Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Spring 2021, Vol. 57, No. 1

Jeff Hapeman (Earth’s Treasury)

Unheated Rock Creek blue sapphire.
Figure 1. A 2.04 ct blue brilliant-cut unheated Rock Creek sapphire. Photo by Jeff Hapeman.

How does one prepare for a global pandemic on a scale unlike anything seen in recent history? While it would have taken an extraordinary act of foresight to predict how significantly the world has changed since March 2020, one trend was set in motion several years ago. Increased online presence, especially with social media, proved enormously beneficial to many in the gem and jewelry industry. Jeff Hapeman of Earth’s Treasury in Westtown, Pennsylvania, was at the forefront of this social media trend and shared his views on its impact on the trade since the pandemic and beyond. Mr. Hapeman got his start faceting gemstones (figure 1). However, he has grown his business over the last few years by hiring several designers and bench jewelers and developing what he calls his “mine to finger” approach. By building close relationships with the people producing rough material at gem mines around the world and moving the jewelry-making process in-house, he is able to capture more of the value-added chain in getting rough stones to the end consumer (figure 2).

A ring featuring heated and unheated Rock Creek sapphire.
Figure 2. A ring sourced, designed, and manufactured by Earth’s Treasury displaying a 2.14 ct heated Rock Creek sapphire alongside melee-sized unheated sapphires from Rock Creek. Photo by Jeff Hapeman.

In March, when Pennsylvania went into strict lockdown, all employees of Earth’s Treasury were sent home and asked to continue working on any projects they could. His bench jeweler sorted and graded melee stones, while his designer created new stock pieces. Fortunately, given Mr. Hapeman’s heavy online involvement, Earth’s Treasury was classified as an e-commerce retailer and allowed to open again after only about a month. Of course, there was an immediate plunge in sales in March and into April, but by May sales were picking up. In June, everything took off and business was much stronger than usual. This uptick in gem and jewelry sales is likely related to delayed purchases. As the uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic began to recede and the economy started coming out of the hard lockdown seen in much of the country, consumers had discretionary funds for jewelry purchases that would have ordinarily been set aside for travel or other luxuries. E-commerce jewelers did especially well last summer as the country slowly reopened with new safety restrictions that made in-person shopping at traditional brick-and-mortar shops more difficult.

Of course, this move to online jewelry sales did not happen in a vacuum. As social media continues to take an expanding role in our lives, modern consumers have become increasingly comfortable buying gemstones online at higher price points. Since the pandemic, Mr. Hapeman has noticed that customers are becoming more comfortable with the online purchasing process. Because Earth’s Treasury offers free returns for gems and jewelry by FedEx or UPS, customers are willing to purchase and try something before settling on exactly what they want. In fact, he has stopped private showings at his offices for now and is moving more toward video consultations with potential clients.

The pandemic has dramatically affected not only the way we buy and sell gems but also the supply chains for the colored stone industry. While Mr. Hapeman deals a lot in domestically sourced Montana sapphire, it has become increasingly difficult to source gem rough internationally. In particular, rough exports from Africa have apparently dried up recently, given difficulties in exporting this material to locations such as Bangkok where it could be further distributed around the world. Some major gem cutting centers have also seen a decline in business as their international buyers can no longer visit. As a result, it has become much easier to purchase Sri Lankan stones for recutting. Interestingly, he has seen an enormous amount of tanzanite become available recently, which he speculates may be related to the material being rerouted from the badly stricken cruise industry.

The biggest potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry concerns trade shows. While the rise of online sales had been felt by global gem and jewelry shows such as Tucson for several years, the ability of the industry to survive, and perhaps even thrive, for more than a year without a major gem show may cause many to question whether the events are crucial for their business. As we pull out of this pandemic world, it remains to be seen how major international gem shows will react and adapt.

Aaron Palke is senior manager of research at GIA in Carlsbad, California.