectors. That counts for a lot, too.

gholmes@chilton.net