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WWD Special Report: Women’s Jewelry Association at 30

WJA presidents past and future talk about the organization’s milestone anniversary.

Since it was founded 30 years ago, the Women’s Jewelry Association has evolved from a five-person operation that served as a haven of sorts for women in business to hash out ideas to a 1,000-person organization that helps foster leadership for jewelry executives.

Each year, the WJA throws a gala to honor industry hands who exemplify the group’s mission for the advancement of women. WWD sat down with former WJA president Phyllis Bergman and incoming president Andrea Hansen to talk about the organization’s mission, this year’s gala and the state of the jewelry industry.

 

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WWD: Talk about this year’s event and what you are planning for WJA’s 30th anniversary.

Andrea Hansen: We put together a campaign to celebrate the past, to honor the last 30 years and to look toward what WJA is today and where we want to take it. I think the honorees this year — in every category, not just the three most important awards, but in every category — were selected to really represent the past, present and future of the industry.

WWD: Who chooses the honorees?

Phyllis Bergman: They are always selected by a panel. It’s usually made up of the board and our chapter president. We try and have people from various aspects of the industry, but we don’t tell who [is on the panel].

WWD: Describe the awards.

A.H.: There’s a Hall of Fame award, a Corporate award and an Achievement award to a man who has been incredibly supportive of women in the industry.

P.B.: That award is called the Ben Kaiser award. Ben Kaiser was chairman of Baume & Mercier, and he felt very strongly about being supportive of women. Back then it was a very male-dominated industry — it’s still a very male-dominated industry — and so he was very supportive of women rising up and achieving what they could.

The Hall of Fame award is always given to a woman, and the Corporate award is given to a corporation that has enabled women to achieve their fullest potential.

WWD: How did you select Candy Udell for the Hall of Fame award?

P.B.: There are fewer candidates for Hall of Fame because you really have to achieve very high goals for yourself, for the industry and for women.

A.H.: Candy employs a large number of women. Their business [London Jewelers] ranges from supporting young emerging women designers to dealing with the world’s top brands. Candy has her finger on everything that happens in that company.

WWD: What about the Corporate award?

P.B.: The Corporate award winner is Standard Chartered Bank. Standard Chartered Bank is probably right now the largest supporter of the jewelry industry worldwide. Their offices are in London. You probably wouldn’t hear about them too much in the U.S., but they really support the core of the industry. They provide financing for all the major site holders all over the world, also for mining companies, and they employ women from all over the world.

WWD: And the Ben Kaiser award?

P.B.: Darwin Copeman is chief executive officer of Jewelers Mutual Insurance, which is the largest insurance company in the industry, insuring the consumer, the retailer and the manufacturer. They have been most supportive to a lot of organizations in the industry, especially WJA, throughout the years.

WWD: How do you select the winners?

A.H.: We look from the point of view of “how do they impact women in the industry?” It’s where we come from.

P.B.: I think the reason we have six or seven smaller awards [is that they] cover women who have achieved to a certain level, but with the larger awards, we’re looking at major players in the industry.

WWD: Let’s talk about the 30th anniversary.

A.H.: We created a 30th anniversary campaign — we’ve been celebrating for a whole year. It included a campaign for which we are selling tributes for $30 apiece. We are asking the industry at large to honor someone who inspired them. This will go on until the end of the year. We also created a series of events across our chapters and we are launching new chapters with the goal of raising our membership 30 percent.

P.B.: For the first time, we are also giving out $30,000 in scholarships to honor our 30th anniversary.

WWD: How big is WJA as an organization?

A.H.: We have about 1,000 members now.

P.B.: It started in 1983 with a few women in the industry. In those days, men had organizations where they could meet and network. Women had no place.

A.H.: It’s not that women weren’t members. Women weren’t accepted.

P.B.: So, five girls got together and they formed this group. They started to ask people to join. Then they asked Helene Fortunoff to be president. She truly brought a business sense to the group and she made them financially viable. After that, Rachel [Rosin] was president and then I became president, and I took them to a more national level, beyond the New York area, in about 1989.

These more national firms — Macy’s, Zale, Kay, Sterling, J.C. Penney — started to hire some women, and women started to become executives. And then all of a sudden, the manufacturers, who were selling these to these retailers, realized they had to get some women on board who would sell to these women [buyers], and make the relationships stronger. And WJA started to take off from there.

