Guy Burton | Hancocks

Guy Burton is the Bespoke Director for Hancocks, a London family business and independent jewelry house. He focuses on finding and acquiring the finest loose diamonds and gemstones and creating new jewelry pieces, as well as expanding the Hancocks antique jewelry collection. The pieces he acquires originate from all over the world, though they all share a common element of exquisite beauty or unusual provenance.

Describe your work. What’s your specialty?

Hancocks has been based in the West End of London as a jeweler since 1849. We used to supply Queen Victoria and the royal family, as well as several other royal families, so history is important to us.

Our business is two-fold, but each arm works well with the other because they’re both centered on the finest antique gems and finished jewelry from all periods. I seek out the best antique gemstones and create new pieces from them at our in-house workshop. Engagement rings make up a large portion of the jewelry work I do. My wider role is buying antique pieces as well, and we specialize in signed pieces, whether they’re vintage Cartier or Van Cleef or pieces from other big jewelry houses.

Focusing more and more on my niche, I am extremely passionate about uncut diamonds and gems. Everything about them compels me - the process, the beauty, the romance, and the history. What makes Hancocks different from other jewelers is that I only use antique and uncut gemstones to hand-make all of the jewelry here in London, and I only make one-of-a kind pieces.

You’re only as good as the jewelry you curate or create, so a lot of my time is dedicated to finding those special diamonds and gemstones, and coupled with my time in the workshop, that keeps me pretty busy.

Can you give an example of what it takes to bring a project from start to finish?

There are two sides to the work I do. The first prong is bespoke work, where I work with customers, and I create a ring, for example, from start to finish. That side of the practice includes sourcing the main gemstones used in the jewelry.

The second prong is creating stock, and I use my own designs and ideas to create pieces. I buy diamonds and gemstones from a variety of places around the world, largely from trade shows. I frequently travel to the States, as well as Hong Kong and Europe, to try to find these stones, which are crafted and sold loose. Alternatively, they are sold in old pieces of jewelry that have reached the end of their lives, and the stones can be used in a different frame.

Another way I find stones is privately, through private families in the UK and sometimes auctions. We scour every avenue to find the very best of the old cuts because the majority of old cuts aren’t the best, so we find the top 1% of those.

When I’ve found a stone that I like, I’ll buy it if it’s at the right level. By the right level, I mean that we can also trade out the diamond or the stone, if need be, at a later stage and also that I can deliver the right price to the retailer and the customer.

In terms of the quality of stones I buy, I buy D to Z. I buy a range of colors and eye clean stones clarity-wise. I think people often get carried away with thinking that color is a quality grade, and I use a lot of Cape diamonds in my jewelry.

Once I’ve sourced the right stone, using an engagement ring as an example, I design a ring that is classical in style, but with a twist. That twist might entail showing off the stones through craftsmanship or design, and if the twist is in the design, I try to reflect a feature that was commonplace during the era that the diamond was cut. For example, if it’s a 1920s or 1930s Asscher-cut diamond, I like to insert that Art Deco feel - nice, angled geometric facets in the metalwork. If the stone is an old mine cut from the late 19th, early 20th century, then I’ll perhaps insert an Edwardian-style engraving into the work.

The common model is that all of the stones are old cut, and they’re all traditionally handmade. I only use GIA-certificated diamonds and for any colored stones, I always use the top labs - Gübelin Gem Lab, SSEF (Swiss Gemmological Institute), GIA (Gemological Institute of America), AGL (American Gemological Laboratories), and so forth.

Everything is completely open book with my retail customers. That’s becoming more and more important and actually quite rare with old cut stones. Some industry players might hide behind the fact that the stones are cut old and therefore don’t warrant a certificate, but that’s not the case. I try to answer all of the questions before they’re asked by the customers and produce the very best-looking jewels using the very best stones on the market.

How did you attain your education, and what’s your background within the industry?

