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Issue 1 - Inch by Inch

Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002


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Inch by Inch

Tradition plays a key part in one of Edinburgh's finest jewellers, but it hasn't stopped Hamilton and Inches moving from strenth to strength. Kate Patrick goes shopping

In the year Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, Degas first painted ballet scenes and the Civil Rights Act was passed by US Congress, James Hamilton and his nephew Robert Kirk Inches formed a partnership in Edinburgh to create and sell jewellery and fine silver. It was 1866, and Victorian Edinburgh prospered. The architecturally exquisite New Town, started 100 years earlier, was nearing completion, and where industrialisation and shipbuilding were making Glaswegians wealthy, Edinburgh was the stately home for banks and insurance companies. What better time to capitalise on the new wealth by dangling silver and precious stones before their eyes?

Hamilton had, for 20 years, been principal assistant at an old-fashioned firm of goldsmiths and jewellers in Princes Street, and 26-year-old Inches had served his apprenticeship as a jeweller and watchmaker in Edinburgh and London. The pair set up shop in Princes Street, and in 1952 the company moved into the stylish premises it still occupies at 87 George Street. Number 87 had been built in 1835 by David Bryce for the jeweller J&G Hunter Marshall, so the ground floor was designed to provide a sumptuous and well-lit backdrop to the merchandise.

But as well as this ostentatious interior, what set Hamilton & Inches apart then, and continues to do so, is the way the founders’ heirs used the building’s upper floors. Instead of renting rooms to bachelor businessmen, they incorporated their own silver workshops. Different sections were designated for the silversmith, who crafted the piece, the chaser, who carved the design, and the polisher who brought it to life. It was a matter of pride for Hamilton and Inches to espouse the Scottish tradition of silver craftsmanship – a value which has persisted to the present day.

To jewellery, silver and watches today must also be added ornaments, leather, gifts and other luxurious items which have helped redefine H&I as a purveyor of luxury goods as well as a jeweller and silversmith. The past 10 years have witnessed a rapid succession of changes in the business: not just in terms of the merchandise, but also in ownership. In 1992, the established London company Asprey bought H&I from Deirdre Inches-Carr and her husband Malcolm, and it finally passed out of family hands. A new Managing Director was installed, Julia Ogilvy, who had run PR and Marketing at Asprey’s sister business, Garrard the Crown Jeweller. The business was remoulded in the Asprey-Garrard image – with the added attraction of its Scottish heritage. Six years later, the opportunity arose to buy the company, and Ogilvy and her co-directors organised a management buy-out that effectively put H&I back into Scottish hands.

But it wasn’t enough just to own a potentially exciting but slightly tired Scottish brand: now was the moment to energise it, inject new ideas, style and perspective, and to give the sophisticated luxury customer of the late 1990s – and not just Scottish residents – what they wanted in terms of originality, craftsmanship, quality, variety, attention to detail and service. And then, of course, to spread the word in all the right quarters.

The task ahead was helped by the fact that each new director had a specific area of expertise – one in watches and clocks, one jewellery, one silver – and Ogilvy herself had great flair for organisation, networking and generating skilful publicity. A series of high-profile alliances followed: aristocratic Scottish model Honor Fraser featured in an advertising campaign photographed by world-famous fashion photographer John Swannell. Hugely popular Zimbabwean silversmith Patrick Mavros is invited to exhibit humorous animal pieces and exquisitely carved ornaments inspired by his African homeland every year. Smythson and Montblanc are both represented. And when Tiffany flirted with franchising silver and jewellery to non-Tiffany stores worldwide, H&I provided the obvious home in Scotland – with considerable success.

The Royal blue-and-gold shop front and packaging were replaced by purple, and swathes of Hamilton Check fabric were rewoven in mauve and green for decorative purposes – traditionally Scottish ‘heather’ colours, but bleached enough not to shriek ‘tartan glens’ at the younger customers. French designer Nathalie Hambro, based in London, followed with a racy collection of chain mail and silver jewellery, and last year the London designer Stephen Webster, riding the crest of a celebrity wave having just created the wedding rings for Madonna and Guy Ritchie – designed his first collection for them. H&I also acquired the London jeweller Annabel Jones, which gave it a Knightsbridge outpost and a whole new set of opportunities for introducing Scottish pieces to London and a very popular set of informal jewellery using semi-precious stones and crystals back to Edinburgh.

All of this activity, naturally, generated many column inches of publicity. But Ogilvy is not so foolish as to believe publicity translates automatically into sales. In Scotland you really have to prove yourself. “You have to focus on who the customers are, who you would like to have as customers, and how to give them what they want,” she explains.

Extensive workshops in the upper floors also give the business a huge advantage with bespoke commissions. Having something tailor-made for yourself or your organisation is a major growth area, and H&I is well equipped to meet demand. Commissions include the Scottish Open trophy, the World Rugby Sevens Gold Trophy, the collection at Bute House (a government building) and a replica of the Wallace Sword seen in the film Braveheart, presented to Mel Gibson. They also hold the Royal Warrant as silversmiths and clock specialists to Her Majesty the Queen.

It’s a fine line, modernising a business and broadening its appeal without losing either the loyal (some for several generations) customers, the seriously expensive and beautiful investment pieces, or the cachet that originally put the business on the map. It means democratising luxury without devaluing the concept or your association with it. The answer may lie in consistency. If a business succeeds in providing the same level of design, good advice, craftsmanship, value and service, regardless of whether the customer spent £30,000 or £45, customers can walk out feeling good about themselves and their purchases – and come back for more. That way, like dynamite and Degas – Hamilton & Inches will still be with us in another 100 years.