INTERVIEW: Bec Astley Clarke

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On building luxury retail online and creating an AC wholesale brand.

Astley Clarke launched seven years ago, changing the face of online jewellery retail in the UK with its mix of luxe yet accessible jewellery and exciting house collections. Its founder Bec Astley Clarke tells Kathryn Bishop about developing the Astley Clarke brand and the decision to wholesale in the UK.

Sinking into a soft grey sofa in Astley Clarke’s west London mews house showroom, vintage teacup in hand and the scent of expensive candles in the air, it is hard not to feel like a long-term, valued customer.

Truth be told it is my first time visiting Astley Clarke’s showroom – a luxe space with open-fronted cabinets brimming with jewels for visitors to touch, try on and take home.

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Astley Clarke was founded by Bec Astley Clarke in 2006 as an online jewellery boutique. Since then it has become, arguably, the first name in luxury online jewellery retail in the UK. Upon its launch, Astley Clarke hired a buyer and an assistant and, in the seven years since its debut, the company has grown ten-fold in terms of staff numbers. Its presence has also gone international and offline with the launch of a US Astley Clarke website in 2012 and the opening of several concession counters in leading department stores in London, including Liberty and Harrods.

Astley Clarke’s jewellery offer is an eclectic yet edited selection of contemporary pieces from simple friendship bracelets in myriad colours through to cocktail rings worth thousands of pounds. Over the years the Astley Clarke name has developed beyond being a website filled with luxury and designer jewellery brands – among those Solange Azagury-Partridge, Stenmark, Pippa Small and Alex Monroe – to a fully-fledged brand in its own right with jewellery priced from £45.

So what’s next for a company that so many UK retailers seek to emulate? Bec Astley Clarke, her own teacup in hand, sits down to tell me.

“We are at the stage where we think of ourselves as a multichannel brand,” she states. “We started life as a purely online brand but last year launched the US website, opened concessions in Selfridges and Liberty and have our own personal shopping service, using our London showroom for private appointments.”

At its headquarters you will find several departments including a design studio, a photographic studio, the Astley Clarke online team and its customer services. “We’re about 35 people now; 25 in the head office and 10 in the concession stores,” Astley Clarke says.

Two more team members have also joined the company in recent weeks. At the time this issue of Professional Jeweller went to print, Scott Thomson had just been announced as Astley Clarke’s managing director, and former Baccarat UK sales manager Sian Daley had been appointed its head of wholesale. The growth of its team reflects the company’s plans to expand and develop in the UK, something Astley Clarke is keen to explain in more detail. “The big story for us is that the Astley Clarke brand has done very well in Selfridges, Harrods and Liberty [but] all of our UK customers outside of London are desperate to have a presence locally,” she says. “Similarly we’re getting a lot of requests across the country [with a view to wholesale] so we’ve bought in a head of wholesale to reach out to some of the UK’s luxury independent jewellery retailers.”

Astley Clarke will position a number of its own-brand semi-precious and precious collections to retail jewellers who might be keen to stock a British brand with a recognisable name and plenty of kudos. “Whoever we work with has got to be very much the right fit for the brand,” Astley Clarke advises. “It won’t be a mass roll out but we are looking to partner with a selection of premium jewellers in the UK.”

As a loose number Astley Clarke says the business will seek about 20 to 30 independent doors with a focus on retailers that stock jewellery and watch brands that will complement the Astley Clarke offer.

HOUSE COLLECTIONS
The consumer reaction to Astley Clarke’s in-house collections indicates why it the company has chosen now to make its move into wholesale.

Astley Clarke decided to develop its house collection just three years ago and has since produced 10 ranges including its Colour collection of stack rings and bangles and its Biography friendship bracelets.

At present about 80% of the company’s sales are of its house collections and more recently the Astley Clarke offer has taken a greater step towards everyday fine jewellery with the launch of its rose gold and diamond Icon collection.

