It’s difficult to break in to and not for the faint-hearted, but the joy and excitement of dealing in gems provides ample compensation
In ordinary life a customer with ready cash offering to pay a premium for a product would be feted by traders. There is nothing ordinary about the exclusive world of diamond trading, however, and when Vashi Dominguez took his savings to the dealers of Antwerp, none of them would sell him their stones. “I went to over 100 offices in three months,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why, if I had the money and was prepared to pay any price, they wouldn’t sell to me, but it’s a very closed industry based on trust and dominated by generations of the same families who want to preserve its culture. They’d ask me if anyone in my family was in diamonds and when I said no they’d show me the door.”
Eventually he found a Belgian dealer who was unable to resist a cash customer prepared to pay any price to get a foot in the door and this one transaction confirmed him as acceptable in the eyes of the other traders.
Dominguez, 34, had abandoned a law degree in 1998 to set up an electronics business before realising that his passion lay in diamonds. “As a child in Tenerife, I’d be taken to jewellery stores by my mother and I remember admiring the rings that cost as much as a car,” he says. “I had contacts with jewellers on Tenerife and had examined what they sold and I’d read every book on gemmology I could lay my hands on, but I realised that that was not enough to become a dealer. The secret is in the buying, not the selling. The price depends on who you are and how much you know and since it’s such a competitive market, negotiation skills are essential.”
In its nine months of trading, the electronics company had made him £100,000 and Dominguez used this to buy his first diamonds from the obliging Belgian dealer. He had already agreed with the Tenerife jewellers that they would purchase a certain quantity from him in return for exclusive deals and, once he had wooed wholesalers in Belgium and India, his business quickly grew. “The secret is persistence and persuasiveness,” he says. “I would travel to India every month and barter the prices down. I don’t take no for an answer.”
The path to a dealership is not always so gruelling, according to James Riley, CEO of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A) and himself a sixth-generation gemmologist. He admits, however, that the sector can be incestuous and discriminatory. “It’s a high-security industry so if you’re new to it you can’t just walk in and say you want to buy on credit, you need to earn trust,” he says. “But you can start with no previous experience in a junior role with a stone dealer or jeweller and gain experience and contacts as you work your way up. Or you can do a diploma through our association or our main rival, the Gemological Institute of America and start higher up, although experience is the only way of learning this business.”
Dominguez reckons the joy of gemstones amply compensates for the toil of acquiring them and it was the hope of discovering something new and remarkable that fuelled him through the slog round global wholesalers. “The excitement is in the uniqueness,” he says. “You open a parcel and you don’t know what you’re going to get. I look at thousands of diamonds every year and I’m always seeing new imperfections and characteristics, but the really showy ones – I once held a pink 40 carat diamond worth $40m – don’t do it for me. There’s so much social status attached to them that they become almost like brands.”
Despite the spectacular sums involved, it requires expertise to make riches out of diamonds. “The most expensive stone I ever sold was £5m, but the profit was less than £50,000,” he says. “You deal with a lot of big numbers, but there isn’t always a very big margin in it and, unlike most businesses where the more you buy the cheaper it gets, it’s the opposite with diamonds because there is a finite supply.”
Dominguez now sells direct to customers via an online shop and a viewing room in London’s Covent Garden where customers can view the stock
He recommends that anyone wishing to sell diamonds on the high street starts as a dealer in order to build up the vital network of international contacts. Gem-A will help novices with lists of local members whom they can approach to gain experience and contacts. It is not, however, a career for the faint-hearted. “Be ready to hit a wall,” warns Dominguez. ‘You have to be prepared to leave what you have and give it your full attention – I was working 100 hours a week building up my dealership. It’s sheer persistence that can make the difference between success and failure in this business.”
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