Matt Case on the beginnings of his new retail concept Russell & Case.
In Liverpool a strange sort of jewellery retailer has emerged with no plans to sell silver, no intentions of developing an online strategy and a 25-year-old at the helm. Rachael Taylor Travels to Merseyside to meet Matt Case of Russell & Case, a new generation of fine jeweller.
Russell & Case is the exception to just about every rule that the UK jewellery industry has spewed out over the past few years.
It doesn’t sell silver, has no plans to trade online, is investing heavily in rapid expansion and is opting for flamboyant fine jewellery over safe options; not to mention the fact that it is run by a 25-year-old plucked straight from the shop floor of a multiple retailer with no family jewellery business to speak of. Quite clearly, things are turning topsy turvy on Liverpool’s jewellery scene.
The historic city of Liverpool is well served with jewellers. It has Boodles in a prime corner unit on Lord Street, David M Robinson with a shiny new flagship within Liverpool One, independent Wongs on Whitechapel and a host of multiples including Ernest Jones, Beaverbooks, H Samuel and Goldsmiths. And now, there is Russell & Case, dominating the ground floor of the city’s aptly named Bling Bling building on Hanover Street.
Rather than fitting in nicely with the well-serviced Liverpool jewellery retail offer, Russell & Case intends to stand out, working its business plan around offering an alternative, not a complementary addition.
The business plan, however well thought out and executed, is enough to turn most bank managers’ hair white. As the industry has turned to silver brands and even base metal fashion jewellery to capitalise on high-volume low-ticket sales, Russell & Case only intends to stock fine jewellery and has a devil-may-care attitude towards high levels of footfall. While every jeweller worth its salt in investing in e-commerce, m-commerce and iPad apps, Russell & Case has no intention of becoming a player on the digital field, going so far as to shun the idea of a transactional website in favour of building real-life relationships with its customers within a physical store.
While these ambitions are noble, and ideals that many a traditional jeweller would have loved to have stuck to in the recession, it is not a plan that would likely win funding from any bank. Luckily, the business plan was for Russell & Case was not submitted to a bank manager but handed, on request, to a private financier.
So who is running this operation? Who is behind the curving sweeping glass-fronted store snug underneath the premises of Liverpool’s most famous hairdresser (Herbert Howe, in case you were wondering, aka the King of Bling)? That would be Matt Case, a 25-year-old former Ernest Jones sales assistant.
When meeting with Case you need to keep reminding yourself of his age, as his keen determination, effortless industry knowledge and cool logical vision for his business will not. Smartly presented and joyously enthusiastic he is less like a child with a new toy and more like a man who has just woken up to find himself in the place in life he always felt he’d be, a description that he agrees with. “I’m so less stressed than I thought I would be,” he says, less than a week after opening his store. “Not having to report to someone else, just realising my vision, feels so natural, I just can’t put words to it.”
Up until March of this year, Case was working as a watch manager at Ernest Jones which was where he met the Russell of Russell & Case. Kane Russell is part of a local family that own a wealth of restaurants, bars, clubs, spas and other businesses in Liverpool, and he also happens to have a passion for Breitling watches, which is how he and Case met.
As well as striking up a healthy professional relationship – Russell became a regular watch client of Case’s – the pair also developed a friendship and would often light-heartedly discuss the possibility of working together, even though at the time Russell had no jewellery or watch businesses.
One day, this well-played-out conversation took a more serious turn as a frustrated Case, who was not enjoying his role at Signet Group as much in previous years, snapped at Russell when the familiar topic arose. “He kept saying ‘You need to come and work for me’, but I had left jewellery once before [to work as a business development manager at Rainfords Chartered Surveyors] and regretted it, so I was really reluctant to leave again,” recalls Case. “But he kept saying that we weren’t leaving until we sorted it out and I snapped back and said ‘Well go and buy a jewellers, then’.”
Russell didn’t buy a jewellers. Instead, he told Case to go away and work on a business plan for what his ideal vision of a jewellery store would be, which he duly did and nervously presented it to Russell, who accepted it with a casual remark that they had already put aside £1 million of initial funding in anticipation. “It seemed too good to be true,” marvels Case.
But it was true, and in July the lease was signed for the shop unit in the Bling Bling Building, which in itself was a coup due to a very unusual upstairs neighbour who happened to hold sway over who moved in.
