Can British manufacturing compete with overseas?

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The industry speaks on maintaining the Made in Britain status.

British manufacturing is the proud heritage of many brands but with advent of cheaper overseas options, how are British brands competing while remaining true to their roots? Kathryn Bishop finds out the industry’s views.

If you stroll through Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter or along Hatton Garden and its environs, one is hard pressed not to notice the buzzing jewellery trade going on around these streets.

Being part of the British jewellery industry – and, more precisely, being a British manufacturer – conjures up the image of a company that holds fine craftsmanship, attention to detail and originality close to its heart. It also harks back to an era when manufacture was small and refined, long before the advent of mass production.

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Today Britain straddles the divide of wishing to offer traditional standards of manufacture and design development, but to also keep up with the rest of the world and its production output. The result is a tough balancing act of values versus profit, history versus the future. So how is Britain competing?

Britain vs The World
The arrival of mass production marked the boom in jewellery manufacture in China, India and Thailand, where factories churning out precious metal products are able to provide retailers and global brands with identikit jewellery at competitive rates.

It also marked a moment where British jewellery manufacture arrived at a crossroads, and many home grown brands said goodbye to the companies they had worked with on the way up, to make jewellery in a way far removed from many of the core values of British manufacture.

Simon Rainer, chief executive of the British Jewellers’ Association (BJA), says that in a perfect world jewellers could design and make everything in Britain, but at present that is not as simple as the industry would like. “In the perfect world I would advocate British designed, British made," he muses. "However, as a pragmatist, I appreciate that the lure of large orders, or [desire] to hit price points, will take production overseas.”

For jewellery manufacturer and repairs company MakerMends – which has contracts to produce bespoke items for UK multiple retailers – the need to manufacture overseas came as a necessary part of its growth. While MakerMends’ repairs service is run from its Essex headquarters, its jewellery production is carried out overseas in Thailand. Its founder David Lewis says that manufacturing and labour costs were part of the reason for purchasing the manufactory, which Maker Mends acquired in March 2011. “The quality of the workmanship is exceptional in Thailand and we would struggle to find a workforce in the UK that can dedicate as much time to each piece at a cost which is affordable for our customers,” he says. “With our Thai workshop we believe we have found this solution.”

Similarly British fine jewellery brand Alfred Terry has had to split its business between the UK and overseas. Steve Wright, Alfred Terry’s European chief executive, explains that while production in the UK is costlier, it means the end product is of the finest quality.

“We still design and produce several collections in the UK, the rest comes from our factories in India and the Far East,” Wright explains. “It’s impossible to compete purely on price when producing large volumes; to compete we have to ensure that the quality and craftsmanship of our locally produced collections are of an even higher quality than the excellent work we are producing in volume in our factories overseas.”

Birmingham-based Chinese-born designer Fei Liu is also combining the best of both worlds. While Liu is proud to be a Birmingham jeweller, having studied at the Birmingham School of Jewellery, his brand is partly manufactured in the UK and partly in China. Liu says, however, that the focus should be more on making quality product that can be linked to British brand names. “I think that as long as we keep doing what we are good at and persevere, that is how we can best compete [with China and India] and succeed as a very unique part of the world’s jewellery industry.”

One jewellery brand that has British manufacturing at its core is Hannah Martin. The brand’s co-director Nathan Morse is encouraging more designers to manufacture in Britain, rather than overseas, as he believes costs will eventually fall. “We produce entirely within the UK – and are very proud to do so,” he states. “[Making UK manufacturing competitive] is not about what the [manufacturing] industry needs to do, it is in fact what the brands need to do to use British manufacturing. It is obvious that minimum wage and minimum orders come into it, but imagine a day when all British jewellers produced in the UK, then the prices would come down – it’s a game of multiples.”

Investing in People
Emerging talent Jane Gowans agrees that more could be done to drive awareness in the UK of the benefits of British manufacture and to encourage designers to have jewellery made here. She suggests that British-based manufacturers should offer special rates or promote their services more widely, to bring in more clients. “Perhaps manufacturers could create tailored packages for emerging designers and new graduates,” she offers.

