Reprinted from Modern Jeweler
As Portland goes, so goes the nation.
Or so hope the dozen or more diamond firms that have targeted jewelry stores of every stripe in this Oregon city to become franchises for the latest trendy diamond style:
The ideal cut.
You heard right. The newest diamond fashion in Portland is good old-fashioned round-brilliants with table diameters of 53 to 57.5 percent, crown heights of 16.2 percent, and pavilion depths of 43.1 percent (plus other distinguishing characteristics which we'll discuss shortly). Long a fixture in local high-end American Gem Society stores such as Smith & Bevill Jewelers and Element 79, ideal cuts are suddenly paragons of perfection in every society member store citywide including, most recently and notable, Ben Bridge and Carl Greve.
No big deal, you say, elite AGS stores have featured ideal cuts for decades. Maybe so. But lately these stellar stones have become the prime cuts in prominent non-society independents and regional chains such as Dan Marx and La Rog's. Even ubiquitous Fred Meyer has turned five of its 60 or so local stores into showcases for ideal cuts. In short, Portland has become a major test market for the rediscovery of ideals. "No doubt about it, the ideal cut has made tremendous inroads there," says Richard Von Sternberg, of ideal supplier EightStar in Santa Rosa, California. "You can find them in every kind of jewelry store from carriage trade to credit operation."
Will the rest of America follow Portland's strong lead? Here's a clue: Fred Meyer recently doubled the number of its 255 jewelry operations nationwide that are carrying ideal cuts from 25 to 50. "We can see a lot of business coming our way as a result of launching what we call our Certified Collection," says president Ed Dayoob. "And we think our program will set the pace in many markets."
If so, put on your track shoes. Otherwise it's going to be impossible to keep up with the scores of movers and shakers- most independent and small-to-medium regional chain operations across America - that have already taken a running jump into ideal cuts or are lacing up for one. For the first time in their nearly 80-year history, once-elitist ideal cuts look to become standard fare across the entire spectrum of US jewelry retailing. What is driving ideal cuts deep into the American mainstream? And will their broadened appeal prove permanent or temporary? Marketers are betting the newfound sizzle of ideal cuts won't fizzle anytime soon. The odds would seem to be on their side.
Why? To borrow an overused but, in this case, totally appropriate catch phrase: paradigm shift. Revolutionary technology that shows in a flash the superiority of one stone over another has prompted major gem labs to inaugurate cut grades. More importantly, this benchmark technology has created a climate for selling diamonds based on their adherence to proven standards of perfection. Couple gemological upheaval with a boisterous return to quality across America and you can see why demand for ideal cuts is set to have a ripple effect that will touch every sector of jewelry retailing. Already, in less than a year, what used to be considered the fourth if the 4Cs has become the first in more jewelry stores than ever before. And the wave is just starting to build.
As quality of cutting becomes the axis of identity and the chief focus of diamond selling in leading jewelry stores across the land, America could become as much a land of opportunity for ideal cuts as Japan has been for nearly a decade. And what opportunity ideal cuts have presented in Japan. There, despite a nagging recession, finely-crafted diamonds account for an estimated 70 percent of all bridal diamonds sold. "Once consumers are aware of make, there is no going back" says Von Sternberg, "Why should Americans be any different than the Japanese?"
Why, indeed. Portland jewelers are starting to field as many questions about ideal cuts as they do about GIA color and clarity grades. "The term ideal cut has become a household name in this area," says David Rogoway, who recently arranged for employees at his four La Rog stores to receive special sales training for ideal cuts. "We want to be able to serve the growing number of customers who are now shopping on the basis of color or clarity."
In short, Portland's jewelers have adopted an open door policy for ideal cuts. Here's a close-up look at why and how they are doing so and what it portends for jewelers nationwide.
NEW BUZZ WORDS FOR DIAMOND BEAUTY
Now that electronics giants such as Intel and Sequent have relocated there, Portland, a major port city in northwestern Oregon with 1.7 million people, has become known as Silicon Valley II, boasting an economy so fast-track it should be tested for steroids. But since the City of Roses numbers nearly as many coffee shops as Seattle to the north, it can also pride itself on being a citadel of culture and leisure. "Portland is able to balance progress with provincialism," says jeweler Bill Bevill, owner of Smith & Bevill, an upscale jewelry store located in a prosperous suburb called Beaverton.
