1984 might have been a poor year for a business launch in luxury goods, especially for a couple who were independently inclined.
It was, you may recall, the year of the miners’ strike, and the year the North East, birthplace of the railways, proved no longer able to build rolling stock.
The last ships were also about to be launched on the Wear and the Tees, and one town was three years into a major decline following the closure of the steelworks that had provided its livelihood.
It was a year when even Newcastle’s diverse economy resounded like an anvil as one economic blow after another rained down.
Unemployment was nearing 20% - 50% in some places - and anyone but Richard and Sue Sinton might have wondered, ‘who on earth can afford to buy jewellery here?’ They believed, however, that a market existed, and time has proved them right.
Today, as Richard Sinton Jewellers celebrates its 25th anniversary, a later recession (albeit less devastating to date) still fails to dispirit them and they’re now putting changes into place that involve their next generation, fully expecting ongoing success.
In 1984, the Sintons spotted a niche for designer-led jewellery in Newcastle; the existing choice looking largely limited to mass-produced or second-hand items.
They got married on a Saturday and opened their first shop, a joint venture, almost immediately.
It was at Queen’s Square, off Northumberland Street and close to Eldon Square - a plum location.
“But,” Richard recalls, “it was still a scary time.” Sue had experience of jewellery and self-employment in Birmingham, and she concentrated on the creative side.
Richard, previously a “struggling” young lawyer, tackled the paperwork. The buying, they did together.
“We started off with one box of diamond rings,” Sue remembers.
“Twelve inches by six inches. That was our main stock.” They must have bought astutely; five years later they relocated to their present upmarket site in Eldon Garden.
Cheery hellos greet your entry to the elegant emporium and, amid tasteful lighting, polished glass and a light wood complement to all the sparkle, precious stones and translucent giftware are shown to great effect. You can pay £15 for a bracelet charm, and up to £129,000 for an eight carat diamond solitaire ring. Nowhere is there a sense of sales pressure. Perhaps this, and the friendliness of the staff, remain two enduring qualities of family businesses, and long may they be so.
Whatever the appeal, customers come from all over the North East and from Scotland. North Easterners who have migrated return too. Some customers call regularly, others when a special occasion arises. Some have become friends.
The Sintons look on their team as part of the family, which may partly explain why store manager Catherine Tait has been with the firm for all but two of its 25 years, and assistant manager Gillian Thornton for all but five.
And now there’s another jeweller in the Sinton family crown to provide expertise. Daughter Sarah Sinton, now a director, has been 14 years full time with the firm, plus seven years gaining work experience during her school holidays.
Richard and Sue didn’t know if Sarah would enter the business. She went to university, but after two years of politics and international relations felt in need of a change. Back in the family business, she had cheerfully emptied rubbish bins, vacuumed carpets, sorted post, fielded phone calls. Now full-time work shaped her decision.
She was sent to gain the relevant qualifications and with a Gemmology Diploma under her belt, she became a Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A) - at 100 years-plus, the world’s oldest educator in gems.
Her Gem-A diploma affirms her knowledge of physical and chemical properties, and the identification skills in gemstones used in jewellery making.
Sarah broadened her experience working for Mappin & Webb, contributing to its 235-yearold history by setting up its shop in Prague over a year. Today, however, she does all the diamond buying for Richard Sinton Jewellers.
She also deals with media because Richard, she explains, wants the firm at this notable time to look 25 years ahead, rather than back.
She says they keep their celebration in perspective, mindful that another independent firm, at Hitchin in Hertfordshire, will celebrate 250 years next year. It shows how sustainable you can be in jewellery. Richard suggests Sarah knows more than he does now.
But she says she had a lot to learn about running a business. Gradually, however, she has taken over most of the stone and precious stock buying. She attends trade fairs, follows the market and prides herself on her ability to get a good deal.
“The more you work with diamonds, the more your eye gets into colours and clarity,” she says.
“As with anything else, the more you work with something, the more familiar you become with it – like a surgeon, I suppose, to some extent. You get better as you go along.” Though only 12 when the business began, she can affirm that people then and now buy jewellery, even when the economy is in pain.
“There’s no point in investing in property,” she explains, “and shares are so far down with no-one knowing how much further down they might go yet. So that’s not a good investment either – too volatile.” She might have added that savings interest is pitiful, but she concludes that people are mostly buying jewellery to feel better - a treat.
“Plus,” she adds, “there are always birthdays, anniversaries, engagements and weddings. Jewellery will appreciate in value, but that’s not why you should buy it. You should buy to mark a happy occasion, or as a token of love.
It’s a thing of beauty.” Gold jewellery, in particular, can be an investment, and though women in other parts of the world think nothing of having their gold melted and reshaped when they tire of its form, that practice doesn’t seem greatly to have joined Britain’s imports - yet.
Sarah thinks this is because jewellery here is almost always associated with a special occasion.
But one discernible trend here is, as in previously hard times, the sale for cash of depleted items such as broken chains, odd earrings and unfashionable pieces.