“Over the last 24 months we have had a lot of fine jewellery development,” notes Astley Clarke. “We have a really great design team, all of them goldsmiths with fine jewellery backgrounds, and the culmination of a lot of their work is launching this year.” Among that work will be three new fine jewellery collections, sure to complement the existing 10.

“On average the new collections are growing at something like 130% a year, which is amazing,” Astley Clarke reveals, providing food for through for potential stockists.

Late 2012 bought with it a refresh for the Astley Clarke brand with the introduction of a new logo and its AC monogram. As Astley Clarke states, the company is now truly multifaceted, with its own product, packaging, and concessions spaces and, in the coming years, plans for wider international expansion.

OFFLINE AND OVERSEAS
The current Astley Clarke concessions are situated in UK luxury stores such as Harrods and Liberty, both go-to locations for fine jewellery retail, in particular selling to foreign customers. The concessions have proven a hit for the company and it is clear that Astley Clarke has had an eye trained on where sales, both online and through the concessions, are heading home to.

“We’re beginning to look at growing our position internationally,” she explains. “Our online sales to the Middle East have grown 160%, sales to the Far East are up 120% and our Australian sales have grown 400%.”

These are impressive numbers that are only reinforced by the success of the brand’s US website.

“We have had some really decent trade in the US with no formal marketing, just word of mouth,” Astley Clarke explains. “The average order value in the US is double what it is in the UK which I think is due to US customers seeking things out that they can’t buy [from a shop]. Plus they love the fact that we’re a British jewellery brand.”

The figures also support the view that there is an appetite for the style, variety and beautiful presentation of Astley Clarke’s jewellery at the mere click of a mouse. As a result of the online sales growth Astley Clarke is now set to concentrate on three hot spots in the coming year: the Middle East, Asia and the US. The company hopes to increase online awareness of the brand in these areas and, beyond the digital realm, bricks and mortar concessions might also be in pipeline at an international level. “We have a five-year plan and that’s to open concessions internationally and build relations with key strategic partners to help grow the brand,” Astley Clarke says. “However, if we do ever open a flagship store it will be in London. Once we have the whole Astley Clarke proposition completely perfect we can go for it, and I can say we are definitely arriving closer to that point.”

CUSTOMER EVOLUTION
Astley Clarke’s wider jewellery offer has also evolved and developed in the seven years since it launched, with exclusive collections from the likes of Alex Monroe, and mentoring schemes with award-winning graduate jewellers such as Hannah Livingstone and Elizabeth Humble, both of whom created special collections to sell through Astley Clarke.

So with evolution at a product level has Astley Clarke found that its customer has changed, especially in the era of the self-purchasing woman? “We bring in a new customer every time we launch a new collection,” Astley Clarke explains. “The Colour and stacking ranges have bought in a fashionista customer while our Woven collection, which is priced between £2,000 and £7,000, attracts an older, more sophisticated customer who appreciates that the designs are 18ct gold and Italian-made.”

QUITE AN HONOUR
Last month Bec Astley Clarke was named on the Queen’s birthday honours list alongside ethical jeweller Pippa Small and diamond specialist Laurence Graff. She is now set to receive an MBE for her services to the jewellery industry at the investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

“It’s brilliant; it’s great to have Pippa and Laurence in there,” she enthuses. “When I saw the list I thought ‘that’s perfect’ because whoever put the list together knows that as individuals we really complement one another. I’m totally thrilled.”

The honour is sure to give the brand, and Bec Astley Clarke herself, added kudos among the wider public and the jewellery industry. “There are some people who don’t know Astley Clarke and in fact we are still quite a young brand,” she muses. “But the game for us now is to build Astley Clarke as a British luxury jewellery brand and continue to grow as a multifaceted business.”

It is clear that Bec Astley Clarke, game player, brand builder and now wholesaler, has found a winning strategy for jewellery retail. With the growth rates that the company has enjoyed in terms of its international sales and the unfaltering growth of its house collections, there is little concern that Bec Astley Clarke will find herself in second or third place. After all, like any businesswoman worth her salt, she’s going for gold.

This interview was taken from the Jewellery Girls Rule July issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here

 

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