The Watches of Switzerland Group is the largest jewellery retail firm in the UK, with sales surging by 22.5% to £773 million during the financial year ending April, 2019.

With a change of name from Aurum Holdings to Watches of Switzerland Group, and a sharp focus on the luxury watch market, trade professionals may be forgiven for thinking jewellery is not an important side of the business.

A conversation with executive director for Mappin & Webb and Goldsmiths, Craig Bolton, and head jewellery buyer, Claire James, tells a different story though.


While the Group is very proud of the big watch names it has secured, and has had impressive success with this sector of the market, jewellery is still extremely valuable to the business and this year the Watches of Switzerland Group will be actively pushing it back into the spotlight.

With a fresh jewellery team in place, fronted by Claire James who moved over from the watch side at the start of the year, the Group will be refreshing its product offering at Goldsmiths and Mappin & Webb, alongside launching a new diamond range that will make the retailer stand out from competition, and focusing marketing efforts on telling stories that will help reconnect consumers with the importance of gifting loved ones with jewellery.

Professional Jeweller editor, Stacey Hailes, finds out more…

What are your thoughts on how the current state of the jewellery and watch retail market?
Craig Bolton (CB): Our big concern has been in the middle market of jewellery and the level of discounting and commodity that has been going on, which we try to stay clear of, but certainly over the last couple of Christmases it has been more prominent than ever before. The time of year where jewellers would have historically made all of their money is now the time when jewellers are discounting the most, and the smaller guys get dragged along with it unfortunately. It is difficult to get away from, like everybody we got into a pattern of having four sale periods a year — two main sales periods in the summer and the winter and then you would have two mid seasons, which for our industry is kind of crazy really as there is no real such thing as a mid-season in the fashion industry in that respect, so one of the big decisions we have made this year is to stop those two mid-season sales. We are going to cut back on sale periods and try to get further away from that high level of discounting that is going on. We realised a year ago that you can’t really ignore the value customer because they are there, and if you ignore them then you just cut out that element of your marketplace, so we try to add good value propositions. For example at the moment we’ve got three rings on 50% off in our store, but that’s our offer — this mass discounting of 20% or 30% off all diamond rings kills the value of jewellery in the marketplace and it is not where we are going to go. Instead this year we are going to try and refresh everybody’s memories on the whole purpose of buying and gifting jewellery, but also the value behind it. It’s probably got more value than a watch has actually.

Claire, you’ve recently moved to the jewellery side of the business, are you enjoying it?
Claire James (CJ): Absolutely. There is a lot of positivity in jewellery. Its sentimental gifts and it is about getting the customer back into that — getting them to see that value and just talking about the messages within jewellery. We’ve got a lot to offer this year, so it should be one of the most exciting years for jewellery.

CB: We’ve got one collection in particular that we are bringing in this year that will be something nobody else has, and it is actually excellent and really plays to the marketplace as we think it is right now. It is like what we did with Canadian diamonds a number of years ago, we were the first to introduce it in the UK, but now everybody has them so it is not a USP anymore, so we are going to replace those products this year with something different.

Are you allowed to share what that something different is?
CB: It is essentially an 88-facet diamond, but forget that facets, that’s not the key selling point. We are going to be calling it the ‘Goldsmiths Brightest Diamond’ and we believe it is in terms of how it has been cut. It shows up to three colours better than it actually is, and we are going to be putting equipment in all or our stores so we can compare rings for all of our customers and show them it is visibly brighter, even against another diamond of the same grade. We are going to play less on the 4cs and more on the scale of brightness, and let the customer see that it is better. And it is a premium cut but we are not going to charge any premium retail on it. So we are going to give it to the customer at the same price we would have charged for our core product.

Goldsmiths has welcomed an exclusive new diamond line this year.

When will it launch?
CB: So we have been trialing it in ten stores for the last few months and the sales have been excellent. We put it against a test group of the old equivalent product and this product has significantly grown in comparison, so that will now be expanded between now and August, and pretty much be fully launched by the end of August.

CJ: I do think it sells itself in the sense that when you try it on it has got that brightness, and it is beautiful, and it stands out in the marketplace, but like Craig said we will have the viewers in store which technically show the customer. It will also come with an OGI certificate that measures the brilliance and fire of the diamonds. Nobody else in the marketplace will provide information to show you how the sparkle can be measured, but that will actually come as standard with the product.

