The Secret Sexism in the Jewelry Industry

By now it’s hardly a secret that there is a sexism problem on the corporate level in the jewelry industry. A class action lawsuit filed against Sterling, the parent company of some of America’s most recognizable chain stores like Kay and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, has brought the issue to the forefront. While that suit undoubtedly has merit and will expose even further the discrimination women in the business face on a daily basis, it won’t ever shed light on the industry as a whole.

Retail chain stores are hardly representative of the jewelry and diamond industry. These corporate outlets in malls and shopping centers around the country make up a small percentage of the business. Sure, they’re the most visible and the most well known because they’re the names you see on tv, the jingles you jokingly sing to anyone who tells you they’re thinking of getting married, usually to their chagrin. They’re the every man’s jewelry store where prefabbed, machine-set pieces bought and made in bulk are proffered for sale to the consumer who wants the convenience of buying something ready to wear and “popular”. It’ll offend plenty of people but I have no problem going on record as saying these corporate chain stores are the WalMart of the jewelry industry. The real jewelers of the world are hidden in plain sight. They’re the small businesses and dealers that repair the rings you drop off to those mall stores for sizing and they are the ones supply those same mall stores’ corporation’s buyers with everything from diamonds to metalsmithing tools to display elements. These jewelers are the real deal, most of them having apprenticed and studied for years (10 year minimum just for diamond cutters), they hold prestigious credentials and spend lifetimes completing formal continuous education for everything from identifying gems, grading diamonds to stringing pearls.

Indie dealers and jewelers don’t have much in common with the big corporate conglomerates. While your local mom and pop jewelry store might have retail cases filled with brilliant, tantalizing baubles just like the chain shops, they are a different animal completely. That is, except for one insurmountable detail: sexism.

In the interest of transparency I should disclose that I am in fact an independent jeweler. I have been in the industry for nearly 20 years. I am obviously going to be a bit biased but I need not be. The issue is hardly mine alone. In fact, it’s fair to say that over the last year I’ve been communicating with upwards of 100 other female jewelers from around the United States. We range in age from early 20s to to 72 and we run the whole gamut of industry positions. We are gemologists, designers, gem cutters, diamond cutters, store owners, bench jewelers, shop managers, silversmiths, diamond wholesalers and more. We might have varying job titles but we share at least one thing in common in that nearly all the women who contacted me face blatant sexism routinely, shockingly, sometimes daily. There’s a really surprising aspect that kept creeping up, one that none of us truly realized was a common truth: the sexism we deal with doesn’t stem only from men in the industry. It’s our customers that dish out the biggest doses of ignorance and offense. What makes it worse is that it’s widely accepted as “part of being a girl in a boy’s club industry”, according to Stephanie P., 36, a gemologist and repair shop owner in Sarasota, Florida.

Stephanie admitted she gave up correcting sexist remarks or offensive commentary from her clients long ago. In her own words, “It feels like a no-win battle and an emotional expense. I used to get so upset over winks or getting called sweetie but now I just let it slide. I’m too busy trying to prove myself through my work to argue with words.” Unfortunately, Stephanie isn’t alone. More than a few women jewelers were eager to explain how they’ve risen above challenging the sexism they encounter daily. Though this might be a noble approach in theory, it’s not helping anyone to quietly ignore the insults veiled as questions and back handed flattery. I’ve experienced these myself from the beginning and still do on a routine basis. Not one week goes by in which I am not asked to consult “my boss” for a second opinion. Usually, the offending client is referencing a male in my shop in my employ. It is hardly a big leap to deduce that by inferring a man would or could give a better, more reliable answer to whatever query is at hand I am clearly being disregarded as less experiened, less trustworthy or less able than a nearby man.

I am hardly alone.

Across the board, my own unofficial but unrelenting research into this issue has shed light on a slew of comments and questions women in the industry hear routinely. These off color remarks are so alike and so repetitive from coast to coast it’s almost hard to believe they aren’t coordinated. Alas, they are not. In fact, most of the women I’ve talked to about this issue don’t know each other and have not been privy to the anecdotes I’ve collected. Unbeknownst to them, they were telling me the same story over and over as if they were reading from a script written seemingly in 1952 when June Cleaver was the model of the ideal American woman.

Casey, a 20something jeweler, store manager and graduate gemologist is often met with dismissive comments like, “Isn’t that cute that your dad lets you work here. I bet you get to wear the best stuff.” or “Is the real jeweler here?” even after introducing herself as the shop’s manager and jeweler. She shrugs such things off as nothing more than an annoyance, focused more on the tasks on hand than the social slights littering their interactions. Casey doesn’t often stop to address such comments. Like many other female jewelers, she is caught between a rock and a hard place. Pointing out the offense immediately and correcting the misguided commentary risks making the client feel stupid or awkward, possibly resulting in a lost transaction.

“It’s like walking a tightrope when I have to make an on-the-spot decision to stand my ground.” says Aviva K, 48, a diamond wholesaler and dealer based in New York. Aviva was born into a long line of diamond cutters and dealers. She knew in her teens she would follow the family tradition and become a gemologist, graduating from the prestigious Gemological Institute of America at 21. She has assumed control of the family business with her father retiring and employs a staff of 16. “I don’t get it at trade shows but I do get it a lot in our own showroom. People think nothing of having me show them this or that and they ask me for details but when it comes time to talk price, they often ask me to check with my boss for a ‘bottom line’. I am the boss. There is nobody that will outrank me or give them a better price. It’s demeaning and it does weigh me down some days but I smile and stick to what I do. I sell diamonds. Sometimes, I get one of my male employees to come over and confirm that the deal on the table is the best it will get and that makes me feel like I look weak. I hate having to ask to be validated when I’m the boss. But the sale matters more than my hurt feelings. Hurt feelings don’t pay the rent.” Aviva is a prime example of the dilemma faced by every woman in the industry on a daily basis, including myself. When we encounter this kind of client or this kind of situation, we have a split second to make a decision and neither choice feels very good.

