Upcoming Vegas Show: The Culture of the Gem Trade
This summer marks the 9th year of Cecile Raley Designs, and in August, I will have been on Etsy for 8 years. As many of you know, I started out with beaded necklaces, only slowly moving to more fine jewelry, but from the start, I was attracted to working with real gemstones, no glass, resin, or other materials. I almost never buy opaque stones like agates, jaspers, or turquoise. I like faceted, glossy, vibrant, eye catching beauty that you can spot from afar in a gem tray – or on someone’s neck for that matter.
Suppliers & Buyers at the AGTA show in Las Vegas
Last years AGTA show in Las Vegas
I went to my first real trade show in 2009: Jeweler’s of America in New York. I love going to trade shows. Not just because I love gem shopping, I also enjoy the interactions – the gem talk – and I love studying people and behavior. The gem trade, to me, has its own unique sociology. Its culture is ancient and many families have been in the trade for generations. They size up buyers in a matter of seconds, and they trade information among one other. While they are competitors, there’s also an understanding that the trade can only survive as a whole. Competition is healthy, but the individual niches people carve out are also respected. Before, during and after the show, the traders hand out among one another and exchange the stories of the day.
In its entirety, the American gem trade is dominated by no more than a couple of hundred sellers, and most know each other. They buy and borrow from one another. So as a buyer, going behind one seller’s back isn’t a recommended strategy. Bad buying behavior, e.g. stretching out payment plans (if offered), putting too many goods aside for the day and not buying them, asking for the lowest and best price rather than waiting for an offer, trying to return goods, all those strategies get around.
Gem dealers come from all over the world, and while sellers from the same countries often have closer bonds, respect for all cultures and backgrounds is crucial to the trade. Most gems no longer come from the US or Europe, cutting is done either on location or on a large scale in Thailand and India. Mining takes place in Africa, Asia and South America. Many gem dealers travel and buy on location. They understand the customs of their buying locations, they know the languages. Dudley Blauwet speaks Hindi and several other Asian languages, my friend Jochen Hintze speaks French, English, German, Swahili, and can at least say polite things in Malgasi. Vinod Kotahwala, who buys emeralds in Colombia, is fluent in Spanish. Almost everyone knows at least a little bit of the local language of their travel locations. It is polite and it furthers business. Skin color is not a barrier, I would go so far as to say it is of no consequence to the trade. What may be more important at times is exact origin of an individual, because that informs you about the local culture. Business practices in Hong Kong are not the same as in Tanzania.
Aside from the main dealers who have booths at the big shows like AGTA, GJX, JA and JCK, there is also a vast network of smaller traders who sell out of their pockets. While you are negotiating with a gem dealer at a booth, you may spot a person with a briefcase nearby who is politely waiting their turn. That might be a seller who is walking the show floor. Some of these sellers do cold pitches, others are well known to the exhibitor. Remember that all gem sellers are also gem buyers, and the most successful gem sellers are excellent at buying. It is fun to watch those interactions sometimes, insofar as they take place in a language I can understand. Most of these sellers can be reached by phone if you know them, or know someone who does, and you can meet up in the lunchroom or outside, or after and before the show. Some have low end goods, but others are well known for extremely expensive stuff. I’m not sure that show rules allow this kind of selling – I suspect they do not – but the goods often end up back on the dealer’s table and so it really furthers business and benefits the show hosts. Many of these smaller dealers are international; they travel to the US just for the shows. Others are from the US but they are smaller and not members of the AGTA, so they will be in Vegas during the show and you can make private appointments.
There’s so much more to be said here, but blogs are supposed to be short, so let me close with one final observation: while much of the trade is about sharing information, it is also extremely secretive. Gem dealers do not give away their suppliers or the purchase prices, not even to each other. You are not supposed to ask or try to follow the trail back. Also, price negotiations are totally private. I have almost never been asked by anyone what I got from whom or for how much. And when other sellers are at the booth I politely step out of ear shot to signal that I am not going to violate the rule. I also won’t approach that seller and try to make deals unless explicitly encouraged by the exhibitor (i.e. that person is a friend of mine or the seller has goods that they have no interest in but I do).
In the end, it all comes down to mutual respect. Passing up what initially looks like a good opportunity out of respect for the people you do business with only increases your chances for good buys at good prices in the long run. I work hard to maintain my integrity in the business. Good ethics is good business too. It was hard to convince business students of this fact when I was teaching ethics, but now that I’m seeing it in the real world, I have no doubt it is true.