CB: For us it is about saying we’ve been in Canadian diamonds, the customer gets it and likes it, but it is not a USP for us anymore, so therefore it doesn’t really do the job it was designed for. So we are going to be completely replacing that Canadian product and taking it out of our stores and replacing it with this. But, essentially, it will be our core product in many respects.

When you say a core product, will all your standard engagement rings now have this diamond?
CB: The way we range build at the moment is we have a ‘good’, ‘better’, ‘best’ offer. We have a good range at keen price points, which is our starting point really for people who want a diamond but they’re willing to compromise a little bit on quality on the basis of price, and then the majority of our product is the better range which is currently Canadian but will be replaced by the 88-facet, and then we have a better range which is just a higher grade and a higher price point.

We have given up on the idea and have no real desire to be the biggest in terms of store numbers.”

In general, how has the jewellery side of the business been for the Watches of Switzerland Group in the UK this year?
CB: Relative to the market I would say really good. I mean we don’t compare jewellery with watches because of course it is crazy to compare a Rolex to jewellery, but our luxury jewellery, what we classify as £500 and above, has been growing 3% on a like-for-like basis, which we are really pleased with. We generally believe the overall jewellery industry is declining somewhere between 5%-10% year-on-year, but we are positive plus three. The area we have probably suffered a bit on is branded fashion. So for the Michael Kors of this world, the transition for them from their lower average selling prices to slightly higher selling prices hasn’t really worked. Well it hasn’t worked for us anyway, and we don’t think it has necessarily worked so well in the marketplace. So there is a place for brands and they are performing very well for us, but they are all luxury brands, not necessarily the fashion brands. So we generally focus on product over £500, and we are seeing fairly moderate/good growth and we expect probably the same for what we would classify as FY20, so for the next financial year we are planning similar numbers. We also think with our new product we could get even more improved sales this year, and also with all the work Claire has been doing with the team to bring in newness as well, but we haven’t put it into our numbers or tailored our expectations, so it would just be an upside if we got it. In a very competitive environment that Goldsmiths operates in, I think for us to be positive under the circumstance is very good. Mappin & Webb has been slightly better than that, it has been high single digit growth, and we really believe in that brand. We actually haven’t introduced as much in the last 12-18 months but we’ve got a whole host of newness for Mappin & Webb coming up this year as well, which all relates back to our archive and has a real good story and USP for that brand, so we believe that one will grow high single digit to double digit again in the year to come.

How many Goldsmiths and M&W stores do you have in the UK now?
CB: We have 85 Goldsmiths stores and 13 Mappin & Webb boutiques.

Mappin & Webb has seen sales soar since its rebrand in 2016.

You sold some Goldsmiths boutiques to TH Baker, can you talk a bit about the reason behind that and how you decided which stores to keep?
CB: It is not just about turnover, we have a number of let’s say lower turnover stores, like Darlington for example, which is in a location with low rent, takes less than £1m in turnover, but it is highly profitable. We do, however, have some smaller turnover stores that are in higher rental positions that going forward whenever the lease is up we will have to review. And in some cases we don’t have the confidence that the next 3-5 years in that particular town or city is going to improve and we choose not to stay there. I would say we have probably been a little bit more active on that front than our competitors, and I think largely because we have given up on the idea and have no real desire to be the biggest in terms of store numbers, we just want to have a profitable estate that’s good for our employees and gives them a nice, safe future. So it does inevitably mean we will close a few stores as we have done. The TH Baker deal was fantastic. It is a lovely business and we really got on well with them, and they have slightly different objectives to us in terms of what they are looking to get as a return from a store, so they took six Goldsmiths, all of which were profitable but just weren’t profitable to the degree that we would have wanted and we didn’t necessarily see the future for us in that, so they took them on and the teams have been maintained. So if deals like that come along we would be very happy to do it. I don’t think there is an ideal number of stores. We will close a couple of Goldsmiths and we are going to open a couple too, so I don’t think our numbers will change much from the numbers I’ve just given you but we will review every store as they come up to end of lease. We actually live in quite a bubble in our industry when you compare us to other retail, if you look at every aspect of retail there has been some consolidation within every aspect but not really within our industry. It’s been slow to react but sometimes the odd store here or there closing actually allows the other store in the town to really flourish and that’s a really good thing too because it secures the future for others. And we know in some of the cases where we have closed stores it probably allows the Signets to survive better but that’s ok. It’s good that somebody at least survives.

