Aram Atakliyan is the owner of one of Australia’s last remaining handmade chain making businesses – ADJ (Australian Designer Jewellery) Australia. He has spent the last 27 years of his life making and selling chains to jewellery shops throughout Australia and the world – and plans to continue doing so for a long time.
Yet despite his business success and his family’s chain making background, Aram, who is affectionately known as the ‘King of the Link’ by his customers, didn’t set out to become a chain maker. In fact after finishing high school in Israel he completed a mechanical engineering degree in England and then moved half way across the world to begin an engineering career in Sydney.
“I worked as an engineer for about a year but didn’t like it so I returned to the family business of making jewellery,” he explains.
“In Australia I started a chain manufacturing business after trying to sell a friend’s chains to retailers with limited success. I decided it would be better to start manufacturing chains rather than selling chains someone else had made, so I brought my brother Isa over and we started making chains together.”
The Atakliyan brothers’ chain-making business, ABJ Australia, enjoyed great success almost immediately, as there was a thriving market for locally made chains, largely due to the 32.5 percent import duty on jewellery and very few local manufacturers.
“We used to do kilos of hand crafted chains every week,” recalls Aram, “and we were innundated with orders.”
“Sometimes when we made a chain for a client they would come back with flowers and a box of chocolates or other small gifts, as well as their payment, because they were just so happy to be able to obtain a quality chain handmade in Australia.”
However, perhaps predictably, the early days of relatively easy success gradually came to an end in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an increasing number of local jewellers entered the market, the import duty was slowly reduced and the “recession we had to have” took effect.
At the beginning of 2006 Aram and Isa decided the best way to increase their share in the stagnant market was to establish two separate companies, each operated by one of the brothers.
“After 26 years we realised that the market was changing and it would be better to have two companies to get two pieces of the same cake instead of trying sharing the one piece,” says Aram.
“However, my brother and I are always family first – if I have too much work I give it to him and he does the same for me.”
He says the split has put the brothers in a “friendly competition” that is helping both businesses grow.
Today Aram’s ADJ Australia, Isa’s Isaac Jewellery and their nephews Solid Gold Jewellery are three of only a handful of handmade chain making businesses still operating in Australia.
“It’s a shame that handmade chain making is now a dying art in Australia but it’s a fact of life,” laments Aram. “China has taken over as the major supplier of jewellery in this country and 90 percent of jewellery retailers now stock only cast and machine-made chains. That’s a real pity because these chains aren’t made by jewellers but by process workers and the quality is nowhere near as high as that of a good handmade chain.”
“Ten years ago every good jewellery shop probably had five to ten handmade chains but now I hardly see any.”
Aram admits the quality of Chinese machine-made chains today is considerably better than 10 years ago, but says it is still well below that of a handmade chain.
“Handmade chains are made from nice clean drawn wire while cast chains are cast in a mold – and you can really see the difference in the finished product.
“The handmade chain is nice and smooth and flat with a lovely mirror finish while a cast chain is usually quite high-sitting and just doesn’t have the same shiny finish. A handmade chain’s links are so soft and beautiful that they can be bent back and reshaped while cast links are hard and brittle.”
“It’s a fact that even the most modern sophisticated casting machines cannot achieve the same quality as a handmade chain.”
Nonetheless Aram acknowledges that it is also a fact that most consumers and many retailers are unaware of the differences between the two types of chains – and/or simply unwilling to pay the higher price for the better quality product.
“I know that my Australian manufactured, hand crafted chains will never be able to compete with the machine-made chains on price but fortunately there are still enough jewellers and consumers who appreciate the difference in quality and are prepared to pay for the craftsmanship and original designs,” he says.
It is for this reason that Aram strongly believes that his short-lived engineering career has proved to be a real asset for his chain making business.
“My background in design and manufacture engineering has really helped the business because in many ways jewellery manufacturing is precious metal engineering,” he says.
“If I didn’t have an engineering background I honestly don’t believe I could have produced all the different designs I have as traditional jewellery making courses only teach you how to curve, bend or cut jewellery using whatever tools are available.
“I have managed to make a lot more original designs because I have the skills to not only handle the jewellery but to produce the tools to work it as well.
“We compete by constantly creating new designs that cannot be easily copied but it isn’t always simple,” says Aram.
“Sometimes you have to just accept the copycat element as a form of flattery,” he says matter of factly.
More importantly Aram knows that his customers appreciate and recognise his original designs and is kept busy keeping up with all the latest international and local design trends.
Indeed ADJ’s latest collection of chains in its 2008 catalogue is both extensive and impressive with more than 2000 classic and contemporary designs in nine, 14 and 18 carat yellow, rose and white gold – and the King of the Link has already begun working on next year’s designs.