James and Henry Deakin

James and Henry Deakin

The creators of £1m cufflinks

They make posh cufflinks for everyone from rock stars to royalty from their historic base in Birmingham, but they remain one of the UK’s best-kept secrets. Jon Griffin meets Deakin and Francis directors James and Henry Deakin.

Deakin and Francis is England’s oldest family jeweller, producing the world’s finest cufflinks for everyone from royals to small jewellery shops. And it’s been doing this for more than 230 years.

The company has survived world wars, depressions, recessions, silver price crises and radically changing consumer tastes. But it is still delivering the goods in elegant, time-honoured style from the heart of Birmingham’s world-famous jewellery quarter. A few years ago, it even sold a pair of diamond-encrusted cufflinks to European royalty for more than £1m. But such is its discretion and loyalty to its customer base that managing director Henry Deakin remains frustratingly coy over the identity of the regal purchasers.

“It wasn’t our royal family… that was our biggest ever order, but I really can’t say any more,” says 35-year-old Henry with a smile. Old habits die hard at Deakin and Francis, after seven generations of consistent family rule. The management of this unique slice of UK manufacturing passed on from original ancestor Charles Washington Shirley Deakin to its latest generation a decade ago, in the shape of brothers James and Henry Deakin, more than 230 years after the firm was founded.

The Deakin and Francis saga is packed with heritage and history, from the atmospheric company boardroom where industrial pioneers James Watt, Matthew Boulton and their peers met to launch the industrial revolution, to the cufflinks supplied today to the likes of Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. But James says the business ethos has remained constant for 230 years – with quality at its heart.

“We have been described as England’s best kept secret,” he says. “We knew that we were old and unique, but didn’t realise we were England’s oldest family jeweller until we did the research.

“We made our first cufflinks in the 1800s and have a great reputation in the industry for quality. There are people who collect our cufflinks, people whose grandfathers wore our cufflinks. We are England’s oldest family jeweller and at the same time its youngest brand.

“We are not mass-produced but are very competitive on price. The market is filthily competitive but we feel we have a unique selling point. Our cheapest cufflinks are £100, we have got some for £45,000, and we have sold a pair in Harrods for £13,000. We have even sold handcuffs in Hong Kong for 45,000 dollars.”

But no company can rest on its laurels for very long by relying entirely on heritage and history in an increasingly cut-throat business world, as Henry is only too willing to admit. “We are letting old methods of working go,” he explains. “We realised that we had been busy fools for many years. We never said no to people, quite frankly we have been too polite.

“We have old friends in the industry but we need to be a bit more professional. We are looking for people who will stock the brand and support the company by marketing it, pushing it out on social media.”

Henry cites the company’s switch to next-day delivery and its growth in internet orders as examples of how this most traditional company is embracing the 21st-century marketplace. And it must be working: Deakin and Francis has enjoyed double-digit sales growth in the past 12 months, with UK turnover up by 30%.

“It can be hard out there but we have sold more cufflinks in the last year than ever before,” says Henry. “We do not want to miss a sale, people will not wait for anything now.”

Customers had previously faced waiting times of between six to eight weeks for delivery, but the two brothers realised the firm needed to sharpen up its act in an ever-competitive world. “We now do next-day delivery – we have got 35,000 pairs of cufflinks in stock for customers’ orders. We have seen huge increases in the web, where we’re now looking at between 15% and 20% of turnover.”

The firm is also looking to spread the Deakin and Francis word by opening its first retail outlet outside its jewellery quarter base in the upmarket environs of London’s Mayfair. “This will be our first ever retail shop,” Henry says proudly. “It is a huge financial commitment to the company – but we need that flagship presence for the brand to get stronger and gain greater recognition.”

Meanwhile, attendance at exhibitions and trade fairs remains crucial to the health of the firm’s order book. Henry recently jetted over to Switzerland for the Baselworld fair, the world’s biggest watch and jewellery event, attracting the likes of Rolex and Patek Philippe.

