FOR THE FIRST time in its 151 years, jewellers Weir & Sons has had to close its doors to the public – but sad at that might be, the company is getting through it according to director Chris Andrews.
Andrews represents the fifth generation of the family that has been running the business for all these years. For now, he’s decided to move operations online while the Covid-19 outbreak is forcing businesses across the country to shutter.
“Everything is evolving so quickly, information is coming out left, right and centre,” Andrews says, over the phone on Thursday morning, adding that it was a tough decision to close the shops on Grafton Street and in Dundrum, and to temporarily lay-off a number of staff.
“It’s sad but it has to be done. It’s the right decision. We all just have to get through it and do our part.”
Weir & Sons was founded in 1869 by Thomas Weir, who came to Dublin from Glasgow in the early 1860s, working for other jewellers before setting up his own store on Dublin’s Fleet Street.
Weir later moved to 5 Grafton Street, across the road from where the current flagship store is.
“He moved from there over to Wicklow Street. He took the door from 5 Grafton Street with him, so we’ve got the original door on Wicklow Street, and it’s got 5 Grafton Street written on it,” he says, laughing.
The business began to buy up other jewellers around the UK and Ireland and at one stage was the largest chain of jewellers on the two islands, until they sold most of these in the 1940s and returned to operating just its original Dublin store.
In the 1970s, it expanded into an adjoining lot on Grafton Street, bringing it to its current footprint, on the corner of the two streets.
Andrews is one of four family members working in the business, along with his dad and two sisters.
He began in 1998, working part-time when he was in school and joined full-time after college in 2005.
“There are loads of different characters in the business and it’s interesting how we interact and work as a team. That’s the area that I love in the business, trying to maximise the team and make sure we’re all pushing in the same direction,” he says.
“The history is lovely because you can’t just go out and create that yourself. It just happens to be there and we’re very lucky that it is.”
The family name changed with Andrews’ paternal grandmother, who was a Weir before marriage.
Looking at price points
“It’s a good learning experience,” says Andrews about the temporary closure. “We’ve obviously become more dependent on online. You’ve got a very different interaction with customers.”
A big part of the last week has been assuring people that the store will reopen, particularly as some customers had left items in to repair.
In Andrews’ lifetime, the last big economic shock was the crash in 2008.
“In our business, we don’t sell, obviously, a necessity. We got hit quite badly by the recession. Our turnover dropped by roughly 54% in two years, which was quite a game-changer,” he says.
The business didn’t have to let anyone go at the time and came out of the recession stronger than it went in, by innovating and trying new things.
The company cut its glass and china division on the ground floor, moving into fashion jewellery instead. “Sometimes, you learn a lot in these things,” he adds.
“We started looking at price points. A lot of people are quite intimidated walking into a jewellers. When we opened the fashion floor, the thought process was that the first big purchase in a lot of jewellers is people buying an engagement ring,” Andrews says.
“We didn’t want that to be the first experience in (our) business. We want it to be comfortable for people coming into the store at a younger age. Maybe they buy a piece of Thomas Sabo or Swarowski as their first purchase so they’re comfortable coming into the store when it comes to big occasions, and it isn’t a big deal.”
It’s been very good for business, he adds.
“When business is quiet, that’s when you get other stuff done. You can concentrate on the other parts that you wouldn’t normally get to.”
After the recession, the jewellery market in Ireland never fully recovered to what it was, says Andrews, but he adds that things are still going in the right direction.
Through the eye of the storm, the company will have more time to plan its upcoming luxury floor which has been in the works for some time.
Does he have any concerns about opening a luxury jewellery and watch floor in a time when the economy is taking a battering?
“No, not at all,” he says. “Things change very drastically in the market, but we try and think long term in what we’re doing. Business cycles tend to last around five years, whereas we try and think quite far into the future.”
Since Andrews began working in the family business in 2005, he says there have been huge changes in how people buy jewellery.
For one, there’s a lot more self-gifting. “When I started in the business first, it was a lot more men buying jewellery for women. Now, a lot of women pick their own. They’ll buy what they like rather than someone buying it as a gift for them,” he says.
The other big difference is that shoppers have become more fashion-conscious. “I think we were more conservative as a market in the past. People are less conservative than they were, and that’s probably because Dublin has gotten a lot more exposure to the world.”
The popular styles now are edgier, Andrews says.
Jewellery shoppers usually tell their store assistant what they are looking for. As is the case with nearly every industry, customers are better informed than ever, thanks to the internet.
Covid-19 aside, Andrews sees man-made diamonds becoming a trend in the market in the near future.
“The price point is lower than mined diamonds. I see some legs in that,” he says, adding that it’s likely a growing area of interest because people will want to buy them for different reasons, aside from price, which can be a third of the price of mined diamonds.
“Some people just prefer the idea of something that’s been grown in a lab,” he adds.
“We literally just started with that the week before things went funny,” he says, so he doesn’t know how that side of the business will go, but he’s optimistic. The business has sold a few of them already.
Hopefully, he adds, there will be more Weir & Sons stores in the future, but for now, it’s hanging tight until the outbreak passes.
“I don’t know what’s going to be on the other side,” he says, “but I think the majority of people will get through it.”