Dotted with industrial parks, including the new home of Nike, Beaverton is proving the ideal place to sell ideal cuts. Incredibly, ideal cuts comprise at least 80 percent of Bevill's rather extensive loose diamond inventory and account for 25 and 20 percent respectively of his store's gross sales and net profit. What's more, nearly all of his ideal cuts come from Lazare Kaplan, the world's best-known brand of ideal cuts, ranking Smith & Bevill as one of the biggest single outlets for Kaplan stones in the world.
In return, Kaplan helps underwrite Bevill's display on ideal-cut diamonds at the Portland International Airport, complete with consumer brochures. It also chips in for Christmas-season billboards. Last year's proclaimed "Reach for Perfection."
"I built my business on ideal cuts," Bevill, who became the sole owner of his store in 1989, says proudly. And with six AGS Certified Gemologists on staff, it is easy to see why competitors like Rogoway credit Bevill with "making the term ideal cut a Portland-area buzz word."
Until very recently, Bevill had the market for ideal cuts pretty much to himself. But as more and more jewelers migrate from selling price to selling quality, ideal cuts have swiftly become a powerful symbol of this marketing shift - as well as an attractive means to proclaim it. Ideal cuts have become Portland shorthand for commitment to diamond quality. "The person who walks into one of my stores and asks about ideal cuts is already aware of their prestige," says Rogoway, whose marketing strategy builds on this perception and the cachet of class it confers on sellers. By positioning his stores as centers for ideal cuts, he hopes to boost his image and standing with the public. "Ideal cuts will prove dynamite with jewelers who are keen on differentiating themselves from the multitude of stores that sell price and price alone."
But newfound faith in ideal cuts isn't confined to upwardly mobile jewelers in the throes of image makeovers. It's equally strong among upscale jewelers who find themselves caught in a squeeze as more merchants crowd onto their turf. "We were among the first stores in Portland to push certificate diamonds in a very aggressive manner," says Tim Greve at Carl Greve Jewelers, a recent AGS convert to ideal cuts. "But as the competition heated up in the arena of certificate stones, we had to find a way to stay one step ahead. Ideal cuts have given us a new edge."
No doubt, Greve's entry into ideal cuts wad sided and abetted by the American Gem Society's decision in 1996 to open a gem lab at its Las Vegas headquarters that would issue what it calls a Diamond Quality Document (DQD) featuring cut grades. Based on the Society's 0 to 10 rating system adopted in 1972, the AGS cut grade is arrived at through a close evaluation of round-brilliant diamonds in three critical areas: proportions, symmetry, and finish. Stones that meet the Society's somewhat severe criteria for excellence in all three areas receive its top grade of zero. Greve, like many other jewelers who are selling ideal cuts, insists that suppliers provide AGS reports with top scores for cutting. Demand for zero-rated diamonds has given AGS number one status in the newly emerging market for cut-grade reports, quickly elevating the lab to major league status in the certificate diamond market.
In less than a year, a 0 cut grade from AGS has become synonymous with the ideal cut, the equivalent for cut to the double-whammy D/Flawless color and clarity grade from GIA.
Naturally, the surge in demand for AGS cut-grade reports has not gone unnoticed by the competition. Market-savvy labs such as European Gemological Laboratory/Gem Quality Institute in Los Angeles and the International Gemological Institute in New York are in the process of developing cut-grade systems. Recently, IGI gave us a sneak preview of a prototype miniature cut-grade report that will serve as an identity card by containing a unique color photograph of the diamonds seen with an increasingly popular cut -demonstration tool called a FireScope (more on this in a minute). Jerry Ehrewald, IGI's president, plans top make the card small enough to put in a special presentation box that will house the diamond whether sold loose or mounted. "I want the card to be a very compact pedigree," he says.
While cut grades have contributed greatly to the mainstreaming of ideal cuts, wider demand for them was preceded by the development of equipment that allows jewelers to demonstrate to customers the superiority of one diamond's make compared to another. Believe it or not, the development of one simple stone-comparison device called a FireScope by Japanese dealer Ken Shigeyama, an ardent enthusiast of ideal cut diamonds, allowed variations of the American ideal cut to capture the lion's share of the Japanese bridal diamond market in the last decade.
Put simply, a FireScope shines red light down through the table of a diamond. If the stone being viewed is superbly crafted with every one if its 58 facets perfectly matched and aligned, the observer looking through a 10x eye-piece will see a black geometric pattern consisting of eight perfectly symmetrical arrows completely surrounded by red light. This eight-rayed mosaic swimming in red provides immediate telltale proof that a stone has been cut to ideal proportions and possesses excellent symmetry. The more stones deviate from ideal proportions, the harder it is to discern any pattern. In poorer-make stones, the black reflections become increasingly random and there are also patches of white light, indicating the diamond is hemorrhaging light out its bottom.
