SPECIAL REPORT: How Sheffield independents are giving big name jewellers a run for their money

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Sheffield, known to locals as ‘Steel City’, may sit in the shadows of the sublime Peak District but has made itself a destination worth visiting. With its friendly population, green areas and steep hills, offering views few other cities can boast, Sheffield is nothing short of a Northern wonder.

Firmly rooted in its industrial history, there is a common stereotype of the city being a rugged, gritty, steel manufacturing area. But look a bit closer and speak to local residents and you’ll soon see in its place is a shining jewellery industry, vibrant city centre and rich culture, as Professional Jeweller discovered.

Helen Dimmick, managing director at diamond specialist and fine jewellery retailer Green + Benz, has a store on one of the city’s coolest, quirkiest roads – Division Street – which is lined with independent eateries, cafes, bars, hipster shops and tattoo parlours. Incidentally, the street is also where Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker once fell out of a window and broke his leg while trying to impress a girl at a party, apparently inspiring the song, ‘Common People’.

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Silversmith David Hall, Hallmark Goldsmiths, crafts bespoke pieces at his on-site workshop.

Silversmith David Hall, Hallmark Goldsmiths, crafts bespoke pieces at his on-site workshop.

Dimmick explains how she loves the buzz of her store’s location and notes how Sheffield has moved forward since the industrial days it used to be known for: “I wouldn’t say that we would define ourselves like that [industrial]. I lived in London, it rains a heck of a lot more here than it does in the South, but it ain’t grim up North. There’s an incredible amount of innovation. There’s a personality and a humour here that I love,” she says.

“We are open to the world for business”

“In the past Sheffield has been known for its steel, it’s known for the Full Monty, (we all keep our clothes on here), but I would say there’s a great humour and a great spirit in the city that we really like.” She adds that despite being proud of her roots, a geographical location shouldn’t define a jeweller: “Wherever you get people, you get love and you get life and you need a jeweller.”

Further to this, silversmith David Hill, founder of Hallmark Goldsmiths, who has done work for Beaverbrooks, Goldsmith and Ernest Jones, believes that Sheffield has a lot to offer. He stresses that the diverse range of music, art and culture which pack the city make it a trend-setting destination.

In part, the city has been rejuvenated by the development of two universities and students present one of the main opportunities for jewellers. Hill comments: “They like to take a bit of Sheffield with them. A lot of students seem to stay on after university and we do a lot of wedding and engagement rings for them. We have a lot of international students come here too, who really seem to like silverware.”

HL Brown’s 150-year-old family business makes strong sales on high-end products.

HL Brown’s 150-year-old family business makes strong sales on high-end products.

Some jewellers have looked to capitalise on the student population and adapt their strategy accordingly. Notably, Andrea Bywater store manager at bespoke manufacturing jewellers Morris Bywater, aims to transform the young population into long term customers. The family jewellers, which has a workshop on site, aims to target the ever-growing student population, rather than becoming complacent with those who have traditionally supported them.
In addition to potentially wealthy international students, Bywater points out the business-boosting benefits traditionally poorer home students can bring.

She explains: “Although they don’t necessarily spend lots of money in the shop, we’re happy to support them and have them to come to us as they bring their families and their parents. On a quiet day we’ll probably see between 40 and 60 transactions, so it’s quite busy. That’s not selling diamond rings 60 times a day, it could be just a watch battery, but we do find that we make good, steady sales from less expensive things.”

“It ain’t grim up north. There’s a personality and a humour that I love here in Sheffield”

But it’s not just students who present opportunities for jewellers in Sheffield. The Peak District, which stands to the west of the city, is home to a wealthy population and acts as a tourist magnet for people who are happy to trundle into the city centre to pick up souvenirs.

Naomi Jenkinson, creative assistant at Browns Family Jewellers, which stocks vintage jewellery, antiques and new designs, remarks how the store capitalises on Sheffield’s diverse customer base.

“We have a great selection of affordable priced jewellery that suits the large university population. We also sell high-end engagement rings and large diamonds that we find dealers from London make the trip to see,” Jenkinson shares with Professional Jeweller.

The Meadowhall effect

Just as much as Sheffield draws in customers from its outskirts, the city centre is constantly fighting against the gravitational pull of the massive out-of-town Meadowhall shopping centre. Opened in 1990, Meadowhall houses jewellery multiples which have come into direct competition with the city’s independents.

James Frampton, managing director at HL Brown & Son, which has been run by the same family in Sheffield since 1861, says: “The big impact [of Meadowhall shopping centre] was the year afterwards, the city centre was hit badly. It’s taken a while for it to recover from the initial impact. That’s really been the biggest change in Sheffield that I’ve seen.”

