The Big Interview: Hamilton & Inches CEO Victoria Houghton

Craftsmanship is as precious to Hamilton & Inches chief Victoria Houghton as the jeweller’s global profile.

Saturday, 5th October 2019, 11:47 am
Victoria Houghton wants to make the George Street premises a better showcase for the talents behind Hamilton & Inches' exquisite products. Photograph: Gerardo Jaconelli

Hamilton & Inches, a fixture in the Scottish capital since 1866, last week enjoyed a historic first with the launch of its latest jewellery collection: 30 designs made from the first commercial gold mine in Scotland. A Mary Queen of Scots-inspired ring, earrings influenced by a Highland waterfall and a Holyrood Palace cuff that pays tribute to the jeweller’s Victorian roots are among the heritage-themed designs.

The jeweller and silversmith shares exclusive rights to Highland mine with Orkney jeweller Sheila Fleet. Like creating a delicate piece of ornate jewellery, new chief executive Victoria Houghton must craft a fine balance between upholding traditional values and modernising the iconic retailer’s offering. “We are the only fine jeweller in Scotland with rights to the gold,” says Houghton. “We’ve created a beautiful bespoke collection – it’s a very limited resource and I think that’s the main message. It will really set us apart from our competition.”

The single origin precious metal, sourced from the Cononish mine, near Tyndrum, which is owned by AIM-listed miner Scotgold Resources, is expected to produce 29,000 ounces of gold annually for a projected eight years.

'Until you go and see our workshops with your own eyes you cant quite believe it', says Houghton. Photograph: Gerardo Jaconelli

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More than six months ahead of the last week’s reveal, the collection was already receiving global interest. “We launched in-store on Sunday and within 37 minutes we’d sold our first piece,” says Houghton. In the run-up to Christmas Hamilton & Inches is offering an exclusive chance for clients to design commissions from the Scottish gold, due to be mined in the spring once the site becomes fully operational.

'Custodian of the brand'

Houghton, who joined the Hamilton & Inches board as a non-executive director in June last year, took up the mantle of chief executive in April, becoming the first woman to hold the role. She is spearheading the modernisation of the iconic jeweller with a key focus on executing an ambitious strategy to more than double turnover, which stood at £8.7 million in 2018, to £20m over the next five years. She replaces Stephen Paterson, who parted ways after 40 years with the company.

Houghton recognises and cherishes the legacy she has inherited, a history that is reflected in the design choices for the jeweller’s latest collection. “Preserving the rich heritage is very important – it’s what makes us special,” she says. “We’re custodians of the brand. It’s been around 153 years – we’re just a speck of that history. I have an obligation to preserve the heritage but we have a huge opportunity to bring it into the contemporary world.”

The jeweller started life on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, established by Robert Kirk Inches and his uncle, James Hamilton, in 1866. It remained a family firm until 1992, when it was bought by Bond Street jeweller Asprey, with a management buyout led by then-managing director Julia Ogilvy taking place in 1998. Houghton’s appointment marks a new era in what she calls the “evolution” of the business, with Paterson’s departure marking a separation from the final director present during the MBO.

The art of craft

Nestled in the bustle of Edinburgh’s George Street, the jeweller’s Victorian base inconspicuously houses a warren of workshops along with its customer-facing showroom, home to more than a dozen craftsmen. The in-house team hand-crafts its own silverware and jewellery, as well as carrying out engravings, valuations and repairs.

The Edinburgh jeweller is renowned for its 1988 restoration of the Calcutta Cup. The silverware, awarded to the winner of Scotland vs England during the annual Six Nations rugby tournament, was in need of repair after it was knocked out of shape by players during post-match dinner revelries.

Preservation of this in-house operation is important to Houghton, who views it as one of the business’s unique selling points. She hails the fact that the business has managed to maintain its own production while operating a commercially viable business as a “great achievement”.

“I feel that’s a sustainable model, it’s great that we’re employing local talent and managing to sell products in the same building. Occasionally we’ve had craftsmen on the shopfloor on their bench especially during the Edinburgh Festival. We’ve had quite a lot of in-store events and we plan to grow that going forward, where we’ll have an engraver, a chaser, a watchmaker,” she says.

Houghton’s CV glitters with experience at a number of retail stalwarts, including high-profile roles at Next, where she initiated negotiations to take on the country-wide franchise for the retailer in Romania and established four profitable stores in Bucharest, a franchise she still owns. With more than 20 years in buying and retail, she has held positions with River Island and previously led business transformation and change management projects for luxury fashion house Burberry.

Her time at Next also saw her spend three years in Bangkok, Thailand, as a product developer – an experience she credits with igniting her passion for precious stones and metals, particularly silver. Upon returning to the UK she completed an A grade certificate in gemology, adding to her honours degree in cultural and historical art.

'A turning point'

She was approached by Hamilton & Inches chairman Peter Lederer after the board identified her creative, buying and strategic management experience. Houghton, whose mother is from Edinburgh, now splits her time between the Scottish and English capitals. “My family are Scottish so I’ve been coming to Scotland all my life. I know the brand and the destination of Hamilton & Inches. I think it’s a fabulous time to be involved in a brand at such a turning point – it’s prime time to move into the next phase.

“It’s a traditional business and it’s built on trust, on our extensive knowledge, but you do have to be relevant and current and approachable. That’s what the market desires now. People are going away from exclusive to more accessible luxury, so we need to be more inclusive.”

This sentiment is the driving force behind a major refurbishment of the facade at its George Street showroom, where the business has been based since 1952. It has secured planning permission for works at the storefront as well as inside the showroom, with the aim of making the shopfront more accessible and encouraging footfall while creating a more experiential customer experience. The renovations will contemporise the setting while retaining historical features and returning the building to something closer to its original design, with a glass-fronted, open facade. Work is due to start in the New Year.

“I’m very conscious that this is the most beautiful showroom and its Grade I listed, so we will retain all of this beauty and heritage but also make it more accessible and more contemporary,” says Houghton.

The Royal Warrant holder is conscious of not “alienating” existing customers, but rather appealing to another demographic through the established heritage of its brand. This includes investing in a new website, scheduled for launch in the spring, to create a more mobile-friendly experience and boost digital sales. “Your website nowadays is your window to the world. Someone in China or New York is looking at your website. It needs to be slick, impressive. And the same with social media. It’s just part and parcel now. It’s a known fact that people start their customer journey online.”

Loyalty

Engaging more closely with the bridal market is a further priority for Houghton, who highlights the element of customer loyalty that tends to come with fine jewellery. Providing a rewarding retail experience during the first purchase will typically encourage customers to return.

“There are almost 30,000 weddings in Scotland alone every year. Along with that, if you tap into a couple happily getting engaged it tends to lead on to a watch purchase of a 30th, 40th birthday present.” The jeweller recently added new bridal and silver collections, along with its own watch collection which hit the store last year, and enhanced its leadership team in August with the addition of Jonathan Payne as managing director. Payne’s background in luxury retail management includes senior roles at Glasgow jeweller Laings and Watches of Switzerland Group.

The business has held a Royal Warrant for more than 120 years as clockmaker and silversmith, with the Queen visiting the showroom in 2016 to celebrate the company’s 150th anniversary. It also counts the Balmoral Hotel clock, which – with the exception of Hogmanay – runs three minutes fast to encourage railway travellers to be punctual, as once of its most prominent creations. Its high-end bespoke commissions are a point of pride, and represent a growing market. As Houghton says: “People nowadays want special, unique, bespoke. We’re so used to factory made – until you go and see our workshops with your own eyes you can’t quite believe it.”

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