The 19th International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA) Congress, which convened in Bangkok from October 12 to 15, 2019, saw its largest ever turnout in its more than 30-year history. The event held discussions about pressing issues in the industry such as sustainability, responsible sourcing and challenges faced by artisanal and small-scale miners versus large-scale industrial mining. A series of speeches and panel discussions also touched base on new consumer and design trends and marketing opportunities in the digital era, as well as updated gemstones grading technologies and standards.
A total of 370 delegates from 26 countries, including the world’s leading gemmologists, miners, retailers, gem dealers and jewellery designers gathered in the Shangri-la Hotel of Bangkok for the 2019 International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA) Congress, held from October 12 to 15, 2019. Participants took the opportunity to discuss policies, exchange ideas, build knowledge, meet old contacts and make new friends at this landmark event.
ICA President Clement Sabbagh used the word “celebrate” several times in his inaugural speech. “Celebrate because we are once again in Thailand, a beautiful and hospitable country with such captivating people, that plays an important role in our industry and has a proud history in production, processing and trading of coloured gemstones. Celebrate as it is really remarkable to have so many professionals in our industry from all over the world, here in Bangkok, not only to discuss the present and future of coloured gemstones and the coloured gemstone industry, but also to set the standards and priorities for our industry for the coming years. The fourth reason to celebrate is to have the opportunity to discuss some of the achievements of our board during the last two years,” remarked Sabbagh.
“We are delighted to have seen the biggest ever participation by industry experts from around the world at this year’s congress in Bangkok,” said Prida Tiasuwan, chairman, ICA Congress 2019. “The increasing diversity of the organisation is reflected in the largest ever presence of female delegates and speakers at this year’s event.”
ICA Congress, inaugurated in Idar Oberstein, Germany in May 1985, is usually held every two years. It enables industry experts to share their latest knowledge and insights with members of the trade, industry professionals and media. ICA selected Thailand, the global hub for coloured gemstones, to be the first country to host its congress for the third time in 1987, 2005 and 2019. “Thailand has a role to play in many ways, from rough to polished, set and worn by end users. Thailand is a leading manufacturing and trading centre, and the future of it remaining in this position is a fair assessment,” Henry Ho, ICA director Thailand, addressed the congress.
“The 19th ICA Congress attracted leading speakers in the coloured gemstone industry from around the world, including Sean Gilbertson, Alberto Milani, Bill Boyajian, Susan Jacques, Gaetano Cavalieri and top executives from retailers such as Chow Tai Fook and Lao Feng Xiang, among many others,” said Santpal Sinchawla, ICA secretary and chairman of the steering committee for the congress.
A panel on the four major gem-trading countries in Asia consisted of Santpal Sinchawla from Thailand, Pramod Kumar Agrawal from India, Altaf Iqbal from Sri Lanka and Dr. Lu Ren from China.
The event also had a panel of Young Entrepreneurs from Thailand, giving a peek into the future of the industry. Speakers included Anurak Sinchawla, Billie Hughes, Maria Belmont and Veeraya Trirotanan.
A two-hour session on responsible gemstone sourcing was moderated by Jean Claude Michelou and curated by Prida Tiasuwan. The session consisted of talks by Charles Lawson, Cedric Simonet and a panel session with Stephan Reif, Rui Galophim and Warren Boyd.
ICA also formally launched its CSR initiative, “Gems Keep Giving” at the congress, which is a charity fund to ensure better conditions and quality of life for many small artisanal miners, cutters and their communities.
The event also announced plans to introduce a new membership status called “Accredited Ethical Member” via an application coinciding with membership renewal each year.
In the gala dinner on the last day of the congress, it was announced that the next ICA Congress will be held in the recently opened IBC Building in Shenzhen, China in September 2020, right after the Jewellery & Gem WORLD Hong Kong (formerly September Hong Kong Jewellery & Gem Fair).
