Known widely as the home of the University of Cambridge, this compact city on the River Camb is home to roughly 650,000 people.
The prestigious school was established in 1209 and is one of the highest ranking universities in the world. Its famous colleges and Cambridge’s quaint surroundings attract tourists from the world over, making it a popular retail hub in Cambridgeshire.
Despite the preservation of its longstanding history, the city centre juxtoposes both modernity and times’ past, with it’s seven day market, from which a network of streets lead to a network of independant boutiques, along with high street offerings, to the shopping centres that house designer labels and high street staples.
The high street multiple
Keith Ashby, store manager of F.Hinds in Cambridge, has been working for the company for 38 years. “I started off in a branch in Wellingborough, and that was just working Saturdays initially. I then progressed and worked up to assistant manager, and then manager when I was 20. I was the youngest manager in the company at one point. Then I went to Bishop’s Stortford, and I’ve been in Cambridge 19 years now.”
Located on the corner of the entrance to Lion Yard, Ashby’s customers are a mixture of tourists taking in the sights, and locals seeking some retail therapy.
With the prominence of the internet, customer knowledge and expectations have shifted over the years. “People read up about things online a lot now, and they’re quite hot on things like the Kimberley Process. They want to know that that’s all above board. We tend not to get asked too much about the colour or clarity, but people have more knowledge than customers had 20 years ago,” says Ashby.
“When customers come in asking for a specific grade of diamond, we talk to them and explain that whilst those aspects are important, really what it looks like on your finger is the most important.”
“We certainly do get a lot of repeat custom. We’re finding that people are going for better quality again, and making more of an investment with considered purchases. So we’re selling fewer but making up for it in the quality of the sales”
Whilst the internet has its uses, Ashby has an attitude of caution when it comes to competition from the online market.
“In certain areas I think there are things that people will shop around for online, like watch brands. We now match online prices so that’s less so. People still want to look at jewellery and try it on. There is a threat there, but it depends on what you do about it. Do you roll over and give up, or do you fight back? We’re fighting back. People are realising that online purchases don’t always match the picture, and that dissuades future purchases.”
The Cambridge store has a steady brand offering, along with higher-end pieces. “We do a small range of Clogau. We’ve got My Diamonds, which is an exclusive brand to us as a company, and is hugely popular as it’s silver jewellery with diamonds set in, so it’s a very affordable price point. As well as that, our diamond jewellery sells very well.”
Having stood firmly in Cambridge for 19 years, how does F.Hinds manage to remain competitive?
“We make sure that we’ve got the right stock, and that the windows and displays always look good. It’s about giving the customer the right level of service. There’s nothing that people can’t get somewhere else, especially now with the internet, so you’ve got to make it a good shopping experience.
“When they come into us, it’s not just a matter of taking money and saying goodbye; it’s about having a chat and making people really feel that we are a family business and we make them feel part of that family. We certainly do get a lot of repeat custom. We’re finding that people are going for better quality again, and making more of an investment with considered purchases. So we’re selling fewer but making up for it in the quality of the sales.”
The fashion brand
Standing in a prime location in Cambridge’s Lion Yard Shopping Centre, Thomas Sabo’s striking signature style is easy to spot. Previously a franchise, store manager Alison Brown took the helm in July. “It was one of the first Thomas Sabo’s in the country before that. So it’s quite established in Cambridge,” she explains.
“All the stores follow the same brand handwriting, but they’re all slightly different in different ways. The inspiration for the décor is very much based on the collections – we try to reflect them in a very minimal way. Black and silver are the predominant colours.
“Since opening it has been going brilliantly. It’s such a beautiful store in a really good position – it’s an area of high footfall.”
The store position is a large factor in spreading the brand further afield, which is why the original franchise was moved to its current spot. “The location of the store used to be around the corner in a smaller unit,” says Brown.
“Obviously as the popularity grew it needed to expand, and this is a great spot in the mall – we’re between the Grand Arcade and Lion Yard. It means that people come here and naturally flow down this part of town towards the market and then the tourist sides,” she explains.
