What is holding the next wave of talent back and who are they?

Theo Fennell, Shaun Leane and Stephen Webster have long held a joint monopoly as the UK’s leading jewellers, but with a deep pool of talent and determination within the bustling British jewellery scene why has anyone yet to challenge them? Rachael Taylor investigates what is holding the next generation of international British stars back and just who they might be.

If I asked you to think about leading British designers, I can probably guess with some accuracy which three names will instantly, almost involuntarily, push their way to the forefront of your mind.


Stephen Webster, Shaun Leane, Theo Fennell. Am I right? This is not a clever word association mind trick, nor is it because you’ve read the introduction to this piece. It is simply that to date no British jewellery designers have quite scaled to the heights of success that this famous trio has, so when this question is expelled into the air it is these designers’ names that usually come to greet it.

Each designer has shown a talent, tenacity and originality that has rightfully won them this status, but they are certainly not alone in being the only jewellers working in Britain with that three-pronged skill set, so why aren’t we seeing more of our designers break through onto the international stage and into the mainstream media as personalities, not just baubles on a products page?
Theo Fennell, founder of the eponymous jewellery brand, believes that there is a certain snobbery that is holding back not just new designers but British jewellery designers in general.

“A lot of it is due to the fact that the British jewellery business, as a genuine competitor to the big European brands, is not taken seriously,” says Fennell. “You can feel the poor-relation vibes from every part of the industry. It is too provincial and unsophisticated. We have the best raw talent in the world – designers, inventors and craftsmen – but we are just not taken seriously either by the City or, indeed, the press.”

Most major traditional jewellery houses, such as Chopard, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels, and so on, all hail from mainland Europe, but, as Fennell says, Britain is home to some of the most inventive and cutting-edge jewellery design and in a world that is moving away from stuffy luxury to forward-thinking, socially driven, creative luxury, surely this must be in our favour? Yes, says Fennell, who advocates that no matter how supposedly superior such houses may appear, British designers should hold on to the values that make them British.

“Being a British brand is far more about style and originality,” he says. “It is imbued in some designers and not others. Too many try to ape the big brands and end up just confused, pale imitations. It is about a certain quirkiness and bloody-mindedness; it needs inventiveness and humour as well as superb craftsmanship and attention to detail. It is impossible to copy this creative ethos unless you were born with it.”

Money, however, is another stumbling block. While we have mentioned the successful trio, those brands grew up in a very different economic climate to today’s – Theo Fennell’s brand was founded in 1982, Stephen Webster’s in 1994 and Shaun Leane’s in 1999. Finding funding, or even just saving up cash on your own, is a lot harder now than it ever has been; a problem fuelled not just by the global economic crash but also by rising precious metal and gemstone prices. It is a tough time to be a jeweller, and a tougher time to be a new jeweller trying to make your mark.

Fennell says that it has always been difficult for established and new jewellery brands to get investment, recession or not, as “the idea of an international British luxury brand has rarely appealed to suits in this country”.

For Stephen Webster, success as an international British jewellery designer worked in reverse. The brand’s eponymous founder was actually living in North America when he started designing jewellery, and so found a following there before a fan base at home.

“We have been very lucky to have a great international following,” says Webster. “I spent years living in Canada and then in California and it was there that I started to create my own designs. In contrast to Britain at the time, Americans were very open to more bold and colourful jewellery. For many years, most of everything we made was sold in the US.”

By the time Webster returned to London from California in the late 1980s, the majority of his business was coming from the US. Therefore it was an obvious decision, and a far less risky strategy than for other brands, to take space at trade shows in the US. “95% of everything I was making was going back to Santa Barbara and I knew my jewellery was right for the American clientele so I started exhibiting at US trade shows,” Webster recalls. “It took us a couple of years and I was known as that ‘English dude in the purple suit underneath the escalator’, but then things just exploded.”

While Webster funded his sudden expansion with a loan from the Department of Trade and Industry, he says that the “main guidance I had was from my friends telling me to believe in myself”.

The Stephen Webster brand has been slowly expanding into new territories over the past decade and relatively little of its business comes from the UK. The brand now has seven standalone boutiques and more than 200 points of sale internationally. Webster estimates that 40% of sales come from the US, 40% from former USSR countries, a region that Webster believes his was “one of the first independent brands to break”, and 20% from the rest of the world, which includes the UK.

The brand’s global appetite is not sated just yet, and Webster says that he is still planning to push on through to new territories, particularly the Far East, taking advice from local partners and advisors to make each new launch as smooth as possible. “Like every luxury brand, we are looking at future expansion into Asia, but we are not in a rush,” he says. “It has a huge potential but needs to be approached very carefully.”

