Is the Future of Jewelry Manufacturing Spelled I-S-O?

The three most important letters in jewelry manufacturing soon may be I-S-O.

The Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America (MJSA) is leading a drive to have jewelry manufacturers certified by the International Organization of Standards, better known as ISO. It’s enlisted the New York-based American Assay and Gemological Office to write a handbook for industry ISO compliance and to conduct the inspections necessary for certification.

No one doubts ISO standards are becoming more important—and not just in jewelry. Overseas, it’s common to see companies proudly bearing ISO flags and certifications. The 55-year-old Geneva-based group’s standards have been adopted by some 610,000 organizations in 160 countries, covering everything from Buicks to Beanie Babies. There are currently 14,000 ISO standards, taking up 400,000 sheets of paper.

Of course, the last thing businesspeople want is more paper in their lives, never mind a process that requires throwing their businesses open to strangers. But ISO supporters say that the process can have real benefits, and they plan a period of industry education.

“In most other industries, an ISO certification is acknowledged and accepted,” says Nick Savarese, quality control manager for American Assay. “In the jewelry industry, there will be a period of ‘Show me how this helps me.’ It’s something different, something new.”

Not that new. ISO may be new, but many of its requirements aren’t. “Much of it is simply common sense laid out on paper in an organized way,” says a letter to MJSA members. Many items in American Assay’s compliance manual simply codify existing practices such as following the rules of gold karatage, plating, and stone setting.

“We haven’t reinvented the wheel,” says American Assay CEO John A. Politi Jr. “We’ve just packaged it. We defined what the industry should be providing and what can be called good manufacturing processes.”

But don’t think ISO is a rubber stamp. Some manufacturers may have to overhaul their operations and install tougher and tighter quality controls. (See “What ISO Measures,” p. 94.) And once a company receives ISO certification, it must submit to a second inspection a year later, with follow-up audits every two years after that.

“ISO certification does not come easy,” says Michael Akkaoui, president and CEO of Tanuery Industries in Lincoln, R.I., one of the few jewelry-related companies to be ISO-certified. “The commitment has to come from the top of the organization because it is a lot of work that takes time away from people’s normal daily tasks.”

But MJSA prefers to focus not on ISO’s requirements but on its benefits. In some cases, just looking inward reaps rewards.

“The work that you do for ISO, if you are a good organization, is work that you should be doing anyway to make your company better,” says Akkaoui. “The ISO process forces you to focus on certain issues that might escape you on a day-to-day basis.”

Akkaoui notes that ISO “drives efficiency and stops repetitious problems that cost money. … If you have a documented system that works, when something goes wrong you tell employees to just go to the manual.”

Sam Sandberg, president of A. Jaffe, the first company chosen to be part of the program, says compliance has been time-consuming, but overall he’s impressed.

“ISO is very rigorous, and it covers just about every step in the business,” he says. “The key is for everything to be verifiable and transparent. People like to deviate and take shortcuts and you can’t trace who’s accountable. This lets you know you put ‘A’ before ‘B’ before ‘C.’ So if there is a mistake, we know at what step in the process there was a hitch and who was responsible. There is much less room for error.”

He admits that “it is costly, but it will be cost-effective down the road. Any qualified manufacturer could fulfill it in about two years or so.”

Marketing push. But the biggest benefit may be in marketing. With jewelry manufacturing’s future in the United States precarious, MJSA hopes retailers will soon look for the ISO label. In a way, the target of MJSA’s campaign is not manufacturers but retailers. It recently invited representatives of three major chains—Zale, J.C. Penney, and Wal-Mart—to see if they would be interested in seeing their suppliers become ISO certified.

“ISO is a win-win for retailers,” explains MJSA president James Marquart. “If they have the highest-quality products, then they have fewer returns and fewer unhappy customers.”

Saravese thinks retailers eventually will favor ISO-certified companies.

“With ISO, 1,000 rings that took the retailer a week and a half to look at can now be gone through in maybe three days,” he says. “That means if someone is an ISO supplier and they come out a nickel higher than their competitors, it’s worth it to pay the extra nickel and have less time doing quality control.”

Although MJSA is behind the process, it wanted an independent group to draft the criteria and audit compliance. American Assay’s relationship with ISO is unusual: It’s both serving as a consultant to manufacturers on how to fulfill ISO requirements and doing the audits. Generally, to ensure independence, a company does one or the other. In American Assay’s case, its parent company, Birmingham Assay Office, based in Birmingham, England, will be the auditor while the New York branch will do consultations. Other ISO certification bodies also can conduct the audits.

A. Jaffe hopes to be the first ISO-certified diamond jewelry manufacturer this summer. After that, MJSA is mulling whether it will do another test or make the ISO program available as a member’s benefit.

“This will raise the bar for the entire industry,” Politti says. “The jewelry industry has to grow and mature. If they continue to look at themselves as a cottage mom-and-pop industry, they are through.”