FEATURE: Edinburgh Assay Office CEO Scott Walter on business growth

Isidora Bojovic

Hallmarking may be the Edinburgh Assay Office’s main calling, but that hasn’t stopped chief executive officer and assay master Scott Walter from developing the business in line with the needs of the industry. Here, he explains more to Professional Jeweller editor Sarah Louise Jordan.

Over the last 15 years, the Edinburgh Assay Office has seen its business transform from a hallmarking operation to something much more reflective of the industry; from supporting e-tail businesses with its B2C Assay Assured scheme to aiding logistics and distribution at its new Heathrow Airport hub.

Chief executive officer and assay master Scott Walter is the man responsible for spearheading these changes. Since 1999 he has been navigating the steam train of branded jewellery and its trajectory throughout the jewellery industry, working with Links of London, Hot Diamonds and Pandora among others.

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With e-commerce helping retailers and brands to reach new markets with the click of a button, Walter has worked hard to change the landscape of the Edinburgh Assay Office; turning it into a business that promises to “protect consumers, promote excellence and support the trade”.

Speaking to Professional Jeweller, Walter describes how the advent of high volume branded jewellery provided the catalyst for change at the Edinburgh Assay Office. He explains: “This led us to develop a business that understood how brands work. Product development is absolutely critical and getting the design of a hallmark and the mechanisation of this built in at the product development stage means that we get a very consistent hallmark at all stages.”

This focus on consistency – and on ensuring a hallmark is less of an afterthought – led the Edinburgh Assay Office to introduce refinishing services and an on-site workshop to ensure it could handle completely finished product.

“We do this as part of our service to ensure that product goes back to the customer in exactly the same way as it came in,” explains Walter. Walter is justifiably proud of the Edinburgh Assay Office’s responsiveness to problems within the industry, both nationally and internationally.

He comments: “We’ve always developed the business in the direction of the things that our customers are complaining about, or have obstacles with. This is why we developed our business to deal with finished product before laser marking and XRF testing techniques were around. When those technologies came along we were able to look at other things including problems importers and manufacturers were dealing with.”

One of those issues was logistics — an area which Walter and the Assay Office have been tackling for some years. “From a very early stage we developed a direct service so that factories outside of the UK could ship directly to us. We also developed an online system 10 years ago which allowed our customers to track their product; so suppliers could log on, send their goods to us and track their product throughout the process. Brand owners could see all of their activity [from multiple suppliers], but suppliers could only see their own product activity.”

As Walter explains, all of this led to the development of a fulfillment process so product (sourced or manufactured outside of the UK) can be ordered, shipped in bulk to the Assay Office, hallmarked and delivered to the end customer(s) without the need for an n UK soil. Investment in IT has also paid dividends, allowing “big manufacturing stock programmes to directly interface with our system,” for real-time e-commerce updates and tracking. In practice, the Edinburgh Assay Office is helping brands to grow.

In January 2015, the Assay Office made its next ‘big move’ — this time a little further away from home at Heathrow Airport. This sub-office is home to its ‘Hallmarking in Transit’ operation, designed to streamline imports of precious metal jewellery into Europe by reducing the number of Assay Offices product has to pass through. “We opened the sub-office at Heathrow as a solution for international brands that have to sell product into multiple EU locations,” Walter explains.

“It can be difficult to deal with multiple assay offices in Europe and multiple sets of regulations. The UK hallmark applied in the UK is still a very effective vehicle and one of the most effective passports for moving product through Europe.” Edinburgh Assay Office launched this new scheme in conjunction with shipping company Malca Amit, who also look after all the liability cover involved.

Walter continues: “We do the hallmarking and then we can ship to any location in Europe. [Product] can also be temporarily released from bond so if it is going somewhere else in Europe there is no import duty. Again, this was a solution based around the growth of global retailing, where you’re dealing with multiple regions. Our clients want a simple, single logistics solution, including compliance and hallmarking.”

Both of these solutions – Hallmarking & Fulfillment and Hallmarking in Transit – showcase Walter’s responsiveness to changes at a wholesale level and in the retail landscape in general. “Our main Edinburgh office is able to take product directly from overseas and actually deliver it B2C, which is a huge advantage for online retailers. We are also able to deal with volume silver brands and deliver or distribute their product to retail outlets,” he remarks.

