How responsible is the Responsible Jewellery Council?




The Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) has experienced a tsunami of high-profile member cancellations, all questioning the management, or mismanagement, of Alrosa’s RJC membership. This may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Richemont and Pandora Group were the first two out the door, dumping their support for the RJC in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It wasn’t long before another high-profile member, Kering, a French-based multinational, followed suit.

The Watches of Switzerland Group is now also gone, and the UK-based retailer shares the same concern as all of the aforementioned former members – dissatisfaction over the RJC’s inaction. Italian brand Bulgari – part of the LVMH group – is also said to have quit its board position last week.

The backlash we now publicly see has brewed behind the scenes due to the RJC’s failure to suspend diamond mining behemoth Alrosa, of which 33 per cent of the company is owned directly by the Russian government.

The turmoil has also claimed the scalp of the executive director, Iris Van der Veken, who quit on 31 March after three years at the helm. Her resignation follows what is believed to be intense internal disagreement over her organisation’s management of Alrosa’s membership.

The RJC board has been tight-lipped about Van der Veken’s exit and, at the time of publication, there hasn’t even been a public statement on its website announcing her departure. 

In a cruel twist of fate for the RJC, the decision to preserve Alrosa’s membership would prove fruitless anyway. On 1 April – the day after Van der Veken’s resignation – a statement appeared on the RJC website advising that the Russian company had suspended its own membership.

Under the hood

THE RJC EXODUS TIMELINE


» 14 Feb – RJC publishes ‘2022 A New Beginning – The Era of Action
» 24 Feb – Russian invasion of Ukraine begins
» 03 Mar – Alrosa steps down from RJC Board
» 29 Mar – Iris Van der Veken resigns via letter to Board of RJC
» 30 Mar – Pandora, Richemont and Kering withdraws membership
» 31 Mar – Watches of Switzerland withdraws Membership
» 01 Apr – Alrosa withdraws membership
» 04 Apr – Bulgari quits RJC board

Jeweller contacted RJC Chair David Bouffard on 1 April seeking clarification on Van der Veken’s decision to leave the RJC.

We asked if he could confirm industry speculation that she resigned due to her dissatisfaction over the RJC’s handling of Alrosa’s membership following the invasion of Ukraine.

Additionally, if the speculation is incorrect, what are the reasons for her unexpected resignation (if not Alrosa) and whether there had been other ‘problems’ with Van der Veken before the Russian invasion?

At the time of publication Bouffard has not responded.

On the surface, a lot has happened at the RJC in a few short weeks. A few short weeks which pale in comparison to the history of the RJC, which has been operating since 2005.

Beneath the surface however, there are other concerns, all surrounding RJC members and the handling of ‘complaints’.

Practice what you preach

On 14 February, the executive director Van der Veken published an open letter to business leaders in the jewellery industry titled: 2022 A new beginning – the era of action.

The near 4,000-word dictum dealt with wide-ranging issues about dealing with economic and social change and challenges, to which Van der Veken quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

The need for transparency was a major focus of her open letter to the extent that the topic was mentioned four times including her advice to the industry “to create a culture of transparency and accountability”.

The address to the industry seems somewhat hypocritical given the RJC’s lack of transparency over the handling of recent events. However, more importantly, Van der Veken statement seems to fly in the face of a previous issue regarding one of its high-profile members two years ago.

In November 2019, Jeweller reported that international jewellery retailer Michael Hill International’s (MHI) newly launched collection of lab-created diamond engagement rings could fall foul of industry and government regulations concerning misleading and deceptive advertising.

The company’s marketing campaign, website and online store were promoting the rings using terms and descriptions that did not conform to industry standards and, in some cases, could be in contravention of government guidelines designed to protect consumers.

The terminology used on the MHI website and social media channels to describe its lab-created diamonds – manufactured for MHI by US-based Fenix Diamonds – did not conform to industry standards.

Under CIBJO rules, terms such as ‘real’, ‘genuine’, ‘precious’ and ‘authentic’ should not be used as descriptors for man-made diamonds in order to avoid consumer confusion about a stone’s origin.

» Part I:  Michael Hill’s lab-grown diamond marketing may mislead consumers
» Part II:  Michael Hill changes website, removes diamond claims

However, the MHI website made reference to its lab-created diamonds as being “genuine and certified” as well as being “an authentic alternative”. The company’s Facebook page referred to the product as being “real diamonds” and “the real deal”.

In one instance, a MHI Facebook post falsely stated the diamonds are “not synthetic”.

During the reporting of the story it became known that MHI was also a member of the RJC, which has its own rigorous Code of Practices (Code) covering accurate product disclosure.

The MHI website boasted about its membership saying: “As a RJC Member, we endeavour to operate our business in accordance with the RJC Code of Practices and to integrate ethical, human rights, social and environmental considerations into our day-to-day operations, business planning activities and decision making processes.”

The RJC’s Code states: “Members shall not make any untruthful, misleading or deceptive representation, or make any material omission in the selling, advertising or marketing of any gold, silver, jewellery products, diamonds…. Members shall follow internationally accepted standards.”

Under its synthetic diamond and gemstone Code (COP28.2.d), the RJC notes: “Wholly or partially synthetic diamonds or synthetic coloured gemstones shall be disclosed as ‘laboratory created’, ‘laboratory grown’ and/or ‘synthetic’. The description shall be equally conspicuous as the word ‘diamond’ or the name of the coloured gemstone.”

Jeweller investigates

Jeweller contacted the RJC on 27 November 2019 seeking clarification on a number of issues.

