CIBJO Taking Fair Trade Into the Next Century

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By Dr. Jack Ogden

For thousands of years gemstones have had their appearances improved in one way or another to increase their appeal and thus, inevitably, their price. The industry has long debated the issues involved and perhaps the main change over the generations has been a gradual switch of focus from “What practices are fair trade competition?” to “What practices are fair to the customer?”

But when we say “the industry has long debated the issues,” what do we mean by “the industry,” especially in these days of globalization of the jewelry trade? A major impediment to trade ensues if diamond and gemstone treatments are offered for sale in a country that doesn’t require disclosure, and resold in another country that does require disclosure.

Enter the International Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO), whose purpose is to promote international cooperation in the jewelry industry and to solve issues that concern the international trade.

CIBJO represents a wide number of countries around the world and all levels of the industry – manufacturers, stone dealers, wholesalers and retailers. With an American president, a British secretary general and sector presidents and vice presidents drawn from Europe, Scandinavia, Australia and Japan, CIBJO is the forum and the voice for the world jewelry industry. This international body formed a consensus regarding the fair description of gemstone manufacturing and treatment processes, which eventually crystallized into the “CIBJO Blue Book.” This is actually a series of three volumes that lay down nomenclature and terminology for diamonds, colored gemstones and pearls.

The Blue Book is continually monitored and reassessed in light of industry use and gemological and technological developments. The CIBJO Congress in Vicenza in June, 1998, agreed to restructure the gemstone book to provide a clearer and more logical format. Now the organization has reached the important stage of discussing the contents and how and if they should be adapted or augmented. This was the focus of an intensive, two-day international meeting in New York in November.

Consumer Benefit = Industry Benefit

Because the Blue Book is both very comprehensive and undergoing changes at present, the most useful way to understand its stand on disclosure is to summarize its approach rather than quote the particular details at length. The ultimate goal of the rules is that the jewelry customers should not be disadvantaged or misled when making a purchase. They should know what they are buying without being subject to ambiguity or deceit. This requires a certain openness all the way up the supply chain.

A good example of this approach at work would be in the laser drilling of diamonds. Since the 1970s CIBJO has pushed for the full disclosure of laser drilling of diamonds and lobbied other organizations and consumer protection bodies to also adopt this approach. Now, with the World Federation of Diamond Bourses’ recent resolution in favor of this disclosure, there is almost a worldwide consensus. Consumer confidence will be strengthened and every level of the industry supply chain will benefit.

Traditionally, CIBJO guidelines have recognized “degrees” of gemstone treatment and allowed that something like the heat treatment of sapphires, a traditional and ancient practice, is very different from, say, nuclear irradiation or surface chemical diffusion. However, there are also the issues of permanence, health and safety (as the recent radioactive chrysoberyls demonstrate) and even practicalities of detection.

Two Approaches

To minimize complexity, CIBJO has recommended two levels of disclosure – full disclosure where the treatment is specifically pointed out and general disclosure where traditional and “acceptable” enhancements to gems are covered by what in effect is a sort of disclaimer. CIBJO’s current task is to adapt this approach to set guidelines for categorizing and defining treatments and their disclosure for the new millennium. It must take into account that new treatment processes are in an accelerating race with the development of new gemological techniques to detect them.

This is undoubtedly a daunting task, but well within the abilities of the expert and international CIBJO committee to which it is delegated. In fact, progress is being aided by an interesting factor: the realization that our industry seems to have been too apprehensive in the past about being “too honest.” In practice, those jewelers today who clearly and fairly explain to their customers that the blue topaz, say, owes its wonderful color to man’s intervention, experience no rejection or loss of business. As in so many things, honesty and openness appear to be the best policy.

Needless to say, the CIBJO debates regarding nomenclature and disclosure revolve around natural gemstones that have been treated in some way to improve their appearance. Such things as imitation, synthetic and composite stones must quite simply be clearly described as what they are.

One criticism of CIBJO is that its decision-making processes are sometimes slow. Things have speeded up over recent years, partly because of new communication technology. However, the sorts of issues being discussed cannot be rushed. Any guidelines or terminologies have to be acceptable, practical and workable in a wide range of countries in the Americas, Europe, Australia and Asia. They also have to be as potentially unambiguous as possible, particularly a consideration in non-English speaking countries where translations must be undertaken. There are also the levels in the supply chain to consider. There is no use in defining what retailers, for instance, must disclose, unless the same guidelines are in place and practicable throughout the supply chain.

As the world becomes so much smaller in trade and communication terms, CIBJO is playing an increasingly important role in world jewelry affairs and is well poised to extend its membership and influence into the next millennium. By encouraging best practice and sensible nonambiguous terminology internationally, over much wider issues than gemstones alone, CIBJO protects the jewelry industry and, of course, the consumer is best assured of being fairly treated.

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