Jersey and the other Channel Islands are the only part of the British Isles to have been occupied during World War II. It was a traumatic period for the administrative capital of St Helier, but through it all the main jeweller, Hettich, remained open. In the aftermath of the war, Jersey’s farmers went back to their fields, but St Helier was looking for a new role, which came in the form of financial services firms that flocked to the island in the 1960s thanks to the Crown Dependency’s favourable tax environment. Few retail businesses will have lived through such lows and highs, which makes for a fascinating story as Rob Corder discovered in conversation with Hettich owner Jeff Chinn.
WatchPro: How long has Hettich Jewellers been open in Jersey? Tell me a bit about your history.
Jeff Chinn: My Great Grandfather, Edwin Wyndham Hettich, who was born in Cardiff in 1879, came to Jersey as a young 21-year old man in 1900. He was sent here by his father Julius Hettich who heard of an opportunity in Jersey and bought 1 King Street, where Hettich remains to this day. At that time, the business, J. Hettich & Sons, traded as jewellers, opticians and later radio repairers.
Edwin married Ethel Francis Saunders, one of the girls who worked in the shop. During that time they lived above the shop and had two daughters, both of whom were born in this very room. The second daughter, Freida, was my Grandmother; the oldest daughter Agnes was my Great Aunt. Agnes was the more serious business-minded of the two, and she carried on working in the jewellers until she retired in her 60s.
My Grandmother married James Chinn, which is where my surname comes from. They had 3 children, the middle one being my Father, Tony Chinn.
My Great Aunt taught my Father the business when he joined the company in the 1950s. He became a qualified gemmologist with a keen interest in jewellery; the business was much more about jewellery than watches at that time, even though we were also watchmakers, silversmiths and opticians.
When my Father started working in the 1950s, Jersey was a quiet place. The island had been occupied for five years by the Germans during the Second World War. It was a tough time for all, including the German soldiers. They knew that the war was lost. There was a food shortage and Red Cross food parcels started arriving for the locals ahead of the liberation by the allies on May 9, 1945, a day that is still the Liberation Day holiday.
The business stayed open throughout The Occupation; although very little business was actually done. My Great Grandfather spoke German and this proved useful during The Occupation. He knew the German officers quite well. A story goes that a German soldier stole something from the shop. My Great Grandfather knew the Commandant and told him about the theft. The Commandant said he would have the soldier shot, but thankfully that didn’t happen!
Things didn’t really change in Jersey until the early 1960s. Because Jersey is a self-governing Crown Dependency and is able to set its own tax rates, financial services, banks, lawyers and accountants were set up on the island which in turn attracted wealthy people and business from the UK and other parts of world. This improved the island’s prosperity immensely.
Our success dovetails with that period. As Jersey prospered, we at Hettich prospered too. We moved with the market and the demand that was shifting around us. In those days the shop was an old fashioned place with wooden shutters, tons of merchandise in the windows. My Father changed that in 1966, in conjunction with a designer from Omega. A lot of the original panelling was retained, but we had a new interior with a modern, angular Bauhaus look. It was very cool.
I came into the business in 1982. I had a similar path into the business as my Father. I trained in London for my FGA qualification. I worked in the West End with Asprey’s and Sotheby’s writing jewellery catalogues and had exposure to all manner of fantastic jewellery.
WatchPro: Your training was entirely jewellery, not watches?
Jeff Chinn: Yes, only jewellery then. I spent a year at the bench making jewellery and studying the FGA in the early 1980s. I came back to Jersey and started working full time here in 1984. Jersey was buoyant then because financial services had overtaken tourism as the main industry on the island.
One of the challenges we have, not being in financial services, is recruiting people. The financial services industry is far more profitable than the retail trade. It has always been very difficult to attract staff. Being an island, we have a limited supply of labour.
WatchPro: So as the financial services industry boomed, it became more difficult for businesses like yours? I would have thought it would be the other way around.
Jeff Chinn: In the 1980s, as the financial services boomed, we of course prospered as well. The difficulties we encountered then, as we do now, were in relation to recruitment of suitable staff.
WatchPro: I would hope that, having survived The Occupation during the war, Hettich would have found a way to adapt to these new market conditions.
Jeff Chinn: The replacement of tourism with financial services as the main industry meant that we have a pretty prosperous pool of indigenous islanders, and that became our new customer base.
WatchPro: The population of Jersey today is around 100,000 people. Did the people who came here in the 1980s displace families that have been here a lot longer?
Jeff Chinn: The people who came here to find a more benign tax regime started arriving in the 1960s, so those families have been here for three generations now. Jersey is their home and they love it here. We know so many of these families and have sold them engagement rings and wedding rings as the generations have passed. The older Jersey families are still here and Jersey can boast a beautifully varied population of people from all backgrounds.
WatchPro: What is it like growing up here?
Jeff Chinn: Growing up here was wonderful. Jersey is a beautiful place; it is clean, safe and is a wonderful environment for children to grow up in.
WatchPro: Is St Helier around half the population of Jersey?
Jeff Chinn: No. St Helier has a population of around 40,000 people, but that doesn’t really help our employment situation.
