INTERVIEW: Jason Holt and Theo Fennell

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Industry leaders say now is the time to commit, celebrate and educate.

By Jason Holt

When recent guest editor Jason Holt walked out of Theo Fennell’s London workshop after interviewing him for Professional Jeweller he felt elated. The conversation had been tinged with negativity, focusing on what had gone wrong with jewellery in Britain, but what resulted from an hour of industry bashing was an action plan to make the UK’s jewellery industry the envy of the world. And they are ready to share that vision with you here.

Now is the time to commit to our workforce, our apprentices, our graduates. To celebrate what we have – make jewellery for Britain what wine is for the French. To educate the consumer, so they understand what they’re missing out on.

These are the words that reverberated around my head as Professional Jeweller editor-in-chief Rachael Taylor and I said farewell to Theo Fennell at his doorstep.

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What has led up to this farewell was an awe-inspiring interview – one which set me on a mission to change the world. So inspiring that I even agreed with Rachael to write this article on my own. So how did we get to this point? This is what happened.

Before we start, please allow me to put Theo into context with who he is to the trade, and to me personally.

When approached to edit this issue of Professional Jeweller it was suggested to me that I should interview someone within the jewellery business that I admire. Well, when thinking about a role model for our trade – someone who is a great communicator of what it means to be the best of British and a champion of meticulous craftsmanship – there can be no better advocate than Theo. He is the only jeweller in our land to have successfully floated his company on the markets. So it was he that I immediately thought of.

So now to the ask. I’d rather run out of credit with Theo, having asked him on many occasions to speak to our students at Holts Academy, which he does so generously. So to ask him a week before Christmas – PJ deadlines looming – was what you’d call Chutspa. However, he said yes, which means my tank is on empty and it will be payback time soon. But it was worth it. I shall now recount.

An Unglamorous Trade
Theo’s views on the trade are well known so I hit the road running, asking him exactly why he thinks the trade is so unglamorous? As if releasing a pressure valve, Theo launches into an impassioned critique.

“We’re in a mess,” he says, exuding well-versed exasperation. “The trade represents itself terribly. It’s unglamorous, frankly embarrassing when you see it relative to other nations, and deserves what it gets.”

So where did we go wrong? “The trade has made two or three big mistakes,” states Theo, with a firm certainty. He goes on to explain that so much of the industry is driven by retailer type, that it’s just stock in the window, and where’s the romance in that?

He also mentions, quite passionately, the negative effect that the conglomerates of the jewellery world have had. “The small guys have been bought by the big guys,” he says, referencing the large jewellery and luxury houses snapping up independent labels.

Aligned to this, he adds, is the confusion between fashion and fine jewellery, and to illustrate Theo goes on to methodically explain the deterioration of our trade.

Darting across the past 200 years, he talks about the great masters, from the era of Chippindale and Gainsborough, when the patronage would understand the meaning of jewellery (Theo is by far the most well read and knowledgeable jeweller I’ve met) to the proliferation of brands, which has diluted what it means to be a craftsman, what is it to have something of beauty and of integrity.

The Brand Phenomenon
In the 1970s there were no multiples. Asprey and Garrard were just three shops. Tiffany had just one store, in New York. Having a store in every city is a new phenomenon, as is marketing ploys, something that Theo quickly accelerates into.

Take the story of “Gorgonzola”, Theo says. He plucks a name from thin air and uses this fictional, supposedly deceased, jeweller to illustrate a well-known story of modern jewellery times – that of companies using an historic story to resurrect a brand. “Is the consumer – even in emerging markets – that naive?,” poses Theo. “Of course not. If Gorgonzola was brought out of his grave, he’d be appalled at what was being passed off in his name.”

This led me on to asking about the power of a name. I’ve always been curious to know how Theo feels about not having full control of his name, which was a consequence of floating his business on the capital markets. “To be a name you would have been a person of real brilliance, vision and manufacturing integrity,” he says. I wonder if Theo aspired for such a legacy. Equally I felt it unlikely that such a thought would enter into his mind. Theo’s self-deprecating humour is a trademark, and any flattery is quickly deflected onto others.

Now it’s time to hit the turbo-charge button. The other problem, says Theo, is lack of self-promotion.

