When will they ever learn?

Isaac Mostovicz writes...

Back in 2013 I visited the JCK show in Las Vegas. The JCK show is one of the largest diamond and jewelry shows in the world and almost everyone in the diamond industry attended either as a presenter or as a visitor. One of the highlights of the show is Martin Rapaport’s review of the diamond industry. Rapaport’s speech recalled for me the immortal Pete Seger song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” because it seems that the industry has not changed its practice despite reality continuing to slap it in the face.

Let’s start with a bit of history. Before the big discoveries in 1882 there was not a diamond industry to speak of. Upon the discovery of the large mines in South Africa, Ernest Oppenheimer and Sir Cecil Rhodes established De Beers. Their major fear was that there might be a surge in diamond supply that the world wouldn’t be able to absorb. So they offered to buy the entire world supply, and act as a buffer, releasing diamonds according to need. Of course, De Beers wanted to profit from their position but they never withheld diamonds just to create artificial demand in a typical monopolistic manner. Following the Great Depression in 1932, De Beers risked becoming insolvent when it could not sell a single diamond while, on the other hand, could not raise enough money to honour its obligation to purchase the diamond production any further.

Fortunately De Beers survived and realized that its responsibility was to create a diamond market, or to create the consumer demand for diamonds.  In 1938 Harry Oppenheimer, Ernest’s son, hired N.W. Ayer to help De Beers market diamonds. This move proved to be a tremendous success and the “A Diamond is Forever” slogan was coined, which is arguably considered one of the best marketing slogans ever.  De Beers grew based on its ability to control the diamond rough market and to sell the production according to the real demand, taking care not to clog the industry’s arteries. In the 1950’s when the Russians started to sell their diamond production to De Beers, it presented a problem since the Russian production was of much smaller diamonds. Nevertheless, De Beers successfully started to market the anniversary ring as a means for marketing these small diamonds. Prices went up gradually, but in a sensitive way that reflected real consumer demand.

Things started to change in the late 1970’s. There were many factors involved. The introduction of grading reports (or “certificates” as they are known in the industry) increased the categories diamonds were divided into tenfold. Instead of ten categories the industry now had a hundred, and each had to be priced differently just to justify the grade. In no time, prices increased dramatically, but this time the reason was different. The increase in price was no longer geared by true demand but by internal market forces. People started to speculate and with the help of the bankers the industry bought rough with the hope of selling it later at higher prices. De Beers did not want to see a diamond stockpile grow outside their control and in August 1980 they managed to cut this speculative trend abruptly. As a result, the market came to a halt and started to build itself back slowly. Manufacturing of rough, on the other hand, did not stop and De Beers found itself in a position where it had to buy diamonds without clients to sell to.

Into this scene, Nicky Oppenheimer, the third generation, entered. Unfortunately, Nicky did not have the view of his ancestors who knew that the success of De Beers depended on the success of its market of true consumers in which they had invested money and energy to develop. Instead of building a healthy consumption that would eventually benefit De Beers, Nicky Oppenheimer was concerned with his company’s success – he wanted to make money. Looking at his stockpile, Nicky realized that the lion’s share of the value of it came from a very thin sliver of the goods – the better quality. Well, De Beers could survive by creaming its stockpile and hoping for better times to sell the rest.  De Beers embarked on faulty market research that created the infamous 4C’s, promoting larger and more expensive diamonds.

Shortly before the 1980 crash, the Indian polishing centre started to grow. The Indians found ways to polish diamonds which only a few years earlier were considered unpalatable. However, De Beers effectively stopped looking for solutions for the diamonds polished from its rough. No marketing idea was introduced to promote the cheap Indian polished diamonds. This revealed the lack of basic marketing thinking in the diamond industry, which is about understanding the unique link between the consumer and its supplier. Local or international, the consumer needs to see what unique offer he gets at the retailer. However, by writing off the consumer, the focus switched to the retailer, and suppliers wondered how they could build loyalty.

