WB the Creative Jewellery Group
Patrick Fuller, Chairman, WB the Creative Jewellery Group, is interested in how you change market dynamics… “I’m always looking at how to change the way markets operate.” As one of the largest jewellery manufacturers in Europe, producing over 400,000 pieces in 2013 and setting over 100,000 diamonds, his business is located in the heart of the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter having been founded over 60 years ago.
“British made jewellery accounts for between 25-30% of all jewellery sold in the UK,” he says. “I think as much as 60% of that is produced in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.”
Their head office in the jewellery quarter boasts an abundance of striking artwork, immaculate manufacturing facilities and offices, with imaginative jewellery displays in their showroom – a glittering range of exhibits. In 2011 they invested £100k or half a percent of turnover in this facility whilst making a similar commitment to their trade counter in London.
WB the Creative Jewellery Group, is well known as one of around ten or so larger employers in Birmingham’s renowned Jewellery Quarter, between them accounting for around half the total employees in the sector, or about 750 people out of 1500 people. Thirty years ago there would have been well over 3000 people working here with job losses put down to the impact of low cost competition.
Other large employers include Cooksons Gold, Optima Manufacturing, Fattorini, Toye Kenning Spencer, Signet, Deacon & Francis, Merrell Casting, Brandauer, and of course the Birmingham Assay Office. The remaining employees are spread among 400 or so businesses, many of them retailers based in the jewellery quarter.
Turnover is in the region of £32m with 180 employees based at three sites in Birmingham, Essex and London, many having worked with there a long time; so much so, they estimate they have over 1000 years of traditional jewellery craft skills within the business. The company purchased Gecko in 2011, changing its name from Weston Beamor to WB the Creative Jewellery Group following this acquisition.
Around 60% of their workforce is involved in manufacturing, 35% in sales and marketing and 5% in design. With exports amounting to around 15% of output into 10 different countries, Patrick Fuller believes that for them and other businesses in the Jewellery Quarter this figure is too low. “At under 10% of collective output this route to market provides considerable potential for further development,” he says.
Weston Beamor was established in 1947 by Patrick Fuller’s father-in-law, with Patrick joining in 1979 from a sales and marketing background, having previously worked at Associated British Foods and in the wallpaper and paint businesses, S J Dixon & Son and Johnstones Paints. At that stage the business was involved in producing volume components through lost wax casting as a sub-contractor into the jewellery industry.
Patrick, who was travelling around the country getting to grips with the trade, found that in every town there were jewellers crying out for a full range of ring components – the little bits and pieces that tended to break after years of wear and tear.
In 1983 he launched a new B2B range, branding it ‘Domino’, as a comprehensive range of jewellery components for retailers, designer-makers, craftsmen and women, students and hobbyists. He was first in the country to pioneer the use of jewellery catalogues as working documents in the UK and Europe, enabling customers to order with confidence by telephone and online.
“The key is that there is no minimum order,” he says, “and delivery is within 36 hours. Whilst we’re not the cheapest, our retailers know they can count on us for quality and reliability. We’re offering thousands of diamond ring mount options in this range,” he adds.
“We sell into around 4,500 jewellery clients in the UK and have extended our B2B brand offering to include two new B2C ranges, ‘Rosabella‘ and ‘Sienna‘ moving from rings alone, into earrings, necklaces and bracelets, often as sets, where our retailers had previously assured us that there was limited market appeal. In 2012 alone we sold 3,500 diamond necklaces at price points of between £15-16k.”
“Rosabella targets young, professional women in mid-price points, where self-purchase has grown dramatically. Sienna uses a semi-cluster diamond-set styling for rings and necklaces with multiple settings.
“With these ranges we’re offering not only jewellery, but packaging and displays to help retailers promote the complete ‘lifestyle’ offer. All too often our retailers are taking items out of our brand displays and packaging and re-packaging into their own brands. I believe the conservative nature of the retailers in our sector is holding back consumers who are not nearly as conservative as the buyers.
Too often we find that if we use brand names associated with Birmingham or the UK they don’t have sufficient appeal or traction with our UK consumers. We find we have to use Italian names to ensure brand appeal, which surely says something about the state of brand Birmingham which is just the opposite to the international fashion sector.
