“We do very traditional jewellery making here,” says Sophie Whitehead, workshop manager at Shetland Jewellery, “so the whole process is very personal, and means that the jeweller is actually getting to progress the piece themselves and get the satisfaction from doing that.”
The jewellery manufacturer was founded in 1953 by owner Jack Rae, originally as Shetland Silvercraft, who started the business on his kitchen table. Over the years the company grew and in 1971 Rae moved it to its current premises in Soundside, Weisdale. Shetland Jewellery now has stockists throughout Scotland, as well as a few in England, two in Germany and one in America, in addition to its website which has a worldwide reach.
The manufacturer employs 12 employees in its workshop, and has also benefited from a slew of extensions to its building over the years, including an expansion to its showroom. “We can stock a lot more jewellery and sell more jewellery in there,” explains Whitehead, “and since we often get a lot bus tours with people coming to visit the workshop, we have the space to accommodate them.”
Whitehead says that showroom space is really important for the company, mainly due to a recent boom in tourism in the Shetland isles. She believes this is thanks in part to the recent airing of the Shetland television series, which featured on BBC One. Cruise liners which brings tourist and drop anchor in Lerwick offer a tour around the island in the form of a bus trip, with Shetland Jewellery being one of the main attractions on that journey. “People get a tour into our workshop to see how everything is being made,” says Whitehead, “and it gives them a bit of insight into the process, which I think is really good for us and they can actually understand what is involved in the manufacturing. I think a lot of the time people buy a bit of jewellery and don’t really think about how it’s made or where it comes from.”
Whitehead said the strength of the business also lies in the fact that everything in manufactured on the island, and has a ‘made in Shetland’ quality about it, adding that this is a “good sales point for Shetlanders included”.
Whitehead elaborates on how a lot of its designs are based on Shetland itself, with its Merry Dancers range based on the Northern Lights, and a range based on Shetland’s seascape. Additionally, some of the company’s original pieces are based on norse mythology, for example the Three Norns – female beings who create and control fate. The manufacturer still aims to keep those traditional elements in its modern design, strengthening the link between the jewellery and Shetland and its surroundings.
However, Whitehead goes on to say that changes in the trade have continued to keep the manufacturer on its toes, with keeping up with larger retailers, the rise of internet shopping and making sure that it has a steady flow of interesting products for stockists constant hurdles to be overcome.
She expresses concern in how consumer’s buying habits have changed, believing shopping online has “become the norm”. Whitehead reveals the answer to this is about trying to make sure Shetland Jewellery has a good enough service in its shop, so that customers spend money there as opposed to buying it on the web.
“We obviously have a lot of trade in Shetland,” she adds, “so it’s making sure we have enough new products that people are still wanting to buy from us, instead of having the same items we have always had.” To this end, Whitehead says the manufacturer comes out with at least one new range every year. “We try to have something we can release at a crafts fair that takes place on the island in November every year, so that we have got something new in time for Christmas.”
Additionally, Whitehead stresses that the key to maintaining a strong relationship with its clients is regular visits down to the mainland to see stockists and show them the products in person. “I think with being isolated it’s fine to send photos of bits of jewellery but a lot of the time people actually want to see it. There is something really tacticle about jewellery and they like being able to feel the weight of it and see that it’s good quality.”
The manufacturer is also looking at getting a 3D printer or CAD to use in the future, adding to the centrifugal casting machine it currently own. Whitehead concludes by saying the goal for the coming year is to “to keep the business going, expanding and competing with an ever-busier market”.