So moving forward, what’s the focus for Goldsmiths?
CB: Overall for the brand we continue our route to elevation. We’ve spent a lot of money over the last few years refurbishing our stores and putting new visual merchandising in, and the capital expenditure on our estate will continue. We are now spending a lot of money on marketing and creating good content for our stores. We are also going to spend a lot of money on product this year, and we are obviously trying to make our jewellery offer and the brands have an equal place and equal billing alongside the luxury watch brands. We don’t want them to be inferior. So for us it is more of the same strategy that we have been employing. We do think there will be another couple of store closures over the next 12 months and we are going to be opening a few stores too. The big people focus for us this year will be on recruitment, retention, and training. We want to really build careers for our people. We don’t have a problem with staff turnover but we would love to make ourselves a place that people come for careers in the jewellery and watch industry.

Do you know what you are going to do to make yourselves a place people go to for a career?
CB: Yes. There is a lot that we already do which we don’t necessarily shout about, certainly if you compare us to Beaverbrooks we don’t talk at all about a lot of the great initiatives we have going on in our business, such the Brilliance Scheme, which is our internal rewards recognition that we spend an incredible amount of money on. We have a lot of things already in place that positions us well, and a great set of values and a good culture, which largely we think is why we are so successful. We don’t talk about those elements of our business enough; we are quite factual with our performance, but culturally we are very, very, good and people really enjoy working for us. We gain managers from the competition but we rarely lose anybody. So we are a good place to work but this year we are going to focus more on the granular detail of our people. We’ve got over 2,000 people working for our group now and there’s elements that I think we can work harder on. For example, I don’t think we do enough to support part-time women working in our business. So there’s some granular elements of our teams that we can do more with to try and support them and even further improve our retention levels and us being an even better employer. So rather than looking at it holistically we will be looking at those rather granular elements going forward.

Did you want to add anything on the jewellery side of Goldsmiths?
CJ: I think this year is the most exciting year for jewellery and particularly for our customer. There is so much to talk about. We’ve got a relatively new team on the jewellery side and with that is a new strategy. This year every single category will have been reviewed from a range point of view, and we have new collections within each category. When I say category, I mean engagement rings, wedding rings, diamond jewellery etc. So there will be newness coming through in each of those categories and it has really given us an opportunity to look at where the marketplace is and also where it is going. We are really conscious we don’t want to just be following the marketplace and regurgitating for the customer what is already out there, we want to lead the market. So we’ve really looked at new styles coming through; looking at what’s still commercial and really classic. If you take engagement rings as an example, it has to last you a lifetime, but the market does move and we’ve seen a big move towards trilogy for example, so it’s taking elements that we know are working and just evolving that through for the customer. We’ve also looked at our pricing architecture. As Craig mentioned earlier, we review our collections by good, better, best —and it’s just making sure from a styling point of view, but also from a pricing point of view, we are really competitive and leading the market in terms of the offer that we provide, and I think if we get that right there shouldn’t be a need for the level of discounting we have had in the jewellery industry in the past. Everybody has a budget and everybody has a certain amount that they wish to spend, and actually if we get that pricing structure right we shouldn’t need to do the level of discounting and we shouldn’t need to compete in what other people are doing. Our most recent campaign has been, ‘Whatever your look, whatever your style, whatever your choice, we have it covered for you’, and that’s the philosophy you will see continued throughout FY20. It is about making sure that that customer knows whatever their need, we are their go-to jeweller. We are national but we have a local feel. So you will see a lot more of that come through in our collections and in our marketing. And like we said, the Brightest Diamond is going to be absolutely huge this year. We’ve got really beautiful core collections but also a massive launch, which will be a massive USP for us.

Claire James has been introducing new designs across all product categories.

How about Mappin & Webb, what’s the focus for that arm of the business over the next 12 months or so?
CJ: Mappin & Webb is quite similar in terms of the new process. So from our point of view we build the ranges so that they are separate as they have a very different client base, but in terms of the process and the strategy, each collection within Mappin & Webb has had quite a large review, and we have also looked at the pricing architecture, and we are also looking to take some learnings from watches. You know we have a really amazing watch business, watches in the UK are phenomenal, and, like we said, our performance in jewellery has been fantastic compared to the marketplace, but there are some learnings we can take from watches. We have a good high network within our watch side of the business, so we want to take some of the learnings for jewellery to make sure if the customer comes in and wants something amazing from core we have that covered, but also have a look at some more bespoke pieces to offer those clients as something they can build with us.

