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Buying a diamond, with more clarity on where it’s from
[NEW YORK] Consumers want to know the origin of the things they buy, like the name of the farm that supplied their milk or the source of the feathers in a down jacket.
But when it comes to a diamond — quite likely one of the most expensive and emotional purchases a jewellery buyer will ever make — most know next to nothing about the source of the stone.
Tiffany & Co, which sold more than US$500 million worth of diamond engagement rings in 2017, is hoping to change that. Beginning Wednesday, it will start a program that will provide customers the countries where their diamond was mined, and, eventually, information on where it was cut, polished and set.
The move is part of an effort among jewellers to attract younger shoppers, who may look upon established, venerable stores as stuffy and uncool. They also tend to eschew the hefty baubles their parents preferred for a much more spare style.
The issue of sourcing is especially acute with diamonds, which change hands many times from mine to showroom. More buyers are asking for specific evidence that their gems were not produced using child labour or to finance wars or terrorist activity — the concerns over so-called blood diamonds. So jewellers are starting to work provenance into their marketing, with some even exploring blockchain technology as a way to provide more information about a gem's origins.
But true clarity — a feature also prized in the gems themselves — remains elusive. And Tiffany acknowledges that it cannot provide customers with the precise location where a diamond was mined.
"A lot of diamond companies are still very opaque about their operations," said Thomai Serdari, who teaches luxury marketing at New York University. "There haven't been any particular strict guidelines to ensure that a diamond is truly coming from the area a dealer is claiming it's coming from."
Tiffany's roots date to 1837, when it started selling stationery and "fancy goods" in Manhattan. It is now known for the engagement rings it packs into robin's-egg-blue boxes, as well as curiosities like sterling silver replicas of a paper plate for US$1,000 and a ball of yarn for US$9,000.
But the retailer has fought to attract younger shoppers. Disappointing sales led its chief executive to resign abruptly in 2017, and a new leader, Alessandro Bogliolo, took the role 15 months ago.
The company has had several strong quarters since his arrival, but in its most recent earnings report, a critical sales growth measure was less than half what Wall Street had expected. The company's stock has tumbled 17 per cent since the miss in late November; Mr Bogliolo largely blamed weak spending by Chinese tourists, who have scaled back amid a trade war with the United States and a slowing economy at home.
Tiffany hopes to perk up interest in the brand with its programme on sourcing. Initially, it will tell customers the country where the diamond came from. In 2020, it will share information about where each diamond was cut, polished and set. Mr Bogliolo said he hoped to someday be able to provide the name of the mine where it was found, the artisan who shaped its contours and the jeweller who secured it in its setting.
"It's relevant nowadays for customers," he said, surrounded by archival sketches and vintage Tiffany jewellery at the company's headquarters in Manhattan. "Customers are very educated, mature and demanding."
Tiffany's efforts to attract younger shoppers extend to the Instagram-ready cafe it opened in 2017 inside the nearly 80-year-old flagship store in Manhattan. Its recent ads have featured Zoe Kravitz, an actress described as "the reigning millennial fashion icon", and a remix of Moon River, the classic song from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's, performed by rapper A$AP Ferg and actress Elle Fanning. At the Golden Globes on Sunday, Lady Gaga wore a custom necklace with more than 300 Tiffany diamonds to collect her trophy for Best Original Song.
Although the company hopes its information-sharing campaign endears it to younger buyers, the initiative has its limits.
Tiffany controls most of the process that readies its diamonds for display cases — from rough stones that are mapped out on a 3D scanner by specialists in Belgium, to polishing at in-house workshops in Africa and Asia, to grading and setting at facilities in the United States, where they are marked with an imperceptible serial number.
But the company buys its rough diamonds from suppliers who acquire the stones from various mines. The country-of-origin information comes from these middlemen and does not link diamonds to specific mines.
So the company, which has guaranteed for years that its gems are conflict-free, is asking customers to trust its judgement that particular countries, such as Canada or Botswana, are ethical producers.
Mr Bogliolo acknowledged that the information it was offering did not tell a diamond's full story, but said it was not "fair to burden" customers with an excess of detail because they "cannot be specialists of supply chains of all the products they buy".
"This is just a sign that is meaningful to the consumer, and behind that sign is all the work that is the responsibility of the brand," he said.
The industry is pushing ahead with other efforts to track its supply chain, including blockchain, which could provide a permanent, tamper-proof digital record of a gem's journey.
In April, IBM and a group of jewellery companies, including the retailer Helzberg, began to look into blockchain as a way to trace the provenance of diamond and gold engagement rings. The next month, De Beers said it signed Signet Jewelers — the parent company of Zales, Kay Jewelers and several other chains — to a blockchain-based tracking programme called Tracr, which will create digital mine-to-consumer records of diamonds.
And in recent years, the Gemological Institute of America has been experimenting with a process that can confirm that a polished diamond was cut from a certain rough stone — a means of tracing a gem to its country of origin.
Tom Moses, the executive vice-president of the institute, said it had worked with major retailers and top mining companies to verify the origins of specific gems.
Customers, he said, "want to know it was sourced in an ethical way, so they can feel better about it".