In a people-oriented business like the gem trade, good manners are especially important. Bad behavior will catch up to you. It will cost you money, connections, and favors — and you might never know what you’ve missed. If you’re just getting started, some pointers on gem business etiquette will help. [Reading time: 11 min]
Edwardian sapphire and diamond tiara

Historically, rules of etiquette covered who could wear what jewelry and what gemstones in specific situations. For example, in Edwardian times, tiaras were mandatory at court functions, but their height was dictated by the wearer’s age and status. Today, few people apply rules to jewelry and gem use. However, like any business, the modern gem trade works more smoothly when its participants follow some basic rules of etiquette. Some may seem obvious, some might surprise you, but violating these rules could have serious consequences, especially for newcomers to the business. Edwardian gold and silver tiara with sapphires and diamonds. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and London Auction Rooms Ltd.

Nobody is Perfect

Several of my friends in the gem trade read this article and contributed their thoughts. They asked me: “This is all true, but do you think people will listen?” My answer is… not everyone. Probably not the guilty parties. However, maybe, just maybe, new people getting into the business will listen.

Of course, nobody is perfect. However, if you try to practice gem business etiquette, things will go easier for you.

Keep these basics in mind when you’re at a gem show or other business venue.

Don’t Interrupt

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a gem show and had people interrupt me while I’m conducting business. Sometimes unintentionally, sometimes intentionally. People can be clueless or, even worse, rude and obnoxious. I’m not talking about people just being friendly and saying “Hi” as they walk by. Nothing wrong with that.

If you see someone doing business, or trying to, wait patiently until they’re done. (If it’s a private conversation, stay out of hearing, too). You wouldn’t want people disrupting your business deals, so extend that courtesy to others. If you interrupt people, you’re likely to annoy them. Annoying the people you want to do business with is just self-defeating.

If you see that the person you want to talk to is busy, it’s OK to wave and say “I’ll be back later” or ask “How long will you be?” Then, move away. If you’ve set up an appointment ahead of time, you can say “I have an appointment, but no hurry. I can wait a few minutes until you finish.”

Never Reach

If someone is looking at some gem rough or other merchandise at a booth, store, or wherever, wait until that person finishes before searching through the material. Don’t reach over someone’s shoulder. That person is working. Never reach into someone else’s work area. Either wait your turn or ask the person politely if you can look, too. Whether yes or no, respect their reply. If the person says no, say thanks anyway and come back later or wait on the side patiently until they finish.

Sometimes, someone will beat you to a particular piece of rough. Tough. That’s life. Besides, they may not have the money and/or the knowledge to get the best stuff. Also, there are always more booths to visit and rough to examine. So, while you’re waiting, have a look around. You might beat them to another piece.

Remember Where You Are

Only do business where it’s appropriate. Never do business in someone else’s booth or store. What do I mean? If you’re in someone else’s booth or store and you see a customer, never solicit business away from there. Don’t conduct business anywhere you don’t have specific permission to do so.

The people operating a booth or store paid for their space. You’re just a guest. If they can’t help a customer and turn to you and ask if you can help, they’re doing you a favor. Then, and only then, is it OK to talk business with their customer in their store.

If you make a sale to that customer, you owe the owners a favor in return, at the very least. I generally find it fair (and a good idea) to offer them a small percentage of the sale. They may or may not accept your offer, but you very likely made friends with them. They might even be willing to help you in the future. (On top of all that, you also made a sale. Gem business etiquette does pay off).

Always Be Polite

You may never know whom you’re really dealing with, so be polite. What do I mean? For example, almost all rough dealers, myself included, have other people representing them and showing/selling their rough at gem shows. This is actually a pretty common practice, so keep it in mind.

Some people think they’re pushing around nobodies at gem show booths, so they feel they can act like jerks and get away with it. Don’t be one of those people. Word gets around. Nobody wants to deal with someone like that. Rude behavior will cost you dearly. It will have ripple effects throughout the vendor’s network of gem trade contacts. You may find yourself frozen out of deals and you’ll never know why.

Don’t make assumptions about people when you’re doing business. Be polite.

Don’t Waste People’s Time

Time is valuable. If you’re just window shopping, tell the dealer you’re just looking. That way, the dealer can focus on other customers who may be interested in buying. If you see something later that piques your interest, you can always ask about it. Believe me, dealers will appreciate your courtesy.

Try to keep what you’re doing in perspective and respect a seller’s time and patience. After all, there’s a huge difference between someone buying $10 worth of merchandise and someone buying $10,000 worth. (Ironically, the person buying $10 worth of merchandise can take hours, while the person buying $10,000 worth often makes the deal and leaves in just a few minutes). 

Wholesale is Wholesale

If you go to a wholesale equipment or gem show, remember that pricing is confidential. Wholesale is wholesale for a reason. People that get into a wholesale show are all supposed to be in the gem business and serious about being in the gem business.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. I’ve seen people at wholesale gem shows who had no right to be there. They may have a business license but no actual gem business, or they may be hobbyists operating under false pretenses. These same people brag online about how cheap they bought rough and other items. Of course it’s cheaper. Wholesale is meant for people trying to make a living in the jewelry and gemstone business.

