Whom To Trust?

If you live in Florida you may not want to trust a jeweler. Al Sunshine, who runs the Shame on You program on station WCIX-TV in Miami-Fort Lauderdale, did one program on underkarating of gold jewelry earlier this year and has just completed another on the non-disclosure of fracture-filled diamonds.

The story may be the same soon in Phoenix, where the local Channel 15 has an expos on underkarating. Or we could be talking about Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where WTMJ-TV had a recent two-part series on deceptive pricing and deceptive appraisals.

And, just to cap off the round of lousy publicity for the jewelry business, be sure to tune in to the NBC network program Dateline for yet another look at underkarating. The date yet to be announced but coming soon to your TV screen – and to thousands (millions?) of screens nationwide.

You think this is bad?

In the past five or six years alone more than 30 TV “exposs” of the people who sell jewelry have been broadcast in such major markets as New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Honolulu and Washington, D.C. There’ve also been many viewings in smaller cities and a number of national shows, including the pre-Christmas 1993 ABC Prime Time Live report on jewelry appraisals that promised to “rock the diamond business.”

When you add up all the local, regional and national coverage, you know that a major share of Americans have been exposed to shows that, directly or by innuendo, say that there’s a very good chance you’ll be lied to, cheated, over-charged or generally ripped off if you go out to buy jewelry or have it appraised.

Any jeweler knows that the secret to effective advertising is repetition. Say it often enough and they believe you. The same is true of bad news, whether or not it’s true. And so many words have been spoken and pictures shown of the hazards of buying jewelry over the past few years that a disturbing amount of the bad news must have stuck in many consumers’ minds.

This is just one side of the jeweler’s problem. The other is that there has been no unified, well-reasoned response by the industry, for two reasons. First, in an industry of clashing egos, no one can agree on who should speak for the industry. Second, a truly meaningful and honest campaign on behalf of the industry’s good name takes a ton of money.

Let’s look at both these issues.

First, who should speak for the industry? Since we’re talking about ethical business behavior, there is only one logical answer: the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. It’s true that the JVC has spoken, loudly and often, but far too often its voice goes unheeded or is drowned out by competing messages. The American Gem Society, which is rightly proud of its ethical standards, likes to go its own way with a narrow focus on its own members’ needs. Jewelers of America, which could be a major force, seems to lack any coherent policy on ethics. The Manufacturing Jewelers & Silversmiths Association shows scant interest in retailer issues.

There’s a truth to address here. Joel Windman, the attorney who heads the JVC, is not the industry’s most popular guy. He can be abrasive. He openly dislikes people who cut ethical corners. And he’s not a compromiser. He sees right and wrong as black and white and he exasperates those who want to add a little gray – those, for example, who favor the “trade practice” of a 5% tolerance in the weight of a total-weight one-carat diamond rather than the 0.5% mandated by the Federal Trade Commission. But the truth is that you need someone with an unbending demand for honesty if you’re going to stand up and defend the industry against attacks.

Windman can do the job. Because of his and the JVC’s reputation for straight dealing, he’s been able to rid some projected TV programs of errors and clear anti-jewelry bias. But the JVC lacks both adequate staff and financing. If we, as an industry, are to fight back against bad publicity with a real hope of being heard, JVC must have more money. It must have more members. I would like to see each person in the industry answer this question honestly: “Do I want this to be a more honest and honorable industry?”

If you answer, “Yes,” then now is the time to join JVC if you are not already a member. If you choose not to join, ask yourself how honest your “Yes” vote really was.