Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Top 10 trends for 2014 - Trend # 2 - Emergence of MMD's at retail - a paradigm shift

Man-made diamonds (MMD's) have been around for quite a while now.  It has been a constant subject of discussion from the outset, ever since the technologies have evolved from production of industrial qualities.  GE and Sumitomo developed industrial production decades ago, and their productions have been important for a wide variety of applications, all of them completely free of controversy.

That changed as methods for producing gem qualities first appeared in Russia.  HPHT (high pressure, high temperature) equipment was used for both improving certain qualities of diamonds, and for the production of new diamonds, a more lengthy and difficult process.  Somewhat later, CVD (chemical vapor deposition) developed, a quite different process that "grows" diamonds by depositing carbon atoms onto a diamond seed.

In recent years, both processes have been used to expand the production of diamonds, often in concert.  CVD diamonds are often subjected to HPHT treatment to enhance their quality.

That is the story in brief, but from early on the industry has called for producers to fully disclose the fact that these are MMD's, or HPHT treated, and not natural diamonds.  The problem was that detection of MMD's is difficult without specialized equipment that can be expensive and not broadly available.  So non-disclosure is easy, for those so inclined, even when the originating factories sell the MMD's with full disclosure.

The abuses are well known and have been for years.  Legitimate vendors of HPHT treated diamonds have faced asymmetrical competition because non-disclosers can afford to overpay for type IIa diamonds, the type best suited for HPHT treatment.

The industry, in fact, largely ignored the problem for years because many believed that the public would never accept MMD's as a replacement for the magical, billion year old diamonds offered by mother nature; and, more practically, because MMD production was very small.

But then it hit their pockets.  Importers discovered that finished jewelry coming from Asia often had small MMD's mixed in with naturals.  But they were being charged for naturals, a price difference that could be 30% or more.  Now the issue was not so much that the public was not accepting the jewelry, as was happening anyway out of indifference or being uninformed, but that wholesalers, distributors and retailers were being fraudulently over-charged.  In an age when sales are tough, and decent profit margins are even tougher, this is no small matter.  The temptation to make the extra money could be overpowering, even more so when it means survival itself.  What better symptom of desperation - not just pure avarice - is there than the submission of MMD's to grading laboratories.  What better way is there to earn large profits than to have MMD's documented as naturals!

It also became evident that CVD equipment was improving and becoming cheaper (the cost of a machine can be amortized in about 18 months).  So production facilities are being rapidly expanded, in a few Asian nations, without there being adequate controls or methods of identification, especially of small goods that are used in the bulk of all categories of jewelry.

So, I have stated all this as background - my apologies to those readers who already know all this - not as a description of a new trend, but rather to bring us to what I believe will be the pivot point, my Trend # 2.


Emergence of MMD's at retail - a paradigm shift.  We can see that a reasonably normal growth of jewelry sales worldwide will develop ever larger shortages.  And MMD's will be the natural filler of the hole.  To the degree that mines and recycling does not produce enough diamonds, the expansion of MMD production will be stimulated.

But in the shorter term, what might create a paradigm shift?  Considering the pressure retailers feel to increase sales and margins, especially in the mid-market and lower end market, we will see some retailers fully merchandise MMD lines.  This is not a minor step, in that  the effect on sales of naturals is a question.  So is the possible degradation of reputation.

But we do have some parallels.  Retailers have been selling silver and other alternative materials aimed at bringing price points into line with consumer's ability to pay.  We see silver and diamond jewelry and bridal pieces.  We see silver plated with platinum; silver plated with palladium and gold; bronze, plated or not; and wood and aluminum.  I just saw a new ad from Yurman offering his classic  designs in a choice of aluminum, silver or gold.  I was struck by the recent JAR exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York, where using all sorts of non-precious materials were evident in some pieces, concurrently with the display of beautiful, expensive diamond and colored stone jewelry.  No fear there at all.

Part of all this has been a recognition that the public has become far more open in how it views jewelry as an accessory.  I can just imagine a woman cashing in old gold pieces for good money, and going out to buy a variety of well-made costume jewelry that she knows has little value but can be tossed when taste and fashion changes.

This leads to retailers fully accepting that the game has changed or is changing.  And I believe that retailers will aggressively go after MMD jewelry and letting the consumer decide what case to buy from - natural diamonds and gold or platinum; or MMD's mounted in a variety of materials.  From a retailer's point of view, the issue may hinge on whether they can properly state that all diamonds they now sell are naturals.  If that is not practical (as it seems now may be the case), then they might as well benefit from the significant price differences.  And maybe get ahead of their competition in the bargain.

For the supply side, such a change will be greater than proving that consumers will buy MMD's.  It will force MMD manufacturers out into the open in order to compete for this new business.  It could also put pressure on the price of small naturals, especially in the lower qualities now used in mass market jewelry.  Will the consumer buy lower quality natural diamonds, or far better quality MMD's at a lower price?  No choice, as I have proposed for years.

We could find ourselves, over time, in the almost bizarre situation of seeing small lower quality (maybe even mid-quality) naturals trying to compete with MMD's.  A real paradigm shift in the diamond business.

From the point of view of the environment, conflict diamond issues, and good value for the consumer, it could all be a big winner.  We will have to wait and see.  But be prepared!



Please note:  If you are interested in seeing the subjects covered in these 10 days of trends, you might be interested in a full-day seminar being tentatively planned for later this year in New York.  We will expand the discussion, cover other issues, and include options for the future.  I would be happy to hear your thoughts.  Comment here or e-mail at benj@janosconsultants.com.  Thanks!

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