The British stalwart’s managing director on a return to its roots.
Within a year of joining Asprey as managing director Paddy Byng has deployed a more strategic re-focus on the company’s British roots, and as result sales jumped more than 30%. He talks business and branding with Kathryn Bishop.
Situated on London’s New Bond Street is the very British institution of Asprey, a 230-year old jeweller that has stood in the same grand location on the famous shopping street for 160 years.
Step behind its traditional exterior and, within its labyrinthine offices, you’ll find Paddy Byng, its managing director of 18 months and the man behind its very British modern-day overhaul.
Byng joined Asprey early in 2011 after resigning from his role as chief executive of luxury stationer Smythson. His background in luxury goods – his CV also namechecks Polo Ralph Lauren and Alfred Dunhill – has stood him in good stead in his quest to turnaround a brand that was beginning to lose its hold on the luxury market.
In 2006 the company was saved from administration and was still suffering losses well into 2010 despite cost-cutting and staff reductions. But when Byng arrived at the company in early 2011 it would mark the beginning of a turnaround for the heritage brand and the progress of that turnaround was evident pretty quickly; Asprey ended last year on a high, with the company’s flagship store in London experiencing a sales uplift of 36% in December and its overall like-for-like sales increasing 31% in the eight weeks leading up to Christmas.
“What was encouraging for us was that last year the local market hadn’t completely gone to ground, like a lot of people had said,” he explains. “But I think it’s because we’d made a conscious effort to take Asprey back to how people remembered us, as a luxury gift destination with high-quality jewellery.”
The first thing that Byng did when he joined Asprey was to instigate a staff shake-up, making what he believes were key internal changes. New staff arrived, cherry picked by Byng, to fill new positions at Asprey after he spotted some gaps in the organisation. While Byng says he had concerns that it might take some time for long-term Asprey workers and the new team to settle together, he says that the progress has been positive.
“It’s been satisfying to see how they’ve gelled very well,” he reveals. “It’s a bit of a cliché but for me personally that’s been very satisfying, and the business has benefitted as a result.”
Next Byng reached out beyond the four walls of Asprey’s New Bond Street headquarters to Hatton Garden, specifically the studio award-winning British jewellery designer Shaun Leane to call in some design favours.
This move was in reaction to a problem identified by Byng: Asprey had started to lose some of its core identifying traits as a high-end British manufacturer at a time when the jewellery industry, and its customers, had begun to pay more attention to the provenance of luxury goods. He realised that the key to getting back into the groove of where the luxury market was heading was to champion Asprey as a Great British brand, so what better way to do this than to work with one of the best-known British jewellery designers?
Leane, who had worked with Asprey for 13 years from the mid 1980s to late 1990s making one-off pieces as well as other fine jewellery designs for the brand, accepted Byng’s challenge. Last year he made a return to the brand as a guest designer, creating two new collections that combine his recognisable design aesthetics with Asprey’s luxury edge.
“We’ve put a renewed focus on the jewellery and that’s been very successful for us,” says Byng. “We wanted our new collection to have a British identity and I think we felt like we’d got away from that [in recent years]. Shaun had worked with Asprey 20 or so years ago at the start of his career so he had a very good feel of the Asprey DNA and could translate that in a way that felt very true to the company.”
Leane’s finals designs, immortalised in gold, emeralds, diamonds and enamel, gave birth to a couture line called Fern and an 18ct gold collection called Woodland, both referencing the plants and fruits found in British woodlands. The collections were a hit last Christmas and were followed by an in-house reinvigoration of the brand’s iconic Daisy collection.
Asprey has also made its first steps into the online luxury arena by unveiling its first e-commerce site in November last year, retailing everything from its silver gifting goods such as compact mirrors and frames, through to £16,000 diamond-set dress rings. The arrival of e-commerce marked a progression for the luxury brand into realms that have made its jewellery accessible to a global consumer audience.
This year Asprey has also developed its presence on Twitter and Facebook, increasing its online outreach and making its brand more widely accessible to a new social media-embracing market.
As much as the company has been innovative with its new jewellery collections and digital outreach, it has also looked inwards, embarking on a strategy that has put a focus on its British roots through jewellery design and marketing initiatives.
“We went back to basics with what we call our Classics [jewellery collection], using rubies, emeralds and sapphires,” Byng explains. “Very English, very pretty, classic jewellery.”