My father’s in the jewelry business, so starting when I was very young, even on school holidays, I would go to the Vegas trade shows or the Miami trade shows, even if only to clean the counters. You naturally glean information from being in an immersive environment like trade shows. Those early experiences developed an interest, even if only in the back of mind.

My university education wasn’t specifically gemology focused, and when I left university, I spent a couple of years in the real estate investment and commercial property business. That was during the recession in 2007 and 2008, so it wasn’t a great time to be in that industry, and I decided to enter into the family business.

Hancocks, at that stage, was very focused on solely procuring antique jewelry, as opposed to entering into the engagement ring market. We weren’t creating very much jewelry at that time, so I saw a niche because gemology and old cut diamonds had captured my interest.

I followed through and obtained more practical qualifications, such as my Diamond Diploma from Gem-A (Gemmological Association of Great Britain), in 2009. My education gave me a backbone of confidence that realigned and reaffirmed my gemological passions and interests, in addition to to giving me a base of more academic knowledge. I gained more of an understanding of diamonds as a whole, the history of how their relationship with jewelry has developed over time, and a geological education as well.

You have to have the academic background or knowledge to trade stones efficiently, otherwise you’re going to overpay or buy the wrong ones. From an education perspective, experience is 100% number one, but the job can’t be done without a solid base, or foundation of knowledge, however that’s obtained, whether it’s from the GIA or Gem-A, or intensive learning via another professional in the industry.

Experience is largely honed at the trade shows and daily business with other dealers. Buying the wrong stones and making mistakes can oftentimes teach a novice trader valuable lessons about the business. When you see enough stones, you begin to understand certain gemstones and diamonds on a very deep level and identify the best opportunities. A constant evolution is taking place, and everyone plays off of everyone else in the industry in that way.

My more academic education has been very useful, but the most important lesson to learn in the trade is to express your taste through what you buy and to hone your eye. The constantly evolving taste and particular style of Hancocks works to naturally keep the finished products fresh.

What types of projects get you particularly excited?

It’s always exciting when a piece of jewelry I’ve created comes back to me or I buy it back again. For example, if a ring I made ten years ago comes back to me for servicing or revaluing, I’ll look at it with the knowledge I’ve achieved since then, and I think about how I could improve upon the design. I’m obsessed with angles, diamonds, crown angles, and facet length and focused on reflecting those different elements in a piece of jewelry.

There are always going to be mistakes, and everybody I know in the industry has made them. It’s important to discover mistakes before they end up as somebody else’s.

What specific characteristics do you look for in a gem?

I have a personal preference for step cuts with nice, big cut corners and beautiful geometry, but I try not to buy purely for my own taste. I absolutely love vintage step cuts, particularly Asschers, and emerald cuts. I like to be known for having the nicest Asschers, the nicest emerald cuts, and a lovely collection of jewelry that highlights those stones.

In terms of antique stones, I’m looking for the ones that are perfect, the diamonds and the gems that were cut by the very best polishers a hundred years ago. A lot of people will tell you that they love antique stones because of their little imperfections and asymmetries, but I feel differently. I like symmetrical stones that can stand up to the modern critic, that can convince somebody who knows all about diamonds to conform to the very best of the old cut stones.

In terms of colored stones, I love the old Muzo natural Colombian emeralds. They exhibit gorgeous, deep green coloring, and I’m always looking for very nice stones like those. For that reason, I always have a lot of the top-notch Colombian emeralds of any size in my inventory, from stones that are under a carat to rather large emeralds.

Those are the characteristics I’m looking for - the very best of. The size and the color of the stones are less of a concern than the quality. The quality is everything, and the cut is everything, and I don’t think that many people actually do look for those qualities anymore. Some do, but the majority look for certificates and see where the margin is.

How do differing cultural trends change your work?

I strive to create an international collection. I sell as many pieces of jewelry to Americans as I do to Europeans on my doorstep. Hancocks has always, and certainly for the past 50 years, been an international company. We are traditional London jewelers with international horizons, and we have kept up to pace because not only are we retail jewelers, but we wholesale and trade as well, mostly in signed pieces of jewelry.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re in Hong Kong, America, Germany, Holland, or the UK, we are always able to accommodate both the local and global markets. As opposed to a retailer who might be loath to make less than 10% profit, we have a dealer’s mentality. At any given time, we’re happy to turn a profit, and that’s useful because it means we’re constantly doing business.

