Annoushka Ducas MBE tells the MBAs how to sell jewellery
Annoushka Ducas MBE, founder of jewellery brand Links of London, spoke on November 9 at the first ‘Inspiring Women’ discussion hosted by Oxford’s Saïd Business School.
Annoushka was accompanied by her husband, the Oxford-educated lawyer John Ayton (pictured below, St Edmunds Hall, 1980), who has been a crucial business partner throughout Annoushka’s business career, to the point where it was repeatedly offered as advice: ‘it’s nice to share the ups and downs with someone.’ Later in her talk, Annoushka reiterated the need for a balanced core team: ‘I’m very creative but he’s very strategic.’
Asked about how it all started, Annoushka noted that her mother was a brilliantly entrepreneurial role model – and that in that original sense it ‘ran in my blood’. However, she knew she didn’t want to go to university and instead learned a huge amount working with a relative who ran a string of clubs, briefly setting up a luxury sandwich business in Australia and finally running the Hong Kong business of Hamptons, the estate agent and letting business.
At several points in her discussion, Annoushka noted that she was a creative force and a ‘now person’, and perhaps a designer more than anything else, leading to a second insight, that profits are typically the byproduct of some other passion and not the goal itself – ‘if you don’t like it, your employees won’t like it.’
Annoushka shared the story of how Links of London began, the business that she founded with her husband in 1990. Her mother, who ran a fish business, needed sixty gifts for 60 male chefs. At the time in Hong Kong, Annoushka commissioned a Philippine supplier to produce double the required number, 120 pairs of cufflinks, engraved on one side with a fish and on the other with fish bones.
‘This led me to make a call to the buyer at Harvey Nichols, who told me to create a collection at a time when the only cufflinks going were silk knots.’ She then did this, creating half a dozen different silver cufflink designs and tilting the playing field in her own favour by ensuring that a number of friends bought the collection, even to the point of reimbursing them afterwards. This led in time to a wholesale business and only then a brand with its own retailers, eventually 40 stores and a turnover of £48 million in July 2006, when it was sold to Folli Follie, a Greek jewellery business.
Looking back, she notes that the bravest decision by far was deciding to create the brand Links, not least because it meant turning down very significant customers such as Mappin and Webb. ‘You have to have courage to follow a strategy even if this has painful consequences.’
Asked why she decided to sell Links, Annoushka offered another insight into the retail scene. ‘Wholesale is complex, and the business had become much bigger. My creativity was being stifled, as if the tail was beginning to wag the dog.’ She also added the importance of her four children and the need for a balance, joking however ‘that my children insisted that I go back to work.’
After a year consulting to the new owners of Links, she left, subsequently setting up Annoushka Jewellery in 2009.
‘This allowed me to come into my own again as a designer,’ she noted, adding that ‘the art of delegation is fundamental – it’s not quicker to ‘do it yourself’ – the goal is to employ people better than you, and to recognize that.’
Accordingly Annoushka Jewellery has eschewed the wholesale model that initially shaped Links of London, and limited retail to very high end boutiques (two in London and one in Hong Kong) and online – ‘I am constantly amazed at how much people are willing to spend online,’ she noted, adding that online retail is growing within the business and could be 50% of turnover within five years.
‘By not having a wholesale business I am absolutely in control – I have complete free rein on creativity.’
Asked about women and business, Annoushka suggested that they are more open and more honest to work with, and possibly better at juggling different priorities in a complex environment.
Whereas Links began as a cufflinks and corporate gift specialist working principally with silver, Annoushka Jewellery is high end jewellery, ‘mainly for women,’ defined by 18 carat gold and precious stones. Both in this creative development and in the decision to make her name the brand, Annoushka felt that she had matured as a designer and business woman.
However, she warned that the biggest piece of advice she could give, apart from making sure ‘you love what you do because it’s at least 70% of your life,’ was ‘don’t believe your own bullshit’.
First portrait by Annoushka Jewellery; portrait of John Upton by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse, Nov 9, 2017