Family-owned jewellers offer longevity lessons

A company in the same hands over generations breeds customer loyalty
Family affair: W Carter & Son is now owned by the Holmeses and still sells from its Tudor shop © Tom Gregory

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W Carter & Son may have been in the same premises since the business was established nearly 200 years ago, but the local taxi driver appears to have no knowledge of it.

Brian Holmes, who inherited the company with his brother Tad when their father died in the 1950s, is amused by this ignorance, but not surprised. The Holmes family are keen to emphasise this heritage — they kept the name of the business when Brian’s grandfather took it over from the Carter family — and are now concentrating on serving their client base in the English medieval cathedral city of Salisbury. This can be anything from remodelling the mayor’s chain of honour to replacing a customer’s watch battery.

The company’s main business, though, is rings. The family says it often sees brides-to-be whose mothers and grandmothers had chosen their engagement rings at the same counter.

“Apart from carpets and paint, the shop interior is the same as it always has been,” says Paulette Newman, Brian Holmes’s daughter and another director in the company, gesturing at the floor-to-ceiling cabinets, all dark wood and glass. What they are really selling, says Ms Newman, is trust. “In jewellery, reputation is everything.”

That trust could explain why, despite the widespread availability of competitively priced, mass-produced jewellery in chain stores, on TV channels and via the internet, family-owned jewellers are showing staying power.

Holmeses's Tudor shop © Getty

Family Business United, an organisation that promotes the interests of family-owned companies, published a survey of the oldest family businesses in the south-west of England in 2014. It showed there were more jewellers than any other kind of family-owned business in the region and that they accounted for five of the 31 companies that had been trading for more than 150 years.

Fiona Graham, communications director for the Institute for Family Business, says she is not surprised by the finding in the south-west. “There are lots of examples of great long-lived family jewellers,” she says. “The nature itself of their business is long-lived, as jewels acquire a value for families,” she adds, explaining that family members appreciate returning to the same business “because doing so gives continuity and strengthens, symbolically, those family relations and connections”.

In terms of familial longevity, Mellerio dits Meller probably takes first place. The Paris-based jeweller has been in the same family’s hands for more than 400 years, during which time it has supplied pieces to many of Europe’s most prominent royal families. Laurent Mellerio, chief executive of the company, is the 14th generation to take the helm.

The company claims to be the oldest family-owned jewellery business in Europe and possibly in the world. It has survived crises such as the French Revolution, during which one of its patrons, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s wife, was killed at the guillotine. Despite its association with luxury it managed to outlast the siege of Paris and the working-class revolt that led to the Paris Commune in the 1870s when the majority of the Mellerio family hid their jewels and retreated, as they often did in times of trouble, to their ancestral village in Italy. Just one family member remained and sent news of deprivation in Paris to the family by hot-air balloon.

Times have changed, however, and Mellerio, unlike W Carter & Son, has had to look beyond its original customer base for its recent commissions. “Nowadays, even if royal families are very wealthy, they don’t buy new jewels,” explains Mr Mellerio. Instead, the business positions itself to cater to the newly wealthy. Like W Carter & Son, however, the family has not been tempted to capitalise on its success with grand expansion plans.

“Most family businesses are not there to grow,” explains Denise Kenyon-Rouvinez, professor of family business at IMD, the Swiss business school. She says this concentration on the original business is contrary to standard management theory, “which states that you have to grow or you’re dead”. She adds: “There’s nothing wrong with having a [less ambitious] economic model.”

Sometimes, however, family-owned jewellery companies find they can embrace expansion and change. James Amos, marketing director at Boodles and nephew of the Wainwright brothers who are chairman and managing director, says the company had spent the best part of 200 years being a small jewellery retailer. Then, 20 years ago, his uncles took on a designer.

Rebecca Hawkins designed a collection that was popular with customers, so she did more, and a new business model evolved. Now Boodles has three shops in the north-west of England, five in London and one in Dublin. “I don’t think my uncles could have seen where it would get them in 20 years,” Mr Amos says. “It’s enabled us to build an identity.”

Despite the transformation, Mr Amos says: “We often find that many generations of the same family come to the same jeweller because of the trust element.” In certain families, he says, “people would talk about ‘our jeweller’ just as they would talk about ‘our lawyer’ or ‘our accountant’.”

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