Of Ostriches and Eagles

Everybody knows The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas is a great place to see both new product and old friends, but it’s also a great place to take the pulse of the jewelry industry as a whole. This year’s edition turned up some interesting readings, so to speak. I caught an underlying sense of change—vague, but undeniable—coming to the jewelry marketplace.

It was interesting to see who embraces change, who goes with the flow, and who fights a losing battle against it. One of the more colorful events—or, rather, altercations—of the week took place during the invitation-only LUXURY by JCK Show, when several members of the audience took issue with speaker Alyce Alston, chief executive officer of the De Beers retail stores, who was one of the featured breakfast keynote presenters.

“Why did JCK invite you?” demanded more than one irate jeweler. “You’re our competition! What are you doing here?” Had tomatoes been on the menu that morning, I could well imagine these angry jewelers throwing a few. Not surprisingly, the situation quickly grew heated as other jewelers chimed in with the opposite viewpoint.

A jeweler sitting at my table asked if I knew in advance that Alston was speaking. Yes, I did. And moreover, I agree with the jewelers who spoke up in favor of inviting her.

Alston is competition. And she’s not going away. Neither are Blue Nile, Costco, Neiman Marcus, QVC, Wal-Mart, designer-branded stores, or any other nontraditional outlets now selling jewelry. But according to figures from the Jewelers Board of Trade, there’s a net loss of about 500 independent jewelers in the United States every year.

I can’t imagine why jewelers would not want to hear what Alston or any other competitor has to say. Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich isn’t going to make the competition go away, so rather than expend energy railing against it, why not use the same energy to change your business? Instead of throwing verbal tomatoes at Alston, why not hear what she’s doing with the De Beers stores and see if some of her innovations might also benefit your store? Instead of being angry about how much money De Beers can throw behind its stores, why not take advantage of the additional exposure that diamond jewelry is getting as a result?

At present, there are only two De Beers stores in the United States. Even if they open a dozen more, chances are slim that one would open around the corner from you. They’ve indicated that they’re focused on a niche market and not destined for every mall in the land. Moreover, they don’t sell colored gemstones, pearls, sterling silver, or lots of other product categories that are proven margin-makers.

So, are the De Beers stores competitors? Of course they are. But are they worth losing sleep over? If I were a jeweler, I wouldn’t.

Another interesting trend I noted in Las Vegas was how far the industry has come in its acceptance of branding. When I became JCK‘s fashion editor in 1991, there was still a great deal of resistance to promoting a manufacturer’s or designer’s name in the store. Most jewelers wanted to promote only their own store name. By the time I became JCK‘s chief editor in 2000, that attitude had changed dramatically. Jewelers realized that the two could benefit each other, and that promoting a few well-known brands served as a kind of shorthand description for those unfamiliar with their store.

Next to jump on the brand-wagon were diamond manufacturers that proved that a proprietary cut is as brand-worthy as a finished piece of jewelry. But when branding extends from jewelry to services, there’s no longer any doubt as to its importance. The Israeli diamond industry launched a major branding campaign in Basel, Switzerland, while in Las Vegas, two associations (MJSA and JBT), a mining company (Rio Tinto), and an insurance company (Jewelers’ Mutual) all unveiled new branding initiatives. We saw a branded diamond cut (Lili) extended to finished jewelry, and there were the usual parties hosted by well-known names like David Yurman, Hearts On Fire, Kwiat, and Mikimoto, as well as the presence of some of Switzerland’s top watch brands in their own exclusive Swiss Watch by JCK show.

Some changes are harder to swallow than others, but playing the ostrich doesn’t make them go away. Accepting change—and finding a way to turn it to your advantage—will make your business soar like an eagle.