Honest, sort of

Many years ago – 23 to be exact – we undertook a major consumer study and published it in a special issue called “The Jeweler and His Customer.” (In those days we weren’t ready to acknowledge that women might run a jewelry business!)

As part of the study we asked consumers to rate various business and professional people for honesty on a 1-to-10 scale where 1 was least honest and 10 most honest. Jewelers scored 5.8, well behind doctors and bankers, marginally behind discount store clerks and – hallelujah – well ahead of politicians (3.7) and door-to-door salesmen (3.3).

Our headline for the story: “Jewelers are

. . . sort of honest.”

Let’s fast forward to today. Well, doctors and bankers have been taking their lumps, discount store clerks almost certainly will have slipped down the scale and politicians probably haven’t moved much – certainly not upwards.

How about jewelers? It would be nice to hazard that jewelers today could routinely earn a 7 or 8, maybe even a few 9s and 10s. Chances are that’s pie in the sky if you’re talking about the jewelry community at large. Sure, we do have men and women of unquestionable integrity. Sure, we also have more than enough of those who apparently don’t know the word or at least don’t know what it means.

These unpleasant thoughts come up because two pieces of information landed on my desk within a couple of days. The first was the weekly confidential service bulletin from the Jewelers Board of Trade which, among other items, reports on the number of jewelers who have discontinued operations – with a disturbing number “leaving unpaid obligations.” This is not a one-week phenomenon. Going out of business and stiffing your creditors, mostly suppliers, now seems to be a thriving industry trend.

The second piece of information was a letter from John Parker Hendrickson Jr., who runs E.W. Parker Inc., a 141-year-old jewelry store in Madison, Wisconsin. In his letter, Mr. Hendrickson wrote: “As a fourth generation jeweler and a charter member of the JA 100 Club, trust and integrity are not mere words in a dictionary. They are the basis on which our family business was established.”

This jeweler is very upset by merchants who take advantage of customers just to make a fast buck. It’s bad to see such behavior in any industry, he says, “but when another jeweler does it, it reflects on all jewelers.” His problem is a competing jeweler who is misleading consumers and has run ads that violate state law. He continues to run them in spite of complaints by other merchants.

In search of support, Mr. Hendrickson wrote to the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. His view and hope: “JVC will check it [the false advertising] out and if the store is guilty, bring the proper steps to see that the advertising is stopped.” After three letters to JVC, Mr. Hendrickson received what he calls a “grudging” response but no action. His conclusion: “I once respected JVC and the good work it has done. After this episode, I’m not so sure I feel the same.”

Among the issues this letter raises: How involved can JVC get with individual complaints like this, since it lacks both the staff and money to do much more than tut-tut? Should JVC get involved? If it does not, who should? Should the industry operate a self-policing agency to assure honest behavior? Will the industry support such an agency?

The quick answer to all these points is that the industry does need “an honesty agency” and JVC is the logical body to do the job. But it must have widespread vocal and financial support – neither of which it has.

Today, JVC’s board has a rare opportunity to take a stronger industry role. It has an activist president, Lee Berg, who is promising to strengthen the organization. It also is in search of a new operating head; the right choice could lead it to greatness – provided he or she is given the tools to do the job. I urge Lee Berg and his board to grab this chance to introduce real enforcement of ethical behavior throughout our industry.