A.H.: We have 12 chapters and this year, it looks like we are moving up to 15 nationally. Over the past couple of years, we opened chapters in Italy and India. We are looking at Brazil and China and possibly Canada, as well. The organization needs to grow in the direction the industry is growing.

WWD: How has volatility in commodity prices impacted the industry?

A.H.: So much. When you’re a woman in business, you need to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry, and you need to have connections. I need to advise my clients on a number of issues. If it was not for my relationship with WJA members, I wouldn’t have an understanding of the business. For me, from the beginning, it was the biggest reason to join WJA.

P.B.: The industry has dramatically changed — there’s no doubt about that. As far as commodity prices, I don’t honestly think that will have an effect on retailing. Where you will see the biggest change in our industry — which the consumer, the retailer will not see for a long time — will be at the base of the industry, and that is in mining, and in banking that finances mining. Mining is becoming more expensive. They haven’t found new diamond supplies…and eventually that will filter up.

Right now, I think [the greatest change is more about] the different consumer, the new consumer who’s out there.

A.H.: It’s understanding this Millennial generation.

P.B.: I think years ago, you had the woman who only wore fine jewelry and the woman who only wore costume jewelry. But today, just as it is in fashion, we’ll buy Prada shoes and we’ll buy an H&M T-shirt. Everybody is mixing and matching. The stores are starting to realize this, and are starting to carry crystals. They are starting to carry all different types of color. They are realizing that the consumer out there today wants everything. She wants the fine, she wants the fun, she wants the leather. Everything goes today.

WWD: Does this diminish a high-end brand?

P.B.: No. I think this makes a brand wider and it gives it more appeal.

WWD: Can a brand go too wide?

P.B.: I think the idea is today that you have to be flexible, that you have to be willing to change. I think social media is an influencer today.

A.H.: I have a couple of retail clients, and one of the biggest challenges for them is how layered business has become. When they started, it was Mom and Dad behind the counter with their clients. They went on a European trip. They bought product. They brought it in. It was a very simple process. Today you have brands. You advertise, but you have social media. You do have to network with your top clients…but it is not that mom-and-pop business anymore.

WWD: There has been a lot of consolidation of those mom-and-pop shops in the wake of the recession. What is the state of those small businesses now?

P.B.: There has been a lot of consolidation in retail. But I think the players that remain will be stronger. I think the big word is Niche, with a capital “N.” Niche, niche, niche. Specialization is key. You have to be flexible today and market yourself and find a niche.

A.H.: I think the affluence of the years between 2002 and 2007 had one side effect, which was to enable a lot of people who were just ordinary to be successful. You did not have to be that special or that talented to actually make that much money. Retailers could stock 10 deep into every category — 10 brands of Italian yellow gold and diamond jewelry that were actually made in the same factory. You know, colored gemstones and bridal. There was room for everyone because there were a lot of people who were not really luxury consumers who were able to afford luxury. You had a larger pool of people keeping all those designers and retailers afloat.

All of a sudden, we have a reality check. Guess what? It’s Darwinistic. Do you have what it takes to stay in that game? It’s the natural process of elimination through consolidation and bankruptcies.

WWD: How do you enter the business and compete as an independent jeweler today?

P.B.: It’s very difficult, but again it’s niche. There’s a new consumer. Jewelry doesn’t define the new consumer like it did before. In 2008, the emergence of that new consumer and the recession made it harder for us. It was a double whammy for our industry. I think now we are slowly emerging.

A.H.: There’s this need throughout the industry to educate people young and old about how to be in business now — the new now.

WWD: Can sellers of unbranded jewelry compete against companies selling branded jewelry?

A.H.: It’s a very large and varied market.

P.B.: I do mostly private label for major companies like Jared, Sterling, so they are selling under their names and they have established names. Truth be told, if you did a study and you ask people about jewelry designers, they would only know Tiffany, that’s a store, Cartier, that’s a store, De Beers because of the name, Harry Winston, that’s a store, and they would probably know David Yurman. Most [jewelry] designers are not on the tip of people’s tongues.

A.H.: The customer walks into a store like London Jewelers and she trusts the store to bring interesting design. There are a lot of interesting designer collections out in the market that think of themselves as brands, but they are not brands. They are interesting designer collections. That does not make one a brand.

WWD: How important is it to be a brand today?

A.H.: In terms of international retail, the world is going more and more branded. The designer category is definitely where most retailers are going.

P.B.: It’s more about the story, the message. And today, customers want the real story, not a made-up story.

A.H.: There are a lot of challenges you can overcome if you have a real story.