Nicola Cerrone – the boy from Villa Martelli

Jenny Berich meets the Italian immigrant who is one of Australia's most famous jewellers.
Today Nicola Cerrone is one of Australia’s most famous jewellers.
His designs are worn by celebrities around Australia and the world. His seemingly never-ending list of A-lists clients includes movie stars, pop stars, models and sporting heroes as well as those famous for simply being rich and/or famous.
Barbara Streisand, Claudia Schiffer and Celine Dion are just three of the big names who have worn his designs on the international stage while Jennifer Hawkins, Delta Goodrem, Jodi Gordon and Kerri-Anne Kennerley have all sparkled in his designs locally.
Nicola’s popularity with such celebrities has helped make him, and his jewellery designs, almost as famous.
An impressive achievement for anyone but perhaps even more so for a man who arrived in Australia at 12 years of age with little more than a suitcase of clothes.                         
In fact Nicola still seems somewhat surprised at the success he has achieved in the intervening years.
He was born in, and lived in, Lanciano, a small village on the east coast of Italy, until his family emigrated in 1964. Almost immediately after his arrival in Sydney Nicola began attending his local high school and working part-time at a nearby fruit shop.
“I was going to school and working seven days a week,” he recalls.
“On weekdays I used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and open the fruit shop, sell some fruit and then go to school at 8.30, and then after school I would go straight back to the shop and repack the fruit until 7 o’clock.
“On weekends I worked from 6 o’clock 9 o’clock in the night.”
Nicola decided to leave school with no definite plans for his future.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life.
“I hadn’t had great success at school and my English still wasn’t very good but I didn’t want to sell fruit for the rest of my life. I wanted to learn a trade – to become an artisan – but didn’t know which one.”
 “Although at 18 I was already too old for a typical apprenticeship I was lucky to get a good opportunity through my father, who used to look after the gardens of Irwin Katz (a Jewish jewellery manufacturer) on Saturdays.
“Irwin offered me a jewellery apprenticeship. I took it on and liked it immediately.
“While the other kids my age went to work because they had to, I went to work because I wanted to and even built a bench in my mother’s garage so that I could practice my work when I got home until 1 o’clock in the morning.
“Irwin Katz only had a small workshop so we have to reproduce the same rings over again and again so eventually I got bored and went to work for William Fischer who was a true master of the game. I still consider him one of the best jewellers I have ever met.
 “He was my mentor. I worked with him for four years – the hardest and worst time of my life.
“He really put me under a lot of pressure. He often told me that I was stupid and didn’t understand what I was doing, that my work was not well balanced, that it was too high or too thick…
“When he was on the other side of the room he could hear my file was not in tune and would scream and tell me that I wasn’t filing properly.
“Once he even hit me with a metal ruler and gave me three stitches in my head because I made a silly mistake.”
But despite Fischer’s seemingly cruel behaviour, Nicola is adamant that “it was the best thing that ever happened” to him.
“I loved to be treated that way because I needed it as it made me control and harness my talent and ideas.”
Fischer ended Nicola’s apprenticeship equally memorably.
“In the end he got me by the ears, gave me a kick up the backside and said ‘I can’t teach you anymore’ and advised me to go on a round-the-world trip to see what everyone’s doing.”
Then 22, Nicola heeded his mentor’s advice and headed overseas for eight months. On his return he started his own jewellery manufacturing workshop in his mother’s garage.
His first paying customers were the family friends whose jewellery Nicola had previously repaired for free while practicing late at night in the same garage.
“I had repaired their jewellery during my apprenticeship and now when they needed a piece of jewellery they would come to me and ask me to make it for them,” says Nicola.
“These customers, who put their trust in me, made me successful – they gave me the opportunity to succeed by commissioning me to make them unbelievable pieces of jewellery.”
However, these initial customers weren’t enough to ensure the success of Nicola’s fledgling business, so he created his own jewellery collection and sold it to retailers around Sydney.
