The documents that were made public were heavily redacted, but sometimes those redactions were incomplete enough for me to figure out who was implicated.
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I spoke with women who were not included in the lawsuit, and to men who were witnesses and also to men who were not witnesses. I spoke to former Sterling employees and some current ones, around the country — more than three dozen in all. What emerged was not just a list of individual horrors and degradations but an accounting of the systems put in place that allowed the abuse to proliferate and kept it from ever becoming known either to the other women at the company or to the public.
The thing is, it was a good job.
So many of the women I spoke with said it was glamorous. It was fun. The Sterling workers ruled the malls. Malls were alive; they were where everyone was.
And the Sterling women — you could spot them in an instant by their swagger. They were the public face of what was becoming the biggest jewelry company in the world. What is sexier than that? Sterling had trained its staff obsessively. The salespeople were given gemology and diamontology courses.
They knew the chemical components of platinum versus white gold versus yellow gold versus now all of a sudden rose gold.
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All this training made the saleswomen into retail assassins. Or today and tomorrow and always. The guy would nod. Now he had a thing to give and a thing to say. It was also about selling credit cards and payment-protection plans and extended warranties. Many of the women told me that stores had quotas for that, and sometimes, when things got desperate, saleswomen were sent to the food court to flirt with men and get them to come apply for a credit card.
If the customer got home and saw the charge on the receipt, he could call customer service and get it refunded, but it could still count toward the store goal, so win-win. That was not the fun part, but what were you going to do?
It was all in the name of showing how valuable they were in their jobs, how they were willing to do what needed to be done. Sterling says it retired its payment-protection plans in So many of them loved this job.
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Every day there would be something to feed their hearts. They understood that this was about relationships. They kept in touch with their customers; they remembered when it was an anniversary or time for a daughter to graduate from college. It was beautiful to see: I remembered our anniversary. I am compelled to adorn you I love you so much. I am getting down on my knee. How could you not want to be part of that? The saleswomen were rewarded for their talent and their hard work. Michelle, from Cleveland, remembered the first time she received a bonus.
She remembers cashing the check and lining up all the bills at home and taking a picture. And there were incentive trips: Sterling would send you on a vacation to Hawaii or the Caribbean if you exceeded your sales goals. I heard about an incentive trip on a cruise ship that the company had rechristened the Sterling Diamond. I also heard that the ship ran out of alcohol — something I had never heard of happening on a cruise — so that the vessel had to drop anchor and have a helicopter deliver more midsea.
The way the men talked to them; the way the men talked about them with one another, right in front of them. A woman named Rebecca remembered doing inventory one night in her New Hartford, N. There was more. There was a lot more.
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But mostly it was a good job. They all understood that at Sterling, they were part of something bigger than themselves. They were important. They — the saleswoman of fine jewelry, the manager of the store, the customer-facing gateway to gem ownership — they were the lifeblood of a thing. They were valued for it. They were celebrated for it. In sworn statements, the phrase comes up still more. Many people I interviewed credited Nate Light as the architect of modern Sterling. He began at the company in and, before retiring in , was largely responsible for its aggressive acquisition of regional, family-owned jewelry stores.
By , Mark Light, his son, had risen through the company to become chief executive himself. It is Mark Light who, based on my interviews, is the subject of many redacted and nonredacted pages of the lawsuit filings, and who left to tend to an unnamed illness in I tried to contact the executives whose names I came across, but none of my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn InMail or text messages, or emails or phone calls, were returned, and a formal request to interview them through the company was denied. The company culture oozed downward onto regional vice presidents and the district managers and even the store managers.
It was a state of mind, an acquiescence to a culture and the mission to do what you could to perpetuate it. Scott Smith told me that he once had to talk an executive out of trying to coerce a female manager back to his limo; the executive was drunk, and the woman was pleading for help.
The meetings began in the s, when there were fewer managers. Back then, the events were first held in a smallish hotel, like the Fontainebleau in Miami, but as several people I interviewed recalled, they were soon banned by the hotel from returning. Same for the Dolphin Hotel the next year.
Finally they just rented out an entire Disney resort, and that seems to have worked out for them for a while. The women spent months planning for the meeting. They bought the nicest dresses and new makeup; they wore the most opulent jewelry, which they had purchased with their employee discounts.
They might see entertainment like the Blue Man Group. It was a time when you could see your colleagues having sex in a stairwell. The partying began soon after they arrived. The women were served predinner drinks. They were served during-dinner drinks at a table whose centerpiece was sometimes literally a wine bottle. They were served after-dinner drinks. The deals were done over cocktails: Introductions were made at the after-hours bar. Promotions were discussed in the lounge. Or could you party?