For Walter, where hallmarking takes place, how it takes place and the value it offers to products is essential — sort of his reason for stepping into the office every morning. However, not all companies think the same, and he has noticed some business models that don’t include ‘send to the Assay Office’ on their list of priorities. Walter argues this isn’t necessarily down to a desire to cheat the system but more commonly focused on tightening those all-important lead times.

Walter comments: “Business models have emerged that don’t include ‘send it to the Assay Office, fill in the forms, get pieces hallmarked, get pieces back and then send out to retail customers’. Manufacturing happens on the whole outside of the UK and lead times are critical, so logistics have to be very succinct. If the hallmarking is done in the right place and in the right way it adds value, if it isn’t it becomes an obstacle.”

Elsewhere, the Assay Office has also enjoyed success with its Assay Assured scheme — a ‘seal of approval’ digital button that is impacting both retailers and consumers, while helping to tackle the plethora of fraudulent and illegitimate websites selling jewellery online. Instead of trying to tackle these tricksters head-on, Assay Assured allows honest brands and retailers to prove they have been independently audited for authenticity. This is all done through a ‘trust mark’, a type of digital sticker projected onto host sites but managed by the Edinburgh Assay Office, which offers up a certificate of assurance when clicked on. It also has a feedback loop, allowing customers to send off pieces that they are concerned about to the Assay Office for further testing.

As Walter explains: “All consumers now intuitively assess an e-commerce site and experienced e-shoppers do it almost without thinking. They are looking for signs that it is a legitimate site and independent trust marks that are specific to your industry can have a huge impact on how consumers shop.”

He continues: “A significant chunk of the public isn’t buying jewellery online yet. They might be thinking about it and have read all sorts of horror stories. However, the take-up we have had from retailers [for the Assay Assured scheme] has been especially strong at the top-end, with diamond jewellery retailers who understand how important it is to gain trust and confidence when the ticket price is high. We also have bigger retailers like Beaverbrooks, SWAG and F. Hinds who are using it as well.”

Considering how easy it is to create a website, Walter believes any kind of differentiation is essential for the industry. He points to statistics published on professionaljeweller.com that suggest one in 28 consumers will search for fake goods online, one in 10 will accidentally stumble onto a rogue website and one in six are likely to be duped into purchasing fake goods online (Mark- Monitor Shopping Report December 2014). He also highlights another report published on professionaljeweller. com in February 2015, which explained how 2,000 websites selling fake luxury goods were forcibly removed from the internet in a little over a month (Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit, City of London Police).

Assay Assured is run on a not-for-profit basis and starts at £125 per year – arguably a small price to pay for a part in promoting high standards. Overall, the Edinburgh Assay Office has simple goals; to ensure product is hallmarked and that the consumer is protected as a result. Fortunately, these two factors can also be the cornerstones of a thriving business.

“We understand that if hallmarking is to continue to add value to the consumer and to the retailer then it has to be delivered in a way that supports and enhances, where possible, modern retail business models. This has been our strategy for the last 10 years, but it has certainly culminated in a number of exciting developments in the last two years,” Walter notes.

Perhaps most recently is the company’s ‘five Ps of hallmarking’ or ‘the five hallmarks of a good hallmark’ — essentially an internal quality assurance document which is now being circulated outside of the organisation. In case you’re asking the question, those five Ps include Perfect, Positioned, Protected, Precise and Permanent.

The Edinburgh Assay Office is also proud of its altruistic pursuits, including symposiums, design competitions and its latest project, Elements, a designer-makers event to be held in September. When it comes to consumers, Walter believes there is a growing segment of the buying public that wants to know more about how their jewellery is produced; from the hallmark to the providence of the stones used.

He comments: “They want to identify with the brand and they want to identify with the brand’s values. I think any facet of a story that talks about quality control efforts to produce an enduring and ethical product is really important.” Of course, as with any assay master, the conversation always steers back to precious metals and the all-important hallmarking figures. Walter concludes: “People still want to buy a precious metal product. There is something very self indulgent and rewarding about that.”

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Professional Jeweller. Read it online here.


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