Last updateTue, 22 May 2018 10pm

The Sword of Damocles


Of the many Greek and Roman political philosophers whose writings provided the foundation for modern-day democracy, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who lived during the time of Julius Caesar, was one of the most influential. As a rhetorician and orator, Cicero was without peer, but he was also a superb storyteller. And one of his stories, about a courtier named Damocles, provides an elegant object lesson for those of us who live in these very peculiar times.

Damocles was a subject of King Dionysius, a fourth century BC tyrant who ruled over Syracuse, Italy. Jealous of the extravagant lifestyle that absolute power afforded his monarch, Damocles remarked one day that no life could possibly be better than that lived by his ruler. Dionysius replied, “so, you would wish to trade places with me?” Knowing that he had perhaps overstepped his bounds, Damocles replied “I would never wish for that, my king, but if I could only have your riches and pleasures for just one day, I should not want any greater happiness.” Dionysius smiled, and replied “then tomorrow, you shall have it!”

And so, the next day, Damocles was led into the palace, and all the servants were bidden to treat him as their master. He sat down at a table in the banquet hall, and rich foods were placed before him. Nothing was wanting that could give him pleasure. There were fabulous wines, and beautiful flowers, and rare perfumes, and delightful music. He rested himself among soft cushions, and felt that he was the happiest man in all the world.

Then he chanced to raise his eyes toward the ceiling. What was it that was dangling above him, with its point almost touching his head? It was a sharp sword, and it was hung by only a single horse-hair. What if the hair should break? There was danger every moment that it would do so. You see, Dionysius had set the sword above Damocles’ head to illustrate the fact that the king, in reality, lived in mortal danger every day. Damocles finally begged to be allowed to depart, because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate. Cicero closes the story by posing the question, “(D)oes not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?”

And this brings us to the central point of this month’s article. As I write, in December, it appears that retail conditions have improved. Stores were busy in late November, especially those which chose to promote aggressively for Black Friday, and nearly every store I know is up, some dramatically. And yet, there is a strange psychology at work, because while nearly all of the retailers with whom I speak are happy with today, there is still no question that they fear the future. The Economy, the Deficit, the Euro, Greece, the price of gold, the politicians in Washington, the coming elections... it seems that we are surrounded with sources of instability. And, for the first time in our lifetimes, we have been mired in a recessionary environment for so long that we are now experiencing a “new normal” in which we wonder whether it will ever be possible to recapture the glory of yesterday.

I bring this up because many of you are probably still contemplating your strategies for the coming year. But for those who fear the future, it’s hard, if not impossible, to plan. And how do you take risks, when you don’t know what kind of economic catastrophe may be lurking right around the corner?

At Gems One, we’ve been dealing with this environment, just like you, since 2008. Surprisingly, we’ve also been thriving, to the extent that our sales in 2011 are the highest in the 37 year history of the company. I think there are lessons in what we are doing. Like you, we’re a small business, operating in a very challenging environment, competing against large, well-funded, predatory competitors. There are a number of reasons for our success, but I think I can isolate five attitudes that we have adopted that can also help you thrive (even if there is a sword over your head!).

  1. Embrace change. We live in a rapidly changing environment, and everything goes better when you align yourself, and your company, with the changes that are occurring.
  2. Embrace technology. Increasingly, technology is driving the whole buyer-seller dynamic, at every level.
  3. Be fast. Big does not always beat small, but fast will always beat slow.
  4. Become fanatically customer-centric. Be sure to find out what your customers want, and then be sure to give it to them.
  5. Ramp up your marketing. Everyone has product. What separates the winners from the losers is traffic, and just as a golfer measures the quality of his swing by the trajectory of the ball, so too does the marketer measure the quality of his efforts by the quantity of “butts in the door.” Marketing will be the single most important factor in determining the success of companies, at all levels in the jewelry supply chain, for the foreseeable future.

There is no question that there will be significant challenges in the months and years ahead, but as you look back, that has always been the case, hasn’t it? Any analysis of the history of American commerce clearly illustrates the point that market share is most easily re-apportioned during times of economic duress. Take advantage of the opportunities that avail themselves in these challenging times, and set your company on a path towards success, regardless of the economic environment. And make sure your marketing is fantastic!

Class dismissed!

George Prout is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Gems One Corporation, and can be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at Gems One’s New York office at 800-436-7787.