Neil Geddes lives a life of unashamed luxury – for other people. Mike Hughes met him to find out why diamonds are an entrepreneur’s best friend.
“I’ve handled diamonds worth millions.” Not a bad sentence to drop into a business interview – it certainly attracts the attention. The man doing the dropping is Neil Geddes, and he didn’t just say that as his opening line. It was part of an answer to the question I had just put to him – something along the lines of ‘how much does it cost to buy a gasp-worthy piece of jewellery?’
And he would know, being something I never even knew existed until we met at Aspire in Leeds city centre. Neil, now 32, is a Fine Jewellery Concierge, who works with private clients who want the very best diamonds and gemstones in unique settings. He will scour markets around the world, find the perfect diamond, ruby and sapphire and then have a setting designed and made as a one-off.
As well as the multi-million pound diamonds he has handled on his travels, his own pieces can command six-figure sums – or a couple of hundred pounds.
Fine jewellery is not exactly a staple of the A-level syllabus, so how does a young entrepreneur decide this is the business he will devote his life to – and why Yorkshire?
“There are a number of nuances that steered me into it, but at no point did I go into university and come out thinking I was going to be a jeweller,” he says. “I did a business degree with a marketing flavour to it, but when I came out of uni I had an experience of working in London and I knew Leeds was an exciting place and so I knew really quickly that I wanted to live in one of the two.
“But Leeds had a bit of historic nostalgia for me in that I grew up in Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire because my dad was in the RAF, so I was around Bedale for a number of years and Yorkshire cricket was in the blood so perhaps it was in the back of my mind to return to that.
“I knew people here and I had visited occasionally and got a great feel for the city and thought ‘this is exciting – let’s make something of it now’ and plan further down the line for a good work-life balance. But to start with I went into what is probably a very typical situation for graduates in that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do – which is often the case unless you have studied something specific like medicine or law and you know that is the route you are going down.
“So I went into the corporate world for five years working in marketing. At that stage I didn’t have a particularly great understanding or admiration for jewellery, but I was at the stage in my life where I wanted to propose to my girlfriend and I looked at the high street in general terms for good customer service in a retail environment to help me understand why I should buy this ring over that one.
“But I got a very flat experience from that and I wanted something different, so someone suggested I speak to an independent jeweller, so I found one who had been in the business all his life and had spent 20 years building up a network out in Asia, in places like Bangkok and Hong Kong, which is a global hub for gemstones.
“He had a small team, but they were all third or fourth generation gemologists who really knew what they were talking about and this particular gentleman really interested me and as we got to know each other he would show me a little more about his work and he taught me that the most important factor in the jewellery world is trust.”
Many of our Yorkshire entrepreneurs will recognise Neil’s version of that first meeting. The drive to succeed at work is in many of us, but sometimes a mentor appears, someone who you immediately relate to and want to work with and emulate. They don’t have to be ‘matched’ by an agency, as Neil did, you could find them in the next coffee shop you visit or on the next train journey to Sheffield.
“I am quite a fan of the mentoring model, learning from someone who has been there, done it and got the badge,” says Neil. “I also use a mentor from a coffee background who is in wholesale, so nothing to do with the retail side. That way you can take the glamorous side out of working with diamonds and actually get to the business and you are then talking about your strategy and your value add, so that is valuable to me.”
So, back to the gemstone genius (Neil declines to name him, to protect that precious trust he has built up over the years). “It became very transparent that on his display table were many gems to look at, but the real stars were in the drawer, and he wasn’t going to show them until he knew who I was – and that is a model that is replicated around the world.
“You can hop on a plane tomorrow, fly to Bangkok and buy a ruby. But you are not going to buy a very good one because they will sell you whatever they want. In this business you need to know who to talk to.
“I ended up buying a diamond from him for the engagement ring, which was the starting point to an interest in gemology and fine jewellery. I started learning more about the subject and then got my brain going and started wondering if I could take this somewhere even though I still had a good full-time job.
“I started to say to people that if they were looking for a piece of jewellery, give me a month first to see what I can get before you go to the shops. So I needed to understand diamonds – which are an entirely different market to gems and account for 70% or even 80% of the sales – and how to supply them while accumulating credible knowledge.”
Neil went to one of the world’s leading authorities, The Gemological Institute of America which is a non-profit group dedicated to research and education.
“I was certainly pursuing an interest, but I didn’t have a plan yet,” admits Neil. “My advice would be that while organisations like GIA are important, there is nothing better than reading around your subject, looking at the goods and the designs being used by other people, understanding why one is better than the next.
“I would go around the top auction houses as often as possible and look at the gems and think about people like Harry Winston and now Laurence Graff who are at the very top of the tree, but haven’t done a gemology course in their life. They just started looking at their subject from an early age.
“The shifting point that moved it all from a hobby to a business was looking around my office and seeing my peers who may have been there for ten or fifteen years and not really progressed, and alarm bells started going off. I could have gone off and found an account manager job at Procter & Gamble or IBM, both fantastic companies, but it just didn’t interest me at all.
“I started looking at a strategy for a jewellery business and worked out an exit strategy from my current job that meant I could still pay my mortgage. I knew it was very rare for someone to start completely from scratch without some sort of family connection, or a lead into an established business.
“It was also, of course, a very niche market and after I had received my last pay cheque, I had very little savings, so I took myself off and worked at my local pub in Yorkshire and would work 9-5 on the new jewellery business and then start at the pub for 6pm until 2am. I did that for six or seven months to allow myself a bit of money to pay the bills, but at least I didn’t need an actual shop.
“Concierge companies were growing phenomenally, and I looked at that business model and looked at the likes of Savile Row and thought I don’t need an extremely expensive shop on a high street which is saturated anyway. I needed to differentiate myself at the same time as taking away that headache and cost.
