WESTERN Australian jeweller Alan Linney introduced Perth to South Sea pearls more than 20 years ago, when he opened his first Linneys store in Subiaco in 1983.
Today, Linneys has made a reputation for itself as one of Australia’s most luxurious jewellery brands, expanding to four locations across WA and recently launching its brand on the east coast.
The founder and artistic director of Linneys began his career as a jeweller in 1972, aged just 21.
“I started the business with just $500 and I had to make that last for a long time, so I would more or less make a piece of jewellery and sell it and that would keep the business going,” Mr Linney told WA Business News.
Shortly after opening his second store in Perth in 1979, Mr Linney met Broome pearl farmer and now business partner Bill Reed, who was looking for someone to use his pearls in jewellery.
“I became involved in the pearling industry when I went to Broome in 1980 and really we were the first jewellers in town,” Mr Linney said.
“And at that point all the pearls were taken offshore and sold from the farm, to the bank, to Japan ... so we decided to retain the pearls in Australia and value-add with my workmanship, so we started selling them in Broome and Subiaco.”
Mr Linney said Linneys had the first showing of South Sea pearls in Australia at its Subiaco showroom in 1983.
Two years later, Mr Linney opened Linneys in Broome, hoping to target the tourist market.
Linneys CEO David Fardon, who has been with the company for the past six years, said producing and selling South Sea pearl jewellery in Australia had not been done before Linneys started its business.
“It’s a bit hard to imagine today, but if you go back over 25 years, even though Australia was producing pearls, almost all of them were being exported and sold internationally,” Mr Fardon said.
Australian pearls weren’t being seen here, according to Mr Linney.
“What were being imported and sold were strictly Japanese Akoya pearls,” he said.
To market this new type of pearl to WA customers, Mr Linney embarked on a newspaper advertising campaign, which proved unsuccessful.
Despite this, a combination of good media exposure and the America’s Cup coming to Fremantle in 1987 launched the Linneys brand.
“We put a couple of ads in the paper and nobody took any notice; but after a journalist did a story about Broome pearls coming to Perth during the America’s Cup, we had limousines queuing up at the door with people wanting their own Broome Pearls,” Mr Linney said.
Other jewellers specialising in South Sea pearls began to enter the market in the 1990s, including brands such as Paspaley and Kailis.
However, increasing production costs, shell disease and jewellers importing pearls from nearby Asian countries started to concern Mr Linney’s company.
“The cost of production has gone up significantly. I used to operate off the back of a boat but now it’s all done in air-conditioned laboratories,” Mr Linney said.
He said the cost of looking after one shell now exceeded $400.
Mr Fardon said the emergence of other South Sea pearl producers Indonesia and the Philippines led to more competitive product being imported and sold in WA.
But Mr Linney maintains that the majority of his pearls are from Australian waters.
“Our main distinction these days is that when you come into a Linneys store, 80 per cent of the product has been designed and made in WA ... it doesn’t matter what name you mention, most other people will bring it in from offshore,” Mr Linney said.
With jewellery sales growing strongly in the early years of the new century, Mr Linney and Mr Fardon decided to expand the brand further by opening Linneys Burswood in 2004 and Linneys King Street in 2009.
“We were locked away in downtown Subiaco and we believed we had a product for the export market ... and the [Burswood] hotel seemed a very appropriate place; over time, we’ve found that was the right decision to make,” Mr Linney said.
With the current $350 million facelift of the Burswood complex well under way, Linneys has also recently moved into a new showroom that is 2.5 times the size of the previous one.
The company’s biggest move to date, however, was the opening of its store at Sydney’s new Westfield Centrepoint complex in November last year.
Mr Linney and Mr Fardon said breaking into the Sydney market did not come without its challenges, but they remain optimistic the brand can succeed outside of WA.
“International people in Sydney are receiving the concept really well, but to be honest with Sydney people we still need to break into that market,” Mr Linney said.
Although there are some well-established jewellers in Sydney, the pair think they have something “very different” in terms of design and product mix.