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INTERVIEW: Harriet Kelsall on running a successful retail business, championing ethics, and nurturing the next generation

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They say not all heroes wear capes and that is certainly true of Harriet Kelsall who runs a successful retail business alongside volunteering her time to make the trade a better place to work. Here, PJ contributor, Asha Pitts, finds out how she manages her time…

Harriet Kelsall has a long and growing list of attributes to her name.

Currently she is the owner of a successful independent jewellery retail business, the author of an award-winning book on turning creativity into a career, and the chair of the National Association of Jewellers, alongside others roles with organisations such as the RJC and British Hallmarking Council.

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They say if you want something done, ask a busy person, and perhaps this is what has happened to Kelsall in part, although it’s more likely her passion to see the industry thrive and be the best it can be that has led her to manage a packed schedule.

Here, Professional Jeweller writer Asha Pitt finds out how she balances it all…

What have you most enjoyed about being chair of the National Association of Jewellers?
Throughout my entire NAJ experience, I have most enjoyed working with the amazing team of senior industry leaders and influencers who make up the National Committee. When you volunteer for roles like this, I think you start out thinking that you are being very altruistic. You find out very quickly that you get back as much, if not more, than you give. Whether that is gaining insights into product innovation, the latest industry news or even just being able to canvass the opinions of industry peers — it’s all very valuable. Being able to collaborate with people at the very top of this industry is fabulous and inspiring; the difference in contacts that the NAJ affords has been amazing.

What would you say has been the most challenging element?
The most difficult aspect must be chairing during such a challenging trading environment when people might sometimes begrudge spending money on membership. Plus, the organisation itself is going through a transition, including the still fairly recent appointment of a new chief executive officer and the requirements of a very challenging budget. That being said, we have been working hard over the last 12 months on a plan that will reinvigorate the NAJ and also protect its future. We have completely reviewed and redesigned our governance, restructured the team and have loads of new benefits about to launch. So, though the times may be challenging, I am confident that we are now in a very good place with lots to offer members.

You’re now an award-winning author; what advice would you give any budding authors out in the trade?
My first piece of advice is — don’t do what I did! I wrote a book in the way that I thought all authors create. So, I started at ‘the beginning’ and worked my way through. It took about a year and when I picked it up and read it, I thought, “Well… this is crap”, so I decided to approach it as I would any creative project. Because I am dyslexic, that meant looking at the entire book holistically and sort of all at once, almost sort of like an intersection of an onion. Instead of a contents list, I had a mind map, and this meant that I basically wrote the whole thing all at once. It took another year to complete but I was so pleased with the final result. So, my second piece of advice is to be true to yourself, from the way that you approach the project to your writing style. My last piece of advice is to include as many case studies as possible. They are great to illustrate the points you are trying to make and it ensures that your book is an engaging read.

As a leading female influencer, how do you use your position to inspire and motivate other jewellery industry women?
I really think we need more female role models. It’s so important that, as a woman, you see someone who looks like you in positions of responsibility and seniority across the trade. It’s hard work being a trailblazer and it’s not something I set out to be. I hope that just by having one more woman doing the stuff that I am doing that it makes it easier for other women to see themselves in the same spaces and situations. Within the NAJ I have been working hard behind the scenes to do what I can to change the structures and make-up of the steering groups. It’s not a case of diversity over quality — they still need to be made up of really good people. But I am trying to bring in diverse people and when I see a talented woman I feel compelled to help and support them (but I do support talented men too!). Within HK Jewellery, I must confess that we have quite a severe gender skew, 80/20 in favour of women. I know that we only recruit the very best people for the roles that we have… however, we are conscious of the imbalance.

You’re a passionate ethical jeweller; why is sustainability so important to you?
My father was an NHS doctor (as well as a talented jeweller) and so I grew up in a very caring environment. When I first started making jewellery, understanding whether anyone had been hurt mining the gold or stones seemed a perfectly natural thing to ask. I remember my supplier laughing at me for a long time. He eventually advised that if I cared about whether adults or children had been exploited mining for precious metals or gems, that I was in the wrong business. It was horrible and really uncomfortable, but I decided that it was OK for me to feel uncomfortable and this shouldn’t stop me asking those questions of all of my suppliers. So, I kept asking the same questions every single month until I wasn’t the one who was feeling horrible and uncomfortable. Eventually the supplier’s anger turned into exasperation and he finally started asking his suppliers the same questions that I was asking so that he could get some answers to keep me quiet. We later found out about some gold from a mine that was employing ethical practices. Through his connection, I ended up meeting with Greg Valerio, who in turn shared the news that he was working on a project which would become the Fairtrade Foundation certification for precious metals. So, my persistence paid off. Not only was I now getting some answers from my gemstone dealers, I was also working with the team on the Fairtrade Foundation project. And so I got to see first-hand the tears in the first Fairtrade miner’s eye as he realised the difference that the changes in practice would make to his life and also to his income. He had never been able to afford jewellery, and so had never actually seen the finished product; he had never held a finished wedding ring. Fast forward to a few years ago and I invited one of the miners into my studio, with his daughter. She explained the difference that Fairtrade gold had brought to her education which was so inspiring. The NAJ are hoping to organise a Fairtrade trip to mines in Peru later this year and I would strongly urge jewellers to take the opportunity to go, especially those who have not yet made the move to Fairtrade.

You’ve been a non-executive director at the RJC and currently at the British Hallmarking Council; you also volunteer for a number of other non-jewellery organisations — how do you balance volunteering with your business?
When I started volunteering my time, I remember thinking, gosh, can I fit this all in? But it didn’t take long to realise how inspired, connected and full of energy I was following each meeting. It’s worth noting that my tenure in these positions at the same time is coincidental. I applied for most of these positions at the same time and then got them all! And it’s fantastic. Sitting at the tables of the NAJ, the BHC, the RJC and also being a Freeman of Goldsmith has given me a wonderful holistic view of the industry. Plus, it means that I can connect dots and broker meetings and collaborations between each body too. It’s been amazing. I’m looking at what I do next, as some of these posts come to an end. I have been really fortunate to cut my teeth in these pro-bono non-executive roles, so I will soon be on the look-out for remunerated roles that will benefit from my experience and expertise, as well as stretching my skill-set further.

What do you think the biggest challenge for the UK jewellery industry will be over the next 12 months or so?
The consumer and market depression surrounding Brexit. Psychological research says that big decisions are statistically more difficult when it feels like everything is going wrong around you. Our role as jewellers is to lift consumer spirits — we have to inspire and delight the consumers who are coming out, looking to spend money with us!

What advice would you give to fellow jewellers to stay relevant on the UK High Street?
Find your big idea. Stop just looking at your competition and tweaking their best-seller. Look at your business creatively. Think about what your customers need and become the solution.

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Stacey Hailes

The author Stacey Hailes

Editor, Professional Jeweller

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