Distelling success

From making copper pipe jewellery for his mum to manufacturing diamond and gold jewellery for the masses, Albert Grech has tried it all to find…
From making copper pipe jewellery for his mum to manufacturing diamond and gold jewellery for the masses, Albert Grech has tried it all to find success in the local jewellery industry.
Albert Grech is living proof that childhood dreams can and do come true.
At 13 years of age Albert knew he wanted to be a jeweller and thus spent hours in the family garage creating jewellery from old copper pipes and diamantes for his mum.
In the 45 years since he has achieved his career ambition – and more.
Today he owns a jewellery manufacturing company with his brother Peter that produces and distributes millions of pieces of gold and silver jewellery around Australia and overseas each year.
Not bad, for a man who “failed everything but art” at school.
“I have been a jeweller since the day I left school,” says Albert.
“I excelled at art and wanted to do something for an occupation which wasn’t going to be the same every single day of the week.”
Therefore despite the school counsellor’s suggestion that he should pursue a career as a jockey or window dresser, Albert scoured the Sydney Morning Herald classifieds looking for a jewellery apprenticeship.
“I saw an ad in the paper for an apprenticeship at Clarke and Walton’s and immediately applied for it.
“There were 26 applicants for the one job. It got down to the last two applicants and ultimately came down to just one final question from Roy the foreman. He asked ‘Why should I give you this job instead of the other guy?’ and I replied ‘Because I want the job that badly that I will work for you for nothing for a year in order to become a jeweller’.”
Albert got the apprenticeship and hasn’t looked back since.
“I have never regretted being a jeweller,” he says.
“I am one of the fortunate few who enjoy getting out of bed each day to come to work.”
 After completing his apprenticeship, Albert worked for Clarke & Walton for another three years before moving on to Alan J Sweeney’s where he also stayed for three years before deciding to try his hand at jewellery retailing.
“I thought I had had enough of the bench and opened up two retail shops in North Sydney but in the end the idiotic requests (‘Can you fix this $2 chain?’, ‘Can I pick up this repair in five minutes?’) got to me.”
Concluding that he really “didn’t like retail”, Albert sold the jewellery stores to his father in 1982 and set up a jewellery wholesale business with his friend Ian Barnes, a diamond setter he had met when they were both apprentices at Clarke & Walton.
The new business, Distell International Pty Ltd, rapidly established itself as the exclusive distributor of Myer Jewellery in Australia for Hong Kong-based Myer Jewelry Manufacturer.
Albert says the transition from retailing to wholesaling was “very easy”.
“The Myer range was well received as it was competitively-priced high quality nine- and 18-carat gold jewellery. We exhibited our initial offering of around 120 pieces at the jewellery fair in the Wentworth Hotel and could not believe the response. After the exhibition we went straight back to Hong Kong and selected more pieces until we ended up with over 500”.
However, Albert and Ian’s satisfaction with the Myer range diminished quite rapidly as Myer Jewelry Manufacturer “kept increasing its prices”.
They decided it would be more profitable to manufacture jewellery of “the same ilk” themselves and opened a factory in Sydney’s Pitt Street.
The “avante guarde 9 and 18 carat gold jewellery” sold well and the company prospered until 1989 when “rough times started to hit due to Paul Keating’s enforced recession”.
“I had to find somewhere else to survive and Asia was growing so I started to look for opportunities there,” says Albert.
“I headed to Singapore and Malaysia as the markets were a little bit raw and weren’t so price conscious.”
The company enjoyed significant success in both countries as the retailers were “eager to access new quality products”.
Nonetheless, despite the company’s success in the Asian market and signs of an improving domestic economy, Ian decided it was time to pursue other business interests.
Albert’s younger brother, Peter, who did his jewellery apprenticeship with Distell, bought Ian’s share of the business – instantly turning Distell into a family business.
Under the leadership of the two brothers, the business continued its steady growth locally and offshore.
Constantly on the lookout for new opportunities, in 1991 they decided it was time for another change in direction.
Although happy to stay in the wholesale market, they decided their jewellery designs had to change to garner a larger share.
“We decided not to make avante garde jewellery anymore,” says Albert.
“We decided to create mass market jewellery and concentrate on selling it to the major chains and buying groups such as Prouds, Goldmark, Showcase and Nationwide.
“We started offering them custom-made products and manufacturing products to specific price points. For example they (the chains/buying groups) come to us and say ‘we need a diamond and sapphire ring to sell for $195’ and we come up with some suitable designs.”
Albert says that producing such custom-made products on a large scale is rewarding but demanding.
To ensure the company retained its competitive edge in such a lucrative market, Albert and Peter moved their manufacturing premises offshore six years ago.
“We moved our manufacturing to Bangkok in 2004 as the pool of skilled labour in Australia was diminishing and we just couldn’t find quality jewellers to work in our factory.
“Highly skilled jewellers in Australia want to work for themselves,” he explains.
“Therefore Peter and I concluded that our best option was to open up a factory in Asia.
“We went to Bangkok in January 2004, found a factory site in February and opened for business with our first 17 Thai employees in April.”
Since then the company has expanded its product offering to include five branded collections –Tresor, Love Stories, Pippa Dippa, Off the Cuff and Rogue – as well as its unbranded collections for “the majors and the buying groups”.
“We noticed that brands were coming to the forefront of the jewellery market a couple of years ago so we started to try and create some,” explains Albert.
In 2007 the company created the Trésor sterling silver beaded jewellery collection.
Albert says the brand was launched with a favourable reaction but gradually petered out as “marketing was not our area of expertise at that stage”.
A year later the company created the Love Stories collection of sterling silver heart-shaped lockets in conjunction with their Netherlands’ agent.
“He, Peter Bruining, understood marketing much better than we would ever do so we went together jointly with him as sole agent in Europe – and the very first time he showed product at BaselWorld the H Samuel jewellery retail chain took it up throughout the UK.”
This year the company has followed up with the launch of its Pippa Dippa collection of personalised beads and bracelets, the Rogue collection of men’s personalized sterling silver jewellery and the Off The Cuff pearl and bead bracelet collection.
With 100 staff in Bangkok and Sydney, Distell’s branded and unbranded jewellery is now sold in around 1100 stores in Australia and New Zealand as well as 250 stores in the UK and Europe.
Obviously happy with the business’s current success, Albert is unsure of its future direction but is adamant that he will remain open-minded to all the opportunities that present themselves in the jewellery industry.
“As I said when I was just a teenager – I just want to be a jeweller and do something that isn’t the same every single day of the week.”