Out of Africa, Into the U.S.

April 1999

amonds:News

Out of Africa, Into the U.S.

Several U.S. importers of South African-cut diamonds promote their connections to the legendary home of diamond mining

It seems like only yesterday South Africa was weathering the last dark days of apartheid. Some jewelers worried U.S. consumers would add diamonds to the list of South African products they boycotted in protest. But a decade later, with a black government firmly in place and black empowerment projects starting in the diamond mining and cutting industries, U.S. jewelers can be proud to sell a South African product. In fact, several South African diamond manufacturers with offices or affiliates in the U.S. hope interest in South Africa's destiny, as well as its reputation for fine cutting, will spur consumers to buy African-cut diamonds.

South African Cutting
Centered in Johannesburg, the South African cutting industry is far smaller than India's and Israel's. It's highly visible, though, because of the country's legendary history as a diamond mining source. Many South African manufacturing companies go back generations and have reputations for excellent cutting, which should interest U.S. retailers, who are selling fine cut in record numbers.

"South African diamond manufacturers offer retailers the best of both worlds," believes Sean Cohen, managing director of Rand Diamond Cutting, one of South Africa's oldest De Beers' sightholders and new president of the International Diamond Manufacturers Association. "We're closer in skill levels to the cutters in New York City. We may not be as skilled as the best of New York's cutters, but we're in that realm. Yet because the cost of doing business is lower here, we can offer better prices."

Rand exports its diamonds to the U.S. through its affiliation with Codiam, a diamond manufacturer in New York City. Cohen's brother, Leon, is president of Codiam. De Beers chose Rand as one of 10 sightholders worldwide to cut diamonds that will be marked to commemorate the millennium. Rand has received the first millennium parcel from De Beers and is working out plans to sell them through Codiam.

Supporting Black Empowerment
While South Africa offers cutting expertise, there's also a humane reason to buy its diamonds. The cutting industry supports black empowerment in the country that once shunned people of color from all skilled jobs.

The Gustav Katz DCW factory, part of the Lustre Group of Diamond Cos. (another De Beers sightholder in Johannesburg), has been a pioneer of black empowerment in the country's cutting industry. Katz's namesake and founder, a European refugee, came to South Africa in 1940. While working as a janitor in a diamond factory, he once found a parcel of diamonds and turned them in. He was rewarded with an apprenticeship, and he went on to found his own company.

Current CEO Mannie Judin also started as an apprentice at the Katz factory. During the 1980s, as apartheid disintegrated, Judin opened an apprentice program for multiracial cutters [Editor's note: multiracial refers to any non-white people, including blacks, Indians, Asians or those of mixed race]. Before this, the only job people of color could obtain in the diamond cutting industry was Gustav Katz's original job: sweeping the floors. The early years were fractious and marked with voluntary segregation on the Katz cutting floor. But eventually the multiracial cutters became fully integrated. "To walk into the factory now is to witness the new South Africa in the making – black, white, Asian, colored [the South African term for people of mixed race], Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Lebanese, Israeli, Afrikaner and Jew make up the factory," says Gina Getz of Lustre Diamonds USA, the exclusive U.S. distributor of Gustav Katz Ideal Cut diamonds, which earn AGS "O" cut grades.

Computers Too
Cutting expertise and support for South Africa are only two of three reasons U.S. retailers buy diamonds from South African Gems, the Chicago, IL-based marketing arm of Festdiam, a Johannesburg diamond manufacturer and De Beers sightholder. SAG also offers jewelers its inventory through a program called SA Horizons. The inventory is organized through Lotus Notes, an IBM program that allows for customization.

SA Horizons allows jewelers to synchronize their computers with SAG's computer, and then replicate SAG's loose diamond inventory. The jeweler connects with SAG each morning and in two minutes, on average, an updated inventory is in the store computer's memory. The information includes descriptions and certificates for many of the diamonds (plus jeweler-specific retail prices) to show to customers while discussing the diamond.

"The program makes jewelers more professional and saves time," says Chris La Trobe, president of SAG. "They can have all their trade activity on-line, so filing, calling for copies of invoices and statements become a thing of the past." SAG invested $250,000 in developing SA Horizons, which is offered to retailers at $400, with no additional monthly charges.

For more information about South African-cut diamonds:

  • Codiam, New York, NY; (212) 840-1484.
  • Lustre Diamonds USA, Atlanta, GA; (404) 365-8261.
  • South African Gems, Chicago, IL; (800) 344-6605.

 

Buy South Africa

Chris La Trobe would have been laughed off the map during the days of apartheid, but today he helps U.S. jewelers promote South African-cut diamonds.

La Trobe, president of South African Gems, Chicago, IL, an importer of South African

diamonds, accompanies jewelers on trips to his native South Africa and believes pitching diamonds from there is as powerful a draw for consumers as touting wines from France. This promotion program will be featured in the Image section of the June 1999 issue of Professional Jeweler.

– by Peggy Jo Donahue and Jack Heeger

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