Glittering career: Theo Fennell
Not long ago, Theo Fennell would walk past his flagship jewellery store in Chelsea feeling like an outsider. Friction between him and his new investors had boiled over – he describes them as ‘the suits’ who had a very different vision from his own for the brand. He walked out.
‘I needed the investment but ended up with very little say in what became vulgarisation of the brand,’ recalls the Old Etonian at his studio in Chelsea Barracks in Central London. ‘We were being led by people with no clue or creativity, expanding too fast and it took a battering.
‘Yet, even though I’d left, I was still being contacted by people that were used to dealing with me; because ultimately it was my name above the door,’ he says.
For Fennell, after 40 years in the business it always comes back to the namesake brand famed for its showy but intricate rings and necklaces.
More recently, he bought his company back from Leeds-based private equity group Endless, turnaround specialists who had saved it from administration in 2017. Their ‘sensitive’ approach, he says, was a welcome reprieve from his former business partners.
Turning 70, recovered from illness – and, he concedes, driven by vanity – he cares deeply about the brand’s reputation and now wants to do things his way. With full control for the first time since the late 1970s, and with the iconic Chelsea store sadly closed in the restructuring, he’s marshalling renewed laser-focus attention on the original, handmade bespoke jewellery pieces for which the brand is best known. Back in the driving seat, he says the newly scaled-back business has thrived since the pandemic and reports he is ‘happy’ with performance, though he won’t elaborate on turnover which over the years has ranged as high as £35million.
A whirl of energy over Zoom, vaping or ruffling a full head of hair, Egyptian-born Fennell found lockdown a period of renewal.
He shared design sketches from his home in Berkshire with international clients through online video meetings, those ones that we now all take so much for granted, and saw a boom in requests for existing jewels to be remodelled into new pieces.
‘People had more time to reconsider what they were buying, whether an artisan cheese or diamond ring: the idea of how much work and the emotion has gone into its making, plus the issue of sustainability, became more important,’ he says. ‘It’s the reason in the last few years we’ve seen many of the big luxury brands scrambling around trying to assert their craft and design credentials – [in the hope that] we all assume they have a few brilliant craftspeople in the background making these items.’
Hitting the right note: Elton John wearing the Rocketman brooch at the Oscars
In the first decade of the noughties, his business had 16 international outlets spanning the US, Japan and the Middle East plus 20 concessions in the UK which included producing silver-plated key rings for Debenhams. He is now resolute that mass production and true luxury are not compatible. Quality suffers whenever there is a tendency for marketing to override artistry, he suggests.
Citing Richemont, the Swiss owner of Cartier, he takes a swipe at an ‘easily fooled public buying into a lot of advertising’. In contrast, he says his own clients are more discerning – ‘buying jewellery like they would buy art as opposed to a handbag or frock’.
His jewellery is renowned for its quirky detail, from the Che Guevara decorated cufflinks to the ‘secret’ rings which open to reveal a miniature Stonehenge or an enamelled eyeball.
But, he insists, his work isn’t necessarily for the ‘incredibly’ rich – even though, with prices starting at around £3,000 and rising to £500,000, it’s a clientele unlikely to be troubled by the cost-of-living crisis. US, Saudi Arabian, Middle and Far Eastern customers who flocked to his standalone shops in Harrods and Selfridges from the mid1980s have migrated online and can monitor the progress of commissions over Zoom – a process, he says which has increased the brand’s global following.
‘We’ve always seemed to appeal to those wanting something different, with the confidence to wear something without feeling it has to have the stamp of approval from arbiters who say what’s in fashion – very much an original, independent spirit,’ says Fennell. ‘From the word go, we’ve always had an exceptionally large percentage of women buying for themselves, which was unusual in the 1970s and 80s. There was still this idea that a woman was only given jewellery as a gift in the same way people thought it was odd if a woman paid for dinner.’
Fennell, whose actress daughter Emerald played Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, has always been a naturally gregarious figurehead for the brand, drumming up trade in the early days mingling with the It crowd at Mayfair parties.
Yet he tends to play down his own contribution, stressing the team effort. It’s something that attracted him to the trade in the first place he says, heaping praise on the craftsmen and their ‘unbelievable patience and tenacity dealing with a fraction of a millimetre’ of material.
It’s an appreciation instilled during his training at a Hatton Garden silversmith in his early 20s.
His grassroots background is perhaps also why he is a huge advocate of apprenticeships and why he believes the trade is in good shape with renewed interest in craftsmanship and quality training. But he wants to see Government do more to support new talent.
‘It’s ridiculous the private sector has to raise money for talented people to train or risk losing them from the trade. I’ve seen 16-year-olds with little interest in anything go through an apprenticeship and the change to their self-confidence and outlook is extraordinary, all because they’ve been able to make something and start a career; they get an unbelievable buzz.’
He still does too. Hazy on the financials and dismissive of the brand’s 2006 listing on the junior stock market AIM as ‘a regulatory hassle’, it’s no surprise when he admits to ‘never really liking business’.
The creative side, however, is a different matter, especially now it’s all on his own terms.
‘I get as much joy from seeing the latest piece finished as I did 40 years ago,’ he says.
‘When seeing Elton John wear my brooch at the  Oscars – one can’t be so bored with life that that sort of thing doesn’t still give you a buzz.’