Neighbouring stores are also a consideration, and the surrounding lifestyle stores compliment the Thomas Sabo clientele. “The adjacencies we’ve got reflect the brand,” says Trade Marketing Manager Michael Williams. “It’s very cosmopolitan, with stores like Hotel Chocolat and Apple.”
“We try to offer Fairtrade to every customer, or at least discuss it so they know what options are out there. We do get people who have specifically searched us out for that reason and they love the ethos of the business”
Given it is the only place currently stocking Thomas Sabo in the city centre, it’s the one-stop shop for customers seeking the brands latest offerings.
“In terms of bestsellers in this store, our Love Bridge range performs extremely well, and is based on padlock bridges, such as in Paris.”
The trend for personalisation has duly been embraced, both in the Cambridge store and across the brand, where customers are able to have jewellery items engraved in seconds.
“The engraving offering has been so popular here in Cambridge – especially with gentlemen coming in at the last minute looking for gifts! We can do it on the spot in 60 seconds, it’s so quick and a lovely personal touch.”
For a fashion brand, the demographic is surprisingly wide, as Brown explains. “It’s really interesting for me to see the different ranges that people go for. Again, even with our Rebel at Heart range, which is our gentlemen’s collection, it goes all the way from really young guys, as we have a lot of students in Cambridge of course, up to 60 or 70-year-old men wanting the skull pendants. Although Cambridge might seem quite conservative, it’s actually really diverse.”
Williams adds: “You find a lot of women wear Rebel too. It’s such a unisex collection. The same can be said for charms. I was in our London flagship store yesterday, and someone came in to buy charms. I assumed they were for his girlfriend, but he pulled up his sleeve and had three complete charm bracelets. It’s appeals to such a broad spectrum.”
The ethical jeweller
The Harriet Kelsall studio, nestled down Green Street Lane’s cobbled path, is a charming boutique and workshop, and is work-home to designer Thomas Wilson, who has been at the company for four years.
“The heart of the design process at Harriet Kelsall starts at a traditional place,” Wilson explains, “but the end point is always something different and refreshing.”
Wilson has always had his sights on entering the jewellery trade. “I did my degree at Sheffield Hallam, but jewellery design is something I’ve wanted to do from about the age on nine. I don’t come from a family of jewellers, but my family are magpies – they all love jewellery.”
In the display cabinets, each piece is labelled with the designer’s name. As Wilson gives me the tour, he talks me through his own pieces.
“Once the pieces are made and sold, we don’t make them again. We’ll certainly use them for inspiration, but everything is one off, and we want everything to be unique.”
Harriet Kelsall jewellery is well-known for its ethical ethos, and all materials used are sourced with an awareness for responsible trading.
“We’ve got a fantastic gemmologist, she sources a very wide variety of stones. We’ve got some diamonds that are as ethically sourced as can be, coming from Botswana, and they’re fully traceable back to the mines. Then we have a mix of all different kinds of our gemstones. We can certainly get fairly traded stones, in all different types. We deal a lot in tourmalines and sapphires, as much as we can, and we get some unusual colours through that.”
This is Harriet Kelsall’s second store, and whilst there are no immediate plans for another, Kelsall herself has been making waves throughout the industry, having recently been elected to serve on both the NAJ and RJC boards.
“The majority of my designs are engagement rings, and they are the core of our business”
“The Hertfordshire store is our main centre,” says Wilson. “It features a completely visible workshop so you can see all of the goldsmiths working. We’re the first location out of the centre. The Cambridge centre has been going for 10 years last October.”
“The design process can start from anywhere. Harriet and I will sit down once a month and go through the collections, and see what gaps we have, or we’ll analyse the trends coming through in the bespoke commissions, it’s good to have an example of that to show. In house, we have a competition for the design team quite frequently.
“We’ve just submitted our spring one, so we’re waiting to hear back. At the moment, vintage is a trend. Big, styled pieces. Rose gold is really picking up. We’ve not got a lot in the collection as we’ve just sold some pieces. Yellow gold is picking up again as well. Things like royal blue sapphires are never going to go out.”
Given rose and yellow gold’s successes, does Wilson believe that silver is on its way out? “Not at all. Silver is a constant. Silver and palladium, the latter probably being our most popular white metal. Unfortunately, we can’t get that in the Fairtrade, so we do a lot of nine and 18 carat in white gold because we can provide that element which is very popular as well.