Trust me, dealers and manufacturers take a very dim view of anyone broadcasting the cost of their goods publicly — especially anyone in the trade who should know better. As for those people entering wholesale shows through underhanded means, gem show promoters as well as government tax and business licensing bodies are cracking down on them.

Cash Talks

This one is more a simple piece of advice than gem business etiquette. If you’re buying gem rough, carry or have access to some cash. Don’t get yourself in an awkward situation where you’ve found some great rough and made a deal with a vendor, just to discover they don’t take plastic. Lots of dealers from overseas at American gem shows don’t take credit cards. Wholesale vendors, American and foreign, often only want to deal in cash. No cash, no deal. If vendors already know you, they might take a check, but don’t expect this from vendors who don’t know you. 

If you’re worried about carrying large amounts of cash, take traveler’s checks (or find a nearby ATM to make a withdrawal).

When in Doubt, Ask

Remember, you’ll meet some very talented people in the gem trade. Most of them will try to help or trade information if you’re polite. You might even make some friends. You can learn a lot.

Again, be respectful. Sometimes a short but sweet answer is all you can get.

Beyond the Faux Pas

Unfortunately, someday you might encounter something more serious than just a breach of gem business etiquette. Hopefully, you won’t be the person causing these problems. However, you should be aware that these things do occur.

Here are a few examples of actual incidents I’ve experienced at gem shows and other situations.

“My Long Lost Buddy”

A few years ago at a gem show, I was discussing pricing and shipping with a friend who manufactures lapidary equipment. Suddenly, a guy approached us and honed in on our conversation. He acted like I was his long lost buddy.

Basically, this guy was trying to get into the lapidary business. He knew I was probably getting a better price than most other dealers because I was the manufacturer’s friend and did a lot of volume business. So, he wanted to find out what I was buying and how much I was paying.

I figured out what this guy was doing, so I just told my friend I’d be back later. When I returned, my friend told me the guy had claimed we were buddies and that I said the manufacturer should “give him” my pricing on the equipment.

Needless to say, my manufacturer friend wasn’t born yesterday. He told the guy he’d let him know and send him the papers to become an authorized dealer when he got the chance. Of course, the manufacturer talked to me first, so this bottom feeder didn’t become an authorized dealer and never will. Plus, my friend and I both spread the word about this incident. 

I’ve since heard similar stories about this guy from other manufacturers and dealers. He’s approached other suppliers of mine and told them the same thing: he knows me and, therefore, they should give him my price. He hasn’t learned his lesson. His actions are costing him a bundle. Lots of people won’t do business with him, and he probably doesn’t know why.

“God’s Gift to Faceting”

At a Tucson show, I was going to meet a friend and retrieve a couple of parcels of rough I’d given him to look through. My friend had picked out what he wanted and placed the rest in his case. He was selling some of that rough occasionally. 

When I arrived at his booth, a guy was trying to get my friend to show him the parcels. Observing good gem business etiquette, I waited for them to finish. (But I could see what was happening). 

This guy was just plain rude and obnoxious. He was being an all-around ass to my friend. I have no idea why but this guy thought he was God’s Gift to Faceting.

I caught my friend’s eye and gave him the kill sign. Those parcels became unavailable immediately. I also put out the word to other people representing me at the show. Later, when he tried to buy goods from them, he couldn’t even buy a single piece of rough. 

Remember, be polite.

“The .Gem Files”

Gem business etiquette still applies even if you’re online. And, of course, you can come across the same problems online that you can face at a gem show, too.

I do my best to answer the questions people email to me. Sometimes my answers are very simple and brief, because of my time constraints. Still, I always try to be polite.

Recently, someone emailed me and asked for my .gem files. (Editor’s note: this file format is useful for storing drawings like, coincidentally, gem designs. GEM stands for “graphical environment manager”). I replied, “No, sorry,” and moved on to other emails. I didn’t give it a second thought.

The next day, the person replied with basically a hate email. He said he was insulted by my rude answer and that he’d do his best to do the worst to me publicly whenever he could.

To my knowledge, I never previously met or had any dealings with this person. I thought I’d answered his short, one-line question with a short, but polite, one-line response. (I even refrained from saying what I really thought about giving out my .gem files). Regardless, this person’s nasty attitude alone tells me all I want to know about him.

Later, I found out this person is a “wannabe” gem designer. “His” designs have a lot of similarities to other people’s work. Big surprise. Other people have pointed this out, too. I’ve warned my friends about this guy. After all, turnabout is fair play.

Bad Behavior Will Catch up to You

Sometimes, people just have bad days and act accordingly. Everyone deserves a free pass once in a while. Just don’t make a habit of acting like a jerk. Practice common courtesy and observe gem business etiquette in all professional encounters.

Bad behavior will eventually catch up to you in the gem trade. People will remember bad attitudes. They’ll also remember who tried to pull a fast one on them.