Shaun Leane, which has 45 stockists in the UK, has a less mature export story than Webster, first showing internationally at the Tranoi show in Paris in 2003, following up with an appearance at BaselWorld in 2006. But founder Shaun Leane has now passed the creative reigns to Ben Rowe – who has worked for Leane for 12 years and a year ago took the mantle of creative director – so that he can free up time to focus on building the brand’s international business, which to date has been self funded.

Like Stephen Webster, Shaun Leane has its eyes on China, with plans to open stores there in the next few years, in a move that will extend the house’s international reach; it is already represented in Moscow, St Petersburg, Kuwait, New York, Dubai and Hong Kong.

Webster or Leane’s international expansion feeds off the back of (cont. p20)well-developed brands, making it far easier than starting from scratch, but for the new generation of British designers on the cusp of breaking through, but not quite managing, it is far tougher.

"In all honesty, it is tough to build a brand in this current economic climate," says Leane. "Luckily, organisations such as UK Trade & Investment offer advice and support to young talents and help guide them in the right direction. On the other hand, to further the brand internationally, it comes down to financial support, which nowadays is hard to come by. We have been fortunate enough to introduce ourselves on an international platform through some of our collaborations and through organic growth, we were able to finance our brand in international markets."

As a long-time champion of new talent, Webster is keen to get involved with the next generation of British jewellers and help it to present itself on the international stage, and one of the newer projects he has been working with is Rock Vault at London Fashion Week (LFW). The concept was launched by the British Fashion Council in 2012 and took place during LFW in February and in September.

The Rock Vault project is an area at LFW dedicated solely to a curated selection of up-and-coming jewellery designers picked by a panel of experts that includes Webster. In its first year it included Brits Hannah Martin, Jordan Askill, Katie Hillier, Jo Hayes Ward, Imogen Belfield, and Eliza Higginbottom and Yunus Ascott of Yunis & Eliza.

“I curate the Rock Vault and am lucky enough to see firsthand that there is a lot of amazing emerging young talent in the UK,” says Webster. “I’m sure they will each find their way but the economy is not helping. Thus, by creating a platform such as the Rock Vault we really hope to help these guys to realise their full potential – I know how hard it is to build your own business.”

Also showing at Rock Vaults were jewellery designers who are very much part of the heart and soul of the British jewellery scene but were not born here. They included Pole Tomasz Donocik, Swiss Alexandra Jefford, Brazilian Fernando Jorge, German Husam El Odeh, Greek Melanie Georgacopoulos and Dane Sophie Bille Brahe.

London is undoubtedly the heart of the new British jewellery design scene, and as such it makes the London jewellery community, just like the city itself, very cosmopolitan. Some of the most promising jewellery talent – such as Tomasz Donocik, who along with Hannah Martin, Webster describes as being “a gnat’s whisker away” from global success – are designers born outside of the UK but very much basing themselves here.

So does it matter where you were born, or does it matter where you choose to work and which community you chose to establish yourself in? We have taken many views on the subject, some of which you can find on p14, but perhaps a truly authoritative voice on this subject is that of Fei Liu, who perfectly fits the conundrum.

Liu was born in China but after studying in the UK has made the country his home and the base for his internationally successful jewellery brand. He has become a much-cherished and respected member of the British jewellery industry, but how does he see himself?

“I think it’s important to define what we mean by the British jewellery community,” says Liu. “In my understanding, the British jewellery industry is very cosmopolitan, and has always observed and learned from different cultures and has presented the world with variety. As a British-based, international designer, I see myself as part of a team that is looking to expand what jewellery can be.”

Liu goes on to describe British jewellery as being more of a state of mind than a birth right. “My view is that to be a British brand, you need to include British creativity, British quality of manufacture and British high standards behind every product – as well as the British understanding of how to be inspirational,” he says.

Liu has not only established himself within the British jewellery community, he has sought to give back to the country that has welcomed him by in turn introducing British-born designers to his homeland China.

The jewellery designer worked in collaboration with British Jewellery & Giftware International, the British Jewellers’ Association (BJA) and UK Trade & Investment on a special showcase of British jewellery design talent at the Shin Kong Place department store in Beijing. Liu has described the initiative as a great success, with the project taking the work of British-based jewellers – again, not all British born – Dorit Jewellery, Leyla Abdollahi, Mahtag Hanna, Roland Green, Sarah Ho, Tomasz Donocik and William Cheshire to a new and much-sought-after market.