Doing business nicely is pretty international and universal. It always seems to work. I make items that appeal to everyone everywhere, and quality pieces do exactly that.

What’s a gemological subfield that you wish the public knew more about?

I would love for people to understand the intricate and delicate craftsmanship behind old cut diamonds. The vast majority of modern diamond jewelry is laser cut, and the inclusions have been mapped out on a computer that anybody can be trained to use.

With antique jewelry, on the other hand, whether it’s a beautiful 1920s Cartier broach or a ring or a tiara, the craftsmanship is achieved by the stone cutter. That’s a huge part of the jewelry industry that no longer exists, and the appreciation has gone with it.

I’d also like to educate the public about the difference between a modern diamond and an antique stone. Although you can get both stones certificated by the GIA, and they share some similarities, such as their color, they’re completely different products.

Trusting your instincts and understanding the beauty your eye is seeing - the faceting arrangement, the symmetry, the cuts, how the look was achieved, the era in which the stone was cut and where - requires a certain knowledge base and an appreciation for the art. For example, if a stone was cut in New York in the 1920s, having an understanding of what was going on there at the time, the history behind the stone, and the different pressures on the diamond cutters at the time that the stone was cut makes all the difference in appreciating the value of the stone.

A one-carat diamond today has to meet a variety of specifications, and the focus is on spread and depth in order to meet a commercial objective. A hundred years ago, on the other hand, stone cutters didn’t have to achieve a certain weight. It didn’t matter whether the stone was 1.0 carats or 0.9 carats. The depth of the stone didn’t matter as much as getting the most amount of beauty out if it. That’s beautiful craftsmanship, and you achieve a much better end product because maximum levels of beauty have been gleaned from the rough material.

What are some significant industry lessons you’ve learned?

1. Be transparent. You’re better off saying everything you know about the stone or jewel, even if there are a lot of negatives, than leaving information out. Unfortunately, some qualities are deemed negative due to misinformation or miseducation, fluorescence in diamonds being one such topic. If I sold a diamond with strong blue fluorescence, and it was sold at the right price (it would need to be discounted), I would be open book about it. I’d explain that the price is lower because the stone has blue fluorescence, but there’s nothing visible in the stone. It’s a great purchase, and you can take advantage of the price. Sometimes these details can cost a sale, but they might not. At the end of the day, it’s better to be open than to have customers returning to you with the belief that you tried to pull the wool over their eyes.

2. Trust your instincts, and trust your eye. In the past, I’ve had a gut feeling to buy an item, and then, for whatever reason, thought about the decision too much, not bought the piece or stone, and regretted doing so.

In terms of trust, there are some people I’m much more comfortable dealing with than others. Business should be enjoyable. Whether you’re an end customer buying a ring from a retailer or you’re a dealer buying a stone from another dealer or jeweler, I think it’s important to enjoy the experience. The trade is everyone’s livelihoods of course, but it’s much more enjoyable and nicer to deal with people you’d like to deal with, and that sentiment reflects on the end user. When people come into the shop and receive friendly and personable service, they’re hopefully encouraged to come back and conduct business with us again.

How has the trade evolved over the years?

I’ve seen the trade change massively over the years purely because I’ve been in the industry since I was very young, even if I was just washing the cabinets at trade shows. I remember going to Grosvenor House, which is one of the top retail shows in London, 25 years ago and helping out. The business was completely different then in that colossal amounts of invoices were being written every day at the show, and a much larger volume of business was being conducted.

The industry has completely changed now in that the volume of retail sales has decreased. The two main factors contributing to these changes are:

1. The Internet, for many reasons. There’s more false information, miseducation, and people can look up the prices of pieces from all over the world (non-relevant comparables), and they will often base their opinions on certain gemstones and pieces of jewelry that way.