Competing with natural and synthetic diamonds
Bill Boyajian, former president of the Gemological Institute of America and founder and president of Bill Boyajian & Associates, Inc., delivered a speech, saying that synthetic diamonds are eroding the diamond dream, stealing the market share of the natural diamond industry, and are becoming a “replacement” for natural diamonds. Coloured gemstones meanwhile have always been an “alternative, supplemental and competitive” product to diamonds. The coloured gemstone industry is largely unaware of what it can do to become a viable replacement product for synthetic diamonds. A Bain & Company study shows only 10 percent of brides have a coloured gemstone engagement ring. The rise of synthetic diamonds as replacement products for natural diamonds is a unique opportunity for the coloured gemstone industry, especially for rubies and sapphires, “because a fine-quality 2-carat ruby or sapphire is more lasting, enduring, romantic and valuable than a 2-carat synthetic diamond,” Boyajuan cited.
He also commented that at present, there is no “coloured gemstone dream” in the major consumer markets, and trade members have not actively promoted love, history, and tradition with coloured gemstones. “Diamonds are believed to be beautiful, enduring, representing love and commitment and perceived as valuable. Coloured gemstones hold those same values. Fine rubies and sapphires will fulfill much of the ‘Diamond Dream’ better than synthetic diamonds because they are lasting and beautiful and will hold their value, which means something to men and women, and they are more emotional because they are natural,” Boyajian remarked.
He further encouraged the industry to mount fine rubies and sapphires in engagement ring settings, and the suppliers to create and manufacture a bridal line in all fine colours of corundum. He believes an increase in supply will bring in more sales. “The coloured gemstone industry could never really compete effectively with the natural diamond sector, but it can and should compete with synthetic diamonds as these are cheaper replacements that will only decrease in value due to overproduction while coloured gemstones are endlessly beautiful and will hold their value overtime,” he added.
Shi Lihua, chairman of legendary Chinese jeweller Lao Feng Xiang Jewelry, talked about the status of the coloured gemstone business in China as well as prevailing trends. Compared with the European and US markets, China’s coloured gemstone sector was a late bloomer but is characterised by many factors including rapid development with an annual composite growth rate of 12.3 percent. The coloured gemstone jewellery market reached US$2.8 billion in 2013 and US$4.4 billion in 2017. It is expected to grow to US$7.4 billion in 2022.
There is also great potential for development. In China, the trading volume of coloured gemstone jewellery only accounts for about 5 percent of the gold jewellery segment, while those in the US and European markets reached 40 percent. Majority of the coloured gemstone consumption takes place in the first and second-tier cities. With an increase in income, third- and fourth-tier cities can provide an expansive market.
In addition, most products sold in China are semi-precious stones mainly due to lack of consumer knowledge about other varieties of coloured gemstones. Most consumers are interested in tourmaline, topaz, aquamarine, amethyst, agate and amber, among others.
Furthermore, brand concentration is relevantly low while consumption is decentralised. Consumers have no sufficient knowledge of quality and pricing, so the big brands need to up their ante in quality control and marketing. Shi further pointed out that Lao Feng Xiang is planning to develop its coloured gemstone business alongside the diamond jewellery sector, and has set aside US$200 million to purchase coloured gemstones.
The International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA) was founded in 1984 and now comprises over 700 gem industry leaders from mine to market, including miners, gem cutters, suppliers, retailers, trade associations, gemmological laboratories, academia, museums, and so on, from 47 countries, who are devoted to advancing and promoting the knowledge and appreciation of coloured gemstones. As a non-profit organisation, the ICA is the only worldwide body specifically created to benefit the global coloured gemstone industry. The ICA’s global network works to develop a common language for promotion and consistent business standards necessary to improve international communications and trade of coloured gemstones. Over the years, the ICA has provided direct access to coloured gemstones and related information. There is no other international organisation with the same collective access to, and knowledge about, all levels of the coloured gemstone industry, the association claims.