'We should be able to compete with London, Paris, New York - the fashion capitals of the world'

Tools of the trade: Jewellery designer Chupi Sweetman talks ‘independence rings’ and Brexit.

By Zuzia Whelan Reporter, Fora

EVERY WEEK, FORA gets inside the heads of some of Ireland’s top entrepreneurs to gain insights into what got them to the top of their trade. This week we meet designer Chupi Sweetman, founder and creative director of the eponymous jewellery brand. 

Chupi Sweetman likes to plan. 

The founder and creative director of Dublin-based jewellery brand Chupi plans her personal and work calendar down to the last detail - her current schedule is locked in until June 2020.

A former Topshop designer, Sweetman set up her own jewellery brand in 2013. Today, the company sells to customers across 67 countries. It sold 18,500 pieces of gold and diamond jewellery last year and employs about 34 people – but it’s hiring more. 

In our weekly Tools of the Trade series, Fora spoke to Sweetman about restructuring the business after the Brexit vote and why the “right-hand ring” is one of the company’s big sellers.

Here’s what she had to say:

What drives you to keep going?

I was in my late 20s, early 30s in the recession and so many of my friends were choosing to leave the country.

I really felt Ireland had something to offer. The idea of making something in Ireland and selling it all over the world is quite a challenge – we are a tiny island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, yet we can access the world market by thinking digitally.

I came out of a big high-street company, Topshop, but I loved the idea of making something here. I distinctly remember everyone thinking I was bonkers and it was going to be impossible.

Last year, we sold 18,000 pieces of jewellery, diamonds and gold, to 67 countries which is a pretty wonderful thing to be able to say. 

Ireland should be able to compete with London, Paris, New York – the fashion capitals of the world. We’ve got the talent and skill. I love that, that really excites me – getting to work alongside giants.

How would you describe your management style?

I’m a real believer in strength and kindness – you need both as a manager. You need to have strength to follow through, see the goals, drive the vision for the business.

But also kindness, which I think is possibly the bit missing from a lot of businesses. Why don’t we teach people that – why can’t they be both? You can be strong and kind. You can drive for huge success, but you can do it with kindness. You can treat people well. 

Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think?

My husband Brian gets this one. We’re together since we were 16. He is the world’s most cynical human being and I am the world’s most optimistic. He’s head of software in our company and drives all of our digital and technological innovations.

I’m really optimistic and can see the why and the big picture. He has the ability to really boil it down and go, “How are we going to get there, what does it look like, what are the problems we’re going to encounter?”

What has shook your confidence and how did you get past it?

The last big one was the Brexit vote. It was a really tough one for us because we had just signed Fenwick and we were in talks with John Lewis and Macy’s.

Our whole expansion model was built around starting in the UK and moving to the US and it really made me step back and rethink the entire company.

There’s a Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” Business needs stability, it needs trends, it needs really solid, stable lines on which to run. 

There were about 10 or 11 of us when the Brexit vote happened. I sat back and thought, I can’t put the fortunes of my company and the fortunes of the people who’ve taken a risk to come work with me and bank that on one country’s political system. 

We really stepped away from wholesale. We moved into an entirely direct-to-consumer model. 

Chupi2
Source: Ben Keenan

What tool could you not do without?

Google’s G Suite and Calendar. We use it across the whole organisation. We’re almost entirely technologically driven and cloud-based. It really enables us to export. 

What’s the most important part of your daily routine?

I get up at 6am. I set my agenda for the day. I use a five-minute journal – you set out clear goals for what you want to do in the day. That’s my sacred time so I don’t take meetings in the morning. I have all my meetings after lunch.

How do you manage your time?

I’m an avid planner. Google Calendar has my entire life in it. I schedule everything. We’re a busy company and I have a busy personal life.

We have our professional calendar planned out to the end of June 2020 and locked in. And it’s the same for my personal life – until Q1 2020.

We run six-month plans for the business – I also run them for myself. It means we’re able to sit down at the end of a quarter and say, “What did we do? What did we achieve or miss?”

I’m a big believer in the Pareto principle – that 80% of what you do should deliver 20% of the value. I don’t have 20 things on my agenda for the day, I have two big important things that I need to get done. 

What’s your worst intellectual habit?

I really love my job and I find it hard to turn off. I would happily work all day long. 

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What differentiates your company from the competition?

It used to be that you were gifted jewellery. As a woman you waited until your boyfriend or your husband bought you a ring, then they bought you a wedding band, then earrings for your first anniversary. 

We’ve changed – women have changed. We want to mark our own moments. We want to buy our own diamonds. 

Instead of it being this really archaic process where you go and sit on a little velvet chair and they take out a little velvet pad of jewellery, you’re choosing your own heirlooms with us. Our customer wants to be 90 and she wants to be telling her grandchildren that she bought that diamond herself. One of our biggest categories is ‘independence rings’ – it’s called a right-hand ring, not for your engagement or wedding.

About 28% of our business is people coming in and buying their own heirloom ring. They might be married, single, divorced – but the idea is owning your own future. 

What helps you switch off?

I was brought up in the Wicklow Mountains, so right in the middle of nowhere in one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland. That’s how my brain turns off. I love getting up there just for a long walk. 

I also love to go away with friends. A couple of times a year we’ll rent a beautiful Airbnb and just hang out, cook and talk nonsense.

It’s very easy if you’re in the business world to just get stuck into work all the time. Spend time with your people – your people are the most important thing in the world. 

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