While mass-market jewellers have been tarnished by the consumer downturn, upmarket Theo Fennell is thriving. Emily Seares meets the man behind the brand to find out what sets it apart

In the inner sanctum of Theo Fennell’s creative hub, amid papers, scribbles and drawing boards, sits the man who founded the eponymous design-led luxury jewellery business.

The retailer is at a crossroads. Following last week’s departure of managing director Barbara Snoad, who boosted investment in the upmarket business while strengthening its retail portfolio, what lies in store for the group?

A new chief executive was expected to be appointed as Retail Week went to press, who will be charged with growing the brand and expanding its international presence. Fennell, who is also creative director, says: “We were looking for someone to take advantage of the huge opportunities the business has to offer.”

Other changes could include the appointment of an operations director, to help make the business run as smoothly as possible. Fennell says: “I want to free myself to do what I do best. In the past, I’ve got too embroiled in the logistics of running the business.”

The group operates from a flagship store in Chelsea, which also houses the design team and workshop, and a shop in the City’s Royal Exchange. Theo Fennell also has concessions in Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols and is represented as far afield as Hong Kong, Dubai, Bahrain, Russia, Kazakhstan, the Republic of Ireland and the Caribbean.

The Far East and US are also on the radar, where there is the potential for standalone stores. Cavendish Corporate Finance was appointed in January to advise on strategy and Fennell, who owns a 20 per cent stake, admits that options are being weighed up. “Any deal would need to be empathetic with the business model,” he says. He also revealed that the group is looking for strategic investors.

But Fennell does not want the company to forget its roots and philosophy as first and foremost a design-led business. “I want to sustain a large company with original and quality products,” he maintains. He has the last creative say on every piece, giving a personal touch to every item that passes through his workshop.

But will that remain possible if the brand surges ahead as planned? Fennell does not foresee a problem. He has a team of three who help him with the design process. “It’s like writing a sitcom,” he says. “It works well with a little collective of people to bounce ideas off.”

There are three main elements to the business: bespoke jewellery, collections/ranges and licensing. And Fennell’s clientele are as eclectic as his collections, from gardeners to hedge fund managers and rock stars.

It is Fennell’s passion and painstaking perfectionism that have driven him to produce his distinctive pieces. He says: “I can be irritating and anal to work with, I want things to be just so, burnished and finished to perfection. It is true craftsmanship.”

His passion for the job has not wavered either. “I still get a huge buzz from the catalogue when it arrives and each new idea and piece as it’s made,” he says. Fennell’s days are often spent looking at stones, sketching designs and going through prototypes. “It’s amazing, it starts with a scribble and ends up in the store,” he explains.

The retailer remains unaffected by the sales slumps experienced by some of its mass-market counterparts. At the end of last month, jewellery giant Signet – which does two-thirds of its business in the US – issued a profit warning and its shares tumbled. In the six months to September 30, sales at Theo Fennell soared 20 per cent to£12 million. Fennell says: “We’re at the top end of the market, we haven’t felt the consumer crunch yet.”

He says the mass market has become oversaturated. Consumers, he says, are now looking for something that is different and original. “I only do what I do best by keeping the integrity of design. Some brands have lost their way and it’s all about the money,” he says.

Even the luxury sector is in danger of shooting itself in the foot, Fennell says. He believes jewellers that prune themselves down to money making machines loose some of the essence of who they are. This mystique is essential for long-term success, Fennell thinks.

The business may be ready to enter a new stage, but Fennell is determined that its identity will not be lost in the process.

Creative process
Age 56
Lives houses in London and near Newbury
Family married with two daughters
Interests cricket, golf, guitar, reading and musical theatre
Did you know? He was born in Egypt

CAREER HISTORY
Present creative director, Theo Fennell
1996 Theo Fennell listed on AIM
1982 opened first Theo Fennell shop on Fulham Road
1976 opened studio, made first diamond skull, a piece that is now synonymous with the brand

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