CB: Just to add to that — the other thing we are looking at as part of the range reviews is we are conscious that all of our named collections really need to come from our archive to stand up, but we had a couple of collections that had drifted away from our archive that we are now pulling back, so the designs are being slightly adjusted, in some cases we are moving suppliers to make that happen too, but all of the fine jewellery collections named within Mappin & Webb will now have a clear nod to our archive and will be very unique to us. All our rings are already designed in-house, all relating to English roses, and we are about to introduce another ring called Penelope. And again, taking a nod from the watches, another thing we see as an opportunity and will be trialing in the next month is limited edition collections. Because Mappin & Webb only has 13 stores it is difficult to introduce seasonal newness all the time and then allow yourself to sell-through that product and then bring in more newness, so we think the answer to that is through limited editions. We have great very loyal customers of Mappin & Webb, who are always looking for something a bit different, and we think for them the answer is not necessarily changes to collections all the time but bringing in collections that start off being limited and then maybe become part of the core if they do really well with a slight tweak to them. So we are going to be trialing that and if it works really well I think it will become a seasonal thing for Mappin & Webb.

We are really conscious we don’t want to just be following the marketplace and regurgitating for the customer what is already out there, we want to lead the market.”

Will you be doing anything new to the Mappin & Webb stores?
CB: We’ve got five refurbs planned for Mappin & Webb this year. Some of that is just going back to stores that don’t necessarily need full refurbishments and some of it has been driven because the Rolex spaces are slightly older now and need refitting. We are in the process of refitting Old Bond Street as well, and we are going to be doing Cambridge and Bluewater this year where we will be expanding some branded watch spaces and the jewellery spaces. We are also going to be going to Glasgow to complete some more work up there, and then we’ve got some other minor refurbishments planned. There probably won’t be a year where we won’t touch the Mappin & Webb estate. We are constantly treating it and constantly shifting it where we feel it is necessary. But Mappin & Webb has been a huge success for us over the last three years. It was a brand that probably had the least amount of attention pre 2016, the focus was on the big divisions of Goldsmiths and Watches of Switzerland, but since we relaunched Mappin & Webb in June 2016 it has been a huge success, so we are very, very pleased with it.

In terms of balancing watches and jewellery in the M&W and Goldsmiths stores, do you feel you are getting that balance right?
CB: Yes, but I think we are actually going to improve it. We just had a review two weeks ago where we went through a review of productivity by metre in our stores, and over the last couple of years I think there was a drift towards removing maybe core gold products – that wasn’t deemed to be that productive – and replacing it with watch brands or extending engagement rings, but actually the review has now shown there is huge productivity within the watch brands, but once you get beyond a certain amount of watch brands then the productivity is much worse than it is on jewellery. So I believe this year a proportion of our space will be moved from watches back to jewellery and we will be introducing more styling within core gold which we haven’t really done over the last couple of years.

How does Watches of Switzerland Group stand out from the competition on the jewellery side?
CB: I think right now, and more so you will see this year too, we won’t be promoting in the same way that our competition do. I am not saying that we will never have value product because we will, but you are not going to see that mass discounting that you see in other stores. You will, however, see further renovation this year, even last year we started putting more digital screens everywhere so we now put more content in our windows rather than static backboards and the likes, so there will be a big move to even further content this year that will play out both in our stores and our social media channels. We are working pretty closely with YouTube as well as our social channels to get the best knowledge we can on what works well. A couple of years ago we went very black and white with our imagery and that was us trying to stand out, and we did because everybody else was in colour, and then we went to YouTube and they said you don’t want to do that, you want lots of colour — so we are learning as we go. One of the big things we want to do is try to bring the love back to jewellery by developing content, so we will be creating a lot more of our own content this year which will be seen in stores and developed through social media channels. The question is, can we bring that story back and remind people why it is so important to gift or receive jewellery and get them away from thinking I am buying it because it’s got money off? To do this we’ve got to create stories – whether it’s about jewellery itself or people enjoying jewellery – in order to create a desire. So you will see greater content from us and we will continue to invest in our stores, which I am not seeing from all of our competitors at this time. In summary, our stores will look more luxury and less discounted. I think we do stand out. We have a position that’s different, and no-one can compete with Mappin & Webb’s history and heritage.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
CJ: Just that it is going to be a big year for us. It is going to be about getting jewellery reconnected with the customer again and with all those initiatives that we’ve been through I think we will achieve that. While overall the marketplace has been difficult, we’ve had a good time of it and there’s still more to come.

CB: I think it might be a year where lots of people consolidate a little bit and maybe don’t do as many exciting things, and it is going to coincide with us doing lots of exciting things. We may very well stand out for all the right reasons as a result of it all.