As PJ Watson celebrates its 50th anniversary and managing director Vivian Watson retires, Stacey Hailes talks to John Watson about taking over the reins and the company’s focus on one-off pieces with striking centre stones.
2016 marks jewellery manufacturer and wholesaler PJ Watson’s golden anniversary in the UK jewellery industry, following Peter Watson, the grandfather of the new and current managing director, John Watson, launching the family business in 1966.
Jewellery was always in the Watson blood as Peter’s mother Constance Watson was a practicing gemmologist who had trained under the renowned gemmologist, editor and government gem consultant Robert Webster.
As Peter Watson’s knowledge of the diamond trade and reputation grew, he decided to co-launch The Eton Jewellery Co. and then, prompted by the proximity of his two sons, Vivian and Philip Watson, finishing their education, he went on to found PJ Watson in September 1966.
A passion for gemstones has been the key driving factor throughout PJ Watson’s 50 years in business as Peter Watson shared his love and enthusiasm with his sons. Due to this, the Watson family have the unique distinction of four generations of FGAs (Fellow members of The Gemmologocial Association of Great Britain), something which makes them stand out in the competitive market. When Peter Watson retired the company was taken over by his son Vivian Watson.
Now, as Vivian Watson steps down, the baton has been handed to the fourth generation – John Watson. The reins to PJ Watson was not handed to him on a plate though, rather John has spent 14 years paying his dues in every area of the business, from making the teas and coffees as an office junior, to dealing with repairs and productions, to spending four years on the road as a sales rep for the south.
When asked how he’s feeling, Watson understandably says he is both nervous and excited but admits he’s not had too much time to ponder the situation due to the busy nature of the festive period. “This time of year [December] is so busy you don’t have time to stop and think about it other than sometimes in the evenings, but it is exciting and obviously I’m bit nervous as well because it’s a well established business and I’m suddenly the man in charge,” explains John.
Before taking over, John’s role in the company was to buy loose gem stones and design one-of-a-kind pieces. Being a business that creates bespoke jewellery, this counts for the main part of half of PJ Watson and therefore in some ways Watson’s day-to-day job won’t change too much as he will continue travelling around the world sourcing stones.
“I have run the business from that point of view for the last four or five years now, so I’m quite comfortable with that. What I’m taking over from my father is more the running of the business, such as the account side and all the other little things you don’t think about until you actually have to do them and make sure they get done,” says Watson. “It’s almost a case of you don’t know until it comes up and then it is training on the job.”
John’s father has been training him since the very first day he started work at the company, but in the last three months the men have embarked on many late nights in preparation for Vivian’s retirement day, which was officially December 15 2015. John is sure Vivian Watson will be in and out of the office in the future though, and knows he will be on hand if he has any questions or needs help. “It is one of those trades that you can’t just disappear from. There are too many close connections with friends through the trade. Also, he lives five minutes away from the office, so it is not like the old days when we used to be up in Hatton Garden and it was easier to retire, draw a line under it and never come back.”
After 50 years in business PJ Watson has a loyal customer base who John believes will support them through this transition period. As it currently stands, John doesn’t intend to make many changes to the company. Instead he plans to play on its strengths and expand its offering.
“When it comes to changes my father has actually left me with a very strong company, so I don’t feel the need to change anything,” John explains. “For the years he’s been here he’s built it up into a viable business so there is no need to make changes but rather add aspects to the business over the coming years.”
One thing John would like to add to the business is an in-house workshop. He explains: “We used to have one back in the day, however being up in Hatton Garden it wasn’t necessary to keep one running but now I want to focus on reopening that and offer a repair service for customers, over and above preparing our own pieces. “If we have some goldsmiths there they can work for some of our customers directly as well and it just adds another string to the bow that we can offer.”
Last year John Watson responded to a demand in the market for 18ct gold, diamond and precious gem set pieces and introduced entry level sets of pendants and earrings that will cost retailers around £200 to £500. John says that’s been going really well for the company and plans to expand this offering in the next 12 months. However PJ Watson’s main focus will remain on one-of-a-kind pieces and, going forward, John hopes to be getting these in on a monthly or even weekly basis.
“We are very focused on our one-offs at the moment, which is a passion for me. Being the fourth qualified gemmologist in the family generation, it is something that is deeply rooted in the company and we love making those pieces.”
Talking to John Watson, it’s clear that the family’s rich heritage in gemmology and commitment to providing the best quality gemstones and manufacturing has kept the family business going strong for the last 50 years, so it comes as no surprise that one-off pieces will continue to steer the company through the coming years.
This year PJ Watson will be particularly focusing on jewellery pieces with striking centre stones and some of these will be available to view at Basel this month. Throughout last year PJ Watson sold a lot more higher end pieces. John remarks: “I’ve been speaking to a lot of retailers over the last few weeks and a lot of them are saying that although footfall is actually down, they are still making the business because they are selling one unique piece here and there.
“There is no trend or rhyme or reason as to whether it will be a ruby pendant or an emerald ring, but as long as they are selling these big pieces, that’s where the business is for them.”
John remains confident in the appetite for unusual gemstones, such as bi-colour tourmalines. He has particularly noticed a shift in the jewellery trade stocking more daring designs and unusual colours as opposed to bread and butter diamond, sapphire, ruby and emerald stock. “They are a bit more adventurous. Last year was a lot more positive on the road and there was a lot more confidence, which is a good thing because it is what will set retailers apart from the competition of the internet.”
The other arm of PJ Watson’s business is its distribution side as it acts as the UK agent for high-end, Italian fine jewellery brand Picchiotti and luxury Italian jewellery brand Marco Bicego. John will be focusing a lot more on Picchiotti this year, as this is the area of the business his father used to run, while he will continue to open doors for Marco Bicego.
Marco Bicego grew rapidly in 2015, with a 44% increase in UK sales and a growth in its total number of doors. John is confident it will grow again this year. “We’ve got a lot of people we think it is right for and we are obviously targeting them. We have a list of people we would like to become stockists, it’s just waiting for the time to be right because you can’t buy in to every brand that passes through the door, but this is one of the biggest, Italian, luxury jewellery brands and a lot of people are happy to have it.”
In order to keep its exclusive, luxury feel, PJ Watson mainly focuses on securing high-end independents to stock the brand. At present, the company does not have plans to take on any more brands as its main focus remains on the jewellery manufacturing side.
With its succession plan executed, PJ Watson has every right to feel bullish as it heads into its 50th anniversary year.