Today J. Farren-Price is one of Australia’s most distinguished jewellery stores that stocks many the world’s most exclusive timepieces.
However 67 years ago, the store that is now known and trusted by many of Australia’s best dressed, began life as an assembler and wholesaler of “bread and butter” watches for an Australian population who had limited previous exposure to wristwatches.
John Farren-Price, who passed away in 2001, initially established the business in the spring of 1942 after being discharged from the army due to “high blood pressure”. A watchmaker by trade, he recognised the business opportunity presented by Australia’s then severe watch shortage.
Called J. Farren-Price, Australia’s Watch Specialists, his company’s core business was importing Swiss movements, cases, bracelets and other watch parts. The components were then used to “build watches” for sale to the jewellery trade.
According to his son Julian Farren-Price, “the company sold good quality mechanical Swiss watches that “were not expensive”.
“They were the Holden of watches, not the Rolls Royce,” he says.
The ‘J. Farren-Price, Australia’s Watch Specialists’ name rapidly became a household name all around Australia as John began to distribute his watches through department stores, in addition to the more traditional independent jewellery stores.
Krysten Farren-Price (John’s former wife) says J. Farren-Price watches were rapidly accepted by department store buyers, as the watch wholesaler was one of the first Australian companies to set up low-maintenance “boutiques” within their stores.
“John moved his watches into the department stores by offering to build his own shop unit, undertaking all the advertising and guaranteeing the stores a gross profit margin, if they promised to stock only his watches,” explains Krysten.
However, the J. Farren-Prices’ fortunes changed dramatically in the late 1960s when Japanese quartz watch manufacturers moved into the Australian market and “demand for mechanical watches dropped overnight”.
Anticipating the changed mood in the market place, the Farren-Prices sold their wholesale business soon after, but still retained their workspace on the fourth floor of the St James Building in Sydney’s Castlereagh Street.
Shortly after the sale, the building underwent a major renovation that took six years to complete (largely due to constant union disputes).
Fortunately for the Farren-Prices, they had put in place options to lease premises in the refurbished building and when the building’s shopping arcade was reopened in 1975 they exercised their option and were given the opportunity to choose a space first.
Krysten says that although John had officially retired by then, she “decided to open a shop as sort of a hobby”.
She chose a space on the street facing corner of the ground floor and began selling quality Swiss watches including Rolex, Girard Perregaux and Vacheron Constantin in her more simply named J. Farren-Price store.
Although the new business was located next to already established competitors like Percy Marks, Hardy Brothers and Fairfax & Roberts, Krysten says it still got off to a good start as she took full advantage of the fact that “we had spent millions on advertising and marketing the J. Farren-Price brand since 1942”.
“The name was well recognised and highly respected right from the beginning” she says.
“At first the business attracted many of the customers that had gone to J. Farren-Price department store outlets.
“After approximately two years trading we were honored to be appointed as agent for Patek Phillipe (considered by many to be perhaps the world’s premier watch brand) and from that time decided to focus only on ‘top end’ watches for our clients.”
Krysten says the business has since moved “higher and higher in the marketplace” and now has an “obviously exclusive clientele” as many products in the range are “very limited and among the best you can buy”.
Today Krysten, having grown up in an era of formality and emphasis on politeness is affectionately known to her staff and clients as Mrs Farren-Price. She runs the J. Farren-Price store with her son Julian, who joined the business in 1989 after a five-career as a chartered accountant.
Although passionate about fine watches and jewellery now, Julian readily admits he didn’t have a particularly strong interest or appreciation of either prior to joining the business.
“I remember stamping the J. Farren-Price label on watches and putting straps on watches when I was a child, but I was never involved in the business at all until I joined the company,” he says.
To make up for any missing knowledge, Julian completed a three-month intensive jewellers’ management course in Lausanne in Switzerand – the course was specifically designed for “children” moving into their families’ watch and jewellery businesses.
On his return, Julian rapidly immersed himself in the day-to-day running of the business – first in accounting, then advertising, buying, administration and eventually selling.
Today he largely concentrates on the administrative side of the business (the company employs 10 staff) while his mother still focuses on the selling.
“I let the sales people out front do their job,” explains Julian, “although I do look after clients that I have basically had as customers for 20 years.”
Julian believes the store’s continuing success has been built on “good location, quality stock, good management, focused marketing and a jealously guarded reputation” as well as his mother’s passion for the business.
