Martin Rapaport On The Future of Diamonds
You've likely never heard of Martin Rapaport but to the diamond world he's famous. Rapaport is to diamonds what Robert Parker is to wine, a person of tremendous influence. He runs Diamonds.Net and his Rapaport Index defines diamond pricing for the world. On Monday, Rapaport spoke to the packed room at the JCK jewelry show in Las Vegas delivering his pronouncements on the diamond market at an annual breakfast event. Right now, the diamond industry is facing similar challenges seen by the rest of the luxury market. Rapaport feels that the current economic climate offers both opportunity and pitfalls for those in the diamond business.
The news is conflicting, larger stones have been getting higher and higher prices and the huge wealth in China, Dubai, India and Russia is creating a hunger for luxury goods and diamonds and diamond jewelry specifically. This is also a time when the plummeting real estate market in the U.S. and Europe means that the Western world, which fueled the global prosperity in the beginning, is now cutting back on spending. Independent stores and small chains are having a tough time and the news is full of stories of stores having bankruptcy sales where goods are being sold off at below cost.
As of 2007, the U.S. still made up the bulk of diamond jewelry sales, clocking in at 43%. China brought in 8.5%, Europe did 11% and the Middle East was responsible for 4.6%. Until recently, the U.S. had been on a path of prolonged economic growth and our prosperity fueled the global economy expanding the middle class in India and Africa. Small jewelers in the U.S. are now competing with a global market. As I've heard mentioned at other conferences such as the Luxury Summit, the number of millionaires and billionaires is growing worldwide. This might be one reason why the price of big stones is going up far faster than the prices for smaller stones, especially those under a carat.
For jewelry sellers, as I heard in other sessions at this show, branding is more important than ever, especially to new luxury spending markets. Rapaport cautioned though that branding is a "trojan horse" for the retailers. First the retailers convince their customers which brand to buy and then the seller of the brand raises that price. Many stores are worried about the new DeBeers Forevermark, a branded diamond sold by DeBeers. Now the considerable advertising budget of DeBeers will be aimed at marketing that diamond which will be sold at premium price. Rapaport's answer to those competing against this new stone? Hang a sign in your window advertising that you are selling for diamonds for 10% less than Forevermark.
One of the big questions about the diamond market is whether prices are being raised by those who are speculating or investing. Before the JCK Show, Rapaport raised his pricing index 25%, a fact which didn't sit well with those hoping to do major business during the show. Rapaport defended his decision saying it was a correction based on a steady supplier price raising. Facing increasing hostility from the audience he stated frankly that he couldn't give a damn about suppliers or buyers, it's his job to watch the prices people are getting for diamonds and reflect what is out there. Rapaport says the non-mining profit in the diamond business comes from finding the right buyer for the right diamond at the right price and that he is advocating for free, fair, open, competitive markets. This information didn't sit well with those in the audience who feared that their buying power had been dropped by one quarter based on Rapaport's guidance.
Rapaport urged the jewelry retailers in the audience to remember that "diamond dream" what is being sold is the idea behind the jewelry, the emotional power behind the diamond remains, the real business for jewelers is to believe in what diamonds mean to people not just the romance angle but also the sense of the diamond as a global industry, it can do good for the people involved. In fact, Rapaport says that jewelry stores have a responsibility to make sure the diamond industry does well, because the industry also supports the diggers in other countries. It can be a tool for good. His own passion for finding ways to make sure the diamond industry is a benefit to diggers in Sierra Leone and other places has led him to be a leader in the fair trade jewelry movement. I'll be reporting in-depth on the fair trade jewelry conference which he moderated later this week.