Do we grandstand and hold our ground, pointing out the offending sexism presented to us blatantly? If we do, we are usually seen as ball busting, argumentative and even “snowflakes”, a term we can certainly thank the political machine for inserting into our collective daily jargon. Women who speak up when insulted this way are often assumed to be emotional, irrational and unreasonable. On the other hand, women can opt to say nothing, to ignore the tasteless inquiry or statement and press on, closing the sale or completing the job not in spite of the anger and insult but to spite it, indeed. By choosing this option, the principle behind the issue is ignored and swept under the rug. The deal is closed and the profit is realized. The business will remain in the black and to many, that is the end game. But the cost to women’s confidence and self worth might be much higher than the cost of losing a sale or two, especially when confounded over time.

Both Sheila M, 38 of Michigan and Michelle L, 46 of Oregon recounted nearly identical anecdotes to me. Considering they’ve never met and live 2000 miles apart it lends credence to what didn’t need any to begin with in my eyes. Both women provided me a list of the most common phrases and questions they hear from clients, both male and female, that should be obviously sexist to anyone but apparently aren’t obvious to the people actually saying them. Both Sheila and Michelle are jewelry store owners, bench jewelers and jewelry designers in their own right. They, like me and thousands of others, hear comments like these routinely:

“Is this your dad’s or your husband’s store?”

“You’re so lucky you get to work here. My husband wouldn’t let me near this place.”

“Is the boss around? I’d like to talk to the owner. You? Ok, what days is your husband here?”

“Does your dad/husband make you work here or do you just like it?”

“You know a lot! What is your other job, your real job when you’re not helping here?”

“Oh, you own this place? Smart lady! Wish I’d married a jeweler. Better than marrying a doctor even!”

“I’ll come back when the regular jeweler is here. When does he come in?”

I could go on but the gist is clear and the stories are true. I know firsthand because I live it, too. For a long time I assumed it was just me, that I was somehow inviting this kind of thinking from my clients in my Virginia based store. I beat myself up day after day for not being more forceful, for not being more firm, for not coming across as skilled enough in my own right. I adopted various tactics through the years, trying on different suits of mental and emotional armor, prepared to do battle with weapons like wit, sarcasm, humor and even plain kindness. Admittedly, I depleted my own arsenal in no time flat. I tried ignoring the comments. I tried playing them off as cute, as jokes meant to amuse instead of insult. From time to time I’d simply stop the client and ask them directly why they assume I have a husband or father to thank for the little shop I’ve built from scratch. It’s never gone over well.

Offending male customers usually get tongue tied and defensive and to be fair, often apologetic but they become uneasy and in my own experience, often don’t return. Women clients called out on sexist comments tend to react differently, openly showing disdain over being questioned or corrected and on more than a few occasions even aggressively challenged my statements. To be fair, there have been plenty of clients of any gender that offered a quick apology and went on to admit that hadn’t ever thought it through before and on occasion will even agree that such statements or questions are indeed sexist, sometimes even degrading.

It’s a very difficult path to walk when you’re the woman boss in a male dominated industry. Women jewelers are no exception. I’ve pondered how to combat this issue for along time and I’ve come up with no good answers that could apply to the industry across the board. Instead, I came to the conclusion that it is high time to shed light on the matter as it affects the independent jewelers. Obviously, the class action suit against Sterling making headlines in mainstream news prompted me to act sooner than later so while I was hoping this piece would end with advice on how to handle this issue, the time has come to put it out now, as is. The reason being that it became clear to me that I’m not going to come up with the answers on my own. The problem is industry wide and one that is rarely discussed. Because of this, it’s my hope that this little write up will serve but one purpose and that it to get us all talking about it.

The first step to fixing a problem is to recognize and admit there is one. Now we know. We women in the business have always known. But here it is in the open, for us all to read and absorb. Hopefully, this issue starts getting the attention it deserves. Perhaps we will see the industry embrace the problem instead of reject it or ignore it. Just maybe this is the kind of thing we could see scheduled as panel talks at trade shows or seminars at trade conventions. That would be a massive step in the right direction for us all, men and women and every jeweler. We might see women jewelers band together to start open discussions in their shops, online in trade forums and groups. If nothing else, it would have been worth my time and effort to have opened a few eyes to the problems women in this business are facing on the forefront of the showroom floors.

Indie jewelers and dealers are a tight knit community. Over the course of my own career I’ve come to know people of all walks of life involved in this industry in one way or another and I’m proud to say that more often than not, jewelers look out for each other. They help, advise, counsel, comfort. Though in theory we are all competing with each other, it doesn’t often feel like a cut throat, winner takes all industry. Nearly every independent jeweler and dealer I’ve known or worked with wants to see others succeed. For this I am proud to be in the industry. Those of us on the inside know we often do business the most old fashioned way; that is by the honor code. We often trust each other unconditionally because as it has been for hundreds of years, a jeweler’s word is as good as cash until he or she proves otherwise. Few ever prove otherwise and though there are thousands of us in the industry, it’s never more than six degrees of separation between any of us. I have boundless faith in the people that make up this business. I know that they will continue to be some of the most honest and friendly ‘competitors’ on Earth. It’s because of that I feel this introduction to the sexism on showroom floors will be welcome instead of rebuked. It’s time we admit it’s happening and the it’s high time we talk about it.