The Bling Bling building is on an up-and-coming street in the heart of Liverpool city centre. While there are still a few run-down pubs on Hanover Street there are clear signs of fresh development and investment and it is right by a major shopping thoroughfare. The Bling Bling building itself, built and named well before Russell & Case was established, was created for the city’s most flamboyant hairdresser, the aforementioned Howe, who also ran for the Mayor of Liverpool earlier this year, albeit for just 48 hours.
Howe previously ran his salon from a building within what would become the 2008 residential, leisure and retail scheme Liverpool One. To make way for the scheme, developers persuaded Howe to move out by promising to build him a new building on Hanover Street, outwith Liverpool One, which would become the Bling Bling Building.
Howe occupies the upper levels of the Bling Bling Building but as part of his lease agreement he has the final say on any potential tenants for the ground level unit, and he is one picky tenant. As a result, the property, aside from a few transient pop-us, has lain dormant for the past five years but when Russell & Case came knocking Howe felt he had finally found a worthy neighbour. In fact so thrilled was the flaxen-haired, permatanned self-appointed King of Bling that he attended the Russell & Case launch party.
With this seal of approval, Russell & Case was free to start its bid to bring some more bling to the famously flashy Merseyside city. But rather than offering up expensive crystal-studded fashion jewels or enticing silver charms for the fashion set, Russell & Case is dealing with fine jewellery only, and a small selection of exclusive watch brands.
The store itself has been fitted out to a high spec with a spiral oak staircase hand-carved on site, an upper mezzanine level complete with Joseph Perrier champagne bar, plenty of open spaces and seating areas. It has also introduced a signature colour throughout, a vivid orange, a theme that even extended to Case’s pockerchief and the emerald-cut citrine cocktail rings in the goodie bags on opening night.
Everything about the store is considered, and the same goes for its product offer. In its first few weeks of trading Russell & Case has taken on a small number of fine jewellery brands, opting for design-led collections that are a bit more out there than your average offer. It has jewels from Professional Jeweller Hot 100 Trendsetters Leyla Abdollahi and Sarah Ho, as well as chunky solid 18ct gold designs from Italian house Vendorafa and simpler designs, including modest solitaires, from Domino.
The collection on display also includes some jewellery designed by Case himself, featuring magnificent gemstones – he has an excellent contact in the gem trade. At present Case’s creations are realised by Domino but the long-term plan is to make bespoke work a key part of the business and set up an in-house workshop.
While Case has come from a completely different retail world to the one he is building for himself – he has worked at both Aurum and Signet – a project that he worked on before he left multiple retail helped him to hone his vision. “I was working at Ernest Jones and helping them to develop a luxury retail concept,” he says. “Part of my remit was to do mystery shops. I must have done 750 mystery shops in a year and I’d seen the same thing over and over again – a lack of personality.”
This attribute is not one that Case suffers from, and he wanted to make sure that his store would be exciting, and above all welcoming. As a young man in a job with high responsibilities, not to mention a serious buying budget, he has experienced some prejudice, and even downright rudeness, from some within the trade because of his age, and he does not intend to pass judgement on any of his customers. “Who are we to judge people?” he says with his trademark enthusiasm. “Who are we to decide if someone can’t afford those earrings?”
With retail prices in the store ranging from £600 for stacker rings to £46,000 for a Burmese ruby bracelet, Russell & Case will inevitably rule some shoppers out, but ultimately the judgement will not be passed by the store, it will be passed on the store.
Case claims to have got off to a good start with day one leading to a commission for a yellow gold and tanzanite pendant from a shopper who told Case she had been searching for tanzanite of the quality of that in Russell & Case’s window for 10 years with no luck; and it is such quality over quantity that he is interested in. “I’m sure we could sell silver but we want [a Russell & Case purchase] to be the most important piece you ever buy,” he says. “In this kind of environment you don’t need a lot of sales.”
It is early days for Russell & Case but the team is so confident it already has two more stores in planning. The first will be a concession within The Richmond Hotel on Hatton Garden in Liverpool due to open in March and the second will be a store in Manchester at an as yet undecided location at some point in 2013. “We don’t want to be too big, as we are passionate about delivering a certain level of service, but there are a few more cities that can do with a Russell & Case,” says Case.
What this new retailer is offering is in fact not new at all; it is the business model of a traditional jeweller and one that has been failing of late and slowly disappearing from our high streets. But with boundless energy and positivity, strong financial backing and fresh joie de vivre for fine jewellery, perhaps Russell & Case will be the one to bring it back, albeit with a bit more youth, pizzazz and much more of an inclusive attitude than its predecessors.
This article was taken from the December 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue online, click here.