FireScope Light Pattern
The FireScope's Japanese manufacturer and distributor, Takanori Tamura, launched this simple and effective tool to demonstrate fine quality cutting at the July 1984 edition of the Jewelers of America Show in New York. At first, dealers and jewelers flocked to see the device. But when they viewed their own diamonds and saw how many of them flunked the brilliance test, their curiosity went as dead as their stones. Tamura returned to Japan without selling a single FireScope.
The FireScope's precise demonstration of the way a particular diamond handles light, while not corresponding exactly with the classic Tolkowsky formula of angles and proportions, is perhaps a stricter standard.
For every thousand stones Tamura tested, he found less than 100 that produced the perfect pattern in a FireScope. True, most of the stones he was shown possessed the proper proportions to be called ideal cuts. But cutters were pursuing an ideal based purely on physical measurements like table diameters and crown heights rather than the amount of light being refracted and reflected within the diamond. The FireScope was the first tool that presented an alternate image of perfection from a standpoint of brilliance and fire, rather than dimensions alone.
Tamura's quest for that perfection ultimately led him to manufacture what he calls a super ideal cut, using the FireScope as both a work-table and a counter-top visual aid to confirm that his stones were on the mark regarding both proportions and return of light. Because of the FireScope's central role in marketing his diamonds, Tamura called his company the EightStar Diamond Co., a name evoking both the symmetry and brilliance of the uncompromising diamonds he planned to sell.
To make a mass market in ideal cuts based on use of visual verification devices like the FireScope, other Japanese diamond firms pursued development of less exacting methods as well as alternate viewers. These ideal cuts, easily recognized by their characteristic "hearts and arrows" reflection patterns in special viewers, took Japan by storm and revolutionized diamond retailing in that country. By 1990, Japan was the first and only country in history where fine makes are the rule, not the exception. It still is.
Now, however, with the sudden proliferation of ideal cut programs designed for mainstream jewelers, the United States stands a chance of becoming the second country in the world where fine makes could, at the very least, become far more of a norm. Better yet, if consumers should take to ideal cuts in a big way, they could vie for market dominance. Granted, such a notion is a long shot now. But any hint or suggestion of the present degree of interest in ideal cuts just five years ago would have seemed more an act of fantasy than foresight. Today, however, new marketers of ideal cuts feel that Americans will as readily accept "ocular proof" (to use Shakespeare's well-turned phrase) of fine make as their Japanese counterparts. That's why many of them have made use of visual aids that clearly show an ideal cut diamond's surpassing beauty the cornerstone of their sales training and marketing programs.
EightStar, the only authorized US distributor for the FireScope, offers the device on long term memo to its regular customers. Di-Star in Boston, Mass., uses a compact version of Japan's famous hearts and arrows viewer which it has trade-marked as "Hearts on Fire." AGS recently announced that it would offer hearts and arrows images on its Diamond Quality Documents, a ringing endorsement of this kind of visual presentation of cut information.
MAKES TO MEASURE
Hearts and Arrows Patterns
Although Japanese consumers were convinced that the reflection patterns they saw in FireScopes and similar viewers were true indicators of ideal cuts, Portland jewelers are divided about reliance on such devices. On the one hand, Tom Jones at Element 79 swears by the FireScope. "Those reflection patterns tell the whole story about a diamond's make," he says. "The FireScope is the most impressive means to verify your claim that you're selling the most beautiful stones to be found." On the other hand, Rogoway let his store managers veto a sales training program using one of them, although he personally likes them. "They thought the scope was a toy that wouldn't be taken seriously by the high-tech types who often come into our stores," he says.
But viewers are no longer the only way to visually demonstrate differences in cut. Many Portland stores such as the local Ben Bridge Jewelers have chosen instead to install high-tech counter-top diamond-imaging systems in their stores to teach customers about the key role of make in diamond beauty. These machines are simplified versions of the revolutionary Dia-Mension diamond imaging and proportion measurement system from Sarin Technologies Ltd. in Israel. It's easy to see why many jewelers feel that this kind of machine is worth the investment: it does more than show a simple pattern. Customers can watch as the machines give table, crown, girdle, pavilion, and culet measurements in seconds, calculate the extent to which they meet accepted criteria for ideal cuts, indicate how a gem lab grading to the same criteria will rate the stone, then print out a professional-looking diamond report. The end result: an instant pedigree for the stone and instant credibility for the jeweler.
