Best off British in Birmingham

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WB Group on striving to bring jewellery manufacturing back to the UK.

When manufacturing moved to the far east the industry benefitted but as retailers find it easier to compete on service than price, is it better to bring manufacturing back to the UK? Rachael Taylor travelled to birmingham to meet the team at WB Creative Jewellery Group who say the answer is yes.

UK manufacturing has been on the slide for generations but there are a few bastions of the British jewellery trade fighting to keep jobs in the UK and WB Creative Jewellery Group is one of them.

WB Creative Jewellery Group is a name familiar with nearly everyone in the trade – or at least its sub businesses Domino, Weston Beamor and Advalorem will be – but the business has been going through some radical changes over the past few years that include introducing new facets to the business such as an in-house sub Assay Office, on-trend design department, leaps forward in complicated diamond setting techniques, a distribution arm and general company expansion.

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The main driver behind the growth at the business has been founder Patrick Fuller’s desire to keep jewellery manufacturing in Britain. As well as nostalgic reasons for keeping this sector of the jewellery industry alive in the UK, he also sees strong commercial value on offering retailers a service based here.

As globalisation took hold, much manufacturing moved to the Far East – including jewellery production – to take advantage of cheaper labour costs, and so help retailers make better margins. While there are obvious financial advantages to using such services, there are disadvantages too – long lead times, communication problems, potential unethical working practices, and so on.

“Mass production of jewellery based in the UK was moved to the Far East and we all benefitted but it still took business away,” says WB Creative Jewellery Group managing director Andrew Morton. “Before, we used to go through too many steps, then the retailer went straight to the component maker and cut out the middle man.”

Morton goes on to say that, in his personal estimation, there are about 2,000 to 3,000 less jobs in jewellery manufacturing in the UK after what he calls “the Ratner phenomenon”.

By building up its manufacturing base the group hopes to have a full menu of services available to retail jewellers and jewellery designers to ensure that if they don’t want to go abroad, they don’t have to. However, setting up such facilities is not cheap.

The company has invested £1.5 million in new machinery alone over the past three years, priding itself on buying in technically advanced machinery. One of its latest additions is a Benzinger machine that allows it to carry out micro pave diamond setting, a job that it previously had to send abroad.

Weston Beamor operations director Chris Fenwick explains that while this machine was a huge financial commitment for the group, it has allowed it to bring one more service back into the UK. “This used to be the type of jewellery that you would only ever buy from overseas,” he explains.

WB still buys in the majority of its micro-pave jewellery from the Far East but Domino sales and marketing director Andrew Sollitt confirms that the long-term plan is to create this product solely in house at its factory in Birmingham. He also says that the group is making moves to bring back wax setting to Birmingham, another technique that it still relies on the Far East for.

The WB Group was set up 30 years ago in the same city it resides in today and when it was originally founded its sole purpose was to sell castings. The business has moved on from those days, although many retailers and designers might be surprised to discoverer by just how much.

The business is split into Weston Beamor, which is the part of the business that still deals in castings, Domino, which sells finished jewellery, and Advalorem, a new addition to the business that acts as a UK distributor for high-end international brands such as Italian gold jeweller Vendorafa.

Each sector of the business has evolved, even its most traditional arm Weston Beamor; what started out as a castings wholesaler has evolved into a total solutions business for jewellers, be they students or luxury brands.

Casting is the main crux of the Weston Beamor business and it prides itself on being able to cast most major alloys from almost any solid object – be that metal master pattern, carved wax or even, as it has done in the past, found objects. But it can also work with jewellers to create castings from CAD or even just a pencil sketch.

The one service that Weston Beamor doesn’t offer, however, is design, but this is where the process is passed on to sister company Domino.

The Domino business is the largest part of WB. It employs 114 people, who have about 1,300 years of experience between them. Last year it processed 200 kilo of platinum, 225 kilos of 18ct gold, 735 kilos of silver and 736 kilos of other alloys.

Domino is probably best known for its classic fine stock jewellery, but this department too is moving with the times and it now has a creative design team of five led by Domino head of product development Naomi Newton-Sherlock.

Newton-Sherlock leads her team in the creation of new finished product lines but can also work with jewellers to help create bespoke projects. She also spends a large chunk of her time travelling the world and attending different trade shows to pick up on new trends and techniques. In addition to this, the Domino creative team work with jewellery trends analysis business Adorn Insight, the same company that writes monthly trends report for Professional Jeweller, to make sure it is hitting the relevant market trends.

