Luxury Briefing 2019 - A Timeless Craft

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the world’s oldest diamond company

The Backes & Strauss story is one of great heritage and longevity – could you share with us how it came into being?

We would need to go back to 1789 when a young Mr Backes registered himself as a goldsmith in Hanau, Germany. He was working at the bench and started a business, which gently grew.

In 1814, his son felt comfortable enough to move to London and set up a workshop there. Later on, in 1819, they opened a workshop in Paris as well. London was a big draw for them because the Prince Regent, who was ruling instead of his father, was spending a lot of money in commissioning architects like John Nash to design and build central London. London had a lot going for it in 1814 and, as the business grew, they started making jewellery and participated in The Great Exhibition, which was in 1851. Soon after that, a group of Londoners went to South Africa to prospect and explore diamond mining and they were very successful. They found the diamond mines but also discovered that there were more diamonds than they’d expected.

They didn’t want to depress the market, so they created the first syndicate with a group of friends in London, whom they could distribute them with, in a sensible way…

 
 

from renowned diamond trader to jewellery timepiece creator

That movement from business to consumer and the creation of a brand – over what period of time did it take for the brand to become recognised as it is today?

The management buyout was completed at the end of 2003 and it was soon after that when I decided on the need to add value to the diamonds we were working with. We started planning in mid 2005 and launched the brand in London at the end of 2006.

In a way, because we’d just started, the global financial crisis didn’t really affect us, as we hadn’t really expanded to the point where we couldn’t hold ourselves back. Surprisingly, the downturn in 2008 was very short- lived in the watch industry.

The turnaround came because of a tremendous pull from China, which suddenly became a major consumer of high-end watches. We were lucky in establishing very close relationships with our current Japanese partners in 2006 and, over a short period of time, built up the brand in Japan by playing on the history, craftsmanship and the London heritage, which are all very important there.

London at the heart of the brand

What was the inspiration behind the first collection?

It was London, really, and the architecture of John Nash on Regent Street. In the first collection of watches we made, you can see the symmetric circular designs of John Nash’s Street. The square watch we brought out was inspired by Berkeley Square; and the round one had to be the epicentre of London, which is Piccadilly. So, architectural landmarks were very much our inspiration.

Wasn’t there an interesting piece of heritage with a piece of jewellery, which is in the British Museum?

It’s a bracelet of ours – an Assyrian style, which was made for the Great Exhibition and was later donated to the British Museum.

When you look at a diamond through the viewer, you can see the arrow at the top and a heart through the bottom – it’s the mathematical precision of a diamond
— Vartkess Knadjian
 
 

When you look back at your amazing career and the brand that you’re the steward of now, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

A gentleman called Dennis Faye, who worked at Backes & Strauss from 1929 to 1979 was celebrating 50 years with the business around the time I joined. When we celebrated the 200th birthday of the company in 1989, we had a big celebration in Antwerp. We invited him but he couldn’t attend, he wasn’t well. So, the next time I came to London, I went to see him and we had lunch and I said you know, we missed you. I asked him, ‘what advice would you give me to pass on to the next generation?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘don’t you know? It’s very simple: the key is to understand what the customer wants.’

It makes my narrative that much richer, when I’m able to talk about our craftsmen and all the skills that are required for you to be wearing that watch on your wrist.
— Vartkess Knadjian