New Product Design and Innovation
New product development is vital in this business which is producing around 6 new ranges a year. “New Product Introduction accounts for between 20-25% of turnover a year and is really important for us as it is filling the void as a percentage of turnover falls off the other end each year,” states Patrick.
“We’d like turnover from new products to be higher, however due to the conservative nature of the UK jewellery retailer, who is, in a general sense, frightened to buy new products, these sales are being lost to the other channels such as the internet and TV sales.
“We’re investing around 1.5% of turnover on new product development costs and if we add in our capital investment then this figure rises to around 3% of turnover,” says Patrick.
“We’re interested in all consumer goods. When we’re exploring new markets we go and try out all the products in associated areas, taking as much inspiration as we can from other consumer sectors, china and ceramics, lighting, homewares, fashion.
“Developing a feel for new market opportunities is something that requires an intuitive feel for products and sectors. Sometimes this comes with experience. At times marketing people can be too focussed on immediate market research on what consumers want now. You really have to move beyond that. Marketing seems to have become a buzz thing, but a lot of it is learnt by going out and seeing things. Marketing is not simply a technical discipline. You need to love the product and like the market.”
“There is far too little recognition of the range of high quality designs being produced in Birmingham. Just think about what we make – the best guns in the world at BSA, Samuel Heath’s renowned brassware, regalia, cutlery and of course jewellery.
“I am very taken by the idea of designers from different businesses visiting each other as well as students from different departments and disciplines.
“There is a prevailing view that the creative industry as a sector largely excludes manufacturing. But it’s really important we think of all manufacturing as creative and include this with our cultural activities aligning them with each other to enable more cross promotion. We have a wealth of designs to showcase. It would be great, for example, to identify the Midlands top 100 creative manufacturers and showcase these to the world.”
Patrick sees potential for the jewellery sector by teaming up with Birmingham’s cultural brands such as the Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) and CBSO and possibly providing mobile exhibits that accompany them on tour.
“Ballet and Opera have similar cachet to jewellery and other high value added brands produced in the Midlands such as Morgan, AGA, Jaguar, Land Rover. There’s an opportunity to get to a wider audience through collaborations of this sort – not only through the potential to promote and sell but also by getting more people interested in designing and making things. By bringing together a serious group of people we can facilitate these activities.”
Naomi Newton Sherlock, Creative Director, outlines the role of heritage to the WB brand portfolio, saying, “In our experience, being ‘Established’ as a business is not enough. Put simply today’s customers want more. What matters to them is having the best product and the best service, nothing more or less, so we cannot rely on the past.
“We need to connect with 18-24 year olds who have been identified as the most likely market segment to buy products of British origin, and we need to do this through the products they are buying. As a result we take very seriously our commitment to exceeding customer needs, to ethics and social responsibility. We are members of both the Responsible Jewellery Council and Fairtrade Gold.
“For us, heritage has a role. We see it as important in terms of evolution and challenge. The picture for the British jewellery market is one of two halves. On one hand there are companies like Asprey and Garrards – very traditional. But from the 50’s onwards the market for this sort of jewellery has declined. Italian design and German manufacturing are considered amongst the best in the world and have forced UK manufacturing overseas.
“How does heritage help the West Midlands during these times to grow and flourish? Part of the answer comes from the intangible elements of our heritage. For WB the Creative Jewellery Group it is about our –
- knowledge and know-how,” she said.
Mrs Newton Sherlock highlighted a recent report from the British Jewellery Association demonstrating that retailers were stifling the UK domestic jewellery market and holding back innovation.
Brand and Creativity
“At WB creativity is at the heart of brand, she said. “Imaginative, trend-led design is an essential element and we employ nine in-house designers – no other manufacturer in UK has this depth of knowledge and design expertise. Alongside launching our brands Rosabella, Sienna and Sassolini, we have invested in a Creative Suite showcasing their products within a retail environment so that retailers can take inspiration on how they might display WB products within their own store environments.