Sourcing staff is very difficult for all employers in Jersey. We cannot just employ somebody unless they already live here and are part of the population and licensed to work here. It is not easy getting new licenses. For example, we were trying to employ an excellent person recently, we thought that we had sufficient licenses for the business to employ three people, but the rules had changed, our licenses had lapsed and we could not renew them automatically. I had to appeal, then present to a panel of civil servants and politicians. I made the case that we are running a premier league business and we need premier league people to look after our customers. Eventually they understood, and we got the license, but it was only granted for the individual person I was trying to employ.
WatchPro: Stop me if this is indelicate, but I would have thought that running a business here for over a century would help you navigate or even circumnavigate that sort of bureaucracy. Do you not have friends in high places that can help?
Jeff Chinn: We know many people here, but that doesn’t really help; we can’t bend the rules. We understand why the rules are in place and we accept them because this is a small island with finite resources. However, our government does need to be sensitive to the needs of businesses.
The retail sector employs 9000 people in Jersey, so it is a big contributor to the economy. We collect taxes for the local government. We also provide vibrancy to the town, so helping it to be a good place to live, work and visit. The government should appreciate that, and understand our needs better.
WatchPro: How does Hettich Jewellers fit into the Jersey economy today?
Jeff Chinn: When I came into the business in the early 1980s there were about 125 jewellers in St Helier, so I do know about competition! Our approach was always of being conservative with high quality and integrity; when we say it, we really mean it.
In those days Ratner came on the scene, he was a retail star, who blazed onto the local scene making everything more affordable. He took over a chain of shops called Time Jersey; and made everything Ratner style. We had a few common product lines in those days and found ourselves unable to compete due to his much greater buying power. We might have gone to a supplier asking for a discount on three or four items, but Ratner would blow in and buy 500 and get a much better price.
I realised we had to change because we were providing a much higher level of service than the others, but the same products. We needed to start selling more valuable jewellery and watches in order to justify and pay for the quality of service we were offering.
WatchPro: What were you selling at that time?
Jeff Chinn: It was jewellery and watches, a few clocks, a bit of silver. We were a classic market town type jeweller. Over time, I could see what was worth selling and what was not worth selling in a shop like ours. In fact this was a key moment for us. The decision to focus on high value goods was taken around this time. It became very clear to me at this time that the only direction for us was to concentrate on better quality, high value merchandise that justified the level and quality of service that we had always provided.
WatchPro: That shift upmarket is a very current story for many jewellers today.
Jeff Chinn: Yes it is. We have our niche with the brands that we supply and we feel ready for the way the watch market is changing.
WatchPro: The internet is doing to watches what Ratner did to jewellery.
Jeff Chinn: I suppose so. We had withdrawn far enough away from those things that it was not an issue to us. The choices we made in terms of the quality of our service, coupled with the difficulty of expanding and finding new people, have shaped our business to what it is today. It is another reason why you will frequently find me in the shop. We are old school; we can’t change the habits of a lifetime.
WatchPro: How long have you been working with Rolex?
Jeff Chinn: It must be since the early 1900s. My Father tells a story that Hans Wilsdorf came here and dealt with my Great Aunt, which is fantastic. Rolex is a wonderful company. Ten or 15 years ago, I was invited with others to visit the three Rolex factories in Geneva. It was sensational. We walked round and wondered why anybody else would go into making luxury watches when they would be competing with what Rolex had already achieved. The investment the company made then was magnificent and the success they enjoy has not happened by accident.
We have been an official Rolex retailer for generations and have always serviced them too. However, I am very pleased to tell you that we have recently been appointed the first Authorised Rolex Service Centre in the entire United Kingdom network. We have achieved this through the talent of our Watchmaker and the investment we have made in our workshop. We are justifiably proud to have achieved this status.
Due to the difficulties of returning products to the UK for maintenance, we have always maintained our own workshop and, not only are we an authorised Rolex Service Centre, we are the only Level 2 Patek Philippe Service Centre outside of the Patek Philippe own stores.
WatchPro: It never fails to amaze me how many different types of customers are prepared to find the money to invest in these watches. They might be farmers, hoteliers, accountants from Aberdeen or Newquay; so many people from such different backgrounds want these prestige watches.
Jeff Chinn: It is incredible. We sell Rolex very well, and we sell them very well to local people. The thing about Rolex is that it is an aspirational brand, and it always has been. Rolex has maintained this position as the most aspirational watch forever. Patek Philippe has maintained a similar status as well, but with a different argument. If you put the two side-by-side, they represent something very special for customers. They have also become an asset class. We never sell watches as an investment, but they consistently hold their value or go up in value overtime.
WatchPro: Rolex and Patek are the only brands that could safely be considered an asset class in that way, but I wonder if other brands might start to behave that way as the internet provides so much information and so makes it so much easier to buy and sell.
Jeff Chinn: It is very interesting because history doesn’t lie. Look back at auction results over time and you will see that Rolex and Patek Philippe have been the top brands for decades. That gives customers great confidence.
