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Soapbox & Opinions

We’re heading back to the bench

We have just returned from our buying group conference where bespoke manufacturing was one of the main subjects of discussion. Given general retail is slipping, most agree that bespoke is a major area of growth.

The industry has changed dramatically since I started back in the 1980s as a silversmithing apprentice; much Australian manufacturing has gone and cheap and nasty imports have replaced it. Many retailers have also gone for reasons that are varied but high on the list are imports, online and an ageing of the industry.

One of the big changes from a retail perspective is branded jewellery. Many jewellers at the conference stated they have seen declines in their branded jewellery sales and I think there will be a noticeable fall in branded sales in the future, which will be replaced by bespoke options.

The other recent shift in the branded jewellery sphere is suppliers retailing online against their own retail customers.
Brands in our industry have come on thick and fast and retailers who have scrambled to grab these brands are disappointed with how suppliers are treating them. My opinion is that many of the promises suppliers make do not match the reality that retailers are experiencing.

We never really rushed into this style of retail and we’re glad we didn’t as the brands we chose have all failed. Many retailers are considering ditching brands altogether, including watches for the same reason. Margins are low and most of us have boxes of stock we can’t sell.

"The old way of buying product to suit our customer bases is much better than having to buy entire ranges and keep on buying new season designs as if it’s fashion clothing."

The old way of buying product to suit our customer bases is much better than having to buy entire ranges and keep on buying new season designs as if it’s fashion clothing. Most of these brands are not brands at all; they are simply ranges without brand recognition. Yes, we all know the performance of one or two brands has been good but we are endlessly bombarded with the next big thing only for it to fizzle out, leaving us holding the bag.

The fact is that jewellery sales haven’t changed that much, meaning that brands haven’t helped to increase discretional spending on jewellery despite the vast number of products available. Brands have decreased the margins and increased stock holding though.

This all leads me to our decision to focus on bespoke jewellery. We are a more traditional jeweller with two on the bench. Our bench has a three-month minimum wait for handmakes and it’s only getting longer as we can’t keep up with the work!

One of our challenges is finding suitable jewellers; it’s very difficult and apprenticeships are very expensive these days.

There’s also been a reduction in schools offering the trade. This is a major problem as we can’t grow our business in the area receiving all the attention. Consequently, we are looking at other ways to produce the goods. CAD/CAM is readily available through most casting houses and it’s an excellent avenue for retailers that do not have a jeweller on the premises. These businesses usually have finishing services too so there’s not even a need for a workshop on site.

Retailers must jump on this increasing trend before it’s too late. I fear many won’t be here in five years – not just in our industry but in retail in general – and the successful bricks-and-mortar businesses will be those that can offer product and services that you can’t buy online.

I’ve seen many changes since I joined retail and the speed of these changes makes planning very difficult. We have come away from the conference with more confidence that we are on the right track and we will be making many changes to our business. Obviously getting rid of under-performing brands is the first thing then concentrating on what is working to ensure we are making a profit and expanding is the next. We’re going to focus on branding ourselves and explaining our point of difference instead of marketing poor-performing brands.

Our industry is a pale shadow of what it was but we should not dwell. We must look to the future and assess how to be relevant and competitive in the market we have.

On that note, if any bench jewellers want to move to Tassie please get in touch. I’ll be looking for a new apprentice too so if someone is dedicated and wants to get into the trade then you know where to find us.

We just can’t keep up with all the work!

Bespoke manufacturing is the way of the future not the past.

Name: Tim Haab
Business: Haab Designer Jewellers
Position: Co-owner
Location: Launceston, Tasmania
Years in the industry: 33

Independent Jewellers Collective (IJC)

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