I recently hit a few milestone anniversaries. Within one week, I hit the 35th anniversary of opening my trade shop, the 25th anniversary of buying my retail store, and the 10th anniversary of moving my store from its original home of 60 years, to a new location across town. So I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane and recall some of the things that stand out to me during my time in ‘the industry’.
Who remembers the ‘backline numbers’? Some of you are smiling, and shaking your heads. Some of you are wondering what the heck a backline number is. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, business telephone systems were big, bulky machines. They had a row of buttons across the top that would light up when the phone rang. The first button was the store’s main number. If that one was busy, it would automatically roll over to the next button. If that one was also busy, it would continue to roll over until all of the lines you purchased were busy.
But, most stores had one or two numbers that weren’t programmed into the rollover. They were the last one or two buttons on the far right. Those were the backlines. Those were the secret numbers that only a few people knew. If the backlines rang, you knew it wasn’t a regular customer. It was someone that knew the secret number and always called that number to avoid tying up the main numbers. Family, friends, preferred vendors, and such always called the backline numbers to get right through. And, who remembers, “Mildred, Mrs. Huntsaker on line 3 for you”?
When I was at the university in the mid ‘80s, computers had just come to the forefront, but very few small businesses had them yet. Computers were mostly used by major corporations because they took up an entire room, and they had to have their own A/C systems. As part of my college degree, I had to learn MS/DOS. Yikes.
At this time, every jewelry store still used those big thick books, with green pages, and lots of rows and columns. And, every store had someone that could write really, really small. At Fuller’s Jewelry, her name was Ms. Evelyn. She was in her 60s and had gray hair that she always wore in a tight bun. She wore a smart business suit every day, and rarely smiled. I tried out all of my best jokes on her to no avail. And, Ms. Evelyn always had a frown on her face. I’m guessing from writing so small all of her life.
Then the world was introduced to the fax machine. There’s a joke going around Facebook right now that says;
Can you give me your fax number? No, I can’t because of where I live. Where do you live? The 21st century.
The first time I ever received a fax was May, 1988. I was just out of college and I was the new guy at work. A machine in the corner started ringing, then it made a funny, weird tone, then paper started coming out of it. I don’t recall if I’d even heard of fax technology yet, but I was fascinated by it.
It was only about 2 days before I was on a ‘fax chain gang’ using it for something other than its intended purpose. I’d come to work every morning and there would be about 200 pieces of paper on the floor that was nothing but jokes from my gang members, daily Diamond inventories from companies I’d never heard of, and dozens of unwanted solicitations.
The fax machine went from, this is cool, to…this is useful, to…what a pain in the butt when it got dominated by junk faxes.
It was right about here that Apple introduced the Macintosh computer. It was revolutionary. Up to this point, my training in MS/DOS came in pretty handy. Apple finally made computers easy to use, and this in turn forced Microsoft to develop Windows, which is the bane of existence to the world to this day.
“Do you want to upgrade to Windows 10? Do you? Do you? Do it now. Do it or we’ll do it for you. We’re serious. Upgrade now or we’ll release your browsing history!”
The internet and cell phones were so close together that I can’t remember which one I got first. Well, let me rephrase, “I can’t remember which one the world got first.” I’m always the last one to jump on new technology. But both of these technologies created new challenges in our stores. Usually it came in the form of, “Get off your phone Janet. Carl, quit playing on the internet and get to work.”
With the internet came e-mail. E-mail was cool. You could write something, put an @AOL.com on the end of it, and someone, somewhere in the world would hear, “You’ve got mail.” It was a great business tool. But, like all great business tools, someone figured out a way to ruin it with unwanted solicitations.
E-mail went from, this is cool, to…this is useful, to…what a pain in the butt, when it got dominated by SPAM.
Then a funny thing happened. Somebody said to themselves, “I bet I could sell Diamonds on the internet out of a tiny office in the Diamond District, and never actually own any of the Diamonds that I’m selling. And I can do it a whole lot cheaper than those silly brick and mortar stores.” Then he said; “If only I had a cool name for this idea. How about ‘Blue Nile’? Yeah, that sounds cool.”
And then, all of the brick and mortar people said, “Buying Diamonds on the internet, hah, that’s a dumb idea. Nobody in their right mind would buy a Diamond on the internet.” And the internet laughed, and laughed and laughed.
Around this same time, computers were starting to show up in everyone’s store. And a light bulb went off in another person’s head, and they said, “I bet I could take one of these new-fangled computation machines, and marry it to one of them new-fangled robot CNC thingys, and people can make jewelry with computers. And we shall call it CAD/CAM.” Because Blue Nile was already taken.
And then, all of the brick and mortar people said, “Making jewelry with robots and computers, instead of by hand, hah, that’s a dumb idea. Nobody in their right mind would make jewelry with computers and robots.” And the computers just laughed, and laughed and laughed as they realized they were now taking over the world.
Then text messaging was invented. Now, every jewelry store had to develop a new policy about texting at work. The policy at my store is I don’t care if someone sends you a text and you respond to them letting them know you’re at work and will get back to them when you get off. What I don’t allow is the long running; What are you doing tonight? Sara is coming over, do you want to come too? What movie do you want to watch on Netflix? Let’s binge watch House of Cards. OMG, I’m already halfway through, it’ll take you two too long to catch up, let’s watch Orange is the new Black, etc.
Then texting went from, this is cool, to…this is useful, to…what a pain in the butt when it got dominated by companies ignoring the do-not-call list and sending you junk texts.
And if that wasn’t enough change for one industry, someone said, “Hey, I bet I could take laser technology and modify it to repair jewelry.” And all of the industry just stood there, not laughing. They just said, “Where do I send my money?”
And now in 2017, someone said, “Have you seen the new lab-grown diamonds that are out there? They look real, they are environmentally friendly, they are about 2/3rds of the cost, and people are going to love them.” And, once again, no one laughed. We were all ‘LOL’d’ out by now. We just silently sat here and shook our heads in amazement, thinking; What is this world coming to?
So, as I sit here in my store, on my 35th, 25th, and 10th anniversaries, it makes me wonder how the heck I’ve survived thus far. I’m waiting for next week’s latest and greatest idea that is going to change the industry. But, my torch still works. I can still carve a wax. I can still solder a chain. I can still do an appraisal. And I can still set a Diamond.
At the end of all of these decades, a lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t. Why just this morning I heard, “You’re going to charge me for that?” which was the first complaint I heard back in 1978 on my first day in the industry.