Guy Burton didn’t plan on going into the family jewelry business, but like many other jewelry professionals, the industry grabbed him and wouldn’t let go. After a brief detour in real estate, Guy returned to Hancocks, London’s oldest family-run jewelry house, and developed his passion and expertise in antique diamonds and gemstones. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about why he loves antique stones, what jewelry trends are popular right now, and how he has adapted his work during the pandemic. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Guy Burton from Hancocks, purveyors of the finest vintage and contemporary jewelry in London. Hancocks was founded in 1849. Guy is a DGA and expert in diamonds, and he is the firm’s Director of Bespoke Jewelry. We’ll hear about his jewelry journey today. Guy, welcome to the program.
Guy: Thank you very much for having me.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey.
Guy: Hancocks is a family-run jewelers based in London. It’s very much a family affair. The firm itself, as you mentioned, dates back to 1849 and it originally was a family business. The business now is a different family, the Burton family, as opposed to the Hancocks, but it’s run in a very similar way as it was back then. They were specialists in diamonds and contemporary jewelry, which is now our antique jewelry. They were sellers of the very finest pieces.
It started for me at school holidays. My mother and father, being part of the business, used to take me and my sister along to the trade shows in the States, Hong Kong, around the world and in Europe on school holidays to keep us out of mischief and keep us under their watch. At those trade shows we were cleaning the counters; that was our job, and subconsciously you learn and get grabbed by the industry. The antique side of it especially is a very small world, and it’s almost like a family. You get caught up in it and drawn in, and that’s what happened to me.
Sharon: Did you work in another field at any point, or did your education go straight into the jewelry world?
Guy: I think like a lot of people in family businesses, once they leave school and university or college, their kneejerk reaction is to move away from it, and that’s exactly what I did. When I left university, I went and worked for a few years in commercial real estate and retail investments. Over here we call that surveying, and I did that for about three years up until 2008, when, obviously, the wall started coming up on such things and it was a case of first in, first out. We most recently lost out.
So, I left that and decided to try my hand in the family business. I didn’t think I wanted to go in this direction with jewelry, but actually I did. Self-consciously I’d taken on all this information from the fairs and I absolutely loved it. I immediately regretted not being in it in previous years. I started focusing on the diamond side and buying and selling within Hancocks. From that perspective I boosted my knowledge into the educational side of it as well, and that completely captured me in a way.
Sharon: Had it changed while you were away? Was it the same business but your perspective was different, or had the market changed? What was the change that made it start sparkling in your eyes?
Guy: The business itself hadn’t changed but the perspective of it had changed in my eyes, as opposed to previously going along to these trade shows with my father, who was buying and selling mostly signed vintage pieces of jewelry. His specialty is beautiful, vintage Cartier pieces, Van Cleef, etc. That’s fantastic, and that’s a very big arm of the company today, very much my father’s specialty. When I came in, my interest was more honed in on diamonds. Over the past 10 years with antique diamonds, that was a side my father certainly dealt in quite a lot, but nothing on the scale of what we do today. Now, 60% to 70% of the business is the antique diamond side of it, whether that be engagement rings or new jewelry using old cut stones. It’s a huge part of it. So yes, it was a different angle within an industry that hadn’t changed from when I was a child to when I was 23, 24 years old, with a lot of the same jewelry dealers in that space. It was a new thing, in a way.
Sharon: It sounds like it’s a global increase in interest in antique diamonds, engagement rings, wedding rings. Let’s back up for a minute to talk about real estate. Today, you’re located in the Burlington Arcade. Can you tell us about what that is? I know that wasn’t the original headquarters of Hancocks.
Guy: No, absolutely not. Where we are today is a shopping arcade, probably the most famous shopping arcade in London, called the Burlington Arcade. It’s a beautiful, 18th-century enclosed shopping arcade which originally housed lots of beautiful independent jewelers, book dealers and all kinds of wonderful trades like that, and to some extent it still does that today. Obviously, it’s slightly more commercialized, but that’s where we are. It’s a very luxurious arcade and a great place to be. It runs parallel to Bond Street, and it is Bond Street where Hancocks was first established. For those who know London, it was on the corner of Bond Street and Bruton Street. We’ve always been within a stone’s throw of Bond Street, if not on it, and we have been in the Burlington Arcade for about 25 to 30 years now, so it feels like a home. It represents the business for us. It’s very luxurious; it’s unique; it’s different. It really sets an independent, one-of-a-kind jewelers in a good situation.