“I wanted to go back to the Belle Époque era of the 1920s when fabulous gems were coming out of the ground and fabulous jewellery was being made by Cartier, lovingly designed to make people feel sensational and there was an attention to detail with the level of service for the customer being paramount.
While there were a few early sales of items Neil sourced ready-made, the defining moment of the first sale of a custom piece came after he had met a client who wanted diamond stud earrings for his wife. The problem was that so early on in his new career Neil hadn’t established lines of credit and the trust that he needed for payment terms.
So after getting through the doors for a wholesale diamond dealer in London, he found that they wanted the £10,000 up front. After so much planning and determination, Neil, then only 27, used a much-repeated entrepreneur’s strategy....and maxed out three credit cards.
“I didn’t tell my parents what I was doing because they would have just said ‘don’t do it’. It was a gamble that bought me the diamonds – and I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night – but the dealer was wholesale so he said if I didn’t sell them I could bring them back for a refund, which drastically reduced the risk.
“I already had a manufacturing set-up I could go to where I could have things made, so I did that, boxed up the earrings, delivered them and the customer paid and knew he was saving money compared to jewellery houses in the area, so he was delighted.
“That was one of the early-day kickstarts, with one happy customer and a wholesale dealer who now knew I was the sort of guy who did what he said he would do.
“That means the trust is there and I can now appro diamonds, to a certain degree, so whenever I am with a client I can go and lend some diamonds to make sure they are what he or she wants, and then pay for them.”
Such a niche market is a challenge for an entrepreneur. “If you were after a new car, you could have a Ford Fiesta or an S-Class Mercedes. Both are cars and will get you from A to B, but it is very important for clients to realise that I am providing a private couture service, along with the understanding that their money is going a lot further because of my low overheads.
“So let’s say a small diamond ring might be £1,500. That is a typical starting point because we are not in fashion jewellery and not in chain volume jewellery, but we are dealing with fine jewellery and that is helpful for clients to see where we are pitching our business.
“Also, I have helped a 23-year-old get an engagement ring because it saved him a couple of hundred quid, and then very wealthy people get fabulous diamonds that are also saving them a few quid for Cartier-level handmade goods.
“My competition is still jewellers in the fine sector. Some of those around Yorkshire have great pedigree in their history. You need to know that I am here, but once you do you will know what I can provide for you and why that might persuade you to come back.
“But while I am doing one deal, the competition is probably doing a thousand.”
Growth means having a number of clients in the High Net Worth range at the top of the wealth pyramid (those worth at least US$1m). The professionals that are the foundations of the pyramid are essential, but the HNWs are an understandably key set of people. A report at the beginning of last year said there were 840,000 dollar millionaires in the UK, so a bigger market to aim at than many people, including SLNW (Surprisingly Low Net Worth) editors like me, would have thought.
Neil is still the client-facing side of the business building the crucial relationships and then working with designers and dealers that he has come to know well. He divides his time between Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and London and the counties that surround them.
“I have worked hard to create the team I have now that tick the boxes of doing things in that traditional way. With our designers, everything is hand-painted, which is very popular in Paris, and we want to be able to continue that.
“So when expansion means taking on another person to handle clients, I think you can mould someone who has the passion and teach them the right skills. Obviously, you have to be able to sell, and from my perspective relationship management skills and understanding people can be taught, but you need a glimmer of excitement for jewellery.”
The Yorkshire market has been a good area to hone Neil’s business skills, because it encapsulates both ends of his market. There is old and new money coursing through the counties and cities, but there is also early aspiration that cannot be ignored, and a need for regular business at all levels to keep NJ Geddes running smoothly.
So that requires a presence and trust at the highest peaks of the Yorkshire wealth pyramid, where he is just as likely to be asked to explain the value-for-money side of an eye-wateringly expensive item. But at the same time, the jewellery must not be seen as unattainable further down the pyramid, so good value and awareness of quality matter just as much.
“The beauty of Yorkshire is that there is a clientele here and I love living here, but at the same time travel is easy, so I can get to my cities easily and see my clients where they are, in their offices and their homes,” he says. “Because there will be plenty of business people who don’t have the time to do that sort of shopping, but also some senior people or celebrities who don’t want the hassle of being seen or photographed out and about, so we take that element out of it as well.”
Quality costs, of course and Neil will regularly work with clients spending “between fifteen and fifty”. It felt unnecessary to check whether that was thousands....
“We don’t break down the price between my time or the design or the diamond, we will understand what they want and provide it at a cost of ‘x’,” he explains. “I have held diamonds over 20 carats that are into the millions, but that is where you would be dealing with Ultra High Net Worth clients, but we have done necklaces for more than £100,000. At the end of the day, I am very aware that people can buy a house for what I am providing, but we have integrity in what we do.
“I had a London banker with a lot of disposable income as a client and we worked with this gentleman to buy his wife a diamond ring. He ended up through my advice buying one that was a little smaller and a little less money because it fitted the brief better.
“Now, down the line he might want some earrings, and will remember the way I worked.”
Neil like other BQ entrepreneurs, needs a support network, whether it is that first unnamed mentor or his wife Katie.
He says. “In the early days she kept the house and that gave me flexibility to venture out. It is very risky to leave your job and not really have another one to go to, but she was there for me when I had a gut feeling of what I wanted to do.
“I don’t think that is a particularly strong business model, but I would advise anybody to avoid treading water, because I knew when I was looking round that office that I didn’t want to reach 55 and not have progressed or pursued something I wanted to do.
“There was something in me that knew I didn’t want to be employed by someone and do a nine-to-five.”
That ‘something’ is what BQ tries to define with each interview. Neil Geddes has it. Do you?