Diamond geezer

Diamond geezer

A sector as solidly traditional as jewellery retailing doesn’t often experience reinvention, but as Peter Baber discovers, there are ways to do exactly that and make a real success out of it.

People with a particular keen eye for the finer things of life – upmarket jewellery stores, say – might have noticed recently that a name that has become well known in such a sector in the past few decades suddenly seems to be diverging. We are talking about Phillip Stoner Jewellery, a retail chain with branches right across West and North Yorkshire.

Since 2008, some of these branches have started to appear with the pared-down Stoners name instead, while the products they have on offer have changed quite a bit. Is this a familiar sign of a family business falling apart? After all, the chain was founded by Stoner in 1981.

A former lecturer in jewellery design at the Bradford College of Art, he decided to practice what he preached and set up his own jewellery store. He was joined by his two sons, first John and seven years later, Chris. The Stoners store in Shipley is Chris Stoner’s brainchild. In the early part of 2011 another Stoners shop will be opening in Harrogate – just next to the new Harrogate branch of Van Mildert, an equally-upmarket clothing store.

Yes, it is a different company. But Chris is adamant that the parting has been amicable, and that there has not been a rift. “My dad is thrilled to bits with what both John and I have done,” he says. “He actually said to me yesterday, ‘I would tell you if I thought different.’” As for Phillip Stoner Jewellery itself, Chris’s brother John has now taken over the running of the company, as Phillip has semi-retired. It too is opening a new store, this time in Manchester – its first outside the Yorkshire region. So what has happened? By way of explanation, Chris goes into the history of where they have come from. Despite working for it as a teenager, he says he did not initially want to work in the family firm. He says: “I wasn’t so sure it was for me. I wasn’t ready for work, so I started doing business law, then did marketing.” Ah, but fresh out of college, as so often happens with those with a family lifeline when they are forced into the real world, the family business momentarily started looking more attractive.

“I went to work directly afterwards,” he says. “‘Give it six months’ my dad said. But I never went away.” Once he had learned the ropes, however, he started having new ideas about how the business could be run. He admits he was a bit of a “cocky upstart”.

“I wanted to conquer the world, and do all these things that young people do,” he says. But slowly he began to persuade both John and his father of the merits of a new venture he had in mind. By this time the company had three branches – in Halifax, Pudsey and Shipley. They were all doing very respectably, but Chris felt they could do more.

“When I joined we were doing lots of giftware and porcelain birds,” he says. “People’s tastes have changed over a fairly short period of time. The younger generation is not interested in having glass animals on shelves. I wanted to work at the higher end of the market.” There was resource in the business that needed bringing out too, he felt. “My dad had a workshop in Bradford that employed 20 goldsmiths at one point,” he says. “But we weren’t shouting about it.” His solution was not just to go up several notches in terms of product on display, but to open in a more prominent location too – in The Light, which at the time (back around 2005) was Leeds’ newest and smartest shopping centre.

“The shop we created in Leeds was much more design-led,” he says. “We travelled around Europe doing research, and took lots of inspiration from places like Paris and Munich. It’s a very European style shop, I think, quite daring, and incredibly focused and niche.

Most jewellers then were still working on a conventional pad-based display scheme. We totally abandoned that, with on occasion just half a dozen pieces of jewellery in the entire window. The new store was also much more focused on selling diamonds above all. Contrary to what you might, think, this was not necessarily limiting the market to weddings and engagements.

“People don’t just buy diamonds once or twice in their lifetime,” he says. “There are always birthdays and anniversaries. “I would say we went from where we were trading up three or four notches. We were not far away in terms of market position from Berrys. Anybody who is anybody shops there – but we weren’t far away. The other three shops also raised their game a bit, although you couldn’t transport a store like Leeds back into Halifax.” Once the new formula had proved itself and the new store had been up and running for a couple of years, however, Chris says he started getting new ideas again. He realised he still had some things he wanted to do, and first and foremost among these was the desire to prove that he could set up something on his own.

“I had done some good things, and had pushed the business really far forward,” he says, “but I wanted to run my own business.” So he left and moved away – but not too far away sector-wise. He started a jewellery design business with a range of end-customers.

