An interview with Aleksandra Harasiuk, the IAA Office Director.
A new director at the helm of the International Amber Association puts new wind in the sails of not only the organisation but also its members. Which ports would you like to call at and what new lands to discover?
In December 2019, you took over the duties of the office director at the International Amber Association. As an organisation with almost 400 members, operating for almost 25 years, how big of a professional challenge is it?
Definitely a major one! At first, when I was offered this post to succeed the outgoing director, I was wondering whether my skills and interest in amber promotion would be sufficient in an association where expert knowledge is sought after. It is quite a responsibility to work for the industry when one gets to know the story of how the association came to be and sees the records of the activities of such luminaries as Mr. Wiesław Gierłowski or Professor Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz. On the other hand, this year I have celebrated the 25th anniversary of my professional career: the lifetime of my experience and the relationships built not only in Poland and not only in business seemed to me a very useful complement to the contribution from amber scientists, artists and manufacturers to the growth of this organisation. I have practised building relationships with people and global institutions for quite a long time so it was with humility towards amber expertise but also with managerial, commercial and marketing skills that I started work here at the turn of the year, which became a symbolic new chapter. After taking over my responsibilities, I developed an action plan for 2020.
What actions did you manage to put in place before the outbreak?
In January, we managed to seize the opportunity and build an awareness of promoting amber as the Pomerania region’s asset. In February, I had the opportunity to accompany our businesses at the Bride Show in Dubai and meet a representative of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and the manager of the Foreign Trade Office in Dubai for a discussion on how to work together, which we planned to continue at Amberif in March. In April, we were planning a meeting with the wellness sector from the Baltic countries; next, together with one of the most famous fashion brands in Poland, we were to hold meetings with Polish women in various cities. The epidemic made us realize that these plans would have to be postponed until 2021.
The epidemic certainly surprised us all and forced us to look at the world from a completely different perspective.
I must admit that it did not surprise me that much. Working for a project supporting Pomerania’s exporters, in November 2019 I initiated The Art of Export conference. The highlight was a lecture by professional trend analyst Zuzanna Skalska, who—looking outward from the very heart of design in Eindhoven—already saw the approach of “the new normal” and, in fact, VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) times. Considering the geopolitical tensions, climate change and cultural changes taking place around us, it was impossible not to notice that we were inevitably heading for a threshold beyond which a lot would change in both business and society. Our speaker talked about the human perspective, abundance, a return to Homo Faber and Homo Deus, heralding a more engaged, much calmer approach to point out that it would not do for the industry to subordinate labour and raw materials at such a pace. She also cautioned that the point of the overheating of expectations would come soon. So when we heard in March that we would not be able to move freely for a while and that the world economy went into immediate lockdown, I knew we had just arrived at the proclaimed threshold. Which does not change the fact that the situation was completely new and we had to find ourselves in it. With my colleague Małgorzata Siudak, we tried to find the answer to the question “What next?” that many of our members were asking themselves. We tried to get their attention and engage as best we could. In cooperation with two other institutions, we filed a request with Poland’s Assay Office to streamline the assay work, we also held two webinars on online sales, our appraisers continued their work for customers at the IAA laboratory. The time spent away from the office was used to plan future activities and develop new strategies. Mainly those that would encourage IAA members to be more active online: the epidemic has made us all realise that there is no escaping it.
Do you think that the trade in amber products will shift from international trade fairs and old town streets in many European cities to the Internet?
Let’s remember that you can not only sell online but also build relationships, establish contacts, participate in industry events and do branding. The industry has many advantages that are worth remembering. First of all, a well-photographed or filmed piece is our first advantage over service businesses that cannot be showcased without a description. Secondly, the pandemic has brought about an explosion in online shopping: even the most resistant luxury brands with 0% sales in stores have been able to count on online revenue. The CEOs of companies such as Bulgari or one of the Polish jewellery brands declared that from this year on they were increasing their budgets for online sales, regardless of the situation after the pandemic—they would even do it at the cost of reducing service in brick-and-mortar stores. The key is to understand the enormous potential of this channel and acquire the skills to build your competitive edge. With many experts in this area, we are already creating a helpful guide for our industry; it will include know-how about good photography, copyright, branding and social media. The content will also be used by museum and art gallery staff.
I have the impression that, despite being an international organisation, the Association focuses on activities dedicated to its Polish members.
Although you can’t see all our activities, which today focus on writing applications and other documents, we expect to participate in an international project under which we will research innovations in jewellery fakes. The world waits for no-one and more and more new methods to make fakes emerge in the jewellery industry. Participation in this project is the next step for the amber industry, which even today should prepare to work as if it were making a Hollywood blockbuster. Worldwide, the knowledge gained and put into practice will become more and more important, while the system for generating it will increasingly resemble the production of Hollywood movies: a group of international experts will gather together and present the results of the team’s work after their project is finished. Building all kinds of partnerships is no longer extravagant, it’s our new daily life. That is why celebrating the international character of the Association is our new reality. We want to engage more members from abroad and we wish for everyone to find something for themselves.
International cooperation and local involvement—can they be reconciled?
Let’s look at the plans of the largest fashion houses where, after the epidemic and as a result of all kinds of actions by environmental activists, managers have announced that they will give up seasonal shows and new collections. Climate protection is at the heart of this decision but there is also a change in fashion consumer trends. The younger generation buy less and are even now paying attention to manufacturing conditions and the quality of materials. It’s good to seize the opportunities offered by an Internet presence today—to learn to talk to our business partners. They are waiting for our companies, our artists and designers to get in touch with consumers. A broker or a gallery owner is unable to build a brand for a manufacturer. This is why the Association and all our activities will be dedicated to knowledge sharing: how to achieve this, how to learn to present your products better, how to educate buyers for whom amber jewellery can be a treasured possession. We also plan to return to amber education and we can do it across borders: online or at meetings that we hold, lectures and trade fairs. Locally, our dream is to stimulate the creativity of young artists and build intergenerational products. We want the industry to tap into the local trend and inspire designer creativity in a world of global McDonald’s and Gucci. It is not true that amber is just grandma’s trinket. Just as it is not true that luxury loves only diamonds. Let’s see amber as an inspiring way to tell the story of the Baltic Sea Region. And it doesn’t matter if the amber artist works in Gdańsk, Kaliningrad or Rivne. What’s important is to believe that we hold the Gold of the Baltic in our hand, and that it is worthy of both attention and desire.