Taking Disclosure to the Next Level


Jewelers know that nearly all their colored gems, and probably a fair number of their diamonds, are enhanced, and that this fact should be disclosed to customers. But something happened at Tucson that convinced me the standard disclosure statement—“This gem has been treated to enhance its beauty”—isn’t enough anymore.

The event was a presentation at the American Gem Trade Association show by Eve Alfillé, a respected designer and jewelry store owner in Evanston, Ill. Far from fearing disclosure, Eve makes treatments—along with synthetics and substitutes—the subjects of displays in her store, in hopes the customer will want to talk about them.

Eve displays various kinds of pearls cut in half, for example, so people can compare nacre thickness. The display also informs viewers that the pearls may be bleached and dyed. Another display features rough and finished gems side by side and explains how heat, irradiation, and other treatments made the transformation possible. Sometimes tests are posed to involve casual browsers. A sign will ask them to guess which gems laid out in a tray have been enhanced. Or they’re asked to match the treated stone with the untreated, the rough with the finished.

“Could this approach really boost sales?” I asked Eve. It works wonderfully, she replied, adding that her 12-year-old business keeps growing and now grosses nearly $3 million a year.

Eve says her approach empowers shoppers through knowledge. Customers generally enter a jewelry store in a state of anxiety, aware of their ignorance and fearing deception. An educational, lay-it-all-out environment creates confidence, and since people enjoy learning, it makes shopping fun. The store becomes a gemological classroom.

This isn’t an idle analogy. Eve stocks a wide array of jewelry and gem books, available for browsing or buying. She invites authors in for book signings. She brings in gemologists, collectors, and other experts to give Sunday-afternoon seminars. These efforts add up to a subtle but strong message: “This store has nothing to hide.”

Eve Alfillé’s store points the way to the future. Just as doctors learned that informed patients are good patients, Eve has learned that informed customers are buying customers. The more people know about gems, the more confident they’ll become in owning one. Surveys by both AGTA and JCK reveal that consumers don’t mind treatment, so long as they’re informed about it, and that trust is a key factor influencing their choice of where to buy jewelry.

Granted, a bare-it-all approach can take you into uncomfortable regions. Some of your most costly gems, including rubies and sapphires, may be dyed. You may own a treated diamond whose girdle identifier was polished off by an unscrupulous middleman. And “routinely heated” inadequately describes what’s being done to some gemstones these days. Dealers are using such high temperatures for such long periods (often under great pressure) that some material approaches the melting point. Rubies, in fact, undergo sort of an internal melt that leaves a glassy residue in their fissures.

Which brings me to these dealers, the people actually heating, irradiating, impregnating, bleaching, pressure-cooking, dyeing, filling, coating, oiling, lasering, and chemically treating gems. Why must they make the rest of us guess what they’re doing? Why must disclosure await detection by sleuths at the Gemological Institute of America, the labs, and places like Richard Drucker’s Gemworld? Detection can take years of painstaking effort.

Shouldn’t full disclosure come first? Retailers like Eve Alfillé, who don’t want to hide anything, need dealers to back them up. In today’s sophisticated, demanding, and Internet-savvy society, we need an open industry at every level, from mine to store. That’s the only way we can dispel distrust before it has a chance to breed in the minds of consumers, the people who keep us all in business.