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Brown Family Jewellers’ business is back on track after a post-Brexit lull.

The shopping centre is situated three miles from the city and has parking and facilities which independents struggle to compete with. But, with true Northern grit, city jewellers have not let Meadowhall steam roll their businesses.
Bywater explains how jewellers have worked hard to try and keep people coming to the city. She says: “Yes, Meadowhall had a massive impact on the city, but we found people love the city. We brought customers from Leeds, Wakefield, Retford, and they ended up falling in love with Sheffield.”

Like most jewellers, Green + Benz have had to adapt. Dimmick says: “Yes, you can’t deny it, there are a lot of good retailers in Meadowhall. But I think we offer something different. We’ve expanded opening hours, we’re open Sundays too, and we can offer the same opening times as Meadowhall, but we’ll also loan out our brollies for when it rains.”

“Wherever you get people, you get love and you get life and you need a jeweller”

Frampton from HL Brown & Son admits that although Meadowhall presents stiff competition, he believes that a lot of people prefer fresh air and a city centre environment to a shopping centre. For Frampton it is his company’s heritage which gives it an edge over the multiples. “We have a 150-year-old family business, still in the same family, with a lot of contacts in the city. There are a lot of generations coming back to our jewellers and trust grows between the families. We are a Sheffield business and we are very much committed to the city.”

Andrea Bywater (left) runs a close-knit family jewellers.

Andrea Bywater (left) runs a close-knit family jewellers.

For Dimmick, competing against the large-scale multiples is about providing a unique service for consumers. “Our customers aren’t customers, they’re friends, they’re people we know. I walk in and I don’t know if the team are talking to an aunt, a friend or a client, and I love that, and that’s what we’re known for,” she says. “Whether they’re students or they’ve always lived here, we get to know them at that point and they’re customers for life, which is lovely. I think that shows loyalty to the city and to Green + Benz,” she adds.

But as much as some see Meadowhall as taking away from the city, Hallmark Goldsmiths, based outside of the centre, notes that by drawing some of the larger stores outside of the city, it has left spaces to be filled by independents. Based on Ecclesall Road, which is one of Sheffield’s most exciting streets, crammed with colourful independent businesses, David Hill’s store and workshop is a destination business of choice for those wanting bespoke craftsmanship. The location however, suffers from a lack of parking, which is a problem for businesses.
The parking plight also affects city centre businesses where there is limited space. Jenkinson, from Browns Family Jewellers, says: “The lack of parking in the city centre is a huge challenge, customers avoid heading into the city as there is little to nowhere to park.”

PA Jewellery boasts six gemologists and a workshop of four staff.

PA Jewellery boasts six gemologists and a workshop of four staff.

Diamond specialist, PA Jewellery, based on the opposite side of the city however, is able to benefit from being outside of the city centre, despite the smaller footfall. Director, Ian Cookson, notes how lower rates have allowed the business to acquire an old bank building and expand into neighbouring buildings, leading to a large showroom, offices and workshop. Furthermore, a dedicated car park allows for the jewellers to capitalise on the idea of it being a destination business, which focuses on customer service.

“We try and make sure that the experience is worth telling their friends about, because so much of the business has to come from word of mouth. You need to make sure that those people are very happy to tell their friends where they bought their engagement ring or wedding ring,” says Cookson. PA Jewellery also prides itself on recruiting its staff from the university design school and ensuring they are qualified so that they can offer customers detailed advice. They have six gemmologists, all with FGA’s and four members of staff also have the DGA qualification.

PA Jewellery uses its website as an additional showroom.

PA Jewellery uses its website as an additional showroom.

Cookson says that being on the other side of the city to Meadowhall has meant the effect has been slightly reduced. But there are many challenges outside of jewellers in the shopping centre. He explains, “We’re not competing against other jewellers anymore we’re competing against electronics and luxury handbags. There’re so many other areas where people put their money. You can’t talk about other jewellers as our main competitors, it’s other types of products. The same things all fighting for that single person’s ‘gift money’.”

Shrugging off Brexit

Four months on, the dust from the EU Referendum is beginning to settle, but how hard have jewellers in Sheffield been hit by the shocking result?

David Hill is positive about the future of his business following the vote. “Before, people weren’t really spending, but afterwards, people saw nothing terrible had happened so we’ve sold a bit more since then,” he comments.
Likewise, Andrea Bywater, who runs Morris Bywater jewellers, believes despite the cost of materials fluctuating, consumers’ relief and instilled confidence works in the business’s favour. “Some of the people we’ve had since say, ‘well, I’ve got this money in my pocket, I might as well enjoy it’,” she recalls.