Sharon: It sounds like a fabulous location. When you think of Bond Street, you think of money. Tell us about the antique diamonds. You’ve mentioned in material I’ve read that you think the cut is more pleasing. What is more pleasing about it?
Guy: It’s very much one of those things where beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but for me the antique cut stones and vintage diamonds and gems are a very, very strong passion, which is only getting stronger every day. For me, the diamond industry has changed completely. It’s completely unrecognizable to what it was, say, a hundred years ago. For me, one of the very major factors of jewelry is to showcase the gems. How those gems were made and designed and polished by hand is a major part of that art form, and sadly in modern jewelry, a lot of that art form is nearly completely gone. With the use of sewing machines and lasers, there’s this commercial production of diamonds.
My fascination is in the very finest antique diamonds that were cut by the very best cutters of the day, because it’s a beautiful art form. These diamond cutters didn’t have the same commercial pressures as cutters have today. A one-carat round diamond didn’t need to be 6.3 millimeters. They worked with the material they had, and their aim was to create the most beautiful-looking polished gem from that material. That’s such an important point, I think, and that’s why these old cut stones are always—they’re not perfect; they’re not triple excellent stones, which is what modern diamond dealers look for, but the imperfections are the beauty of them. They used different techniques to show off this beauty; for example, the beautiful, big facet faces in the old cut stones. The purpose of these large facet faces was to pick up on the smaller amount of light, like candlelight, which was more prevalent than electrical light in those days. There’s a real romance about them from that perspective. They’re very engaging stones.
Sharon: So, you design engagement rings using these stones? Do you take the stones from other faces that might not be as nice and design around them?
Guy: Yes, exactly. All the rings and jewelry we make are one-of-a-kind and are all made traditionally in our workshop that goes back 170 years. Each piece is made by hand. Everything is done traditionally, as unique pieces and old cut stones are one-of-a-kind pieces in themselves anyhow. It’s lovely to work with from that perspective.
Sharon: How have you been faring during Covid? Has most of the business been online? For so many people in the jewelry industry, the shows are so important, and everybody has had to scramble to figure something else out.
Guy: Yes, shows are hugely important. We have always done a lot as a company. Long before I was involved, trade shows have been absolutely massive for us, as they have been for a lot of jewelers. During Covid, the most difficult part of it is buying new stock. I rely on traveling to find these beautiful, old stones, a lot of which—although cut in Europe back in the 1920s—made their way across the Atlantic to America where the money was. It’s hugely important for me to get over there. However, I do buy a lot privately as well. I’ll never break up a beautiful item of jewelry. To get these old cut stones, either I buy them loose or I take them out of jewelry that’s had a wonderful life and may not be looking so well.
Sharon: Why is everybody after an antique diamond for engagement rings now? It’s one of the trends in the market. Is it the romance you mentioned?
Guy: Yes, it’s a combination. It’s interesting, actually; you asked if the industry changed when I joined. The biggest change I’ve seen in the last 10 years, from when I first started making engagement rings, is the reaction to old cut stones. Going back 10 years ago, customers would come into the shop with no knowledge of antique cut diamonds, and they’d try on a ring and they’d love it. They didn’t know why they loved it compared to a modern stone they tried on elsewhere at another house jewelers. It’s the love. You sell them the antique jewelry and they love it. They love the charm of the antique stone, and that’s how the business worked.
Now, as time’s gone on, I’ve had customers coming to me because of the antique cut stones and because we’ve got a very large collection of vintage antique diamonds. I believe this trend has been driven recently with a lot of people wanting to buy ethical diamonds that are recycled and as green as possible. Obviously, there’s no greener way to buy a diamond than to recycle it. That’s a lovely cherry on top, and I’m going to pretend I have a halo and that’s why I’m doing it.
Sharon: Definitely, it’s a great selling point. People want to recycle to avoid further damaging the earth. Do you think that’s what has fueled the increase? I guess because I like vintage jewelry so much, I tend to look at it, but it seems to have come to the fore in the past decade or so.
