As a teenager, Brendan McCreesh had no plans to follow his mother Rita van Lieshout into the gemstonebusiness but it was only a matter of time before he found the lure of coloured gemstones irresistible.
Since 1979 Rita had been at the helm of O’Neil’s Gems, a coloured gemstone wholesale business started by friends Robert and Jean O’Neil in the early 1950s.
The O’Neil’s had run the company from their Brisbane home and after Rita took over she slowly built the business up and moved into an office in the city.
“As a 13-year-old I helped out with deliveries and pick-ups, so I had an involvement even then,” Brendan recalls.
“When I left school mum asked me to work with her but at that stage I wasn’t ready.
“I worked as an AutoCAD draftsman in the 80s and then went backpacking to London and ended up staying six years.
“I went to university there, studying English and History. I met my now wife and we knew we didn’t want to raise children in London so I started to think about coming home and joining the family business.”
Brendan became his mother’s apprentice and benefited greatly from her “enormous amount of knowledge and experience”.
“She has great standing in the trade and a reputation second to none, so I learned from the best.”
Today, the company’s product range includes everything from jobbing stones for repair work up to sapphires, rubies and emeralds. Requests for everything from a three carat ruby to matching round amethysts to synthetic stones to amber with an insect in it are all in a day’s work.
As well as learning the trade from the ground up, Brendan was able to make full use of his background in graphics.
It was the early days of the Internet, and his flair for images took the company into an exciting new direction in terms of sales and marketing.
“Australia is a huge country with a lot of distance between towns and we had a long hard think about how we could let people see what we could offer in the most efficient way.
“There are many risks and costs involved in having someone on the road with a bag of gemstones.”
Brendan’s answer was to photograph all the stones, create new full-colour catalogue and give the company a big online presence.
“It made a huge difference in terms of our profile and sales.”
In the course of photographing the stones, Brendan became more and more fascinated by their qualities.
“When you are photographing something you look at it very closely and the stones were just fabulous.
“Most of the people who work in this field will tell you they are seeing utterly beautiful things all the time.”
The company was travelling along quite happily, mother and son making a great team, when a few years ago an opportunity came from out of the blue.
“We got a phone call from Terry Coldham of Sydney-based Sapphex and Melbourne-based Affiliated Importers to say he was considering retiring and would we be interested in buying his business.
“Really, you could have knocked me down with a feather.”
Terry Coldham established Sapphex in 1973 and brought Affiliated in the late 1990s, following a similar offer to the one he made to O’Neil’s. The then owner was retiring and gave him the chance to buy the business.
The concept made sense to Brendan.
“Even after they have moved on, people want their business to do well. So much emotion, blood, sweat and tears goes into these things. You want to sell to people with the experience to make it work, not someone with a pile of money who doesn’t have a clue what they are doing.”
After weighing up the pros and cons, all involved felt it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“But buying a competitor larger than yourself is not a straightforward process. It took about eight to ten months of back and forth negotiation.”
The sale in August 2010 began a new and exciting era for the company. It was decided to combine two of the oldest and most established gemstone business names in Australia and so O’Neil’s Affiliated was born.
“It was a huge leap for us, going from about five staff to 21 with offices in different states.
“We have kept all the sales staff as they are an absolutely fantastic team. There is a huge amount of combined experience and expertise, far more valuable than any gems.”
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges the business now faces is promoting coloured gemstones and educating people in their beauty and fascination.
Part of the trouble, says Brendan, is at the retail level people often don’t have the knowledge and confidence to buy coloured stones.
To assist, the company provides their retail and manufacturing jewellers with a comprehensive guide so staff can answer queries about rubies or tanzanites with confidence, potentially leading to sales.
“Diamonds may be a jeweller’s bread and butter but the market is so competitive,” Brendan points out.
“The opportunities for coloured stones are enormous, with bigger profit margins for the retailer, because he isn’t competing with four other jewellers offering the same thing.
“For those customers who want something unique, you can guarantee with confidence they will never meet anyone else with a similar stone. It’s all about colour and individuality.
“We have gemstones like colour-change stones and star sapphires which are utterly beautiful and produced by nature. Most people have never heard of them.
“Star sapphires can be very reasonably priced. They come straight from nature and you have something unique and beautiful to wear that is not out of a factory and repeated 10,000 times over.
“There is good and innovative design in Australia but the market is still quite conservative.
“There are fantastic young jewellers coming through who are excited about creating designs that out of the ordinary but in my opinion there are not enough of them.”