Jewellery brand Lucy Q, headed by Lucy Quartermaine, is sold through a number of UK retailers as well as The Jewellery Channel, a combination that has required both UK and large-scale overseas manufacturing to ensure orders are fulfilled. Quartermaine believes that an increase in apprenticeships could help boost British manufacture and its growth. “In order to compete, we need more apprenticeships on the manufacturing side and other special skills here in the UK,” she says.

At London CAD/CAM manufacturer Jewellery Innovations, such an apprentice has been hired in a bid to transfer both modern and traditional skills to a new generation. “Hopefully there will be a return of traditional craftsmanship through apprenticeship schemes,” says Jewellery Innovations’ Mandos Demetriou. “I have taken on an apprentice myself and hope to pass on my knowledge and skills; he will not only be learning traditional hand skills but the manufacturing processes, such as making rubber moulds and casting.”

Pip Beale, design manager at Birmingham wedding jewellery manufacturer Charles Green agrees, noting that Charles Green has always invested in training; something that has enabled it to compete on a higher manufacturing level. “We need to ensure that there are [workers] coming through in the trade who are trained and continue to develop," he says. "Nine times out of 10 we will not be able to compete [with overseas manufacturers] on price, but we can compete on quality, design, speed and customer service.”

Bespoke Britain
For many jewellers, the ability to design and manufacture here in Britain is the leading reason for pride in being a British brand. At a luxury goods level, companies such as Rolls Royce, Mulberry and Church’s shoes have manufacturing plants within our shores and fly the flag for Britain on a global level. But are jewellery brands limited by production volume, owing to their product type?

Michael Hoare, chief executive of the National Association of Goldsmiths, argues that a focus on small-scale jewellery production is the best route for jewellers wishing to manufacture products within Britain. “I think the future is bright [and] if I was a UK manufacturer I’d concentrate my efforts on giving bespoke service and rapid turnaround to British customers, rather than going head to head in a low-cost fight we can’t win,” he explains. “I’d concentrate on quality, and craftsmanship. Isn’t that what we British are famous for?”

At Hatton Garden-based wedding jewellery manufacturer Stubbs & Co., which supplies bridal jewellery to clients across the world, work has been kept at a local level, employing the skills of British craftsmen, rather than sending jobs overseas. “We manufacture our bridal suite collections in our own workshop, here in Hatton Garden," confirms Stubbs & Co. managing director David Shem-Tov. "Much of the jobbing and subcontracting [is] undertaken locally.”

Shem-Tov explains that consumers’ ever-growing desire for personalised or customised jewellery means that working with overseas companies is inefficient, leaving a manufacturing gap for British companies to fulfil. “The consumers’ desire for personalisation and customisation requires flexibility and speed, which is very challenging to deliver when you are thousands of miles away,” he says. “This is how manufacturers in high cost countries [such as Britain] can compete against their low cost counterparts.”

Looking Ahead
While overseas manufacturing has its place and will be the only, or most efficient, option for many British companies, the growth in consumer interest in British goods and their provenance is no doubt helping to bring manufacture back in house, or at least to a local level.

Rainer says the BJA has noted the beginnings of such a shift and says that it will be the people behind the brands or companies that help to grow awareness of British jewellery manufacturing. “Encouragingly, I see a slow drift of manufacturing back to the UK [and] long may this continue," he says. "The future of British jewellery is fundamentally the quality and innovation of design in addition to emerging personalities who are truly representative of their brands."

Derbyshire jewellery company CW Sellors says that it is vital to continue to talk to customers about British products. Workshop manager Paul Barker explains: “The interest in British design and manufacture is at its strongest for a number of years [and] the situation is looking more positive, but we cannot be complacent and allow ourselves to get into the situation where [manufacturing] is in danger of being lost. We need to persevere forward and the industry will continue to grow and evolve, holding its own against the international market.”

For Beale at Charles Green, it is the investment in people and technology – something Indian and Chinese manufacturers have in spades – that will maintain a rosy outlook for British jewellery manufacture. “There are many challenges from abroad, but having worked with many up-and-coming students who are looking for a career in the trade then I think the future looks strong, but British based companies have to continue to educate and give opportunities to them.”

This feature was taken from the January issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the digital issue, click here

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