Deserving of Mud

Some people, after conceding a debate or argument, are thrilled to see their predictions of doom come true. After all, what better validation is there for the rightness of one’s position than to be able to say, “See? I told you so!”

Last September, JCK‘s cover story focused on the controversy of JVC’s J-BAR appraisal program, and this column, titled “Clear as Mud” (see JCK, Editor’s Page, September 2004, p. 174), emphasized the need for the jewelry industry to have a uniform set of minimum-qualification standards for appraising jewelry, without which we will surely keep losing consumer trust.

In July, Dateline NBC aired a program titled “Diamonds: Is There Such a Thing as a Deal?” which asked—objectively, I might add—how diamonds sold at one price can be appraised for a much higher price.

I hate to say I told you so. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever, because it means there’s yet more erosion of the public’s trust of jewelers. After viewing the program and reading the transcript, from an editor’s perspective I can find no fault with Dateline‘s reporting. Unlike many other TV “news” programs, this one was, in fact, fair and balanced. While they didn’t shop any independent or high-end jewelers (the only possible fault I can find with the report), they did go to a wide enough variety of mid- and mass-market stores to gather ample proof that the practice of inflating appraisals is rampant at that level of the market, and they did give industry members a chance to respond.

But we didn’t need Dateline to tell us the practice is rampant; plenty of jewelry-store advertisements already have done that. I can think of several stores whose broadcast commercials regularly guarantee a customer’s diamond will be appraised for significantly more than the purchase price. They’re proud of this?

Unfortunately, giving consumers the illusion that they’re getting a bargain on diamonds has become de rigueur. Like Pavlov’s dogs, consumers are trained to associate the word “diamond” with the word “deal,” but most of those so-called deals are frankly bogus. Whether it’s an inflated appraisal or a “regular retail versus our price” structure, the end result is the same: deception. Nobody—at least nobody who intends to stay in business—is selling diamonds for a third less than they’re really worth, period. They never did, they aren’t now, and they won’t be tomorrow.

It’s one thing to clear out a few dogs at a reduced price to get them out of the store, but if pretending to sell a stone for less than it’s worth is a standard m.o., eventually consumers are going to figure out that they’ve been snookered. Just the fact that many consumers’ first concern when it’s time to buy a diamond at all is, “How do I avoid being ripped off?” is testament to the fact that they already know something’s very wrong.

Nobody is debating the fact that gem grading has an element of subjectivity. Even under the most rigorous standards, individual differences in how the human eye perceives light and color and how the human brain perceives the importance of an inclusion can make a difference from one gem grader to the next, which is why an accepted range of tolerances was established. But when two grades differ as widely as some of those reported on Dateline did, that’s not a matter of tolerances; it’s clearly a different set of standards.

It’s like grading a math test on a curve: If you missed 25 percent of the problems but everyone else in the class missed half, you’re the best in that class. But it doesn’t change the fact that you still got 25 percent of the test wrong. You’re not an A student because you did 25 percent better than the rest of the class. You’re still a C student but you seem smarter because you’re being compared to a bunch of classmates who are failing.

It’s long past time to put inflated appraisals, soft grading, and questionable pricing practices out to pasture, at every level of the market. Appraisals should be made for the true value of the stone, not some marketing-driven fantasy price that has nothing to do with reality.

The people performing the appraising should all be qualified by the same set of standards to do so. It’s time to put aside the political squabbling over whose standards are used, and unite to quickly set some solidly uniform requirements for appraising that everyone will follow.

You wouldn’t want to be treated by a physician who got his board certification by passing an easier test than his colleagues, would you? While puffing up a diamond is far from saving a life, consumers still don’t want to be told they have one thing when in fact they bought something quite different.

If we don’t get serious about fixing our whole industry’s image—especially in an increasingly experience-driven culture—next time the customer might just take an exotic trip and not bother with the hassle of buying a diamond at all.