WatchPro: I write constantly about how strong prices for the second hand watch market stimulates demand for new watches.
Jeff Chinn: When I came into the business it was not like this. When I was at school there was a three day week, they turned the power off at night, there was an oil crisis. Now we have this great stability, most likely because of such a long period of low interest rates. I had a young customer in the other day who said that if he was going to invest in any watch, it would only be a Rolex. We never used to hear the word ‘invest’ in our shop.
WatchPro: How has your business moved with the times in terms of the balance between sales and profits from jewellery and watches?
Jeff Chinn: The market overall has grown as the world has become wealthier, but we have seen a shift from jewellery into watches. I suspect that many businesses like ours will tell a similar story.
This isn’t just about Rolex and Patek Philippe, we take great care of all the watch brands we work with. The relationships with the brands matters, and the expertise that we bring to customers when talking about each brand is very important. For example, we’ve had Omega for at least 60 years, Cartier at least 30 years and so on. We like a long-term relationship with our brands.
WatchPro: I was chatting to Charlie Pragnell recently and he was speaking about the importance of acquiring highly prestigious stock, particularly on the jewellery side. Is that something you focus on as well so that you have rare and important pieces to offer to your customers?
Jeff Chinn: Charlie and his father are very talented and they have a fabulous business. They are serious jewellers and they pay a lot of attention to it. They have a big enough empire to invest heavily in it.
Jewellery, I believe, is undersold and has not reached its potential. Watches are on the crest of a wave right now, but who is to say that jewellery can’t do the same thing? The jewellery market is a fascinating challenge because it is about your skill as a buyer, as a maker, as a designer, and your ability to present something that is right for each customer.
WatchPro: I guess there must be more of you as an owner, and Hettich as a jeweller, in each transaction for jewellery.
Jeff Chinn: Exactly. The jewellery is about us and our flair and expertise. It is quite different to working with the watch companies where we follow their guidelines.
WatchPro: They produce great products and do the brand building and marketing on your behalf, and you accept a lower margin in return because much of the work has been done for you?
Jeff Chinn: Absolutely, and I am the greatest fan of that way of working and with every partnership that we enjoy. The global demand for the famous watch brands grows and grows and we are happy to be part of that process. We take the view that these brands are also more important than we are and we always work to maximise our mutual rewards.
Having said that the Hettich brand is strong and much of the more important jewellery that we sell is of our own creation and manufacture.
WatchPro: In today’s market, Hettich is not large, and the direction of travel is for stores to get bigger while at the same time stocking fewer brands. Do you not come under pressure from the likes of Patek Philippe and Rolex to give them more space?
Jeff Chinn: You might have noticed that Jersey is a small island and space has always been an issue here. We have ambitious plans to increase our retail presence, but more of that to follow.
WatchPro: How do you see business developing in the coming years? What are the major challenges and opportunities?
Jeff Chinn: I expect to see organic growth with us doing what we do best. Providing customers with better service, better products and always aiming to exceed our customers’ expectations. There is a challenge to the high street everywhere and Jersey is no exception. It is our job to be inventive, creative jewellers and retailers and to make sure we are giving our customers what they expect. We also have the challenge of Brexit which continues to cast a shadow of uncertainty over the whole business scene.
WatchPro: I didn’t specifically mean Brexit, but it is interesting. Jersey isn’t part of the UK or part of the European Union, so how might it affect you?
Jeff Chinn: Brexit could have a serious impact on us. We are just 12 miles from the coast of France, so imagine if the French started saying that we need visas to visit France or they need visas to visit here. The entente cordiale is very strong between us. More important than that, the fact that we have approximately 10,000 Portuguese and 10,000 Polish people who are critical to the labour pool in Jersey. We don’t want to see any radical changes here.
WatchPro: Is your consideration of those issues any different to businesses in the UK?
Jeff Chinn: We are not in the UK or the EU. We are within the tariff barrier so goods have free movement in and out of Jersey, but we do not have VAT, which means we are treated differently. We just have to wait and see how it pans out. There are some extreme views here that say that if we lose out in the Brexit negotiations that we should consider separating ourselves from the UK and become truly independent. If that were the case, we might look for a deal with the EU, but it is all very complicated and nobody really knows what is going to happen.
WatchPro: At the end of the day, Hettich has survived Nazi occupation, whatever Brexit throws at you, I suspect you will be fine.
Jeff Chinn: So do I. We have been here 118 years now. We are cautious, we like looking after our customers and working well with our suppliers. It is a great business and we are lucky to be working with fantastic people and, when I say fantastic people, I mean our staff, because this business is about all of us. We only number 15 in total, but we have skill and loyalty in huge quantity here. A business is only as good as the sum of its parts. I think we have a very good team indeed. We believe in providing the best possible customer experience that we can and I know that we are all committed to this aim. We are after all a family business. My Father (84) is still very interested in our activities; our position is strengthened by my younger brother Nicholas. I consider that the rest of the team are really part of our “family” too, some of whom have been with us more than 40 years. We certainly couldn’t have achieved our success without their loyal support, and long may the culture of Hettich continue.