Best of British Q&A: Theo Fennell

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Legendary Brit jewellery designer on training, funding and talent.

The January issue of Professional Jeweller was all about celebrating British jewellery talent and looking at what UK companies can do to take their jewels global. Here British jewellery designer Theo Fennell gives his views on the state of the jewellery industry in the UK today.

Professional Jeweller: What makes a jewellery brand British?
Theo Fennell: I certainly think all the design and prototype work must be done in Britain and all one-off pieces and hand work must be done in Britain. All our silverware is made in England, something you can say for very few companies and we design and make all our one-offs, bespoke work and prototypes here in our workshops above the Fulham Road store. It is important to commit to having a workshop and training young craftsmen as well as nurturing creative talent. Again, something that far too few brands actually do, despite what they tell their clients! However, being a British brand is far more about style and originality. It is imbued in some designers and not others. Too many try to ape the big brands and end up just confused, pale imitations. It is about a certain quirkiness and bloody-mindedness; it needs inventiveness and humour as well as superb craftsmanship and attention to detail. It is impossible to copy this creative ethos unless you were born with it.

PJ: What is the extend of your brand’s business abroad?
TF: It is ever growing and we are constantly reviewing our stockists. We feel very strongly that people who carry Theo Fennell need to be partners and really understand our work and love the originality rather than are phased by it. We will go with those sorts of partners wherever they are. Where we are is on our internet site, which is also growing.

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PJ: Have you found some international markets more difficult than others to sell to?
TF: Of course. Nothing is easy in a world governed by a very few monolithic consortia who wield enormous influence in every marketplace, but really original work and tenacity helps.

PJ: What does a British jewellery brand need to succeed abroad?
TF: Originality and integrity. It must be true to itself and not try to ape the local market.

PJ: What was your first steps onto the international market? And did you get any help to put you there?
TF: We were asked to go into a big store in Japan and a big store in America. We had no guidance, no help of any sort and absolutely no funding. It was a seminal time for the business and, if we had known then what we know now, we should have got all three and it would have made a huge difference. Unfortunately the idea of an international British luxury brand has rarely appealed to suits in this country. I now always try and give what little advice I can where possible.

PJ: There is a lot of jewellery talent in the UK but a lot of designers seem to have hit a glass ceiling preventing them from really establishing themselves on the global market, or even just in the domestic mainstream media. What is holding them back?
TF: A lot of it is due to the fact that the British jewellery business as a genuine competitor to the big European brands is not taken seriously. You can feel the poor-relation vibes from every part of the industry. It is too provincial and unsophisticated. Look at how the trade is covered. We have the best raw talent in the world – designers, inventors and craftsmen – but we are just not taken seriously either by the City or, indeed, the press. What investment there is comes almost always from abroad and vast amounts have been squandered on waning British companies. However, it is very difficult to get home support for original or new brands, either financial or in any other way.

PJ: Who do you think the next British jewellery designers capable of taking the leap to international stars are?
TF: Quite a few…Hannah Martin, Jessica de Lotz. I have trained up a few who have been nicked by other brands!

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