Jewellery retailers Glenn and Heather Curtis have created an international luxury brand with “jewellery that writes”.
Seven years ago Curtis Australia didn’t even exist, but today the company’s elegant pens are taking on well-established luxury brands like Cartier, Mont Blanc and Montegrappa in Europe and America’s finest jewellery and stationery stores.
Yet, until recently Glenn Curtis, the man behind the brand, never even dreamt that he would one day design and manufacture some of the world’s most desirable writing instruments.
In 1999, after nine years running a small chain of jewellery stores in regional Victoria, Glenn decided that he wanted “a new challenge” in life.
However, like most people looking for a change, Glenn wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted to do but decided to visit America with his wife Heather to develop an understanding of the luxury market there.
While on that trip the Curtis’s were inspired to create an international brand of their own and so began searching for a luxury product that they could manufacture and sell.
“After extensive market research we felt the best product category for our purpose was writing instruments,” recounts Glenn explaining that he was looking for a product that was ‘asexual’ (suitable for both sexes), one-size-fits-all, difficult to counterfeit and had a limited number of competitors.
Despite his jewellery manufacturing skills and extensive experience in jewellery retailing Glenn says he did not consider launching a jewellery brand.
“In the jewellery category it is very hard to put your brand name on top of something or around something until you’re already an established brand. People want the design first– not the brand.
He also rejected the idea of launching a new watch brand as although timepieces met most of his required criteria for an international brand there was “a plethora of watch brands on the market”.
“We concluded that writing instruments were our best choice as we had skills in the jewellery manufacturing process that could be transferred to pens relatively easily.”
He readily admits he never previously thought of manufacturing beautiful pens but simply saw “it as one of the best branding opportunities”.
Embracing the new opportunity, the Curtis’s relocated their existing jewellery manufacturing studio (which was attached to their Bairnsdale jewellery store) to a building five times as large and began developing pen designs with their existing staff of jewellers.
“We sat down and designed the pens we wanted to make and then spent thousands of hours and a considerable amount of money working out how to make them,” recalls Glenn.
“We already employed some experienced technicians of our own and trained some more, but it took a long time to get going as the pen-making process is more complicated than traditional jewellery making as the designs have to highly functional as well as stylish.
It’s a lengthy process of exploring design ideas, prototyping in depth and hand detailing masters before a pen emerges. And that’s before brochures, advertising and marketing. We’ve tried hard to innovate on all fronts, so we could attract attention in a sophisticated and mature market.
The end result is a collection of pens that sits comfortably with the world’s most famous writing instrument brands.
Described by Glenn as “jewellery that writes”, the Curtis Australia collection is made up of more than 100 solid 9 and 18 carat gold and sterling silver designs in three distinct ranges – essential, luxury and limited edition with retail prices ranging from $245 to $100,000.
Launched onto the US market in 2006, the Australian-designed and made pens (“only one small widget in each pen is made overseas”) have been warmly welcomed in the high-end pen category traditionally dominated by well established brands such as Mont Blanc, Cartier and Montegrappa.
“We exhibited at the New York Stationery Fair in 2006 and were approached by so many people wanting to stock our pens we couldn’t believe it,” says Glenn.
Having proved itself in the US market, and more recently in Europe, Curtis Australia is now beginning to establish the brand on home soil where it has already had much success attracting the attention of the “big end of town”.
The company was recently commissioned by Rio Tinto to design a fountain pen set with over 500 champagne diamonds for display in New York during G’Day USA Week and has also secured contracts with the Parliament of Australia to supply special pens and accessories for visiting heads of state and dignitaries.
In addition the brand is now stocked at several high-end jewellery retail outlets such as Hardy Brothers and is planning to expand its presence in other jewellery retail outlets.
Glenn believes the pens make an excellent addition to jewellery store stock.
“A quality pen is often a more suitable gift than a ring for many occasions as it less emotive but still very personal.
“You can’t always buy someone special a ring – it’s quite an intimate gift. A fine pen is still personal and makes the perfect gift without showing love in a romantic way.”
“In addition a quality pen collection can give a jewellery retailer a bigger product range for less money as there is no need for separate collections for males and females as most pens are designed to suit both – and jewellers don’t have to adjust pens for size.”
Glenn and Heather still own a jewellery store in Bairnsdale but largely leave its day-to-day running in the hands of trusted staff while they continue to grow their international pen brand.
“We now produce a few thousand pens a year,” concludes Glenn, “and I expect that to grow further in the next few years.”
He also says the company, which has already added cufflinks, key fobs, letter openers to its brand’s product range, will eventually expand further into jewellery – and perhaps even watches.
It seems that Curtis Australia is well on the way to writing its name into Australian retailing history.