“As a Chinese student, British culture and the education I have received here has given me so much,” says Liu. “I have been lucky enough to be able to adapt myself to this culture. I am very proud of the entirety of Britain’s creative industries and I want to contribute in order to expand and improve exposure and appreciation of the UK. The most important reaction has been that Chinese customers’ eyes have been opened to the true meaning of jewellery.”

The BJA was key to Liu’s project and its chief executive Simon Rainer believes that the trick to evolving from a creative and talented designer-maker to a worldwide brand is a matter of personality.

“Quite often, designers consider that product is everything and they forget that their jewellery is often an extension of themselves,” he says. “They are reticent in selling themselves first and thereafter the products that they produce. If we take the successful designers, such as Rachel Galley, Sarah Jordan, Sheila Fleet, Sarah Ho, etc, they are personalities first and product second. The future of British Jewellery is fundamentally the quality and innovation of design in addition to emerging personalities who are truly representative of their brands.”

All of the designers mentioned by Rainer have built up successful businesses in the UK, a cornerstone of becoming an international brand, unless you start out elsewhere, like Webster did. As Rainer says “if you can’t crack your own market then you will struggle with exporting”, but despite successes on home turfs these brands have done little on the international scene. The two designers who have been in the industry longest, Fleet and Jordan have more than 100 stockists and 35 stockists in the UK, respectively, but just six internationally for Fleet, and those are mostly specialist Scottish shops, and none internationally, aside from a single stockist in Dublin, for Jordan.

Both designers have a fantastic set of designs, quality manufacture and a great personality behind them, so what more do brands like this need to prosper abroad? Quite a lot, says Rainer, and at the heart of it lies funding.

“I meet regularly with BJA members who see export as the way forward, but when it is explained to them – the pitfalls, financial investment, etc – they often reconsider,” says Rainer. “There is very little funding available, but there are a few grants around to help companies exhibit overseas – as we do with member companies at Inhorghenta.”

But more than this, Rainer says that brands can be held back because they have forgotten the basics of business and their own brand. “Many designers miss the point on who the prospective owner of their jewellery might be – from this very basic premise can they only then decide upon the right retailer profile to sell their work,” he says. “The same principle applies to export – the market has to be thoroughly researched to understand whether the product is right for that consumer type.”

One British jewellery brand that has done phenomenally well internationally has been Links of London. It is now selling in 10 countries with 85 standalone stores in locations including New York, Tokyo, Athens, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and it looking to open further standalone stores in China. Also it has just launched a dedicated e-commerce site for Japan.

The brand’s first steps into the international market were the result of chance – a former employee had relocated to Hong Kong in 1996 and asked to set up a shop there. The brand then looked to other sympathetic territories such as North America and the Asia Pacific region to continue growth and then under the guidance of the Folli Follie Group, which bought Links of London in 2006, mainland China has become a focus for expansion due to the infrastructure already in place for Links of London’s sister brand Folli Follie, which had more than 100 points of sale on the mainland.

While the brand has translated well globally, Links of London chief executive David Riddiford says that it has still found some markets more challenging than others, and Links of London has experienced accelerated growth in some markets over others. “The brand positioning in Canada, for example, is far ahead of our recognition in the US, however the Canadian market is much more aligned with the UK market, so it’s an easier transition,” he says. “In Hong Kong our business has been very successful due to the large expatriate community but our opportunity lies in growing the business with the domestic Chinese customer both in Hong Kong and mainland China.”

So what does it take to emulate such success as a British brand abroad? “Maintaining your identity as a British brand is fundamental but other markets have varying demands and styles, so increasingly it’s important to adapt your style and adjust your collections accordingly,” advises Riddiford. “At Links of London we are increasingly building wider ranges for our markets to be more selective with what they buy, tailoring the range to their customer needs. Scale, volume and colour tend to be the most varied on a global scale, so it’s important to be aware of the subtle nuances and respond to this.”

This is advice echoed by Leane. "Every market is raised with different challenges so I don’t feel some international markets are more difficult than others," he says. "I feel it is more about understanding how one buying culture varies from another. Having a local partner is beneficial as they are able to offer market insights and spot opportunities for your product, this is particularly helpful when establishing your brand in the Far East."

And soon Riddiford believes that there will indeed be British jewellery brands out there that can trade on a level with Links. While he declines to name any names, he does see a future for British jewellers abroad. “Links of London has long been a trailblazer and held a very unique market position for a number of years,” he says. “However we think there will be increased competition abroad from emerging British jewellery brands in the near future.” And we’d certainly like to think so too.

This article was taken from the January 2013 issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue online, click here.

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