Guy: Yeah, it really has. I think that’s been the main driver for it, but people are doing their research online before they’re buying an engagement ring now. As the antique stones have more of a platform and you read more about them, I think people love the unique nature of them, the fact that you don’t get two antique stones the same. Even in a matched pair of earrings, they’re going to be two different. That’s a charm, and people want one-of-a-kind items. Even if it’s a very simple solitaire ring, they want one-of-a-kind, and that really sells as well.
Sharon: Moving away from diamonds and into vintage pendants, rings, bracelets, is there an increase in interest there? You said that diamonds have become 60% to 70% of the business, but you still deal in vintage for the other part of it, right?
Guy: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s still a huge part of the business. They actually feed into each other quite nicely. Obviously, we have lots of clients around the world for our vintage jewelry, but we get fresh blood interested in those items from young couples getting engaged. For example, the ones I sold rings to 10 years ago who were in their late 20s, early 30s who are now in their 40s, when they continue their jewelry journey, they love the old cut stones and old jewelry, and they’re interested in the techniques and jewelry houses. It’s a good way of getting them in. They do carry into each other very nicely. That side of the business is still massively important, and a lot of people would identify Hancocks with that side. Recently in terms of trends and what I’ve seen in the last couple of years is a huge drive towards vintage gold jewelry, everything from the post-war retro period to the very bold, gold 1980s pieces. I’ve really seen an uptick in that, moving away from the gemmy Art Deco dressy jewelry.
Sharon: Why do you think that is? I’ve heard different theories about why that might be. It seems like there’s much less of an interest in things that you can’t wear every day.
Guy: Yeah, that’s definitely a factor. People are becoming a little more paranoid about that. That’s very true, but what hasn’t changed is that people still want to express themselves through jewelry. I feel like people have more to say today than ever before, and the way to do that without clothing themselves in lots of diamonds, very dressy jewelry when we don’t have the occasions for them, is by doing it through big, bold statement pieces and gold and other materials that are larger than life. Gold pieces, retro especially, really lends itself to the casual chic movement, which is dressing up very casual clothing. I think it’s very cool. It’s wearing the jewelry not how it was originally designed, but it works very well.
Sharon: Not as it was originally designed in terms of being worn more casually than it was meant to be?
Guy: Yeah, with jeans and a t-shirt. I think it’s lovely. You don’t have to be Audrey Hepburn. To wear it, it works very well.
Sharon: Right, that’s true. When I think retro I think 30s and 40s, but retro can be 60s now. What would you consider retro?
Guy: For retro, I’m thinking 1940s to mid-1950s, that post-war period where a lot of gold was used in jewelry and there wasn’t so much gemmy jewelry around, for obvious reasons during the post-war period. There’s a lot of really big statement jewelry in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and again, that’s a very popular area at the moment. Makers such as Elias Lularoe were making watches in the 60s and 70s and 80s, which is a hugely popular area at the moment. Some 15 years ago, it wasn’t popular at all and actually was very hard for me to sell. It’s funny how these trends happen, but that’s very much part of the jewelry environment.
Sharon: Yes, when I look at some of the jewelry from the 60s and 70s, maybe more from the 70s and 80s, that’s so popular today, I look at it and go, “Oh my god, I think I sold that for the gold value years ago.” I was like, “Is this ugly?” and now it is so popular. Guy, when the world opens up, do you have a first show on your list that you can’t wait to get back to?
Guy: It’s all the shows, really, whichever one comes first. I’m very much looking forward to getting over to New York. Hopefully when the world reopens that will coincide with a show, but that’ll certainly be an early trip. Probably the best trade show from a buying perspective for me is the Miami Show, which is right at the beginning of the year, so we’ve got a bit of time to wait for that. There’s also the Vegas Show, which I think is normally about May. The Vegas Show coincides with a lot of other big shows as well, like the JCK, for example.
Sharon: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s being held. I know the Vegas Show is being held August 24-26, but I don’t know if they’re still trying to hold it this year along with the JCK and Couture and all of that. I know a lot of people are chomping at the bit to get to those shows in person, or any show really.
Sharon: Miami was going to be in April. It’s not going to be anymore. Everybody says, “Oh well, this has got be done by whatever month,” and then it’s not. I hope you do get to Vegas in person or any show in person. As we see the world open up, there’ll be a lot more opportunities for in-person things to sell over the counter as opposed to over the web. Guy, thank you so much for being with us today. It’s been very interesting. Thank you so much.
Guy: Thank you very much.
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