Following a prompt response on the same day acknowledging our email and requesting information about the topics on which we sought information, we provided three simple questions to the RJC:

  1. Since the foundation of the RJC, have any members been found to have been in
    breach of RJC Code of Practices?
  2. If yes, how many?
  3. Of those, did any lose their membership?

At that point the MHI story had not been published. The research was continuing so the RJC was unaware of any issues.

Once the RJC received the questions, there was silence, and so five days later (2 December) Jeweller contacted the RJC about providing answers.

The RJC replied saying they could not advise when answers would be provided because, “As a non-profit we have a governance system, which includes an approval process for communications to ensure the information we supply is accurate.”

At that time the MHI story had been published, therefore Jeweller took the opportunity to add two more questions specific to the lab-created diamonds matter.

  • If a RJC member company hosts or republishes “untruthful, misleading or deceptive representation… in the selling, advertising or marketing” of lab-grown diamonds, is it considered a breach of the Code of Practices?
  • What action would be taken if disclosure/terminology/nomenclature is inconsistent on an RJC member company’s website, social media or in other marketing materials?
No answers

What ensued was a lesson in obfuscation and misdirection!

Over the course of 18 emails back and forth from 27 November to 15 December (18 days), with three people at the RJC – including Van der Veken – answers to the first three questions were not provided, and still remain unanswered.

That is, Jeweller was unable to establish whether, in 17 years of operation, any member had been found to be in breach of Code since the foundation of the RJC, and/or if the RJC had cause to cancel any company’s membership.

The RJC, instead, attempted to portray our questions as seeking “confidential information”, however, it was stressed to RJC personnel that there was no request to name or identify any company; we simply sought background information as part of the research.

Indeed, it was pointed out a number of times that the questions required a simple “Yes” or “No” answer.

Not only did the RJC refuse to act in an open and transparent manner with the media, the organisation claimed it had “responded in good faith” by not answering the questions!

Jeweller was provided with a ‘copy and paste’ of the RJC Code of Practices regarding the alleged breaches by MHI, however; at no stage did the RJC personnel answer the three opening questions posed.

To this day we don’t know if any member has been found to be in breach of the RJC Code of Practices and if any were, whether any have had their membership cancelled?

Compare this situation in 2019 – 18 emails with three questions requiring a “Yes” or “No” response – to the more recent open letter by Van der Veken calling on business leaders in the jewellery industry “to create a culture of transparency and accountability”.

Note that the RJC About Us page states: “We are the world’s leading standard setting organisation for the jewellery and watch industry. We promote standards that underpin people’s trust in the worldwide jewellery and watch supply chain.”

To this day, there has been no disclosure or transparency about member breaches of its Code of Practices; and yet the organisation preaches the need to “underpin people’s trust in the worldwide jewellery and watch supply chain”.

How can these two, seemingly, contradictory positions be reconciled by the RJC?

Michael Hill outcome

MHI responded to Jeweller’s reports about its lab-created diamond promotional material potentially misleading consumers by making several changes to its marketing and advertising.

In the website’s ‘Knowledge & Advice’ section, the description “not synthetic” was removed, while an image of a 12-page consumer information brochure – which made the claim that Fenix created diamonds are “not synthetic” – was also quickly removed, along with the link to download the document.

Other modifications, such as a statement which originally read, “Why a created diamond? They are an authentic alternative,” was changed to, “Why a laboratory-created diamond? They are a quality alternative.”

The company also removed the following information: “Fenix does not create diamonds, but rather creates the conditions that allow diamonds to grow just as they do under the Earth’s surface” (removed text emphasised).

When Jeweller contacted MHI concerning the information that could potentially mislead consumers and was most likely in breach of the RJC Code of Practices, a company spokesperson made the bizarre statement that the retail chain has “a heritage of disrupting the market for more than 40 years”. 

It also claimed to be the first major Australian and New Zealand jeweller to launch lab-created diamonds, both statements had nothing to do with misleading consumers.

Answering questions about its use of terms such as ‘real’, genuine’ and ‘not synthetic’ in its marketing campaign – and whether it had breached the RJC Code – the spokesperson said: “As we work towards establishing a new category of diamonds in Australia, we are also keen to engage across the industry with peak bodies as they evolve and refine the accepted terminology for describing laboratory-created diamonds.”

The search for answers continues

Following the MHI investigation and articles, readers may be wondering if the RJC took any action against its member. Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer to that question.

The RJC Code provides for a formal disciplinary process against a member and you may also be wondering what the outcome of that process was, if action was taken. We can’t answer that either!

Further, has any RJC member ever been found to have breached the RJC Code of Practices? And if ‘yes’, how many and has any company had its membership cancelled?

These questions also remain unanswered.

Is this the same “culture of transparency and accountability” that former RJC executive director Iris Van der Veken – and presumably the RJC Board – demands of the rest of the jewellery and watch industry?

While some may think that these are isolated issues, Jeweller is aware of other matters that could warrant further investigation. 

So many questions and, as of today, so few answers; and all of this from an organisation that preaches transparency and accountability.

Perhaps the most important question of all will need to be answered by the international jewellery industry itself: How responsible is the Responsible Jewellery Council?

 

Feedback

Do you have any comments or feedback on this story or the RJC in general?

 

More reading
Michael Hill’s lab-grown diamond marketing may mislead consumers
Michael Hill changes website, removes diamond claims
Russia causes turmoil at RJC; Executive director resigns
Exodus from Responsible Jewellery Council over Russian inaction
Alrosa steps down from NDC and RJC; assures India business as usual
Pandora pulls out of Russia and Belarus, donates $1 million to UNICEF
 

 





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