Social media is the biggest driver of modern change in the industry. Although there’s much more visibility in terms of being able to see what jewelry and gems are available, it has actually been more difficult to find some stones because they’re more tucked away. Collectors have acquired and stocked up  some amazing pieces.

The positive outcomes of the introduction of social media include that the reach of the trade is much more extensive. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, we were doing a lot of business with Americans because we went to a fair amount of trade shows there, but apart from that, our clientele was 90% British and 10% comprised of American and European tourists.

With increased Internet presence, however, we’ve had visitors from all over - Australia, America, Canada, China, Japan, and so forth. On a weekly basis, we have a much more diverse community coming to visit us deliberately, as opposed to just walking past our storefront and wandering in, and we’re meeting more collectors that way as well.

2. The other factor that has changed over the years is the dominance of auction houses, which has increased dramatically and altered the dynamic between the trade, auction houses, and the private.

The trade wasn't necessarily easier in the past, but when my father was doing business, the public placed a certain level of trust and faith in the retailer. That retail attitude has changed, and now, more often than not, the public believes they’ve been taken advantage of and that retailers are out to make as much money as they possibly can, which might be the case for some retailers.

What are some of the issues you feel the trade faces today?

There are certainly issues in the trade today, many of them being geographical. In London, we have ever increasing, world record-breaking rent and ever increasing business taxes. With the development of individuals and businesses selling on other platforms, such as Instagram, an unequal playing field is introduced because we’ve been structured as a retail business in the West End of London for over 170 years, and it’s very expensive to have our shop there. Our overheads are huge. Buying attitudes have changed, and people are much more comfortable buying without viewing and buying on the Internet or social media.

Businesses with small teams and whose overheads are much smaller can regularly make 5% on certain sales, whereas it would be impossible for us to work on those kinds of margins consistently. That’s a danger to the traditional side of the business. Adapting to changing trends would mean cutting overheads, which means making changes we wouldn’t necessarily want to make.

These platforms are also breaking down the barrier between traditional wholesalers and the end user. The dangerous end result is that you won’t have independent jewelers. You’ll have the big names, but small antique shops and jewelers that are in expensive parts of town, like the Arcade in London, will not be able to compete. Ironically, they won’t be losing out to big jewelry houses, they’ll instead be losing out to their own suppliers.

What distinguishes someone who’s excellent versus subpar in your trade?

Trust is everything. You’ve got to trust and respect a colleague’s eye, not necessarily in terms of technical knowledge, but more along the lines of enjoying antique and rare jewelry and gemstones as an art form.

Some people want to make the sale, get paid, and walk away. Others are willing to see that next sale and do what they can to create a positive relationship, which is effectively a willingness to do business. At the end of the day, everybody who is selling something is providing a service to people, whether they realize it or not. The dealers who are in the industry for the love of the art of it and who will go the extra mile to make sure you get what you need are the players we like to work with.

What makes gems so valuable to you?

It’s the craftsmanship and the idea behind antiques stones and jewelry, and the evolution of the jewels as well, how they’ve developed over the years. My degree is actually in history, and I love seeing diamonds and jewelry as embodiments of the evolution of history, and they quite often speak about what was transpiring at any particular era.

For example, the Cartier tank watch is based on the very first tanks invented during the World War I. The Cartier Tutti Frutti pieces are Indian-inspired and reflect a historic cultural exchange.

It’s fascinating to see the evolution of history reflected in these gems - starting from the development of bruting and diamond cutting, moving away from the old mine cushion cuts, and trending into the advent of symmetrical diamonds.

Hancocks, going back to 1849, has always been a family business, and even from the very beginning, we've been manufacturing jewelry, buying the prettiest of stones, and buying older pieces as well. Quite often, we’ll go to a show today and buy a Hancocks piece from 1850. It was as contemporary as it could be at the time that it was made, but it’s our antique stone. I love it when pieces come full circle, and I want to keep that romance going. In a hundred years, I want the same thing to happen with the pieces that I’m making now.