Newspapers, TV and the web are peppered with buyers now, and gold, having broken through $1,000 an ounce on the commodities market, provides brisk trade.
“All our nation’s gold reserves were sold off and now they’re being bought back. Gold is a stable commodity so the price is pushed up. It doesn’t help us very much,” Sarah says wryly. Coloured stones are less popular now, so Sarah specialises more in diamonds.
“I have several dealers I buy from, depending what I’m looking for and the price they’re offering. It goes from there,” she explains.
“I have dealers in Antwerp, Israel and London, some in America too. Most jewellery made up for us is done by British manufacturers.
If I’m looking for something specific for a customer, something special, I may look and buy loose, and I’ve a jeweller in Hatton Garden who makes things up. It depends what a buyer wants.
If it’s something I don’t have in stock – particularly a bigger piece, and you can’t keep everything in stock - then It’s easier to find the loose stones and go from there.” Customers call with sheets from glossy magazines and say, ‘I want something like that’. It’s Sarah’s job then to know where she can get it.
“Mostly, if it’s a ready-made piece, someone will already have copied it. Or there will be similar designs around, and we cover most things that are popular.
It’s rare we won’t have a similar piece in stock if someone has seen a picture. But a bigger piece - we’ll get it made. Finding the stones may take time, but usually it would be eight to 12 weeks to make up a bespoke piece. If it’s run-of-the-mill, with a normal, commercial-sized stone, you’ll be looking at about four weeks.” Diamond values can be a law to themselves, in Sarah’s words.
As they’re not bought as a commodity by governments, a diamond’s value will depend more on the dollar’s value and the rate against sterling.
“But you have to weigh up more factors besides,” Sarah says.
“Some qualities increase their value faster, depending on how rare they are.” Diamonds have graced engagement rings at least since Maximilian I, in a Habsburgian burst of gemmological inspiration, married Mary of Burgundy with one such in 1477. But even the most smitten suitor today could probably not afford a diamond matching the Cullinan of the British crown jewels. It forms part of the largest gem-quality rough diamond ever found (in 1905), at 3,106.75 carats.
Cubic zirconium - industrial diamonds - appear to have little affected jewellers’ business, though they were predicted to become a threat when they were introduced because of their cheapness.
They seem to have remained an industrial benefit, however. Sarah says it’s the adoption of platinum for many industrial uses - such as catalytic converters on cars - that has distorted the market and determined the quantities mined.
“Platinum is probably used a little less than gold in jewellery but is very popular. It’s 30% harder than gold and a white metal in its own right, so doesn’t need rhodium plating.
“The South Africans who do most of the mining have had an electricity problem. They’ve been down to a four-day week when they normally mine quite a lot. Platinum production is down and with the car industry buying less I don’t think as much is being mined. That pushes prices up.”
Age, apparently, has no bearing on taste in jewellery. Sarah observes: “If a woman has always liked something a bit flamboyant, she always will. I don’t think age means we have to dumb down - definitely not. Many just go with what’s fashionable.
We sell a lot more fashionable and seasonal jewellery now.” The firm believes it has flourished as an independent for 25 years amid strong competition because it identifies and goes with these trends and is thereby continuously evolving.
“We’ve always been known as the shop with something different,” Sarah says. Young girls are often drawn to jewellery in the first place through charm bracelets and other silver jewellery. Some older people say it doesn’t matter to them anymore.
“But find me a woman that wouldn’t like a pair of diamond studs. She might just tell her husband she doesn’t like jewellery,” Sarah suggests, “but she does like it really.” While some prefer flamboyance, others opt for simplicity.
“I think it’s what you feel comfortable wearing, and what fits your style and personality. I don’t believe anyone doesn’t feel better with a nice necklace on,” Sarah suggests.
Some will buy less expensive pieces to chop and change with outfits, others have two or three special items they wear all the time - Richard Sinton caters for all. The company plan is to continue with one shop, complemented with a revamped website raising the profile and widening the reach to e-shoppers.
Sue, who recently gained a law degree (making up for missing out on university earlier), is now re-developing the e-commerce arm, while Sarah feels there will always be diamond shoppers who will still want to try items on in the shop.
“Diamonds vary so much,” she says. “Some people think they want a definite style and try it on, only to find it doesn’t suit them.” Richard says it remains a lovely business.
“As a lawyer, I dealt with death and divorce. People come here because they want to be here to mark a special occasion.” He considers his role now is strategic, likening himself in a recent interview to a restaurant’s maitre d’.
About 60% of his time is now taken up by marketing, including customer events and entertaining, as well as seeking new markets.
He hopes younger daughter Jess will eventually aspire to this role, given her interest in marketing, and he says Sarah will one day take over the business - and Jess if she wishes.
Jess, 21, thinks she might first like to get some advertising and PR experience in London or serve an apprenticeship in New York. She’s studying geography and sociology at Sheffield University, and captains the women’s hockey club there.
Clearly, we’ve come far in the thousands of years since our jewellery was fashioned in bone, animal teeth, shell, wood and carved stone, and one senses it was perhaps a little cheaper then - but not nearly so covetable.