There is no doubt that winning De Beers’ prestigious diamond design award in 2000 has been the highlight of John Calleija’s career so far but his journey to the centre of the world’s jewellery stage and the momentum he has maintained since are equally impressive – especially for a man who had no idea what he wanted to do when he left school 27 years ago.
“Becoming a jeweller was just a twist of fate for me,” recalls John. “I left school at 18 and had no idea what I wanted to do,” he says.
“One day I was bopping around on my boat on Sydney Harbour and the thought struck me that I might like to be a jeweller. I don’t really know where the thought came from, in many ways it was like a bolt of lightening, but I think I saw a jewellery ad or something that sparked my interest.”
On his return home John told his mother about his new “ambition”. She immediately phoned family and friends and discovered that a local Maltese jeweller was looking for an apprentice (John’s mother is Maltese and his father is Italian).
“I felt it was fate,” says John, “so I went in the next day and he showed me what he did. I said ‘I would love to do that for the rest of my life’. He said ‘good’ and phoned me the next day to offer me the job.
“The weird thing was that here I was thinking I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life but I’d always liked drawing and making little models so in many ways I had been training to be a jeweller for years.”
John began his apprenticeship in 1982 and three years later bought his employer’s business. He then stayed and built up the business for another six years before deciding he needed a new challenge and selling up to move to Queensland.
On the Gold Coast, John began manufacturing jewellery at home but after two years “things weren’t going so well” and he was “lucky” to pay his rent.
“I thought I need to go into a field different to jewellery but ultimately I realised it wasn’t that – I just needed a change in the same field.”
Fortunately fate was once again ready to lend a helping hand.
“One day when I was 30 I stopped at Sanctuary Cove for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread and saw an empty shop on the corner and thought that if I was ever going to have a chance to open a shop this was it,” he says.
After signing the lease John had just $33,000 to fit-out the shop and stock it.
“I did it but I honestly don’t know how,” he says, “Other retailers told me I was mad but I stayed true to my belief and worked for months making the jewellery for the opening.
“On the first day we opened people just came from nowhere and looked at the designs and said ‘wow these are just so different’ but no-one bought anything until about 5pm when an American walked in and said ‘tell me something about the opal in the window’.
“I just said ‘it’s a black opal’ because I knew next to nothing about opals at the time although it was a piece I had made. He said: ‘How much is it?’ and I said ‘$3000’.
“I could hardly even say it because I thought it was so much money. He said: ‘How long have you been in business?’ I said ‘Since 9 o’clock this morning’ and he said ‘You just opened today?’ and I said ‘Yes’ and he said ‘I’ll take it’. I said ‘What?’
“I couldn’t believe that someone would spend $3000 on an opal and went out that night celebrating my first sale.”
From there the business gradually grew but sales weren’t often as easy as the first.
“In the beginning running the business was in many ways a struggle,” he says. “Jewellery is a trust thing and you have to convince people that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re the real deal – and that takes time.
“I used to work at the bench out back and then when the client came in, I’d scrub my hands clean and go out to serve them,” he says. “I didn’t know how to talk customers and knew nothing about retail – all I knew was that I had a passion for jewellery.”
Nonetheless apart from working at the store to build the business John also managed to find the time to enter several jewellery industry awards.
After several unsuccessful entries, he won the Grand Prix award for a diamond tiara (featuring white and rose gold with Argyle pink and white diamonds) in the 1998/99 Australian Jewellery Design Awards.
A year later a clairvoyant told John he would win an international jewellery award in Paris for a design resembling a birdcage.
For several months after hearing this prediction, John sketched and discarded numerous designs of diamond-studded parrots perched in guilded cages to no avail until the idea for the ‘Virtual Eros’ mask arrived unexpectedly during a televised game of American football.
“The bars on the front of the helmets looked like cages so I began sketching immediately.”
The mask, featuring 219 cut diamonds weighing 43.90 carats, won the De Beers Diamonds-International Award in 2000.
“To win that award put us on the map,” says John proudly. “Until then we were just a suburban jeweller in a tin shed at Sanctuary Cove.”
“We got around $2 million worth of free publicity. It was just fabulous – we definitely wouldn’t be where we are today without that award. It really did catapult us to a whole new level.
“I honestly don’t think anything professionally will ever top the excitement of winning the Award in Paris,” he says.
On his return to Australia, John continued working at his Sanctuary Cove store and in 2002 opened a store at Marina Mirage to “test the market”. Five years later he closed the Sanctuary Cove store to concentrate on the newer store where “demand was greater”.
Today business is obviously thriving at the Marina Mirage store located in one of the Gold Coast’s most prestigious waterfront shopping complexes – opposite the Sheraton Mirage and adjacent to the Palazzo Versace Resort.
John is kept busy creating new designs (many featuring Argyle pink diamonds, Passion 8 diamonds and Kailis pearls) and managing nine jewellers as well as fitting in monthly visits to Sydney for client meetings and the occasional trips to Europe for the same.
“I run the whole business by instinct,” he says. “I have never had a business plan in my life. I buy gems by gut, I buy jewellery by gut.”
He is obviously a man happy with his career choice.
“I love the feeling of designing a piece of jewellery and then watching every step of the making process,” he says, “but most of all I love watching the client’s face when they see what we’ve created.
“To see a person’s eyes light up when I open a box to present something to them that I’ve made is the most rewarding feeling –that’s why I went from manufacturing at the bench to retail.
“And that’s why despite the ups and downs of running a jewellery business my true passion for gems and beautiful jewellery always shines through.”
And his passion for gems and beautiful jewellery is the main reason behind John’s latest venture.
This month, with good fortune again on his side, John is overseeing the opening of a Calleija Jewellers store in London’s Old Bond Street.
In circumstances reminiscent of his decision to purchase his Sanctuary Cove store, John says he was casually walking through London a couple of years ago when he spotted a small vacant shop.
“I saw this tiny store in the middle of jewellery heaven and immediately knew that if I was ever going to try my luck in Europe this was my big chance because the store was so tiny that I knew the rent could be affordable,” he says.
“The store really is the size of my office at the Marina Mirage store but if it was any bigger I couldn’t afford to do it because the rent would kill me.”
Since his decision to take on the lease John has spent more than$1 million to get the store ready for this month’s (May) opening.
“The London store is definitely one of the biggest things we’ve ever done but we are so excited about it so it’s really worth it,” he says.
“To the best of our knowledge we’re the only Australian retail designer jeweller to have opened in the UK market – we’re certainly the first in Old Bond Street.”
John, who will still be based at his Marina Mirage store, is “quietly confident’ the London store will be a great success.
“I custom design jewellery pieces that take hundreds of hours to make so I need clients who appreciate that and are moneyed enough to afford them,” he says.
“I needed a vehicle to get my jewellery designs to the world and I didn’t want to do that by selling online or selling to other stores as I wanted to be the master of my own destiny.
“The little store in London in the centre of one of the world’s most famous jewellery precincts is my big opportunity.”
The London store will also give John, who hasn’t competed in any jewellery competitions since the DeBeers Award, the chance to try his luck in jewellery competitions again.
“In Australia I’m often a competition judge but now that we’re opening in Europe I’ve just discovered that I’m eligible to compete in a range of new competitions so I probably will do so.”
In the meantime John can continue to bask in the glory of Virtual Eros which is still on display in the Marina Mirage store. He says the piece, which catapulted him onto the international jewellery stage ‘is priceless’ and will never be sold.