“I think when you combine all these factors you have a pretty successful formula,” he says. “You need all those pieces in the puzzle to make it a success. You can be let down by failing to achieve any one of those elements.”
The company sells “only the best watch brands”, ranging in price from a $425.00 Longines to a $1.6 million Patek Philippe complication.
“First and foremost we are focused on quality and therefore we only deal with watch brands that have long histories,” Julian explains, adding that “most of the watch brands the business stocks (Rolex, Patek Phillipe, Panerai, Hublot, Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain, Chopard, Omega, Longines, Parmigiani Fleurier, Ferrari and Tudor) are indeed more than a century old”.
“We’re not risk takers. We like the established brands. We don’t want something that’s going to be hot now and gone tomorrow and we don’t want to be changing our brands a lot either. We are very loyal to the brands we deal with. We have been with most of our brands for 20 to 30 years.”
He says the recognition of such prestigious watch brands by the Australian consumer has increased dramatically since J. Farren-Price first opened its doors for business.
“In the 1970s we worked with a very limited, exclusive customer base but over the last 30 years the recognition of the value of prestige watches and jewellery has increased enormously and the exposure of the brands has gone through the roof.
“In the 1970s we had to spend much more time selling each watch to the customer – telling them why they should have it, what attributes it had, what it represented, why it was an acquisition for the family, what model they might want it, etc – but now most people come in knowing exactly what they want.
“They come in and say I want a Patek Phillip ‘model XYZ’ as they have seen the advertisements, done their research on the internet and talked to their colleagues and friends.”
Not surprisingly he says the store’s customers are people who are prepared to pay for prestigious watch brands and high-quality jewellery (J. Farren-Price also sells Roberto Coin Cento and Picchiotti jewellery as well as their own bespoke collection featuring Cento, Argyle and Royal Asscher Diamonds).
“Our customers are people who value the products we sell and want to have a nice shopping experience,” he says.
“We don’t sell on a discount proposition. We believe we offer customers advantages that are worth paying for – we run an ethical business and have a fair and honest reputation. Also we have been around a long time so they know we will be here to help them in the future.”
“In addition we offer many additional services such as on-site jewellery polishing, cleaning, repairs, redesigns and valuations as well as watch repairs, polishing and restorations by our onsite watchmaker.”
Yet, despite the store’s obviously distinguished reputation among customers and industry peers alike and a record year of sales, Julian says there are no plans to open more J. Farren-Price stores in Australian or overseas.
“We are trying to build the best possible stock in the one location,” explains Julian. “To me, opening more stores would mean diluting the organization, rather than making it stronger.
“If we operated two stores we would have to divide our time between them and as owners we can’t be in two places at once – customers expect a Farren-Price to be in the store to help them.”
Like Julian, Krysten would like to see the business grow further but can see that happening at the present site, with not having to contemplate the idea of opening more stores.
She says rather than expanding to more stores she would prefer to focus her energy on providing the store’s Castlereagh Street customers with the “finest products and the nicest possible shopping experience”.
“Money doesn’t motivate me,” she says “Ethics and reputation and happy clients do.”
Both Julian and Krysten would however like to increase the business’s current store size as they are “running out of room” despite a fairly recent renovation and expansion that effectively doubled its size to 129 square metres.
The store’s current showroom boldly combines contemporary and traditional elements.
The main sales area (the front largely dedicated to Rolex) features marble floors, with 17th-century chandeliers, dramatically-lit white stone display cases and antique gold guilded guest chairs next to sleek consultation tables.
The adjoining Patek Phillipe lounge combines Louis XVI antique furniture with a 42-inch plasma screen that demonstrates the finer features of watches and custom-designed jewellery to customers.
However any desire to further increase the store’s size are on hold as there is no vacant space next to them and upwards expansion is not ideal as the store needs more street-level window space.
So for now it’s business as usual at J. Farren-Price – Julian working in the store Monday to Friday while Krysten works from Wednesday to Saturday.
“I still keep a very active interest in the business generally but also in some of the day to day activities” says Krysten, “as I have a great knowledge of the problems people face in decision making when they’re looking at something they’ve dreamt of owning – I like to help them make the decision to buy, knowing they have made the right choice.”
“I am still assisting clients who I first helped when the business opened in 1975.”