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Apr 14, 1994 2:50 PM  
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The Death of Ricky Chotin: Is the Industry to Blame?

By Jane Everhart

I didn't know Rick Chotin very well, though I interviewed him on

the phone three or four times, sometimes for as long as an hour

at a time, in the course of researching my articles on the

fracture-filled scandals in St. Louis. Unfortunately, most of our

taped conversations were "off-the-record" at Rick's request-

meaning I could not write about many of the things we talked

about. Most reporters will honor such a request because

even an "off-the-record" interview will grant us some insight

into a story. But it also means that we often know a great deal

more about a story than we are able to write. I still

have those tapes of Rick's voice somewhere in my desk, but I

don't have the heart to listen to them again. They are a voice

from the grave now: Rick died on March 7 from a self-administered

dose of the "Jewelers' Cocktail"-a cyanide solution used for

treating gold. He was only 44 years old. I shall respect

Rick's request, even after his death, and what he told mewill

remain "off-the-record," but I would like to share with readers

my own feelings and opinions about Rick and what happened to him.

Rick was a charmer: He was loquacious, with an easy

friendliness and a quick intimacy. He didn't hold back any

details of his complicated medical and personal problems. If the

photo he sent us is any indication, he was also very good

looking, although there is a haunting, almost pleading, look in

his eyes in that photo. It seemed to me he looks, in that photo,

like a contrite little boy who has been caught with his hand in

the cookie jar. Above all, Rick wanted to be liked. He wanted

to be popular. Listen to a letter-to-the-editor that was

published in a St. Louis newspaper shortly after his death:

"Jeweler Rick Chotin had his share of problems both in

business and his personal life. But having known Ricky since

early childhood, I would like to share what kind of person he

really was. Ricky was kind to everyone. He was the most well-

liked person all the way from elementary school through

senior high. He had a way of making people feel good about

themselves. Although he was very popular, he would be nice to

everyone at school. He had a way of smiling or saying

something to make you laugh when you walked by him. He gave

so much of himself to both friends and strangers. Ricky

was very charitable. He was constantly giving to a variety of

good causes. I saw Ricky a couple of weeks ago. Despite all

his problems, he was still wearing that smile. Ricky will be

dearly missed by those who truly knew him." Susan Frank

Creve Coeur

I gradually came to believe that Rick Chotin sold

fracture-filled diamonds without telling people that the stones

were treated not so much to make more profit-after all, the

Kawin-Chotin store, in business for 40 years or so, had been

doing very well even before treated diamonds came on the market-

but to do people "a favor." He could sell them a beautiful

diamond for far less money than they had to pay elsewhere, and

that made him feel good. (Although the added profits must have

helped, too: There is nothing like affluence to enhance one's

popularity.) In fact, Ricky sold fracture-filled diamonds

without disclosure to many of his closest friends, including, we

heard from other sources, to his physician and his golfing

buddies. I suspect he thought he was doing them a good turn.

What mattered to Ricky was that his customers got a

beautiful diamond they could afford, and that they were grateful

to him. He may have even "forgot" that they were fracture-filled.

It's easy to do that when you're selling so many diamonds daily.

If Ricky ever realized that what he was doing was

fraudulent, he must have pushed that knowledge somewhere into his

subconscious mind, and soon it didn't exist for him at all.

People do that. In fact, Ricky seemed somewhat baffled

by station KSDK-TV's expos of his selling practices. He didn't

quite understand what the furor was all about: Customers got what

they paid for, didn't they? Maybe they weren't told that the

imperfections in their diamond had been filled with a glassy

substance, but would that really have mattered to them?

It turned out that it did matter to them. After the

expos, hundreds of customers besieged his store for refunds, and

Ricky tried to give them their money back for as long as his

funds held out. That, too, was in character for him. As

he had tried to be a "good guy" by giving people "bargains," now

he tried to be a good guy by giving refunds. In the end,

Ricky lost everything dear to him: his wealth, his health, his

good name, his popularity. How responsible for Ricky's

tragedy is the industry that plied him with merchandise that was

so tempting and easy to sell without disclosure of its secrets?

In a way, we are all responsible: dealers, treaters,

customers, other retail jewelers, the media, the World Federation

of Diamond Bourses-we are all to blame. The Missouri

Attorney General said the Chotins had been selling treated

diamonds without disclosure since 1986-or about seven years. In

those years, how many in the industry looked the other way?

Surely his suppliers were aware that he was selling the

stones without disclosure; you had only to go into his store to

see that there were no placards, no brochures on counters, no

information about enhanced diamonds. Did the treaters and dealers

engage in a silent, ongoing complicity? Are they to blame for

continuing to provide treated products to a retailer even when it

is evident that there is no disclosure going on? Should

the retail jewelers in the St. Louis area, who must have known

what was going on but kept silent, take their share of the blame?

(Why did they keep silent so long? Some speculate it's because

some of them were doing the same thing. But why did the honest

jewelers stay silent?) Customers, too: Ricky didn't

force them to buy; they came to him looking for an unrealistic

bargain and then were angry when their dreams turned to glass.

Is the World Federation obliquely to blame for so

belatedly coming out with its resolution against selling

fracture-filled diamonds without disclosure? Why did they wait

until 1993, at least nine years after fracture-filled diamonds

hit the market, leaving an ambiguity in the marketplace about

whether or not selling these products without disclosure is

unethical or illegal? Ricky is gone. By punishing

himself, he denied us the opportunity to punish him. He had his

faults and weaknesses, but surely he did not deserve the death

penalty for his infractions. But the treaters, the

suppliers, go on. They are already swarming over the leftover

goods at the Kawin-Chotin store, sucking them back into the vast

distribution machine that will deposit the goods in Dallas and

Detroit and Dubuque. The beat goes on. There is a story

here of epic, Shakespearean proportions. It should be told at

conclaves and conferences and passed down through generations of

jewelers. Let's make sure that Ricky Chotin's death was not in

vain. There are other Rickys out there.

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