In the creative suite at Domino – a showroom-style space that was opened in April 2010 – Newton-Sherlock talks through some of the trends she is working with at Domino, which include an underwater theme, a floral trend, a romantic style and a futuristic twist. As she talks she refers to mood boards that feature images of fairly out-there design influences from fashion and jewellery as well as other design arenas.

When she pulls out the tray to show the product derived from these trends it is impressive to realise that she has taken these wider influences and boiled them down to commercially savvy styles such as solitaire engagement rings. “People think that designing a solitaire engagement ring is easy, but it’s not, it’s perhaps the hardest thing to do to come up with a fresh twist on it,” she says.

But Domino succeeded in doing so, and while a bird’s eye view will give you an image of a simple single-stone ring, turn it and from other angles you can see the influences of her trips round the world – a floral-inspired setting, a romantically twisted shank, a futuristic 3D effect given by setting the main stone at a different height to others.

“In jewellery people often think that they aren’t buying into trends but they usually are,” she says. “That might be seeing a lot of flowers in fashion magazines and then when buying an engagement ring they suddenly want a floral twist. It can be subtle but we are all influenced by trends.”

Back in the design team’s studio the walls are covered with images from the red carpet, fashion shoots and magazines. The team working under her have all been trained at the bench before joining the design team so while they are young, vibrant and in tune with trends, they have the technical knowledge needed to translate catwalk inspiration into jewellery that works.

As well as catering for the traditional high volume end of the market, Domino is expanding its offer of fashion-led finished jewellery and ring mounts both through its own brands Sienna and Rosabella, as well as unbranded offers. A key focus for the team at present is jewellery – particularly stackable rings – set with cabochons, a fresh new trend that it believes will have huge sellability in the market. “We feel that there is a market there,” says Sollitt. “It’s the post-Pandora customer who is ready for their first piece of jewellery.”

Domino still does a lot of work with diamond jewellery and this is available with or without pre-set diamonds, allowing retailers to use their own stones. For retailers who don’t wish to use their own sources for diamonds WB has a new diamond sourcing division that can offer them that service. It also has a service called the Jewellery Bureau that offers a diamond setting service, something that Morton says retailers are finding increasingly hard to find outside of hubs like Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter or London’s Hatton Garden.

And for customers in Hatton Garden, Domino has recently moved and enlarged a trade counter on the area’s St Cross Street. It has future plans to treble the size of this counter and to double its stock holdings there.

While keeping manufacturing in Britain is at the forefront of the minds of those who work at WB it does have an eye on overseas, but as a British exporter rather than importer. The company has been touting Domino abroad this year, participating in the BaselWorld fair in Switzerland for the first time and it could be set to be a growth area of the business.

And joining Domino at trade shows this year is Advalorem, the new distribution arm of the business, which is perhaps the most revolutionary of all the recent changes at WB.

The subsidiary is London based rather than Birmingham with the company’s Ben Williams moving to the capital to take the helm, working out of an office attached to the Hatton Garden trade counter. Williams says that launching Advalorem has been a steep learning curve but one that has opened up previously unchartered revenue streams for the business.

Advalorem currently has a single client – Italian solid gold jewellery brand Vendorafa – although it is part way through negotiations to sign up others. Due to the precious nature of the Vendorafa product, Williams believed he would solely be working with high-end jewellers but in fact a major part of the UK distribution strategy is working with high-end fashion retailers.

As a result of this unexpected success Advalorem is about to sign up a dedicated PR company that specialises in fashion to push the brand harder in the UK.

Something else that has been unexpected has been additional business for Domino as a result of these new meetings. While the two companies are being run entirely separately, when Williams has been dealing with certain fashion retailers they have enquired as to the rest of the business and one even ended up commissioning Domino to create a range of jewellery that it will sell under its own name.

“[Advalorem] is never going to be high volume or the biggest part of the business but it allows us to talk to different customers,” says Morton. “People asked why we did this in a recession but we believe there is wealth out there.”

There might be wealth out there in the market but there is also certainly a wealth of jewellery expertise and production capabilities within WB Group that is all available in the UK. The past few years have shown an impressive diversification and growth from one of the industry’s stalwart companies and with a great deal of passion leading them ahead in their charge to bring jewellery manufacturing home, the entire industry could be set to benefit from an emboldened domestic market.

This article was taken from the June 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read a digital version of this issue click here.

 

 

 

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