Going ‘Cert-Less’

Robert McCullough is so sure his customers don’t need grading reports, he wagers money on it. The owner of Golden Creations in McComb, Ill., tells customers with doubts about his grading to submit their stones to the Gemological Institute of America’s Gem Trade Lab in New York. If GIA’s grade is lower than his, they can keep the diamond and have their money back. So far, he hasn’t shelled out a penny.

McCullough may be an extreme case, but he’s one of a group of stubborn holdovers who have resisted the industry stampede for “certs.” The “cert-less” retailers themselves admit they’re a dying breed. Today, even noted names like Tiffany’s and Harry Winston regularly cert bigger stones. “Many times the insurance companies want it,” notes Jim Haag, Winston’s marketing director. And now, with more options available—from the International Gemmological Institute’s mass-merchant-oriented product to the American Gem Society’s reports for top cuts—there aren’t many reasons for stores not to. Diane Warga-Arias, director of training for the Diamond Promotion Service, says the number of retailers who sell without reports is dwindling. “We’re in an information-based age, and retail’s just a reflection of society,” she says.

But the “cert-less” retailers say they’re proud to stand aside from the pack and contend their reputation provides as much “independent” assurance as any report does. “Reports are nice if no one in the store has any product knowledge,” says Christopher Bramlett of Christopher’s in Concord, N.C. “A store like mine has a reputation for integrity. It’s flattering when you sell someone a 2-ct. stone and they don’t need any kind of paper.” Adds another noted AGS retailer: “When people want a third unbiased opinion, they’re saying, ‘I don’t trust the seller,’ or ‘I’m not sure of his ability.’ I would rather they have confidence in me.”

Moreover, anti-cert retailers feel that by offering reports, jewelers contribute to the much-derided “commoditization” of diamonds. “When you start selling a cert you’re telling a customer, ‘Here, go see if you can beat this,’ ” says Tom Wright, owner of Wright Jewelers, Lincoln, Neb. Some feel that too much grade-and-paper chatter distracts customers from the real reason they buy diamonds—romance. “A piece of paper isn’t very sentimental,” Wright says. “When someone walks down the street and their diamond glistens in the sunlight, I don’t think they’ll be any happier if they have a cert.”

Horror stories. Others note that while certs are supposed to offer consumer protection, it doesn’t always work out that way. “We have all heard the horror stories where you submit a stone to a lab and it comes back one grade and then you submit again and there’s another grade,” Wright says. “And there are certain labs you just can’t believe.” Vincent Rundhaug of Columbia Gem and Jewelry in Kennewick, Wash., says he recently saw a cert in which the clarity grade was four points off. “There are so many problems with these reports,” he says.

The no-cert retailers are mostly established names in small towns; they don’t have a lot of cert-bearing competitors touting grading reports to consumers. As a result, consumer demand for them is almost nonexistent. “A lot of customers come in looking for a particular grade, but not a cert,” McCullough says. “I’ve had maybe two customers in eight years ask for them.”

Most of the no-cert retailers don’t go entirely paperless. In place of certs, many retailers give appraisals. One store even gets them notarized. Another gives out Sarin reports with fine-cuts. They acknowledge that, if the dealer provides a report, they’ll pass it along to the consumer at the time of purchase. But they refuse to use the report as a selling tool—and say their stores are better off for it. Says Wright, “If we can’t communicate to our client the reasons they should believe and trust us, then our competition deserves the sale.”

AGS’s Fancy Footwork

The industry was taken aback by the American Gem Society lab’s plan to develop a cut grade for fancy shapes—with marquise or princess cuts likely to be first (see Diamond Notes, JCK, June 1999, p. 62). Diamond dealers, rival labs, and jewelers agree the lab’s gemologists have a rough road ahead of them.

“I wish them well at it, but it’s going to be very difficult,” says the Gemological Institute of America’s Dr. Ilene Reinitz, one of the authors of a recent study that came out against all cut grades. “They are sailing in completely uncharted waters.” Hertz Hasenfeld, chairman of the Diamond Dealers Club Gemological Committee, says, “Grading fancies is a monumental task. How do you tell people a teardrop pear shape is better than a shorter pear shape? There’s no real way to judge beauty.”

Even so, a fancy cut grade may be an idea whose time has come. New York’s International Gemmological Institute and the New York and Los Angeles branches of European Gemological Laboratories say they’re also looking into fancy cut grades.