Rapaport’s “People of the Year” reflect the broad range of challenges affecting the trade — and some of the solutions.
It was still late 2022 when signs started to emerge that a market slump was on its way. Dealers and retailers reported a sluggish holiday compared with 2021’s record season. Mastercard SpendingPulse estimated a 5.4% year-on-year decline in jewelry sales for the period from November 1 to December 24, 2022.
In early 2023, the traditional January stock replenishment was slower than usual, and manufacturers limited polished production in response.
As the year went on, it became clearer that the industry was in crisis. Lab-grown diamonds gained popularity faster than some in the industry had expected. US consumer sentiment stagnated, and China’s much-anticipated recovery never happened.
The industry took measures to handle the downturn. At the same time, other events — such as De Beers’ new deal with Botswana and negotiations over sanctioning Russian diamonds — added to the uncertainty.
Our “People of the Year” reflect these realities. Some were directly involved in solving the industry’s acute problems — facilitating India’s freeze on rough imports, for example, or identifying ways to adapt retail strategy to the situation. One of them arguably made the situation worse for the natural-diamond sector.
As with the famous Time Person of the Year, inclusion in this list is not necessarily a recognition of an individual’s positive contribution, but rather of his or her influence on the diamond industry and/or presence in the headlines. While we have chosen to spread the honors among several figures rather than picking a single person of the year, let us know if there’s one member of this list who you feel deserves that accolade; we’d be happy to hear your feedback.
Gina Drosos, CEO, Signet Jewelers
Now in her sixth year at the wheel of Signet Jewelers, Gina Drosos has become a thought leader in the world of diamond retail as well as a smart strategist. She appears to have been the first public voice to argue that a slowdown in dating during the Covid-19 pandemic was one of the main reasons for this year’s lull in engagements.
Drosos has succeeded in turning the group’s store banners — including Kay Jewelers, Zales and Jared — from dying mall chains into relevant modern retail locations. The recent past has been difficult; sales fell 10% year on year to $4.67 billion for the company’s first three fiscal quarters, which ended October 28. But Drosos believes Signet has positioned itself well to benefit from a “multi-year” recovery in bridal demand.
From a reporter’s point of view, Drosos has managed to turn Signet’s post-results investor calls — previously dull affairs — into an hour well spent listening to insights on the diamond and jewelry market. This year, she explained how the company used 45 “relationship milestones” to predict the rate of engagements and adjust its inventory accordingly.
Feriel Zerouki, president, World Diamond Council (WDC)
It has not been an easy time to be both president of the World Diamond Council (WDC) and senior vice president of corporate affairs at De Beers. Feriel Zerouki and the WDC oversaw a proposal for implementing Group of Seven (G7) sanctions on Russian diamonds using documentation and audits — a plan that came to be known as the G7 Diamond Protocol. Performing these two roles is understandably awkward, given that De Beers has a commercial interest in reducing market access for its main rival, Russian miner Alrosa. The protocol — alongside other plans — also faced criticism for its potential impact on artisanal miners.
It remains to be seen whether the governments and the industry will use the protocol or elements of it to keep Russian diamonds out of the market. But Zerouki has still been one of the most important people in the industry this year.
Vipul Shah, chairman, Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC)
The GJEPC holds a monthly online forum with representatives of the industry to discuss trends and concerns. In September of this year, with polished prices tumbling amid weak retail sales and an oversupply, the Indian trade body decided the situation warranted a broader, physical gathering. The attendees came to a unanimous conclusion: India needed a voluntary pause in rough-diamond imports to stop inventories from getting out of control. The industry implemented this freeze for two months, from October 15 to December 15, taking the pressure off the sector and enabling the market to stabilize.
Insiders at the GJEPC say it was an industry-wide call for an import moratorium and that the country has made similar moves in past crises. However, it was the GJEPC that brought people together and managed the process following the crunch meeting. Vipul Shah, its chairman, was at the forefront.
Mokgweetsi Masisi, president, Botswana
President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s endeavor to drive a better diamond sales deal for the people of his country was among the most memorable stories of 2023.
The government and De Beers reached a provisional deal just before their June 30 deadline, but this came only after relations between the two parties appeared to have become increasingly strained. At one point, amid ongoing speculation in the media, both sides pledged not to take part in public discussions. On another occasion, they had to refute a report that the government wanted to stop selling large stones to De Beers.
The fact that there are general elections coming up in 2024 is relevant: Some of the statesman’s fiercest calls for a greater share of diamond profits came at political rallies, including when he reportedly threatened to part with De Beers if the deal wasn’t good enough.
The agreement, which is not final, promises Botswana’s state-owned Okavango Diamond Company (ODC) a larger portion of the country’s rough, raising its share from the current 25% to a maximum of 50% over 10 years. Securing these terms was a victory for Botswana and Masisi, and a sign of the changing relationship between producing countries and the corporations that profit from their resources.
Gabi Tolkowsky, Belgian diamond cutter
Sir Gabriel “Gabi” Tolkowsky makes this list because of what he achieved prior to 2023 rather than during it. Tolkowsky died in March and was greatly mourned by the industry, having attained a reputation as one of history’s most renowned diamond cutters.
Tolkowsky “was a pioneer and a master craftsman who understood the wonder of diamonds like few other people,” said De Beers, where he worked for 20 years as a manufacturer. While there, he cut the 273.85-carat Centenary Diamond.
Part of a famous diamond family, he was known for his ability to “romance” a stone.
Narendra Modi, prime minister, India
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a number of contact points with the jewelry industry in 2023. He inaugurated the Surat Diamond Bourse in December. He also raised a few eyebrows by referring to lab-grown diamonds as “green diamonds.”
However, his most significant move was gifting a 7.5-carat lab-grown diamond to US First Lady Jill Biden during a state visit in June, symbolizing India’s 75 years of independence. Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal proudly referred to the stone as “eco-friendly” in a tweet. The stone’s producer, Surat-based Greenlab, uses only solar and wind energy.
The rise of lab-grown diamonds in the US consumer market — and the resulting impact on demand for naturals — was one of the biggest themes of 2023. Without even using words, Modi may have done more to publicize the product than years of marketing could have managed.
Main image: Rough-diamond sorting at GSS Botswana. (Ben Perry/Armoury Films/De Beers)