While its simplified version is transforming the way diamonds are sold, the Dia-Mension itself is transforming the way diamonds are cut. Since its introduction five years ago, Dia-Mension has become "an essential piece of equipment, especially for ideal cuts," says Isaac Rogel of L.I.D. Ltd. in New York. "Based on the information the machine feeds us throughout the cutting process, we can make sure stones will stay on course to becoming ideal cuts." No wonder L.I.D., which has been a major supplier of ideal cuts to Japan and aims to be as important a provider of these stones to America, keeps 30 Sarin machines in full operation at its Tel Aviv cutting works.
Sarin's Dia-Mension machine allows cutters to map a diamond's progress at any stage from blocking through faceting. It does so by taking 40 images of a rotating diamond, then translating differences between areas of light and dark into precise calculations of proportions and symmetry. In this way, cutters can tell at a glance whether angles are correct and if stones are centered or out of round. Above all, they can see if they are on target for any given set of desired specifications and use Sarin computations to correct deviations. "Every stone that we cut is subjected to five or six checks by the Sarin machine before it is finished," says Hertz Hasenfeld of Hasenfeld-Stein, a De Beer's sightholder in New York that offers ideal cuts. "In this way, our cutters can constantly fine-tune their work."
This ability to closely monitor the cutting process helps to reduce the expense of fine makes by saving time and preventing errors. As a result of widespread use of Sarin technology throughout the entire diamond world, notes ideal cuts specialist Gary Wright, Phoenix, Arizona, the price differential between same grade stones with masterful and mediocre makes has narrowed considerably in recent years which has, in turn, widened the audience for ideal cuts.
Depending on the software and options chosen, a Dia-Mension machine costs anywhere from $11,000 to $20,000, putting the factory version out of reach for most jewelers. As an affordable alternative, Sarin offers a $5,850 model called the Brilliant Eye designed for use at the retail counter that seems destined to become a fixture in jewelry stores that feature ideal cuts.
"The Sarin machine is so precise in its measurements that it has actually changed the way gem labs record and report information," says Tom Gorman, president of the Keppie Kiger in Pittsburgh, Penn. "There is no way you get nearly the same precision with older instruments like the proportionscope."
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR
As more and more dealers jump on the stump for ideal-cuts, the market for these goods is likely to be increasingly competitive: a boon to price-conscious jewelers and their customers. The entry of diamond giants like Leo Schachter & Co. of New York into this market will almost certainly heat up the battle for this increasingly significant market. But don't get the wrong idea. Ideal cuts, by their very nature, will always cost more than conventional diamonds. They have to, because for more weight is lost when cutting them. However, devotees of ideal cuts see the weight-loss issue differently. "Think of buying an ideal cut as buying a fine steak," explains Joe Landau, a cutter who has specialized in ideal cuts since moving to Los Angeles from South Africa 18 years ago. "Just as you wouldn't buy a steak without having the fat trimmed, you shouldn't buy a diamond whose excess weight hasn't been removed. Since consumers are paying for lost of needless fat, what kind of savings are they really getting when they buy diamonds cut for weight rather than beauty?"
It's a question that producers of ideal cuts have been asking for decades. Now, with technology that clearly and compellingly shows the advantages of buying fat-free diamonds, less suddenly means a whole lot more to consumers. "It has become easier to talk about cut than any other diamond quality characteristic," says Craig Walters of Diamond Profile, a Portland-based gem lab that offers one of the most advanced and sophisticated diamond-grading reports in the world. "This fact of life is fueling interest in ideal cuts."
Because ideal cuts are so crucial to establishing a new market niche for many retailers, some are shopping for suppliers who offer full sales training programs. They have no choice. Stores with salespeople who lack gemological training need to be taught successful selling strategies for ideal cuts. Training programs such as those available from Glodiam and Di-Star teach store staff members to take control of selling by moving the interaction with customers out of the familiar contexts of price, size, color, and clarity in to the unfamiliar context of cutting where consumers usually need guidance. By providing that guidance, and showing how it leads to the purchase of a superior, stores position themselves as diamond authorities and establish trust with public.
Nevertheless, the going could get rough in the ideal cut market if, as widely feared, price list publishers begin to quote prices for ideal cuts as a separate category. Besides commoditizing fine makes, price lists could set the stage for and erosion of standards. To hold the line on shrinking profit margins, cutters may clamor for gem labs to stretch current specifications for ideal cuts to allow cheating on proportions. Should this happen, the term ideal cut could be bastardized to the point where it will lose all meaning. "Already," notes worried Portland fine-makes specialist Bernie Chron of Dan Marx, Jeweler, "there are more ideal cuts sold in a single day in Portland than are made in an entire year."