The Brains Behind a Brand; an interview with Stephen Webster

Stephen Webster is a pleasure to talk to. Even over a grainy telephone line, the rich husky tone of his voice brings warmth and a touch of self deprecating humour to the often stilted nature of the dreaded telephone interview. So here we are; him in his office, me in my humble little living room, communing for a precious half an hour over his path to glory, the journey that has seen him rise to the top of his industry, in no small thanks to some serious people skills, a heady mixture of ‘graft', talent, (simmered lightly with a fragrant spoon of fate) - all essential ingredients to secure him a seriously weighty position in the world of luxury jewellery. If ever there was a ‘brain' I wanted to pick more - this the one.

So first to the ‘story' - once upon a time Stephen Webster was a young talented teenager - with just one thing on the brain, (‘I went from school at fifteen to art school to do something creative - and it ended up being jewellery.') This tentative foray into education led swiftly to a five year apprenticeship of professional work, which gave Webster his first touch of celebrity stardust, the sandstone on which he has carved his name. ‘I'd kind of gotten my head around what the industry was like. I don't want to say it was disappointing, but perhaps it wasn't everything that I'd imagined it might be. I could see it was a very conservative, under the radar, not very glitzy place to be. I had to start to create my own world: surround myself with what was exciting to me.'

And start he did, with a serendipitous meeting with a man by the name of Mike Ridding, an entrepreneur who took Webster under his wing at the tender age of 21, gliding him across the Atlantic to the hallowed plains of Canada; the country where Webster cut his teeth. ‘I looked at it as an opportunity. That was really where I was able to make my own expression in jewellery. It wasn't about brands, it was about providing a service; a creative approach to jewellery. I thought: "Well, this looks like something a little more personal, something that has a creative element to it."



This freedom offered Webster licence to find his way as a jeweller, his current gothic style is in no small debt to those years ‘playing' with stones in Banff, a Canadian ski resort, filled with the deep pockets of rich American and Japanese tourists. With Webster's ‘apprenticeship' well and truly over, he was ready to go it alone. ‘I only left there because, to be quite honest, you can only live in Canada for so long and then you've got to get out!' The next few years were spent travelling the globe. ‘I went out and did it for myself. It was very, very difficult. Massive amounts of hours for, you know, not much. The times then - this was sort of early eighties - was so different to today. It was tough; you were trying to break new ground in a place were people probably weren't interested in new ground.'

Then California beckoned, ‘I had a lot more experience by then, so I basically set up a business [with former boss Mike Ridding]. Our clients were quite Hollywood. I made jewellery for Elizabeth Taylor… That was quite exciting. I was still in my late twenties and I suppose that was really the start of what we've got going on today.'

And what a legendary brand it is, founded in 1989; the beginning of 'Stephen Webster' as we know it; ‘Finally this was my name. But I didn't have any customers in England. The one thing I knew how to do was to make a collection, get on a plane, get to America, sell it, and come back and make another one. I did that for quite a long time. So even though I was designing it as Stephen Webster, nobody really knew anything. That was kind of easy. Like most things that are easy, it gets a bit boring after a while, so I started to try to work out how I could build on my then fairly considerable experience.'

And build on it he did, by the mid nineties it was a fully-fledged enterprise employing five staff, with Stephen at the helm. ‘I had a little business,' he says in his naturally self-deprecating manner. ‘Then we did a Las Vegas show… I don't know what I was expecting, but it went crazy. We were probably bringing exactly the right type of new jewellery to the market at exactly the right time. It must have been, because everybody wanted a piece of the action.'

The next few years were a heady mix of work and play. ‘Jewellery was about to change, and we were part of that… People were looking to create environments were maybe jewellery was purchased that weren't quite so stuffy and traditional,' Stephen continues. ‘There was interest from glossy magazines that wasn't maybe for fine jewellery. Then we started to get a celebrity crowd; they want to wear it, own it… I think all these things were the sort of ‘jump up'… Anyway, it kind of worked out,' he laughs.


And boy did it work out, but what of the shift to online, the challenge of the new millenium - how has this affected his business? ‘For us at the moment, for the size of business that we are, I don't want to get distracted with my own online selling just yet. I will do it, but that's the only reason I don't. It's just a question of juggling everything.' Social media is more of a priority; ‘My manager [in the Stephen Webster LA store] is a young guy. He's very proactive on using our social networking sites. He's probably better at it than we are! That's great, because it really works for him.' Stephen is also a dedicated Tweeter (@NoRegretsat50 in case you were wondering) ‘I'll have a spurt and then I stop.' A role will soon be created soley for the pleasure of promoting Stephen Webster online; ‘I will employ somebody who is an expert on that, and that will then be their responsibility!'

Clearly celebrity is core to the business, although Stephen is quick to assert that; ‘We are jewellers. We're not celebrities.' Though he may not be a ‘celebrity' in the Daily Mail sense of the phrase, Stephen Webster is certainly well known; a revered designer at the top of his game. So what drives him? Are there any ambitions yet to fulfil? ‘Well, I suppose when we open a new store in a place… These openings are probably what keeps me getting up in the morning and being part of Team Webster, because, you know, thirty-six years as a jeweller. I need these things! Fortunately, I make them happen.'

And finally what pearls of wisdom can Stephen Webster impart to a new generation of designers clamouring to follow in his footsteps? ‘I was out there at the Golden Globes,' he reminisces. ‘I was talking to a journalist. I said: "I can't actually think of a more rewarding life than the one I have." I go around the world, I meet people all the time in all different places - some parts, I don't know where they are, and some parts, everybody knows where they are… Then I come back to my studio where I've got the most incredible team of people. Most of them have been with me ten years or so. Every time we've been working on something new, they feel there's an energy. All that comes all because of jewellery. That's my only advice. When it does break for you, which it will, it's amazing.'

Interview by Alice Kahrmann 2013.
Alice Kahrmann interviews the jeweller extraordinaire Stephen Webster MBE.
Stephen Webster
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2013