INTERVIEW: Oliver Sutton, Charles Green

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How technology is shaping the future of this Jewellery Quarter firm.

Birmingham’s Charles Green is known for its traditional manufacture of wedding bands and fine jewellery. Having invested in a stable of new technology, company director Oliver Sutton talks new markets, new capability and creating bridal brands for today.

Sittting in the treasure trove that is Charles Green’s self-dubbed History Room, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the firm’s heritage.

On the walls are framed handwritten thank-you notes from British royalty and artwork made using carved gemstones. Around the room, tall wooden cabinets showcase work dating back to the 1900s, from intricate pieces by apprentices and ancient signet rings bearing French inscriptions to stone-set trinkets, contemporary silver jewellery and gemstones of all varieties.
While this Jewellery Quarter company’s history is truly impressive, its recent successes and plans for 2014 are what have caught the attention of Professional Jeweller.

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Charles Green director Oliver Sutton explains that its wedding ring business has grown exponentially in recent years, doubling the number of units it is producing. “Our wedding rings were about 60% of the business in 2009, but now they account for about 85%,” Sutton explains.

The changes that have taken place at Charles Green in the past 12 months are testament to Sutton’s influence on the business. He joined the company in 2007, working alongside his father, then-managing director Richard Sutton and chairman Tom Green, sitting in on board meetings to discuss new ideas.

Aware of the growing use of technology in the manufacture of wedding bands and fine jewellery, Sutton would speak up about the future during such meetings. “I was trying to promote the idea of investing in technology; I would say let’s go on trips [to see new equipment], I researched online, even showed them YouTube videos of CNC machines in use in jewellery manufacture, telling them that this was the future.”

As the jewellery industry is only too aware, any business with traditional roots will have resilient members of staff, and Sutton faced opposition when it came to investing in new technology. “Old manually-operated machines that do a good job can be bought for £10,000 to £15,000, and there I was showing the board CNC machines costing £290,000,” he smiles.

Then, at the turn of 2009, Charles Green made a decision that would entirely re-shape its business. At the time, it focused equally on its wedding bands, gold jewellery, lockets and cufflinks. But, realising that the jewellery industry was set to be dealt a weighty blow by the impact of the recession, Charles Green opted to make wedding bands its core focus.

“Essentially the writing was on the wall for heavy gold jewellery back then,” Sutton explains. “Gold jewellery was becoming a luxury, so our decision was to adapt and focus very heavily on bridal jewellery because recession or no recession, people would always get married.”

The company embarked on what Sutton describes as an aggressive drive to win new wedding ring customers, but Charles Green soon found that it needed to pull something extra out of the hat, forcing technology back into the frame.

“We reached the stage where we had all these fabulous customers – new customers in particular – who looked to us to continually show them new designs,” Sutton recalls. “We had to have something there, and I felt that investing in machinery would allow us to be one step ahead of their expectations.”

Sutton embarked on several buying trips to Italy, Switzerland and Germany with Charles Green head of product development Pip Beale, viewing machinery such as CNC machines and laser engravers that ranged from £120,000 to the aforementioned £290,000. They were later joined by a consultant, and were able to select the appropriate machinery for their business needs.

The new equipment landed at Charles Green in the autumn of 2013, but with it came apprehension. “There was a real concern from some members of staff that new machinery meant employing new people, who in turn would take away their roles,” Sutton says. “Instead, we chose to train in-house, selecting our apprentices to work with the new kit; they have taken to it like ducks to water.”

Where long-established members of staff have taught the younger generations at Charles Green how to operate its manual machines, the apprentices have in turn taught other staff members about the new kit. “You cannot lose or replace hand skills,” Sutton states. “But we are delighted with what the machines have allowed us to produce.”

The CNC machine in question has allowed the business to create a new range of patterned wedding bands, mostly focused on the men’s market, but with a number of 2mm to 3mm women’s bands with vintage-style details such as millegraining or decorative flicks. In a rather British quirk, some of the new designs were the result of experiments by 17-year-old Charles Green apprentice Connor Hill, who was one of the first trained to use the CNC machine.

Charles Green’s investment in a laser engraver has also expanded the scope of its patterned and bespoke engraved rings; it is even programmed to engrave customers’ fingerprints an precisely creates small holes to aid stone setting.

The equipment also means that Charles Green can now laser engrave retailers’ logos on the inside of its rings or jewellery, answering the needs of retailers with house collections or bridal collections that they have branded as their own. “It is about being able to respond to what a customer wants as consumers are very brand aware and brand driven, and retailers are responding to this,” Sutton states. “Many of our retailers are establishing themselves as brands, so everything we now do is geared up to help strengthen this. We can put their marks inside rings, laser engrave their name or logo, and have their makers stamp added at whichever assay office they use.”

While Sutton believes that wedding rings should not be branded as ideally they should only be bought the one time, he is aware that as Charles Green develops and moves in new directions, branding could become a must.

“The plan eventually is to put together a range that will allow us to export Charles Green to Europe, taking on the bigger wedding ring houses such as Christian Bauer, Meister and Furrer Jacot,” Sutton reveals. “Charles Green wants to replicate the success we have had in America, but for Europe this will mean different ranges, designed specifically for the market.”

The move into Europe will initially involve the creation of a collection of 24 matching pairs of wedding bands, suited to the German market and Benelux countries that will be Charles Green’s primary focus, as well as the marketing and branding collateral that comes with a new market entry.

The company has a number of European retailers interested in its offer, but Sutton and his team plan to focus on fulfilling orders for the UK bridal season before collating ideas and commencing work on European collections. “We won’t run before we can walk,” Sutton notes. “The collection will involve a lot of research and careful planning and we will make sure that we have a network of agents ready within Europe.”

Further afield, Charles Green’s presence in America could be expanded by the introduction of wedding bands. At present, only its gold jewellery, cufflinks and bangles are sold in the US, but when the time comes to expand, Sutton agrees that it will call for having an office and people on the ground who understand the US market.

Growth is also underway in Charles Green’s CAD department, with the business in the process of hiring a new CAD technician to help with the increasing number of bespoke wedding ring orders. It is also working with a number of retailers to produce entire shaped ranges to fit their bestselling engagement rings. “It means they can present wedding bands to a customer there and then,” Sutton says. “This will boost their sales, boost ours, and means the customer doesn’t have to try and visualise the fit.”

The business might be 190 years old, but there is a feeling of invigoration among its staff members. “Everyone is interested to see what our new machinery can do; it has breathed new life into Charles Green and demonstrates the positivity new technology can bring,” Sutton smiles. “But we’re only just scratching surface.”

This interview was taken from the February issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.
 

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