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The Lessons of Bad Coffee in Las Vegas

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The early morning line at Starbucks is very long, filled with optimistic jewelry manufacturers, driven diamond wholesalers, tired members of the trade press, eager toolmakers and many marketing folks. In most places in the civilized world, the Starbucks cappuccino is offensive, and in some even a punishable crime. The steaming water is very hot, burning the coffee in the process. In areas of Italy you may be flogged for such an offense, a crime far worse than adultery (for sure) tax evasion (of course) and perhaps even mismatched socks.

Espresso, probably Italian for “quick and bitter,” is a very small cup of coffee and a way of life – a quick drink taken while standing by a bar, a brief conversation, and off you go back to work or home, refreshed.

Las Vegas is anything but an Italian espresso, more of a Starbucks cappuccino – too hot, over the top, propelled by superb marketing instead of great substance and awfully overpriced. In short, we need Howard Schultz in the diamond industry, especially if it prevents him from destroying decent coffee and still allows us to enjoy our essential caffeine fix.

The conversation in the coffee line drifts from the previous night’s social events – cocktail receptions, dancing, business dinners and losses at the blackjack tables – to plans and meetings for the day. More than anything, everyone is busy collecting information: prices, terms of payment, who is doing what, which items were seen and where, recommended educational sessions and other information. Very little is said about propelling the diamond jewelry category so it captures greater market share at the expense of handbags or cool gadgets, and no one is talking about the economics of the industry.

The economic fundamentals are constantly being challenged. Banks want more equity against provided credit, miners want higher prices for their rough diamonds, manufacturers are taking some of their income out of the business to balance and protect their earnings, jewelry manufacturers are hit by wild gold prices, Basel III requires more transparency which scares everyone because they are jumping through hoops with all sorts of exercises just to make ends meet, and retailers, bless their hearts — they’re far more concerned with finding ways to get customers to walk through their doors. Which is, of course, what everybody else in this giant, far-flung industry wants as well.

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Of course, bad coffee at the end of a long line at 7:30am in Las Vegas after a night of celebrating does not make matters any better. Slogging into the exhibition area, competing exhibitors are exchanging friendly words, they are brothers-in-arms after all, while journalists pile into the pressroom for breakfast, PR CD collecting, some reporting and more information exchange.

&#8220 The Las Vegas jewelry shows are probably the most important to the industry today. &#8221

In the pressroom, there is a grand view of hotels and the desert stretching beyond serving as an appropriate backdrop. A combination of glitz and dust, artificial and natural, unnaturally frigid casino temperatures and the baking heat of the desert, human will and the crushing force of nature.

That dichotomy — the power of will and the force of nature — also exists in the diamond and jewelry industry. Gallant efforts are made to shape it, but some things (too many things) are left untouched, left alone until we decide to address them.

We need to improve transparency to ensure the mechanics of the industry work better, we need more marketing to better compete for consumers’ discretionary income, we must be innovative to remain relevant, we have to understand how the different sections of the industry pipeline work because it influences other parts of the industry, and we must be able to work with governments because new laws and regulations all over the world are impacting our business in the long term – usually for the worse. Moreover, we must have better coffee to keep us running through it all, otherwise what is the point?

The Las Vegas jewelry shows are probably the most important to the industry today. They provide a chance to trade, meet, exchange ideas, be introduced to new contacts, learn and serve the largest market at an exceptional scale.

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In the line to see Maroon 5, the reward after all that hard work, a very large crowd is slowly moving forward. Very little of the talk is about business, it’s mostly a social opportunity and time for chatter. In the back of their minds, many attendees were already summing up the fair, the follow-up work needed, the orders to work on, and thoughts about how to use what they learned.

As I shamelessly slipped into the VIP line (with the help of my VIP friends), I was more concerned about who is thinking about the macro, the overall scheme of things and the path ahead. Is there a Howard Schultz-like visionary and powerhouse who can pull everyone forward and expand the diamond jewelry category? We had better hope so.

Because, if not, we’re going to have to invent that person.


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