“We try to offer Fairtrade to every customer, or at least discuss it so they know what options are out there. We do get people who have specifically searched us out for that reason and they love the ethos of the business. We’re the only Fairtrade license company in Cambridge, so that’s something we’re quite proud of. If we can’t do it in the Fairtrade, we try to do recycled pieces. Some of our dress jewellery was originally made in Fairtrade silver, but we can no longer get that, so we’re working with recycled silver to keep that ethical element.
“The majority of my designs are engagement rings, and they are the core of our business. We get a lot of reworking heirloom jewellery; people come with their grandmas brooch that they’re never going to wear, so we’ll turn that into a dress ring or a pendant. Or equally we can use the stones in the engagement rings for sentimental value. We try to cater to any budget. Commissioned work will start from the £750 mark, it really depends on the design and the materials we’re going to be working with. In my appointments I always ask the budget and we stick to it in a realistic way.”
In terms of trends, Wilson says classic-coloured stones never go out of style. “Royal blue is always going to be quite popular. Before Christmas we did a lot of the peachy colour diamonds. That was very popular. Also teals are quite popular in the tourmaline and sapphire range. At the moment I’ve got a couple of projects through with colour change sapphires, because it’s something unusual that you’re not going to get on the high street.”
Exploring the streets of Cambridge, and seeing first had the business successes of both independent and national multiples alike, paints a positive picture of the jewellery scene. Enjoying a plentiful footfall, its only obstacles are, like the rest of the industry, figuring out a balance between cultivating trust through tradition, but also moving forward with the times. From speaking to many retailers, it seems that all have acknowledged and embraced the challenge ahead.
Q&A: Page Fine Jewellery – the out of town independent
How long has the store been open?
We’ve been open here in Ely for about 10 years, but it’s a family business that has been established since 1925, and we’ve always been in Cambridgeshire.
What jewellery do you stock?
We’ve got a good mix of both the fine and the branded jewellery. We’ve got Thomas Sabo, Jersey Pearl, Clogau, London Rose, Kit Heath and Trollbeads. At the moment they all sell quite equally. We used to have Pandora, but we got Thomas Sabo in and it’s doing quite well.
What are your bestsellers?
Thomas Sabo and Trollbeads are probably the best performers. The charm club in the Thomas Sabo collection is doing really well for us. We’ve already got a loyal Trollbeads following anyway so the add-on beads do quite well.
What is your demographic?
We target a lot of our brand offerings to the 18 to 30 age range. That’s certainly our social media-following demographic, and that translates to sales as it brings people into the store. In the shop, our repairs and bespoke offerings tend to catch a more 40 to 70 age bracket.
How does business fare given you aren’t in Cambridge?
Being such a local family business we’ve got our local customers, but we have those travelling 20 or 30 miles to see us. The benefits of being in Ely, where we’re close but not in Cambridge, is that we have free parking, which is an important influencing factor for some people. It’s still a vibrant city within itself, without the constant rush of Cambridge. I think it helps our customer experience to feel more personal.
Cambridge fact sheet
- County: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire
- Population: 650,000
- Active businesses: 6,135
- City fact: Individuals associated with Cambridge University have won 89 Nobel Prizes in all six disciplines covering physics, chemistry, peace, literature, physiology, and medicine.
Cambridge jewellers directory
Catherine Jones Jewellery, 9 Bridge St, 01223 361596
Cellini, 4 Rose Cres, 01223 517700
F.Hinds, Lion Yard, 8 Petty Cury, 01223 341037
Fraser Hart, The Grand Arcade, 01223 306004
H.Samuel, Lion Yard, 34 Yard, 01223 300240
Harriet Kelsall Jewellery, 6-7 Green St, 01223 461333
Pia Jewellery, Lion Yard, 8 Petty Curry, 01223 321145
Swarovski, Grand Arcade, 24 St Andrew’s St, 01223 305511
Trinity Street Jewellers, 31 Trinity St, 01223 357910
Thomas Sabo, Lion Yard, St AndrewStreet, 01223 304801