Whilst quality is indisputably paramount to the continuing success of Deakin and Francis, Henry says the Birmingham firm has largely reinvented itself since their father, David, retired 10 years ago. “Dad always used to say to us: ‘You can let people [rivals] make it cheaper, but do not let them make it better’. We put our success down to quality, but this company is now unrecognisable from when James and I first took it over.

“James and I are very different people – James is very creative, whereas I am much more focused on the business, on strategy. We were trying to do everything together as joint managing directors for the first years of working together and realised that that was impossible.”

Today the brothers have more clearly defined roles, with Henry managing director and James creative director, while cousin Tom has arrived as the new sales director.

“When we were joint managing directors, it held us back,” says Henry. “We are both equal shareholders but if we were to agree on everything, it would be a very poor affair. We both have the same goals, but there is more than one route to success.”

Occasional brotherly differences apart, it is clear the two men are equally committed to the stylish centuries-old tradition of wearing cufflinks. James, 40, who learnt his trade at the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, California, before taking over with Henry, describes manufacturing as his “passion”.

“Cufflinks are seriously cool,” James says. “They’re a statement that you care, they’re fun. If you’re on a date with a good pair of shoes and cufflinks, you’re well-armed. If you do not get cufflinks, you do not get Deakin and Francis. We’re not in it for the quick buck, we’re in for the long haul.

“The trade is in the blood, we absolutely love it. The market is tough but we are unique. Everybody is looking for something different, and we can offer something that is unique. We have the largest collection of precious metal cufflinks in the world.”

Henry adds: “Fashions change, ties get thinner or fatter, suits are more tailored, but cufflinks have stood the test of time. You can wear cufflinks with jeans, jackets or jumpers.

“This is not a nine-to-five job. It is 24/7. When you are not in the office, you are on your phone, thinking through strategies. On my honeymoon, I didn’t miss a single email, which annoyed my wife somewhat. I have missed so many friends’ weddings, 21st birthday parties and so on. I am very passionate about the job.”

The firm boasts a 23-strong workforce, with a turnover of £2.7m, exporting its hand-made products to the likes of the United States, China, Kazakhstan, Kiev, Doha, Athens and elsewhere. Its biggest US market is New York, with a presence in every major American city, and 10 sales agents recently recruited across the Atlantic.

Back in Brum, half of the workforce at the jewellery quarter offices is engaged in manufacturing, including highly-skilled silversmiths and goldsmiths with decades of experience. But both brothers recognise that those specialist skills are in danger of being lost if new generations of skilled workers are not nurtured.

“The average age of the guys [on the shop floor] is higher than I would have wanted it, at about 50,” says Henry. “Three guys retired 18 months ago with combined service of 151 years. People tend not to leave, it is a family business and people look out for each other – we have got a great team.”

With industry estimates that as many as 5,000 jobs have been lost in the jewellery quarter in recent years, the Deakin brothers are anxious to safeguard the future of the firm by taking on apprentices and encouraging talent into the sector.
Henry says: “We have got empty units in the building and are developing them to offer like-minded ex-students or postgraduates opportunities for having a go at creating their own jewellery or running their own business.

“We are happy to be giving something back. As Hatton Garden in London gets more expensive, more people are looking to move to Birmingham.”

Whilst the current generation of Deakins looks to the future, they are also reminded of the company’s rich and colourful past on a daily basis. Their Regent Place offices were once the private home of steam pioneer James Watt, and members of the Birmingham-based Lunar Society met within the confines of the current boardroom to discuss the extraordinary industrial processes that were to change the working world.

And the firm has retained the Francis banner out of respect for former boss Captain John Francis, who lost his life in the trenches in the First World War.

“There are slices of history that will have been made in this very building,” says James. “Each generation has dealt with all sorts of challenges, from wars to recessions. Before Deakin and Francis, there were Deakins making swords, and some were supplied for the American Civil War.

“Watt and Boulton used to meet in the boardroom here once a month as the Lunar Society. Steam may even have been invented in this room,” adds James, with justifiable pride.