We Don’t Educate People
The Europeans have their own consumer jewellery magazines; here in the UK we have the odd addendums in newspapers. Even these are controlled by the advertisers, which are namely the big-name European brands. “How can the consumer be inspired?” Theo quite rightly asks.

Jewellery is lagging behind. Look at the wine clubs, the foodies and gastro pubs, clothes, the shoe industry – they all tell their story and have changed public perception. We don’t. “Where’s the story of craftsmanship, handmade skills and the story of what you can buy?” Theo asks. It’s true, where are the consumer jewellery lifestyle magazines, the TV shows, the consumer events? It’s hardly surprising that people are none the wiser about how jewellery is made, what goes into the craftsmanship or where it comes from.

“The trade has shot itself in the foot,” says Theo. “We have taught everyone a little bit. For instance people all know about the 4 Cs, but nothing about the sentiment, the beauty, the emotion, the token of love.”

At this point we deviate somewhat to talk about the fifth C, which Theo suggests might be another name for “the person asking the question”. I wouldn’t dare to print the three letters following that particular C for fear of offending readers, so I’ll let your crossword skills do the working out.

Everything’s Quantifiable
Today, Theo feels that jewellery sales are about “How much do I love you? 25 carats”. There are even companies who only trade on jewels that are simply a bold statement of wealth, with little to no emphasis on how it is made.

“Contrast this with the past where centre stones were not about their value, not about making a statement – it was about the exquisite nature of the piece itself,” says Theo.

And he’s right. If you look at the original Boucheron pieces, they were much more about craftsmanship and using the beauty of the stone rather than its value.

Fashion vs Fine
And then there is the contentious issue of fashion versus fine jewellery, an issue that Theo feels passionate about. “Today the big brands need to make vast quantities or they fail,” he says. “This stems from fashion jewellery slipping into the jewellery market.”

And here was another of Theo’s points that chimed with me: “Fashion by its very nature is ephemeral. Jewellery by its nature is permanent. A clear distinction needs to be drawn.”

Help, however, is on the way. So there is a positive to take from this then, Theo?

Department stores such as Harrods are doing a great job in encouraging people to think differently,” coos Theo. “The way they have chosen and grouped the jewellery companies is sending the right messages.”

Theo seems genuinely uplifted when talking about these stores, and then I reflect back to something Theo mentioned to me a while ago – that Harrods had given him the spring board to where he is now.

Cultivate the Youth
And finally, says Theo, young kids aren’t being given a break. “We’re the envy of the world,” he enthuses. “Our quirkiness, inventiveness, eccentricity and what we allow to happen. We have some of the best art schools in the world and the best apprenticeship scheme which exists. Yet what do we do to support this talent?”

Of course all these issues are interconnected, which is why moving to the next level is such a challenge, says Theo. How can you secure finance if the city or trade don’t see the potential? He believes that jewellery potential goes wasted because, by and large, the public aren’t educated. Or at least they’re not sufficiently educated. The only awareness they have is from big brands who do not, according to Theo, communicate the right messages.

What he has just delivered is a wonderful and impassioned argument that chimes with everything I feel, but do not have Theo’s ability to articulate. Thankfully Theo pauses for breath. Now I want the solution.

Theo, I say, what you have said rings true with me (no pun intended). We’ve done ourselves no favours, but there must be hope for change. Please humour me and imagine that you’re standing before all members of the UK trade. What would you say to them right now?

Theo’s Vision
Quite a lot, it would seem. The vision points laid out on p33 are an amalgamation of Theo’s answer and my additions. They are not made lightly. They are something I believe passionately in. However they need to be taken as a whole and are intended to help shape a system that has the potential to be world class. That’s right, Britain’s jewellery industry can and should be world class.

The vision sets out a combination of principles and is just a modest start. If people are interested, there will be plenty of work to do to bring this to a reality, but it is doable as long as we have the will to engage. I strongly hope we do.

The essential three steps to remember are: a commitment to our workforce and skills, the need to celebrate what we have, and the desire to educate the consumer.

The process of change is now. In times of austerity people look for guidance – they buy things which last – they want to be safe. Now is the time for Great British jewellery.

 

This interview was taken from the January issue of Professional Jeweller. To read it online, click here.

 

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