“WB was the first jewellery manufacturer in the UK to embrace CAD and are recognised as an industry leader in this area. In 2000 we purchased a Rapid Prototyping resin-based machine for £250k investment, followed with purchases of 3D scanning, CNC Milling, and Rapid Prototyping machines, with the business remaining focussed on move towards faster direct casting.
“ One of most important attributes of heritage is our ability to combine traditional skills and tacit knowledge learnt over many years of experience, which is dying out. This is our biggest threat. The Queen’s broach, worn on her Silver Jubilee, is an example of both old and new techniques and skills combined. It is a manifestation of the skilled craftsmanship required in buffing and setting of the stones, but also the cutting edge technology required for its production.
Skills and Training
We are training 4 apprenticeships to carry on the craft-based skills and we have expanded our setting shop from 2-10 people. In addition we have worked on a new management skills programme in collaboration with Birmingham City University.
As Far Eastern jewellery manufacturing falls out of favour we are positioning ourselves to pick up business. Heritage combined with innovation and evolution has ensured our longevity,” said Naomi Newton Sherlock, concluding with just a trace of a smile, “It’s not about size of your heritage but what you do with it.”
Summary and Conclusions
WB the Creative Jewellery Group, has been built on the back of a traditional lost wax casting business in Birmingham’s renowned Jewellery Quarter. Through the creative approach taken by the company’s Chairman, Patrick Fuller, in spotting a new market opportunity for the thousands of independent jewellery retailers across the country and further afield he created a new business of jewellery components – with no minimum order and a 36 hour turnaround.
The business sells into 4,500 retail outlets in the UK and has extended from a B2B business model into B2C offerings. Patrick Fuller, conscious of the conservatism of the traditional jewellery retailer has been pioneering new customer offers – sets of rings , bracelets and necklaces and lower cost items that have a more contemporary fashion feel appealing to the young professional, independent working woman.
He voiced concerns about being unable to develop new jewellery brands associated with Birmingham – having to rely on Italian sounding names to market and promote new ranges, flagging up the need to promote a stronger reputation for quality, style and design for the city, with far too little recognition for the range of high quality designs already being promoted in the City.
The business is investing about 1.5% of turnover into developing six new ranges a year with new product accounting for around 25% of turnover each year. Patrick Fuller is sceptical about some marketing research approaches adopted in many businesses. “At times marketing people can be too focussed on immediate market research on what customers want now. You really have to move beyond that. Marketing seems to have become a buzz thing, but a lot of it is learnt by going out and seeing things. You need to love the product and like the market.
There is still great scope for cross sectoral marketing and promotion collaborations in the view of Patrick Fuller. He cites a collaboration they had with Birmingham Royal Ballet in visiting China which was very effective for their business, bridging the cultural and language divide through a strong visual display. He feels this approach – culture and manufacturing being jointly promoted – could work well applied much more broadly citing involvement of brands such as AGA Rangemaster, Morgan, Jaguar Land Rover which could all benefit by working together to open up opportunities in new export markets.
Naomi Newton Sherlock working as a leading design adviser at WB speaks about the importance of heritage for the business. Part of the answer, she claims, come from the intangible elements of our heritage. For WB it is about our responsiveness, innovation and knowledge and know-how. With creativity at the heart of our brand we are promoting imaginative, trend-led design and employing 9 designers. The business has also invested in some of the most sophisticated machinery to ensure rapid and effective making with 3D scanners, CNC milling, Rapid Prototyping machines.
Through an introduction to Jaguar Land Rover facilitated by Birmingham Made Me involvement they now make small prototype parts for JLR which the company has difficulty making on larger scale machines.
WB is also able to combine traditional making skills, buffing, polishing and stone setting, with tacit knowledge built up over many years. They employ 4 apprentices and have worked with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery to develop a new management skills programme.
In working to provide relevant skills and experiences WB have stressed the importance of a good commercial grounding with young people being able to work throughout the departments in businesses, experiencing accounts, sales, production and getting a feel for the marketplace. These views were emphasised by the British Jewellers Association which remains very concerned that training needs to be wholly oriented to the practical skills required by young people if they are going to gain and retain work or carve out entrepreneurial routes for themselves on graduating.