By Fabien Gaussorgues
We have worked with jewels and plating factories for years. With time, I realized that their knowledge is far below what one would expect from industry experts. And that lack of understanding can lead to terrible problems for the customer.
Many of the relatively inexpensive jewels are made of brass and plated with yellow or white gold. Poor plating can lead to fading color, or, worse, to a greenish effect on the user’s skin. Everybody recognizes it as poor quality.
What is happening in this industry? Are they cheating the buyers, or are they simply careless?
The answer for the jewellery industry is the same as that for most other industries in China. It can be summed up as below:
- Profit maximization with a “calculated risk” approach — what others have called ‘quality fade‘;
- Reliance on so-called experience — not on facts and objective experiments;
- Buyers who don’t define their quality expectations clearly enough.
Here are a few examples.
1. Profit maximization with a “calculated risk” approach
This is not specific to China, obviously. But things are a bit more complicated for buyers in China.
Suppliers consider that, once the goods are shipped, they are approved, paid, and the transaction is fully completed. There are a few reasons for that:
- High logistical costs;
- The fact that the process to return jewels is a nightmare;
- Customs clearance (cost and time) at both the supplier and the buyer sides.
What does it mean? Manufacturers, based on their experience, try to ship products that are as cheap to produce as possible, and yet are likely to be accepted by the buyer.
For example, if a buyer is asking for 1um gold plating, the jewels might only have a gold layer of 0.5um.
Is that cheating? Yes from Western standards. “Only if it is found and is obvious” is the Chinese response. The factory knows they can argue that the thickness of the plating is hard to control, and they can often get away with it.
2. Reliance on so-called experience — not on facts and objective experiments
This is a surprising finding for most buyers. Chinese factories in general barely have an R&D team. Their expertise is based entirely on their intuition (which they call their “experience”), and unfortunately it can’t be fully trusted.
Side note: as Daniel Kahneman explains, professionals should only trust their intuition when they learned a skill under two conditions:
- The environment is stable over time (but is this the case? Plating factories seldom control for temperature and humidity!)
- They get regular feedback from the environment (do their buyers give them quick and clear feedback? Usually not true.)
When buyers bring a new case to deal with, the supplier tries to remember similar cases. This might work fine in a factory that has been in business for many years, has kept a stable staff, and has good problem solving abilities. It won’t work in a small workshop that was started recently.
A typical example is the ‘green effect’. It depends on weather conditions, sea shore exposure, and even on the skin type (skin color having an impact on the corrosion of jewels). Most factories try jewels on their staff (Chinese skin) and have no idea what will happen in other environments.
3. Buyers who don’t define their quality expectations clearly enough
Disappointed buyers often write “this not good quality” and have nothing tangible behind that statement.
In some cases, the buyer asked for the plating to last for at least 6 months or 1 year. That’s better than nothing. But some factories see this requirement, confirm the need for 1um (or sometimes for 0.5um) gold plating, offer a competitive price, and are likely to get the customer’s business.
For a case of greenish effect on the skin, I called and discussed with tens of Chinese factories. The result was surprising. A few (yes only a few) provided real expert feedback. Most of them provided different requirements (some of them scientifically ridiculous) and said “do not worry, we will provide great quality if your client buys from us”.
Plating, be it on jewels or other products, is an expertise area that most factories haven’t mastered. If plating is critical on your product, you might have to acquire the knowledge to guide (or force) your suppliers to be compliant with clear quality standards.
How to check plating
There are mainly two ways of checking the plating on samples taken randomly out of production:
- X-ray — fast, cheap and not very accurate. Can show all the layers.
- Cut and check the thickness with a microscope, and check composition too — to be done in testing lab. Relatively expensive.