Closing the Gender Gap

It’s one of the ironies of the jewelry trade that while its products are worn mostly by women and often bought by women, the industry is dominated by men. Even today, some feel the industry is still something of a boys’ club.

“From the time I graduated law school, I was always surrounded by an equal number of women and men,” says Cecilia Gardner, executive director of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. “I don’t find that in this industry. Ninety percent of the time I am in a meeting to discuss any of the issues that JVC is involved in, I am the only woman in the room.”

But that’s beginning to change. “We are definitely seeing a trend where more women than men are interested in the industry,” says Kathryn Kimmel, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Gemological Institute of America. “When I first joined GIA 12 years ago, our student body was about 40% women. Today it’s 60%. Just walk the aisles of any trade fair and you’ll see a lot more women than you did in the past.” She adds that for the first time, GIA’s Career Fair panels feature more women than men. There also is a trend of older women coming into the industry—particularly empty nesters or recently divorced women who have an interest in jewelry.

“Women have come a long way in this industry,” agrees Toni Lynn Judd, a founder of the Woman’s Jewelry Association, which has been instrumental in promoting these changes. “People are more aware of the women in the industry, and they are more aware of each other. Of course, there’s always room for more.”

Different sectors. This greater involvement of women reflects societal trends: There are more women in almost every industry now, not just the jewelry industry. Yet women are not represented equally in all sectors of the industry.

Women have a large presence in retail—for a time, one was the head of Zale. Many also are involved in the design and fashion sectors, industry associations, and trade publications. (At one point, the editors-in-chief of all the major publications were women.) Women also play a role in industry public relations—not surprising, since women dominate the p.r. field in general.

Men still dominate the watch, gemstone, and manufacturing sectors. They account for a majority of on-the-road salespeople, since many women have greater security concerns than their male counterparts. And there is still not much female involvement in the diamond trade, the most tradition-bound branch of this tradition-bound industry.

“The words ‘loose diamond guy’ are still for the most part applicable,” notes Sue Fortgang, president of the Royal Asscher Cut, a division of M. Fabrikant and Sons. It wasn’t until 1980 that the World Federation of Diamond Bourses voted to allow full membership for women. Even today, the Diamond Dealers Club has had only one female board member.

Yet there are signs that the status quo is changing there, too. “A lot of the second-, third-, and fourth-generation parents are a little more open to developing their daughters instead of developing their sons,” notes Kimmel.

Always there. Despite the apparent dearth of women in the industry, some think they’ve always been there, just not in visible positions.

“For years, women worked in this industry side by side with their spouses,” says Helene Fortunoff, president of Fortunoff and past president of WJA. “Frequently, they weren’t actual partners or legally on the books, but they were unsung heroes of many first-generation companies.”

The few pioneering women who weren’t behind the scenes say that while they never had many female peers, they didn’t face many barriers either. “I came along before women were really getting ahead,” says Harriet Schreiner of Sterling, who received the “Hall of Fame” award this summer from WJA for her contributions to the industry. “While it wasn’t easy in those days for a woman to move up in the ranks, I never felt like I was being discriminated against because I was a woman.”

Kudos to WJA. As women have made gains in the industry, the Woman’s Jewelry Association deserves a lot of the credit.

The organization began in the early 1980s when Judd, a New England-area sales rep, found herself out of work and decided to gather some prominent women for a networking lunch. At first she worried whether these women, some of whom were competitors, would talk to each other. “It turned out I couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” she recalls.

This led to a women-in-jewelry cocktail party. One hundred invitations were sent, and 43 women showed up. According to a WJA history written by Hilda Kirby, “Some sort of an organization was born.”

It was christened the New England Women’s Jewelry Association. When the group met during the Jewelers of America Show in New York, it was expanded to a national organization that would be an alternative to the male-dominated—and in some cases, men-only—groups.

“Men had the 24 Karat Club, the Golden Circle Club, the MJSA—all these groups were mostly men and places where they networked,” says past WJA president Phyllis Bergman of Mercury Ring Corp., who is set to become the first female president of the 24 Karat Club. “The WJA was formed to give women a place to network.”

As with the regional group, the national WJA grew rapidly. Two years ago, it hit a landmark goal of 1,000 members.

“We started off with a handful of women, and within months we had hundreds,” remembers Tina Segal, a designer based in West New York, N.J., and one of those involved in the early days of the WJA. “Women just jumped at it.”

Initially, the organization emphasized not only networking and mentoring but also education.

“You had women who didn’t know how to write a business plan, didn’t know how to approach a bank,” says Fortunoff. “They had experienced growth but didn’t know how to bring it to the next level. They had a lot of questions, and by coming together they were able to network and get a feeling of confidence.”

Today, the group is known for its regular networking parties and awards dinners that attract large gatherings of both sexes, and WJA organizers are justifiably proud of what the group has accomplished. Says Bergman: “It’s created a less homogenous industry.”

It’s also still breaking barriers: Men are welcome as full-fledged members.