Especially with the cheap Indian goods it was difficult to differentiate between supplying offers: they all looked the same and there was an exit barrier and no loyalty. These diamonds were approached as commodities where the cheaper offers won. To offset this problem, programs were created with the aim of tying up the retailer long-term, forcing them to buy goods that reflected the production needs of the supplier, but which were not relevant to the market situation. Instead of appealing to customers’ emotional needs, retailers followed typical push tactics by offering discounts and promoting sales similar to other retail sectors. With the help of De Beers, the suppliers helped those retailers promote these programs. As a result, the bigger the retail account, the more support they got as they had the ability to push more goods down the supply chain, at least theoretically.

Over time and especially when the Internet became an integral part of the business, sellers of larger and more expensive goods followed suit, turning the entire diamond market from luxury into commodity. People started to trade “paper” or “certificates” and nobody bothered to use a loupe and tweezers, the tools of the industry. To counter the price erosion, more and more programs were created. Suppliers were ready to act as bankers and extended lavish credits without knowing what they were doing, with the hope that they would manage to tie up their retail customers who would eventually sell their goods and send the money upstream. Instead of focusing on the diamond consumer, the industry looked the other way, trying to please its bankers.

Toward the beginning of the 1990’s I started to gain interest in the diamond consumer market, realizing that the reasons behind people purchasing diamonds are totally different from what the industry that trades and sells their production believes. I could not find answers to why people really buy diamonds within the industry. Nobody knew or even cared to know. The diamond industry totally lost contact with the diamond consumer.

Meanwhile, De Beers went into strategic review and came up with two results. Firstly, its $5 billion unsellable stockpile was worth nothing and secondly, it officially ceased to be the custodian for the industry. The industry which fully relied on De Beers to create its consumer market found that the captain had abdicated the ship.

Nobody seemed to care. As early as 1998 I warned whoever wanted to listen that the industry was heading toward insolvency but nobody really listened. Without much understanding of what they were doing and with the encouragement of De Beers, the industry went into branding itself just to see how $5 billion in cash and bank money, or a third of the industry capitalization, can evaporate within three years without selling one extra diamond to make up for the loss.

Meanwhile, De Beers tried to push its dead stockpile down the industry’s throat. Abdicating its role as the industry marketer, De Beers’ relationship with the market took a new turn. Companies were put into competition based on who could better please De Beers’ bottom line. Which customer had the financial muscles to purchase more diamonds long-term? Companies were not required to show that they could sell but that they could buy from De Beers on a steady basis. Most of the goods were the cheap Indian type and with bank generosity, Indians bought the entire stockpile, polishing it and creating a new unsold stockpile, this time of polished diamonds. The industry was operating completely in reverse — instead of focusing on the end of the supply chain, it was trying to please the beginning.

The industry was now at the mercy both of its bankers and De Beers, totally disregarding the diamond consumer and his needs. With the financial meltdown in 2008, banks were at a very shaky point and needed to justify the credit they extended to the diamond industry, which they could not do, and the industry started to panic and called for an emergency meeting which I attended. I must admit that I was wrong as eventually the industry survived, again with the help of its bankers.

However, five years later things haven’t changed. The industry owes $15 billion to the banks, or more than the annual cost of rough. From another perspective it owes 65% of its polished diamonds’ value to the banks and still it hasn’t realized that there is only one way to do business – by satisfying the consumer’s needs. Visiting the JCK show tells the story. On one part of the show floor you find the manufacturers, dealers and distributors – the diamond industry insiders who keep on dealing among themselves and complaining that they do not make any profit, as if living in a bubble and totally disregarding the retailers. The retailers are found on the other side of the floor, checking new packaging, software and other materials for their stores. These two parts of the supply chain do not meet.

And as for marketing, in his last slide, Rapaport had two important lines. The first was “We need marketing,” and the last one was “He who owns the customer owns the industry.” Well, Mr. Rapaport and my dear colleagues in the diamond industry, you have no marketing and it seems that you don’t care about it at all. Consequently, you do not own the customer and, according to Rapaport you don’t own your own industry.

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