Ben Prior is currently education executive for De Beers Group Industry Services, formerly known as the International Institute of Diamond Grading and Research.
As the company itself is going through a transformation – including a rebrand which adds the De Beers name and a new easy-to-use website to showcase its extensive offer – Professional Jeweller contributor Asha Pitt finds out how Prior got hooked on diamonds and ended up working for one of the biggest names in the jewellery industry.
You studied events and small business management at university, so how did you end up dealing in diamonds?
My mother has been in diamonds for as long as I can remember. She worked for De Beers Group and exposed me to a lot of the industry growing up. So, I had an appreciation for the brands, the business, the terminology, the importance of trust and respect, and pretty much everything that the diamond industry values —except the actual product. It wasn’t until the end of my university studies that I got to really handle the product. I was in Israel, relaxing after my exams spending time with my mother. She had some client meetings and one was with a large diamond dealer. We had dinner with him and noting my interest, he invited me to breakfast the next day. As we ate and talked, he was approached at intervals by people from the Bourse and I realised I was fascinated. By the conversations, by the people and most of all, by the product. I wanted to know everything. From why did grading matter to why different colours were more valuable than others? By the time we had finished breakfast, he had offered, and I had accepted, a three-month internship with his business.
What happened between that moment and you getting a job with De Beers?
I didn’t have any diamond grading qualifications. I was trained in the ‘old way’, so I would be put in a room with 100 decanted parcels and have to grade the diamonds and put them back in the correct parcel; or sometimes they would give me a set of stones and task me with finding its pair. For me it was the best way, as I’ve always been someone who learns by doing. That three-month internship turned into a two-year role, which I only left because I wanted to set up my own business. I retained that dealer as a supplier, to this day. Since I’ve joined De Beers Group Industry Services, I have been able to access relevant diamond grading qualifications, such as the Synthetic Diamond Detection course, Polished Diamond Grading course, Introduction to 4Cs course and online Diamond Foundation course. Except for the latter, these courses are hands-on and designed to give you as much experience as possible, which is great for me. The online course gives you an excellent overview of the diamond industry, is one that can be studied remotely, and has enhanced my ability to convey a diamonds journey to a consumer.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start diamond dealing?
The diamond industry can be difficult to break into as a large percentage of the sector trades on long-term and family relationships. So, I would suggest ensuring that you spend time creating a few great relationships with a handful of core clients and ensure that you are really delivering value. Some of your customers will focus on price, some on quality, some on their business operations and others will simply want you to fit in with their busy schedules. The key is taking the time to learn about your customer and what drives them, then establish where you can add value.
You’re now consulting for De Beers Group Industry Services, what attracted you to the role?
Actually, the role came to me. I was approached, and I was genuinely interested in what De Beers Group Industry Services were proposing. When I was trading, I was receiving a lot of feedback from clients who wanted to convey more about the stories behind the diamonds, as consumers are always asking for this. They wanted to understand the diamond journey and to be able to sell diamonds with confidence, beyond what is on a grading report. I am able to use my experience, as well as my commercial skills which include being able to take an operational view, understand the end consumer’s perspective and also appreciate the product and why it is able to command such a high value. For me, this is a fantastic role as I am able to work with De Beers Group Industry Services to increase consumer confidence in the diamond industry, as well as tell the story behind the diamond and its inherent beauty.
What do you think the biggest challenge for the diamond industry is at the moment?
I think it’s transparency. Everything from the transparency of the market, of the information and knowledge that you give to customers and also through to supply chains protocols. Finally, the product itself, including its origins, true quality and whether it is natural or lab-grown. Everything we are doing at De Beers Industry Services is helping businesses operate with increased confidence, and this in turn builds consumer confidence in the product.
What’s your personal preference — natural or lab-grown diamonds, and what are your thoughts on the latter?
I fell in love with the natural product, and my fascination with natural diamonds has never wavered. These are miracles of nature and my appreciation for the beauty, rarity and inherent value of natural diamonds is what drives me in the industry. Although my view on lab-grown diamonds has changed over the past couple of years, I still believe they are not comparable to the natural product. They clearly have a place as lower priced fashion jewellery, but I do not believe it will negatively impact the core natural market. The reality of the situation is that, just as with any product of technology, the value of synthetic diamonds will decrease as production costs decrease and supply levels grow. We have already seen this happen to a large degree with lab-grown diamonds and when it comes to the things we value most in our lives, people want things with enduring value to mark those moments and emotions. However, lab-growns are here to stay and the main issue for the trade is ensuring transparency and confidence. As long as the product is fully disclosed as synthetic and the differences are communicated honestly, effectively and clearly, from an unbiased perspective, I see no issue with lab-grown diamonds.
What do you think consumers want from the diamond industry? What is driving demand globally, in your opinion?
I think consumers want more accessibility to information about the product and about the entire supply chain. At De Beers Group Industry Services, we are working closely with Tracr, the industry-wide traceability solution, to provide tracking information via blockchain. The rough diamond is assigned a code and is tracked through cutting, polishing, transit and sale. All information, touch points, weights etc are logged; it may sound like simple data collection but it’s revolutionary. It uses a range of leading edge technology to ensure the digital and physical asset are linked, and it offers huge amounts of opportunity for those in the diamond trade. This is so much more than just accountability, it is tracing the steps of the diamond’s journey from mine to market, and that level of transparency and assurance opens up many new avenues for telling the amazing story of natural diamonds.
What’s the best thing about working in the diamond and jewellery industry?
I think the best thing is the nature of the industry itself; it is entirely unique; the people, the product and the processes — where else do you do million-pound deals for products that are billions of years old?
What do you find most frustrating about the trade?
The most frustrating aspect is the pace of change. There has sometimes been a slow reaction in acknowledging challenges and the industry hasn’t always acted to resolve them as quickly as it might have done. However, I do think that the times are changing, due to educational and technological advances.
Where do you see yourself in five years, will you still be dealing with diamonds?
I very much see myself still in the diamond industry, quite possibly still working with De Beers Group. We have a five and a ten-year strategic plan, that will focus on us providing a broader educational offering and on a wider variety of platforms, so that they can be accessed pretty much anywhere in the world. I joined De Beers Group because I wanted to make an impact on the industry itself, and I do believe that the De Beers Group Industry Services team can do just that.