Of course, the Royal family has long favoured coloured gemstones – Sarah Ferguson wore a ruby and Princess Diana a blue sapphire which has now been passed to Kate Middleton –while celebrities, like Angelina Jolie who famously wore large pear-shaped emerald earrings for one event, also dabble in their dazzle.
Brendan Brendan concedes says media coverage of such stars creates a huge amount of interest, but there is still a way to go before people realise what is available.
“The diamond industry is backed with massive marketing budgets and when people buy an engagement ring, more often than not they choose a diamond.
“It was by no means always the case. Prior to World War II it was more traditional to buy a sapphire.
“The limitations for us are we are a wholesale business. I would like to see the retail business promoting coloured gemstones more.
“But not too many jewellers are going to put an ad in the paper saying come and buy tanzanites or mandarine garnets, it’s nearly always gold and diamonds, the exception rather than the rule.”
O’Neil’s Affiliated is certainly doing its bit to promote awareness.
For the past two years the company has supplied videos showcasing gemstones for customers to screen in their shops and it now has a dedicated staff member photographing and uploading gemstones onto their website as well as Youtube.
“A photo is good but a 10 second clip of a rotating stone is even better as you see it from every angle.”
Brendan says there are plenty of opportunities for jewellers to explore. He cites a Bundaberg jeweller passionate about gemmology who years ago ran courses to educate his customers.
“As a result of his efforts Bundaberg became a really good jewellery town as the people there were buying really interesting pieces. Awareness is the first step.”
The company is also still working its way through the challenges of having multiple offices.
“If you are just working out of one office you have intimate knowledge of your stock and can answer enquiries instantly. That is not the case now. We have literally hundreds of thousands of gemstones and individual product lines spread over three offices.
Once again technology is coming to the rescue.
“We looked around for a base software package to customise, which is nearly complete.
“Once established it will allow staff and eventually our customers to log into our inventory and see what we have at a glance.”
O’Neil’s is also developing a gemstone app, due to be launched mid-year, that will allow jewellers to view their stock on an iPad, showing customers instantly what is available.
Even as the company adjusts to tripling in size, it is also dealing with the departure of Rita.
“My mother has been talking about retiring for a while but she found it hard to stop as she just loves it so much.
“But at the beginning of 2012 she decided it was time.
We haven’t made an official announcement yet, or even had a retirement party for her. She is still semi-involved, and in a very exciting way. All I can say is that she is currently overseas, the rest will be revealed in the coming months.”
Brendan and his mother were equal partners but following the company’s expansion he is now managing director, a very different role to hands-on selling.
“I do miss that face-to-face face contact with customers but there is plenty to do,” he laughs, explaining the company’s Melbourne office has just moved to bigger premises.
Brendan’s main role now is buying stock. He sources stones from all over the world, allowing his eldest son to accompany him on a three-week buying trip last year to Bangkok, China and India.
He has recently returned from the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, the biggest show of its kind in the world.
The object was to come back with something interesting and he has certainly achieved that with three large, unusual geodes, much sought after by jewellery shops wanting an unusual mineral specimen for cabinet displays.
Crystal specimens, fossilised ammonite, shark’s teeth and amber were also ticked off his shopping list.
He also visited Colombia, where he suffered a hellish eight-hour drive to a remote location for the opportunity of visiting an emerald mine, an experience he describes as ‘absolutely wonderful’.
“One of the problems we have had is getting a good, reliable, regular supply of emeralds.
“Unfortunately, more often than not, they do not know what will sell on the Australian market. Just because a stone is the size of a duck egg doesn’t mean anyone is going to want it.
“We know our customers want a certain quality within a certain price range so I took the opportunity to go there and talk to dealers and cutters.
“Colombia is considerably off the beaten track for most gemstones traders considering its violent history but the situation has changed for the better and is much safer now, you just have to be sensible.”
Brendan is now immersed in photographing the pieces he has brought back from overseas, finding the process as fascinating as ever.
“Every day you are looking at something magnificent and unique, and that is the magic of my work.”
While future trends are hard to predict, Brendan has noted a move towards buying a single quality gemstone rather than multiple, less expensive gemstones.
“Rather than a medium or low quality, let’s say ruby, people are more and more likely to go for a higher quality stone. It seems the buying public may becoming more discerning, which is wonderful.
“I always advise my customers to buy the best you can afford and you can’t go wrong.
“Once people are exposed to the world of coloured gemstones their eyes light up and they are very intrigued.
“For instance, I constantly have a scattering of new gemstones on my desk and as people pass through there’s one word you’ll here every time, ‘wow’. I love that.”