It was an ordinary business lunch at an ordinary restaurant in the Town Center in Virginia Beach, mid-August 2006. For me, it was the closest a man gets to walking on air while eating a BBQ pork sandwich and onion rings at a Red-Star Tavern.
Wachovia, in the form of a loan officer named Tom Mitchell, was wining and dining me and my thriving jewelry chain, which I’d grown to six doors in three years. He’d been sent to me by the worldwide banking giant’s regional president, Jeff Dykman, who not only wanted to take my business from the smaller regional chain of BB&T, but to have me open Store No. 7 proximate to what was to have been the “Wachovia Center” in downtown Norfolk. No one had ever asked me to open another store, and that really fed my ego.
No. 7 was to be fully funded with a Five Year Note, stocked like none of the other six doors, a crowning achievement for our business. It was also something of a personal laurel-wreath: The Five Year Note Tom offered was non-demand—the best kind of note. Unlike a demand note, which a bank can place into default any time they wished, this couldn’t be “called” so long as we made the monthly payments.
As a student of the diamond and jewelry trade, I was deeply aware of what that Note symbolized. On the surface, Tom was just your typical mid-America loan officer, a former jock who’d probably gotten his job because he connected easily and naturally with people, a type more friendly than bright, who from mid-school on was used to people wanting him in their corner, if only to look cooler than they were. I suppose I too was a typical, if aggressive, mid-Americas retailer. No one in their right mind has ever accused me of being cool.
Beyond that Red-Star Tavern, however, lay a banker-jeweler relationship dating back to 15th-Century Venice—roughly the time when diamond merchants in the small Belgian towns of Bruges and Antwerp first learned the secret of cutting a diamond, the world’s hardest substance. Scratch two diamonds against each other to create diamond dust, collect that dust, use it to “impregnate” a stone wheel, similar to one used in pottery, and you’ve created a diamond surface capable of polishing facets onto a rough stone. These merchants had a new and immensely profitable trade. Located principally in Venice for its central position on waterways connecting northern Europe and India (source not only of diamonds but other precious stones, metals, spices, and other commodities), they were the repositories of a new kind of transportable wealth, one capable of funding not only other merchants but the doges of Venice and soon much of Europe’s royalty. It’s a gross oversimplification, but they in essence became the first private bankers, and a powerful, if secretive connection between the banking and jewelry trades was born. It continued: through the growth of nation-states, of the great cities and population centers, the transformation from monarchies to democracy, and with it, the democratization of wealth and the growth of a retailer class, embodied in that Red-Star Tavern by none other than myself.
It was a heady but also perilous time to be a jeweler. The 21st Century had brought a sea-change to the now $85-billion jewelry trade. Globalism, the massive flow of free information and competition at the top of the supply chain had, for the first time, forced a truly free market upon us, rather than the supply-side cartel put in place by the monolithic diamond miner De Beers at the turn of the 20th Century. Supply-chain visibility, accountability, best-business practices, vertical integration, branding, private-labeling, and added value were, almost overnight, becoming hallmarks of a trade that for centuries had been the provenances of kings, criminals, and shadowy monopolies. Those changes brought less proactive jewelers, designers, manufacturers, and even sightholders—the top diamond cutters who received goods directly from De Beers and the other miners—to their knees, and it made millions for those at the vanguard of those changes. The dividing line was pretty clear: The first, losing group were participants who had long relied and profited on price-competition. With prices already sky-high—the dot.com boom had seen to that—the new metric no longer lay in the black numbers artificially embossed on price-stickers and bar-codes, however. With a spiraling growth of the jewelry-buying public’s ability to educate itself (and compete for buying power) on the internet, the secret to margins and growth now lay in adding value to one’s merchandise.