For some, although turnover has not necessarily been affected, the pattern of business has been very different. PA Jewellery found that it was veering very much towards making everything by special order, rather than selling stock, before Brexit. Since, Ian Cookson notes how they have been selling more stock.

Green + Benz marks customers’ anniversaries with photos in the showroom.

Green + Benz marks customers’ anniversaries with photos in the showroom.

“There have been a lot of people coming in just to buy a piece that we have. It might just be a complete fluke, but it may also be an issue. We’ve changed how we go about selling things without realising it. What has been quite nice is that because we’ve been selling stock we’ve been able to reinvest in new pieces.”

For others though, the initial impact of Brexit has been a challenge. Dimmick from Green + Benz says: “I think there has been a shake in confidence, but I do think that it is coming back. I think that’s the hand we’ve been dealt, let’s just deal with it. It could be an exciting new world out there. We’re based on a confidence economy, so in that way, we need to carry on, we’ve just got to be confident.” It would appear then, that for the most part the initial impact of Brexit has affected jewellers differently. It’s still unclear though what the triggering of Article 50 will result in. James Frampton, HL Brown, is aware that despite short term business doing well, if not better, there are longer term concerns.

“We’ve certainly got to be enthusiastic and positive about what we do as a country. But we have to be realistic in the sense that there are threats in the medium term to costs of materials and generally the economy, in the wake of Brexit. For Sheffield city region, I think we’re probably better off than other regions around the country. I’d be very worried if I were operating in the city of London. At the moment it’s okay. In the long term it is uncertain,” he comments.

A gleaming future

Despite the uncertainty of business in the wake of leaving the EU, Sheffield jewellers have reason to be cheerful about the future. The crash of 2008 devastated parts of the city and led to redevelopment plans being scrapped. But the Northern Powerhouse and Chinese manufacturing firm Sichuan Guodong Construction Group’s £1bn investment in the city are set to inject huge amounts of money into Sheffield to complement the growing youth and ingenuity.
Even if the post-Brexit future is uncertain, one thing is crystal clear – jewellers in Sheffield are immensely proud of their city’s rugged industrial past and vibrant, diverse present, and are extremely excited and positive about its future.

All jewellers Professional Jeweller spoke to are deeply committed to ‘Steel City’ and to drawing people in to see the brilliance it has to offer.
Sheffield is synonymous with manufacturing quality products and it has every reason to be positive about the future jewellery market. Hill, Hallmark Goldsmiths, epitomises what seems to be the city’s jewellers’ collective view: “We are open to the world for business.”

Sheffield fact sheet

County: South Yorkshire
City population: 563,700
Economic activity rate: 76% in work or actively seeking work
Active businesses: 14,200 public and private enterprises
Av. House prices: £130,560
Gross value add: £19,958
City fact: 61% of Sheffield’s entire area is green space

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Dogs, blogs and digital decisions

Most independents will admit that an online operation is absolutely essential. But the strategies they adopt can differ greatly.

One initiative Browns Family Jewellers follows is a regular blog concerning all things jewellery, to draw customers in and drive traffic. The blog, produced by Naomi Jenkinson, is an alternative to the usual social media feed format and allows for more in depth content in keeping with the brand.

Morris Bywater uses social media to increasingly target a younger customer base of students coming into the city, rather than rely on traditional customers. Despite admitting that online didn’t used to be important, Andrea Bywater’s son, Michael Bramhald, has been developing the website and social media. He is able to show and discuss bespoke designs with customers online. Bywater says: “We don’t sell product online, we sell ourselves.”

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Bulldog Henry is a social media star and draws customers into Hallmark Goldsmiths.

PA Jewellery is revamping its website to act as an additional showroom. It is a major focus in terms of advertising and aims to draw people into the store, even if they’re not after the specific stock showcased online. The website uses Shopfiy as a platform, allowing shoppable content to be extended to social media sites like Instagram. Director Ian Cookson, says: “We want online content to actually be written by a jeweller. I think you can tell when you’ve handed it over to a marketing company.”

Whilst Hallmark Goldsmiths does sell on its website, its biggest drive is on social media. Instagram acts as a spotlight for pieces whilst Twitter and Facebook pages look to maximise reach. Alexandra Hill, retail sales associate and buyer at the jewellers, says: “The more people you can get your name out to the better. I do Instagram and Twitter and you get a lot [of sales] from that. Facebook can be a bit slow, but you’ve got to have it.”

When it comes to social media Hallmark Goldsmiths also has a trump card few other jewellers can challenge – Henry the bulldog! The five-year-old pet-come-security guard sometimes features on social media feeds which surges traffic and causes people to visit the store to meet the four-legged star. It’s no secret that pets generate interest online. PR consultant Rosalind Shimmen has even created a digital look book of socially savvy pets.

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