Robert Ely, the owner of Sydney’s award-winning York Jewellers, fell in love with the jewellery industry as a teenager during a shopping trip with his mother.
Just 14-years-old at the time, Robert still recalls the day he visited the original York Jewellers store in Penrith with his mother who was having a piece of jewellery remodelled.
“The whole experience of being in a jewellery store captured my imagination,” he recalls.
“I loved seeing something that was dear to mum being transformed into something new. Of course the precious gold and diamonds were also appealing but I think it was the fact that I could see that jewellers could work with customers and use their hands to create something beautiful that really impressed me. I remember thinking this is probably something I would love to do.”
Robert’s father supported his son’s desire to enter the jewellery industry and arranged a part-time job for him at the store.
A few months later began his jewellery career by cleaning jewellery, sweeping the floor, cleaning benches and helping in the workshop after school and on the weekends.
Doing all the small jobs failed to deter Robert’s jewellery retailing dreams – in fact it helped convince him that it was his future.
“From the beginning I loved the jewellery retail trade and understood how it worked from the front floor to the back room,” he says.
“Then when I left school at the end of Year 10 I got an apprenticeship at the store and started making jewellery from the get-go as I had already learned so much during my part-time job.”
However Robert’s ambition quickly progressed beyond just working in the store – he wanted to own it.
Eventually the opportunity presented itself when York Jewellers’ original owner retired in 1976.
Robert, then 26-years-old, bought the store, which was located on Penrith’s High Street, with his wife Helen.
According to Robert, the store was then “a very traditional country jewellery store” stocking a broad product range that included not only jewellery and watches but also giftware, clocks, barometers and crystal.
However over time Robert gradually changed the focus of the store to fine jewellery and watches.
“As the jewellery side of the business grew and people realised we did remakes and manufacturing our reputation as a quality jeweller grew and the store began to thrive,” he says.
However, it was soon time to move.
“Penrith was changing, the Penrith Plaza later named Westfield, was also going through a once in a lifetime transition and this presented an opportunity to position York Jewellers in a busier hub, allowing for customers to park and shop in comfort.”
Since opening in Westfield, York Jewellers has undergone two refits and increased its floor space to around 120 square metres.
Today the store, a member of the Showcase buying group for around 25 years, is Penrith’s most established and respected jeweller.
The store is sleek and stylish and filled with its “own unique and unusual designs” ranging from affordable dress rings to three-carat engagement rings as well as popular brands like Pandora, Passion8, Dora, Georgini, Ti Sento, Storm, Jacques Lemans, TW Steel and Autore.
“We are a destination jewellery store providing quality products and excellent customer service at an affordable price,” says Robert.
“Every year I travel to Antwerp to source the highest quality diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and pearls to bring back to our workshop and create exquisite jewellery for our customers. But we also stock jewellery for customers who might not be able to afford such special pieces but still want to treat themselves.”
“We have a broad selection of jewellery perfectly chosen to not have any of our customers feel that we are too expensive whilst at the same time we do not alienate our high-end customers.
“Women aged 28 to 55 are our main target market. In fact the grandmother, the matriarch, is probably the most important person to our business. We work very hard to maintain contact with our customers so when they become mothers and then grandmothers they get their children and grandchildren to come to us.”
Indeed Robert argues his business success is largely due to the relationship the store has with its customers – irrespective of their budgets.
“We need to understand the psychology of our customers,” he says.
“We have to engage them regularly so we might call them and say ‘hey we haven’t seen you for six months and realise it’s time for you to come in so we can clean and polish your jewellery, and by the way is there anything in your jewellery box that needs repairing?”
“When they come back into the store and are waiting for their cleaning or repair we have the opportunity to develop our relationship with them…. Basically we’re enjoying the interaction and creating a relationship with the customer and this in turn, as our figures suggest, pays dividends for the growth of the business.
“My staff are not jewellery sales people they are jewellery consultants who help customers find the piece they want to buy – to help them purchase their first family heirloom or continue their family tradition.”
Indeed Rob’s passion for jewellery making and jewellery buying seems largely unchanged from when he first walked into the original York Jewellers with his mother all those years ago.
“I have a major passion for the industry,” he says.
“I love the industry. I have people coming into our store and if we work it right they have a great experience…So what can we get out of that? Yes there is financial benefit but ultimately satisfaction.”
Robert’s love of the jewellery industry has clearly been passed onto the next generation –Robert and Helen’s sons’ Matthew and Douglas both work in the business.
Like his father before him, Matthew began working part-time at York Jewellers when he was just 14-years-old and knew he wanted to be a jeweller.
When he completed Year 12 Matthew formally applied to his father for an apprenticeship but Robert said “no” as he wasn’t really sure that his son really knew what he wanted.
“I then went looking for an apprenticeship at other jewellery stores so dad then knew I was serious about a jewellery career and offered me an apprenticeship,” says Matthew.
Matthew began his apprenticeship in December 2004, just one week after completing his HSC.
Since then, he has made a big impact on the success of York Jewellers by winning several industry awards (including the World Skills Competition, a scholarship with the Australian Overseas Foundation and many Showcase Jeweller design awards) and thus rapidly establishing his reputation as a highly skilled jeweller
“I have set my standards very high and have dreams of making some of the most beautiful jewellery in the world,” Matthew says.
Douglas is also making an equally impressive debut in the Australian jewellery industry. He has entered the World Skills Australia competition this year and is currently a NSW finalist.
Not surprisingly Robert concludes that he is happy with York Jewellers’ success.
“The jewellery business has certainly lived up to the expectations I had when I walked in with mum as a teenager.
“Although I now work on the business, not on the bench within the business, I love going into the shop to chat with customers and I love watching my sons succeed.
“My expectations for the boys are much higher than for me” he laughs.