It was 1840 – the year Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, the world’s first postage stamp was issued and the Chimney Sweep Act was approved.
At the same time, James Laing set up a watch and clock-making design and repair business in a small shop up a stair in Glasgow, with the backing of the Duke of Hamilton.
The firm made watches for the Admiralty in the late 1800s before going wholesale and evolving into the exclusive design and retail outfit it is today.
Laing the Jeweller has spent generations helping people celebrate personal landmarks, and now the Edinburgh-based firm is preparing to mark its own special milestone – 175 years of business.
Speaking at the flagship store in Frederick Street, James’ great-great-great grandson Michael Laing OBE, the firm’s chairman and chief executive, said: “It makes you stop and think about the history and the connection with the past. It’s something that makes you very different as a retailer.”
He said it gives staff a “real kick” to see how much thought goes in to choosing the “perfect” gift, adding: “The great thing is people come to jewellers because of lovely moments in their lives. An engagement ring, a second ring, 21st and 18th presents, buying a gift of love.”
Being Scotland’s oldest family jeweller and clocking up nearly two centuries of business has not been without its challenges.
The social and retail landscape is constantly changing, and Laing, which moved to Edinburgh in 1978, tries to keep ahead of the curve.
The firm employs fluent Mandarin speakers to cater for the large number of customers from the Far East who come in during visits to the Capital, while the online market is given as much attention as the in-store personal touch.
With such an opulent range of items in its main Frederick Street store and the watch gallery a few doors down, Laing has also been a target for robberies.
Just a fortnight ago, the main store was raided by a lone armed robber, who made off with around a dozen Rolex watches.
A man has since been charged and the team at Laing has been overwhelmed by support in the wake of the incident.
“We’ve had over 1000 e-mails, letters, phone calls. The Dome bar asked us to come round with our team to have a drink on the house, just to get together as a team. It was as if some people felt the pain and shock,” said Mr Laing, whose son Richard is a director in the business.
“I spoke to the team afterwards and said this is unprecedented in my business experience.”
Despite the traumatic experience, Mr Laing remains confident in the store’s security measures and the police.
“As technology develops, we develop,” he said. “It’s terribly discreet because we don’t want to impact on the retail experience. We train a bit like airline pilots, always expecting a crash, just so people react correctly.
“In the three [armed robberies on city jewellers] in the last 24 months, there have been arrests in every case. We look like soft targets, but actually the security is unseen.”
Mr Laing hopes that his ancestors James Laing and his brother William would be proud of how the business has developed. The firm now employs 70 people, spanning its two stores on Frederick Street and units in Hampshire and Cardiff.
“One thing was absolutely clear – they adapted to the times,” he said. “In the 1930s we went retail and wholesale, and now we’re retailers and manufacturers. I think they would say, ‘that’s great, that little thing we started, up a stair in Glasgow, that became the business it is today’.”
Design is something the jeweller takes great pride in – with 102 unique pieces of jewellery having been created in-house within the last year, and the store is the exclusive Capital stockist of jewel and watch brands including Cartier and Breitling.
For the 175th anniversary, Mr Laing revealed the team was making an “exceptional piece”, but any further details are being kept strictly under wraps until later this year.
He said: “It will be a historical piece but a very today design. It’s going to be a fabulous six-figure piece.”
Mr Laing, a designer by trade, designed the baton for the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986 and was among the baton bearers in the Capital during the Glasgow 2014 relay.
He said the experience was among his career highlights, which also include designing an iconic necklace for Sir Jackie Stewart’s wife Helen to mark the racing star’s retirement.
The former chairman of the Scottish Assay Office was also the brains behind the Silver of the Stars charity collection, a celebration of Scottish silversmithing which has since been exhibited around the world.
And in 2000, a charity concert he organised with Jose Carreras at the Usher Hall in aid of Leukaemia Research raised half a million pounds.
Despite many professional and personal achievements, the team is certainly not resting on its laurels – and Mr Laing admits that the 200th anniversary is “already in the mind’s eye”.
His grandchildren are very young – his first grandson was only born earlier this month – so only time will tell whether anyone from the seventh generation will take an interest in the business.
Mr Laing says that constant advances in technology make the idea of reaching the 200-year mark even more exciting.
He added: “What’s really exciting is having this paradox between being very long established and being very young thinkers. There’s no hint of complacency. We know that the only reason we’ve survived for 175 years is because we’ve adapted.”