Professional Jeweler Archive: Branding with a Conscience

October 2004


Branding with a Conscience

At Columbia Gem House, brands must stand for integrity in all aspects of the gem business

A joke – both sad and true – is making the rounds: “Gemstones are no longer rare. What is rare is the customer.”

Reasons abound. Consumers who normally buy gems have much on their minds: war, job stability, shrinking portfolios. New luxury products appear daily competing for consumer dollars. And with a few key strokes, consumers can be put off by reading Internet stories about disreputable gem treatments and pricing structures, the disenfranchisement of miners in faraway countries or the damaging environmental impact of some gem mining practices.

On the bright side, these very factors contain the seeds for a revolution in the colored gemstone industry. For Eric Braunwart, president and CEO of Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, WA, the revolution has begun. Braunwart transformed the way his company describes and sells gems, starting with marketing initiatives and gemstone branding. But just as important, the company developed a self-imposed 40-page Fair Trade Gems Protocol designed to protect the environment in which gems are mined, as well as the people who mine them and the consumers who buy them. At Columbia Gem House and its jewelry division, Trigem Designs, employees are trained to adhere to the protocol rigorously. Braunwart says the cost of the protocol is sustainable because benefits are felt upstream with producers and downstream with retailers. Columbia Gem House sales have surged 20%-30% annually since 2001, says Braunwart, partly because of the branding and Fair Trade Gems initiatives. “More importantly, it has increased my satisfaction in working in the gem industry, ” he says.

Now, as president of the American Gem Trade Association, Braunwart is taking his vision to a much larger stage. One of his hopes is that he can convince more gem dealers to endorse best-business practices, especially relating to environmental and labor rules in countries where gemstones are mined and sold.

This issue isn’t new to the jewelry industry. Transparency has affected the diamond business already. Mining giants such as De Beers and Rio Tinto now require their clients to adhere to best-practices principles. At the other end of the supply chain, Jewelers of America retailers demand best practices from their suppliers all the way back to the mines through the association’s new Supplier Code of Conduct.

Jewelers Approve

Columbia Gem House retailer customers say its policies have helped increase their gem sales and improve profit margins. Colored gem profits grew 10%-15% in each of the past three years at Wickersham Jewelry, Mosinee, WI, says Vice President Jeff Wickersham. “It was a stagnant and unexciting category until we started working with Columbia Gem House gemstone collections.” Wickersham says information cards and warranties that come with each Columbia Gem House gem are good selling points. “The gems are accompanied by interesting stories – if customers ask where they come from and if they are real, we can show them the printed material.”

Brian Leber of Leber Jeweler, Western Springs, IL, says Braunwart’s Fair Trade Gems initiative puts into effect what many jewelers think about. “As a concept, there is concern whether miners in faraway places are making a living wage or whether the environment is being abused,” he says. “But it’s often easier to proceed without asking the tough questions. Other industries – such as coffee, textiles and some manufacturing trades – have already faced the issues. For our industry, the lesson is about accepting at least part of the responsibility.”

Leber says that because he’s known as an activist in gem issues, many customers frequenting Leber Jeweler have read reports about gems on the Internet or in newspapers or magazines and embrace his stance. “When customers see there is a difference, they are eager to do what’s right,” he says. “The purchase feels good on many levels: the gem is beautiful, but has also helped people in source countries and has been extracted from the earth with the environment in mind.”

Leber says an average 25 cents a carat more for gem material helps miners make a living wage. “I want to know that I’m doing the best I can. Customers want to know that too,” he says. “Eric’s Fair Trade Gems initiative helps me fulfill those needs.”

The Trajectory from Here

Outside incentives also force retailers and gem dealers to better understand their products. Governments are increasingly aware of gem smuggling and gems’ potential for use in money-laundering activities. The USA Patriot Act sent the message the diamond and colored gem industry can no longer operate with blinders. The future of the relationship between the government and the gem industry can be anticipated: there will be more scrutiny.

For jewelers wishing to stay ahead of the curve yet make a profit and feel good at the same time, branding initiatives such as those offered by Columbia Gem House might be the ticket. As Braunwart explains, “Understanding the product, the people who mined it and the environment that produced it will inevitably pour romance back into the business.”

  • Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, WA; (800) 888-2444,

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.

Columbia Gem House gemstones are cut to rigorous standards and must conform to the company’s Fair Trade Gems Protocol. This foundation of product integrity and the beauty of the product help define the brand for retailers and consumers. Photo by Robert Weldon.
Cortez Pearls™ are the first North American cultured saltwater pearls. Producers in Mexico enthusiastically support all aspects of Columbia Gem House marketing and Fair Trade Gems Protocol. Photo by Robert Weldon.
Tashmarine™, relatively unknown five years ago, has been a major success because of its unique beauty and the branding program.

Branding: Control the Consumer Message

You’ve got to pity consumers. Consider rhodolite garnet, a name attached to a wide range of gems from purplish pink (as they should be) to brownish or deep red (decidedly not rhodolite). Prices range from $2 per carat on a TV network to $200 somewhere else. “Expectations for what became a public brand, rhodolite, were squashed,” says Eric Braunwart, president and CEO of Columbia Gem House. This is one reason it’s difficult for retailers to sell color. When consumers are confused, they lose trust and sales suffer.

To increase consumer confidence, Columbia Gem House developed and trademarked the name Grape Garnet™ (instead of the classic rhodolite) and now vigorously enforces trademark laws to maintain control of the name and the color it represents. “We want customers to have an image of that name, much like Nike and Starbucks have with their customers,” he says. “The name should be recognizable, stand for quality and be repeatable.” The company markets several other trademarked brands, including Cortez Pearls, Seafoam Tourmaline, Tashmarine, Fire Citrine, Nightsky Iolite and Nyala Ruby.

The company’s branding program has several components, including:

1. Romancing gems. Mini-brochures called “romance cards” provide a clear picture of the gem and talk about the source, any treatments, care and handling. The branded gems are tied together because they share elements such as romance cards, mailer programs, warranty cards and displays.

2. Fair Trade Gems Protocol. The company requires rigorous policies and procedures from its overseas sources. Mines must comply with regulations involving safety, working conditions and wages. Vendors must sign agreements and be able to prove they effectively control and track inventory to ensure the product’s integrity. Retailers must pledge to use the literature only for Columbia Gem House gems. The retailer gives his or her customers a copy of the Fair Trade Gems policy.

3. Product Integrity. Consumers receive a signed certificate of authenticity for every Columbia Gem House gemstone they buy (including mounted gems sold through Columbia’s Trigem Designs). A brochure describes the gem, its gemological characteristics and any treatment information (though most gems from Columbia and Trigem aren’t treated).

4. Web Site Support. Each branded gem eventually will have its own Web page to romance and describe the product. Aimed at consumer education, the sites will include information on the gem, its origin and how the jewelry is made. The Fair Trade Gems policy also has its own Web site to educate consumers about why the protocols are important.

– R.W.

Copyright © 2004 by Bond Communications