“The collection was popular because I offered my own style, which was considered very avant garde in those days,” he recalls.
“People loved anything different and for me it was very easy to make something different, particularly in those days as Australia was such a conservative country that you only had to make a curved band instead of a straight one to be considered avant garde,” he laughs.
The launch of the collection enabled Nicola to start employing apprentices and jewellers and start selling his designs nationally.
“I began working night and day to supply stores around Australia but more and more clients came knocking on my door so I had to look after them too.” 
A year later in 1974, at just 24 years of age, Nicola opened his first Cerrone Jewellers store in a terrace house in inner-city Leichardt.
Since then the original business in Catherine Street has grown to six times its original size and expanded to include two other stores in the centre of Sydney – one in Castlereagh Street and the other in Martin Place.
According to Nicola, much of his success can be attributed to his vast collection of jewellery design awards.
“When I started in the business there were a lot of jewellery design awards so I worked hard to enter a lot of them as I realised that winning such awards would make a big difference to my business success.
Nicola, who won his first international jewellery design award at the Argyle International Awards in New York in 1984 and now has a collection of “around 60 awards” including awards for business excellence, lifestyle and entrepreneurial awards.
“I have by far the most awards of anyone in Australia,” he says proudly, “and these accolades are the things that people never forget.
“Winning an international jewellery design award is the same for jewellers as winning the Oscars is for actors – it means you’ve made it and opens even more doors.”
Nicola won his last award in 1998 (the Diamonds International Award from De Beers for an Elizabethan-inspired ruff collar necklace of filigree diamonds) as he felt there was “nothing higher to achieve”.
“I had already won the ultimate awards and established my business name.”
Indeed. Today Cerrone is the name the rich and famous, and those who strive to be, turn to for jewellery to wear to red carpet events or special occasions in their private lives.
Although Nicola, with a staff of 60, is no longer focussed on designing the jewellery that bears his name he is still working almost as hard as when he started his apprenticeship all those years ago.
“My role has definitely changed. I am now focussed on looking after the foundation of the business, the finance and the management,” he says, readily acknowledging that his “enjoyment in the business is not the same as it used to be”.
Nonetheless Nicola is determined to continue running his business with a little help from his wife, Carmela (who launched her own eponymously titled collection just three years ago) and his daughters, Desiree (stock control manager) and Dominique (operations manager), for at least the next 10 years.
He is equally determined to “give back” to the industry that he feels has given so much to him.
“I like employing apprentices and giving young people the same opportunity to succeed that I was given all those years ago,” he says. 
“I took on seven apprentices this year but I am worried that a lot of people aren’t employing any.
“I wonder where the trade is going to be in 20 years if jewellers don’t take on their responsibility and employ apprentices – the trade needs to be cultivated by giving these young people an opportunity 
“Some jewellers prefer to send their orders to China or import a jeweller from China for six months because it’s an easier option but in the long term it’s not the best option.
“We need to employ young people who have talents they may not even know about yet. We need to give young people the same opportunities we were given.”
But despite the opportunity that was given to him when he landed his apprenticeship in 1970 Nicola stresses that he has had to work hard for his success.
“For the first few years I was working until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning seven days a week so my life was basically just work and sleep. But it wasn’t because I was trying to make the quick dollar, I enjoyed what I was doing so it didn’t really feel like hard work – it was my passion, like someone playing in a band.”
And he is the first to admit that despite the awards and the celebrity success, many of his greatest jewellery making moments haven’t been for celebrities or garnered any awards.
For example he says he has gained as much pleasure, if not even more, from crafting jewellery for his parents, his wife and daughters as well as numerous “local customers”.
Furthermore, and perhaps not surprisingly for an Italian Catholic boy from Villa Martelli, Nicola declares his career highlight was not designing a piece of jewellery for a Hollywood celebrity but the three sacred vessels he created for the Pope during his World Youth Day visit to Australia in 2008.
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