The resulting designs include oval-cut three-stone sapphire and diamond rings, drop diamond and gemstone pendants and stud earrings. “They are very much Asprey territory,” says Byng. “A good combination of beautifully designed pieces that feel very British but have modernity about them.”
This return to Britishness is all part of Asprey’s story, says Byng, who notes that while the desire for British goods might not be new, the stories and provenance of a piece of jewellery is becoming ever-more important to the brand’s customers.
“We’re in the super luxury business and customers want to feel that the brand is important so a lot of the jewellery is made on site, and we also offer a bespoke service that other brands aren’t so able to do,” he explains. “My point is that you have to execute [what you say]; you can’t just sit and say ‘we’re going to be British’.”
Byng references the Olympic opening ceremony – which happened a few days before we meet – as a case in point. “It was actually brought to life; what you saw there was amazing innovation and creativity that Britain is very well know for and that Asprey also exhibits.”
Getting the jewellery collections just right has paid dividends for Asprey over the past 18 months, allowing the brand to enjoy growth across its global markets. “Because of getting the product right, which was one of the most important things, the American business in New York had a very good year and our small business in Japan has gone very well, so on a global level it has been a very good year.”
Earlier this year Byng forecasted that the company would break even in 2013 – so is Asprey still on course for this target? While Byng will not give a definite answer, he explains that Asprey will continue its focus on jewellery design, a tactic that is all part of a larger strategic drive that will cover improved product as much as it will the brand’s outward appearance.
“It’s all about the jewellery so we’re going to continue working with Shaun Leane in 2013, building on the success of the collections with further extensions to the Woodland collection, which we see as being around forever,” he says.
As well as a new Shaun Leane-designed collection and additions to the Woodland and Daisy lines, Asprey is also renovating its London and New York stores, beginning this autumn with the Madison Avenue store in New York, which is currently undergoing refurbishment, and continuing with the New Bond Street store next spring.
Marketing has also been a key driver for the company, and it has sponsored the BAFTAs for the past three years during which it dresses stars, British actresses in particular, with Asprey diamond jewellery for their moment on the red carpet. This, Byng says, has been a very successful way of driving interest in the brand while underpinning its British credentials. The company also hosts a BAFTA cocktail party in the high-ceilinged atrium of its London store, which enables it to win further exposure of its products to a wider, high-net-worth audience. Special dinners with its guest designers hosted for important clients are also regular.
It has also used 2012 for one of its more attention-grabbing marketing drives, a project that put Asprey firmly back into the public eye. “This year we did something different with Queen’s Jubilee as we thought we should celebrate but in a way we felt was modern and innovative,” says Byng. “So we collaborated with an artist called Chris Levine.” The fruit of this collaboration was a unique portrait of the Queen, based on Levine’s 2004 holographic portrait of Her Majesty, but topped with a tiara created by Asprey and inspired by the Queen’s diamond diadem worn at her Coronation in 1953.
The brand recreated the tiara in platinum, set it with 1,000 white diamonds, 3.74cts of yellow diamonds and 25 freshwater pearls. The tiara was placed atop the artwork before being put on display in the London store.
“That was a big deal for us, but it really allowed us to emphasise our very high-quality craftsman credentials,” explains Byng. “It was a little bit different and seemed to catch everyone’s attention.” In fact, Byng says, part of Asprey’s objective was to do something “a little all encompassing and public” that gave the everyday person access to the luxury brand.
The company’s heritage – it has long worked with the British royals and many rich global clients, from maharajas to Norwegian kings – has also been important. “We benefit in that when it’s a little tougher, brands that have been around a little longer and are more established have a stronger reputation so some people will go back to the names they trust.”
He adds that tourism has helped drive sales and that the luxury goods shoppers from Asia, while coming through the door at Asprey, are a client sector that it wants to attract further. “Paris gets eight times as many Chinese visitors as London,” he reveals, though he notes that Asprey benefits from being a luxury business with an international following, housed on one of London’s most prestigious shopping streets.
So with some positive results in the bag for Asprey, an exciting year combining art and jewellery design and a collaboration with one of the UK’s hottest designers, is Byng worried about what will come next? “We’ll have to think how we repeat all of that in 2013,” he smiles.
This article was taken from the September 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To see a digital version of the issue click here.