“I really loved it,” he says. But by this time, having successfully established the store in the Light, John and Phillip were looking to go up a notch again and open a store in the Victoria Quarter. To do that, they realised it would make sense to rationalise and close down one of the more regional stores as well. Chris became aware that the Shipley store was likely to be the casualty, and started discussing the idea of taking on the property there as his own store with his wife Sarah. The first fully-fledged Stoners store opened in Shipley in 2008, and right from the start it was meant to have a different feel to his old family business.

There was even more emphasis on their manufacturing capabilities, with at times as much as 90% of stock their own designs. He admits the move was something of a turnaround. “I had been desperate to get out of retail, but I really missed it after six months,” he says. “I love the changing aspect of it. Every day I go in and it is different. Sometimes in manufacturing industry you don’t get that.

“We transformed the Shipley store within eight months. This involved making brave decisions – some of the brands had been there for a long time and we had customers coming back for them, but we still decided to cull them, not to upset anybody, but because we knew what the future was.

“Despite the downturn, we have had a phenomenal two years. People are still buying diamonds, and the average spend on a wedding is going up and up.” Now the new store in Harrogate will be the same – only more so. All upmarket jewellers need a good watch brand to sell alongside the jewellery, but Chris is bringing only one watch brand into the new store – Rolex. That should leave more space for the shop’s own designs of diamond jewellery. In fact, although his shop does make jewellery with other gemstones, he admits diamonds are a passion.

“It’s difficult not to enjoy coming to work and going past the diamonds, sifting through them, examining them and marvelling at them,” he says. It’s surprising that someone with such a passion wears no diamonds at all himself.

Not even a tiepin. Chris laughs such thoughts off, but says the market for men’s jewellery is taking off astronomically at the moment. “It’s still aimed at the wedding market,” he says, “but a lot of guys are after something very different. Ten years ago all they wanted to know is how wide it was going to be and what their finger size was. Now some are happy to spend around £1,000 on their ring alone, and we can make them for £5,000, £6,000. We have done some work for some of the England cricket guys, and that has been really top fashion-led.” He says the choice to locate in Harrogate was obvious. “We are very lucky to have a town like Harrogate so close by,” he says.

“It’s a stunning town anyway, but the shopping is second-to-none. You always see empty shops in Leeds, even in the Victoria Quarter. Here you see hardly any.” Harrogate was a clear leader over York, for example. “York is very much a tourist town,” he says.

“It’s difficult to get hold of people who live in York, and the town is over-subscribed with jewellers already.” Nor does he particularly want to go into Leeds, despite his experience there.

“Leeds is also well subscribed with jewellers,” he says. “It’s a tough proposition to go head-to-head when you are fairly young.” He doesn’t in fact see an immediate prospect of expanding anywhere. “I see the next two years as working incredibly hard to make this concept work,” he says. But if there were one place he might be tempted, it would be Princes Street in Edinburgh, his wife Sarah’s home town.

She has become more involved in the business in the past 18 months, having initially had a career in financial services marketing. And among other things, she has been instrumental in improving the company’s blog. Chris is excited about the possibilities that social media brings.

“We can talk about things we get to see, and celebrities we deal with,” he says. “And if we have a big valuable diamond coming into the store – people are interested in stuff like that.” I am surprised that a jeweller would want to risk advertising what might be stealable to all and sundry, but if you go into the blog you will also discover that a month or so ago Chris met Sir Bob Geldof privately, a meeting arranged by a mutual friend.

“He is really inspirational,” he says. “I didn’t realise but he likes his watches, he is a watch buff.” But surely, I say, setting up on your own this way must have ruffled a few feathers? After all, Harrogate is not so very far from Leeds, where brother John has two stores. Chris says there are differences between the two companies.

“John has a good formula with what he is doing in Leeds,” he says. “He sells a whole range of products, with some branded jewellery. Our store is much more niche. Not just in terms of value but also how it looks.” He also insists that the two companies work well together. “Obviously people have heard of both companies, but we try to be very grown-up,” he says.

“There are occasions where I know we are quoting for the same job John has, and on those occasions I have told him about it.” Are relations really that smooth? Chris insists they are.

“I just want to see what the future might hold,” he says. “We have even had conversations in the past about how we might bring the two stores back together again – maybe in our seventies. But for now we are really happy doing our own things.” I still remain unconvinced – until Chris takes us around to see the new store. A figure appears in the doorway and it turns out to be brother John himself. Together the two brothers spend the next 15 minutes going over in detail what Chris plans for the store. Certainly for the moment, these are two business brothers who seem to be happy competing.