Capital Offensive

First lady Laura Bush was impressed.

“I applaud the Jewelers of America … in this important effort,” she said in her Nov. 16 statement denouncing Burma’s suppression of democratic freedoms and praising JA’s lobbying to bar imported Burmese gems. Her comments illustrate JA’s impact in Washington, D.C.

“JA is playing a more active role for its membership and is more informed and involved in issues than ever before,” notes jeweler Bill Farmer Jr., Farmer’s Jewelry, Lexington, Ky., and chairman of JA’s revived political action committee.

A number of issues JA now confronts are “far afield of those it has traditionally dealt with,” agrees Peggy Jo Donahue, director of JA’s public affairs department. These include reforming the 1879 federal mining law to prevent social and ecological damage, pushing Congress to amend the Burmese Freedom & Democracy Act (2003), and advising JA members against buying gems from sources “complicit in human rights abuses.”

On the humanitarian side, JA is committed to “high social, ethical, and environmental standards in the jewelry trade,” says Matthew R. Runci, JA president and chief executive officer, and its members must be “committed to promoting responsible business practices throughout the jewelry supply chain.”

On the practical side, problems in one segment of the jewelry industry, like conflict diamonds, can affect consumers’ opinions of the entire trade. More jewelry shoppers are concerned with how gems and metals are obtained and how jewelry is made.

The retail jeweler is “the industry’s face to the public and the one most directly affected,” Runci has said. “If we lose the consumer’s confidence in us and our product, we lose business.”

“Customers today, especially young adults, come into jewelry stores and ask about dirty gold or conflict diamonds, so it benefits small jewelers to be able to say, ‘This is what we and our industry association are doing to improve conditions,’” notes Donahue. “It shows their communities they’re committed and concerned citizens.”

JA has embarked on the most extensive, high-profile lobbying efforts in its history, reaching out to like-minded groups, promoting responsible business practices, and encouraging its 11,000 members to become more involved in legislative matters through its political action committee. It also has expanded its operations and hired new staffers.

Those staffers number 16, some at JA’s New York City headquarters, others at its Washington, D.C., legislative counsel, Haake & Associates. They keep members and the industry informed on legislative and social issues with bimonthly JReports, quarterly updates, and special alerts; provide sample letters members can use to contact legislators; and offer materials to share with customers and the media, such as the Responsible Gold Confidence Pack, developed with World Gold Council and the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices.

JA also releases position statements on issues and stays close to the media and advocacy groups concerned about jewelry industry practices. In Washington, D.C., Haake & Associates works closely with influential lawmakers.

Another big reason for JA’s new clout is its growing involvement in coalitions. “Once an association like JA takes a stand on an issue, it attracts notice, and you begin to be contacted by others on issues that might be little known to small jewelers but are important to them,” Donahue says. “That’s why these alliances we join, in which so many lobby for the same issues—our issues—are so important. Industries have learned that while individual lobbying is important, to create lots of noise on issues of importance they must band with like-minded others to send messages.”

JA’s activist lobbying can be traced to the appointment of Runci—who had experience in industry alliances as president of Manufacturing Jewelers & Suppliers of America—as JA’s president and CEO in 1995. That same year, JA named Washington, D.C., veteran Timothy M. Haake its first full-time lobbyist there. Haake specializes in tax, trade, health, and estate law and was a tax counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance and the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means.

That was followed by the JA board’s “corporate responsibility initiative,” which produced a Code of Ethics and Rules for Professional Business Conduct (1999) that JA members must accept annually to renew membership; 2001’s identification of risks facing the jewelry industry; and Statement of Principles (2002) and Supplier Code of Conduct (2004), both designed to strengthen consumer confidence in jewelers and emphasize JA’s commitment to “social, ethical, and environmental responsibility.”

With its corporate principles firmly set, JA widened lobbying at home and abroad. In 2001, for example, it issued a statement (with the World Diamond Council) calling for “immediate government action to halt the insidious traffic in conflict diamonds” and joined a coalition of religious, humanitarian, and human rights groups to push legislation to stop it. The powerful alliance led Congress to adopt the Clean Diamond Trade Act (2003), authorizing U.S. compliance with the international Kimberley certification process, tracking diamonds from mine to store. That effort brought jewelers to Capitol Hill to lobby legislators before the vote, demonstrating JA’s ability to rally its members.

In 2005, JA cofounded the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices, a nonprofit global organization promoting corporate ethical and social standards in the gem and jewelry supply chain. CRJP, which Runci chairs, begins monitoring its members’ compliance with those practices this year.

In 2007, JA joined the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a multi-industry effort to develop standards for the mining industry; urged quick passage of the Sales Tax Fairness and Simplification Act, to let states make Internet and catalog retailers collect sales taxes; and joined the E-Fairness Coalition, a group of businesses, associations, labor unions, and state and local governments working to enact it. JA also lobbied to amend the Burmese Freedom & Democracy Act to ban imports of Burma’s gemstones.

JA’s growing efforts required it to expand its operations. In 2006, it named Donahue its first public affairs director. It hired Lauren Thompson as public affairs coordinator in mid-2006, and veteran jewelry trade journalist Susan Posnock as public affairs manager in November 2007.

JA also is expanding outreach to its 11,000 members, aided by sophisticated new computer software that streamlines how it connects to those members and how they can connect to legislators. “This provides us with the ability to quickly organize our members by various categories, such as location, district, or size of store,” says Thompson. “It simplifies sending member updates or calls to action on timely issues.”

It also enhances the Web page of JAPAC (JA’s political action committee) where JA members can get updates on issues, donate to JAPAC, and learn what JA is doing for them in Congress.

The computer upgrade could deepen JA’s work with affiliates on state government matters, too. Currently, it’s “mildly involved,” says Donahue. “We encourage them to contact us on issues affecting them, like state luxury tax, and we provide tools, like talking points. Ultimately, we want to be more involved in state lobbying efforts.”

Perhaps the upgrade’s most important aspect is how it will empower more JA members to lobby themselves, says Donahue. “They’ll discover the tremendous power individuals have in personally contacting their elected legislators and influencing legislative action. Being involved shows the jeweler to be a concerned and engaged citizen.”

Congressman Charles Rangel, in addressing jewelers at the 2007 JA New York Summer show, agreed. Individuals in the jewelry industry, he said, must be more involved in issues affecting it. “Your country only asks three things of you,” he said. “Participate, participate, and please, participate.”

With JA’s help, more jewelers are doing just that.