The recent glut of bonuses in the City of London has led to an explosion of trade for luxury jewellers such as family-owned Boodles. Marc Smith talks with fourth-generation managing director Michael Wainwright about Boodles, blood diamonds and Bond Street.
Marc Smith is deputy editor of Families in Business.
As Michael Wainwright and I sat down to a pot of tea in the Royal Exchange, the luxury shopping emporium in the heart of the City of London, there was a quintiessentially English feel to the meeting. City gents rushed past the Wainwright family's Boodles jewellery shop, BlackBerries beeping and umbrellas in hand. Then he started talking about pink champagne and daquiries.
"Everybody is offering a glass of champagne these days so we've moved on and we're now mixing cocktails for them," said Michael of what he calls the Boodles experience. "We have a cocktail bar in all of our shops on Saturdays, while through the week we serve pink champagne to our top-end customers."
Outstanding customer service is what the Wainwrights believe sets their business apart in the notoriously fierce jewellery sector. In the City, bonuses for top executives reached almost £9 billion in 2006 and substantial sums – some estimate up to £1 billion – were invested in luxury gifts such as rings and necklaces. Boodles cashed in on this windfall as sales rocketed over Christmas, with top-end like-for-like sales up 34%.
But it's not just a classy cocktail cabinet that entices some of the UK's wealthiest jewellery junkies to sample the Boodles experience. Thanks to their belief in the importance of charitable efforts, the family firm recently sponsored a gala dinner for the Outward Bound Trust, a UK educational charity, where Boodles were granted an exclusive reception for a few select customers with the Trust's patron – HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. "A lot of our customers are very wealthy people, but you can't pay to have drinks with Prince Philip," muses Michael. So giving your customer that extra special service can pay handsome dividends.
Big bang at boodles
Receptions with royalty are a far cry from the original Boodle & Dunthorne county jewellers that was established in Liverpool way back in 1798. More than 200 years of history and six family generations later – Michael's two nephews now work for the company; Jody looks after the store in Dublin while James manages the Boodles boutique in the Harrods fine jewellery hall – the Wainwrights have worked hard over the past decade to transform the brand. The firm used to sell jewels that were bought in from other companies, but in the early 1990s they had their big bang moment and invested heavily in design, and dropped the Dunthorne part of the name. Today, a team of four designers create unique pieces of Boodles jewellery that you won't find anywhere else.
"Our jewellery is now a lot more contemporary, some would even say funky," says Michael, "and it's up to us to keep designing interesting and desirable pieces to whet the appetite of our customers." The firm's most successful range of the last couple of years is called Raindance. Influenced by "rivulets of water running down a stone sculpture", Raindance features brilliant cut diamonds linked by fine lines of platinum. Originally just a ring and plural earrings, the range now includes bracelets, pendants and necklaces. "The only problem with Raindance," insists Michael, "is that it's been so successful that most of our best customers have already got it!"
Another of their current collections, Castaway, features a cocktail ring that has tropical spirals of brilliant cut and pear-shape diamonds set in platinum. The range's tourmaline ring includes spirals of brilliant cut diamonds set in 18 carat yellow gold with pear-shape tropical hot pink tourmalines. There are also necklaces based on the two ring designs.
In addition, the company offers a bespoke service for customers who wish to have a personal design made up. "It's very closely monitored and we have to approve the design," says Michael. "People often come in thinking they want something bespoke but end up buying one of our designs."
Before a design is brought to life, however, the stones must be purchased. Michael's brother and co-managing director, Nicholas, is the creative brains behind the firm. As a gemmologist by trade, he goes to New York and Antwerp to source the diamonds, emeralds and pearls used by the design teams back in the UK.
One stone he won't be purchasing again is a 25 carat diamond that he bought in the Big Apple and made into the firm's first £1 million pound ring. "We bit off more than we could chew with that one," admits Michael. It has since been converted into a necklace, although one customer has recently put in an offer for it to be converted back into a ring.
Green issues are becoming a real concern for customers of luxury items; a report by Ledbury Research found that environmental and ecological concerns were increasingly important to 65% of UK millionaires. And this is nowhere more relevant than in the jewellery field where conflict diamonds – those mined in a warzone and sold clandestinely for arms – are one of the hot topics following the release of the film Blood Diamond. "We have a very strict policy on conflict diamonds as we feel strongly that we don't want to be funding that kind of thing," says Michael. "Equally, all our staff will know our policy in this area."
Another thing the Wainwrights have felt strongly about for many years is the need for a shop in Bond Street, London's most exclusive shopping street. After signing the lease on a property in what Michael describes as "a brilliant position" last November, they are finally due to open their doors this spring. With an interior designed by award-winning, Czech-born architect Eva Jiricna – a magnificent staircase is to be the shop's centrepiece – Boodles is hoping that it will be a springboard to international recognition.
Bond Street is the firm's ninth store opening – they also have shops in Harrods, Regent Street and Sloane Street, as well as a clutch of stores in the North West of England and one in Ireland – and perhaps its most important. "We are used to dealing with wealthy Brits, which is where we excel," says Michael, but he admits they are going to have to add extra skills, such as languages, to serve the wide range of nationalities and cultures that will pass through Bond Street in the manner they would expect.
Fundamentally, of course, Boodles is a family company and Michael is adamant that this will stand them in good stead in their newest home. "We have always been very visible to our clients. I believe that if there's a family member buzzing around then customers will gravitate towards that company because the emphasis on care is greater."