Have you had any stones or jewelry of exceptional historical significance?

I’ve bought original jubilee-cut diamonds that were cut in the 1890s and used for the diamond coronation of Queen Victoria. They’re amazing, and they are directly significant to the current events of the time. They’re beautiful, and they were definitely novelty-cut diamonds for that era.

I’ve also owned diamonds that are from the Cullinan family, Thomas Cullinan being a South African diamond magnate. His mine produced the largest diamond ever discovered, so that family’s stones are very rich in diamond history.

Where jewelry is concerned, we’ve had numerous pieces belonging to royalty and silver screen stars. We’re always looking for provenance.

How is diamond dealing different from gem dealing?

Diamonds have to be graded in a very specific way. They’re graded for color and clarity. Cut is a much more significant factor for diamonds than for colored gemstones. Most gemological institutions will differentiate between gemology and diamonds. Sapphires, rubies, and emeralds don’t undergo the color grading process. Perhaps they should, but they don’t. And it would be very hard to do because there are too many saturations and tones in colored stones to try to classify.

While the price of diamonds can be determined via a market index, determining the price of colored stones requires a certain level of experience, knowledge, and feel for the stone. You might handle a ruby, emerald, or sapphire and get a feel for what the right price is for that type of stone, but with diamonds, small differences can create hugely different outcomes.

For example, without getting the certificate, you might think a certain diamond is a lovely stone, but small differences, such as whether it’s a D or an F, amount to thousands and thousands of dollars of difference in price. That’s why that academic grading of diamonds is so important. You can’t just pick it up and say that looks like $5-9,000 dollars per carat to me, whereas you can do that with colored stones. In a way, you’ve got to be more careful with how you grade diamonds if you make an offer on them. Is it a DS1 or a DS2? Is it an F or a G? Those decisions make a huge difference. They determine the difference between making a loss or a profit, so diamond grading can be much, much more technical.

Colored stones are also more emotional. You’re a little bit more drawn to certain stones if they’re the color that you like.

Colored diamonds can fall between the categories of colored gemstones and diamonds. I attempt to grade colored diamonds, which is quite laughable because there are so few grades to describe the tones and the saturations of colored diamonds.

They’re very specific things, diamonds, because they are a commodity. Half of the time, you’re dealing with people who are passionate about gems, gemology, finished pieces, and the romance of jewelry, and the other half of the time, you’re dealing with dealers who see diamonds as a commodity and they trade them loosely, with slightly less passion, as if they’re stock or barrels of oil.

What are some factors that determine a maximum return on investment?

Research on a piece. You might buy something and discover a maker’s mark, and it wasn’t known that it was in there before, and you go to the archives and find that the piece is actually Cartier but was otherwise bought as unsigned. Those differences are enormous and worth the time and effort to discover. Research can be absolutely crucial for determining provenance, which is a quality we're always looking for.

At the moment, we’ve got an incredible 19th-century Anglesey diamond tiara. It has incredible character and provenance, and the research we’ve conducted on it has added colossal value to it. So conducting this type of investigative research is what you can do to go beyond the ingredients and the craftsmanship of any piece.

Knowing where to sell a stone or a piece is also a key to making returns on an investment. If you know the right buyer, you can maximize on that. You can buy a piece well, bring it to the right person whose keen on buying this particular type of item, and you can return nicely because you know this person values that item much more highly.

What types of resources do you use when conducting research?

We have great contacts at some of the big jewelry houses, and if the piece is numbered, we can research that particular item.

In terms of provenance, we use UK resources, such as the British library and the British Pathé, which is an amalgamation of old press cuttings. In fact, for the tiara, for example, we researched using the local press, and we found photographs of the piece in the digitalized libraries. The difference that evidence can make in terms of a piece's value is massive.

If the item has previously gone to auction, that’s another source of useful information, but we’re a little bit more academic. We go through the books, archives, and the digitalized libraries because it’s worth the investigation. You get a gut feeling when a piece deserves you time.