Dressed in a casual grey t-shirt with laced up leather trainers, Stephen Webster hardly fits the ‘rock star persona’ that one would expect from the British jeweller, famed for his bold and provoking designs, and celebrity clientele.
“We had a really nice seafood meal,” Webster starts the conversation with an air of easiness, regaling his escapade to a Kampung Baru restaurant the night before following a 13-hour flight into Malaysia.
Being the face of his eponymous brand, Webster’s work, in a week, takes him from his Kent abode in south eastern England, to the heart of Manhattan in New York, and ends in a balmy city of Southeast Asia.
While his brand is exclusively available at Habib Jewels since 2018, Webster’s first trip to Malaysia is, according to him, key to getting a grasp on the trends and behaviors of consumers in the region.
“We launched in Japan and South Korea at the same time but for some reason, Korea worked for us. I know now that it was because we were connected to K-pop influencers - they were wearing our jewellery. It was something we didn’t know back then,” he says.
“So, coming here helps us to understand how people are wearing their jewellery - that is very important.”
Photo from Facebook Stephen Webster
For over forty years, Webster has enthralled the world of fine jewellery with his edgy, conversational pieces - adorned on showbiz royalty like Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez and Johnny Depp, to name a few - catapulting his fame as jeweller to the stars.
While seen as ‘rouge figure’ in the jewellery industry for his skull, punk, glam motifs, Webster also previously took on the illustrious creative director role at the 284-year-old London-based Garrard & Co - the world's oldest jewellery house - famous for outfitting the British royal family.
But long before his ascent, the London-based jeweller had a challenging time breaking into the industry’s tight-knit circle, where businesses often thrived on the basis of individual relationships, and jewellery, almost exclusively, a gift purchase.
This changed in the mid to late-nineties, where clear-cut boundaries between fine jewellery and fashion jewellery started to blur.
Webster’s pieces of diamonds and assorted precious jewels straddles both segments - fine in quality, fashion-forward in design; the brand rose with evolving purchasing trend. Having a celebrity following helps too.
“It coincided with the change in the world, where women felt more confident to go to a jeweller and say ‘I will buy my own jewellery - and it’s not because they are getting engaged or married,” says Webster.
Attitude Shifts in Jewellery Purchase Lifted Stephen Webster’s Brand
The 60-year-old agrees that the purchasing behaviours will increasingly be defined by price points and brand positions than wearing occasions; therefore, it is more important than ever for a brand to be very clear what it stands for.
“I build my business on having a strong identity from our jewellery. Whether that was pushing the boundaries at some point? Probably,” says Webster.
“But we are facing a different kind of competitor now. The big players like Cartier, Bvlgari, Van Cleef & Arpels - we all had our places (in the market) - it was just the way it was.
As long as you keep being progressive, there’s a place (for us) because people are always looking for individuality
“Now, there is a different kind of pressure because there are bigger, powerful groups.”
The ‘bigger groups’ Webster refer to are luxury fashion houses, including Chanel, Dior and Hermes, which have launched their own fine jewellery ranges.
These luxury conglomerates have also invested heavily in fine jewellery makers in the past few years; LVMH bought Bvlgari for USD5.2 billion in 2011. Another French luxury group Kering (owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga) acquired Italian jewellery Pomellato in 2013. The same year, Harry Winston was acquired by the Swatch Group.
“I’m not so worried about it. I think it’s a changing period in jewellery, again - I’ve been through a few,” says Webster.
“I think we have established ourselves enough that as long as you keep being progressive, there’s a place (for us) because people are always looking for individuality as much as anything.”
“We can offer that,” says the man whose designs range from the exquisite 18-karat gold bug-shaped ‘Jitterbug’ ring framed by turquoise enamel wings, to high glam diamond earrings modelled after shattered glass in their ‘Dynamite’ collection.
Kristen Stewart wears Stephen Webster's Magnipheasant Collar - Photo from Facebook Stephen Webster
Similar to changing fashion fads in clothing, trends in jewellery are evolving rapidly too.
While diamonds and jewels have not lost their shine, millennials - the biggest and most powerful consumers - are viewing them differently from the previous generation.
These twenty and thirty-somethings are more socially conscious and often, want their jewellery sourced ethically.
On this point, Webster has been at the forefront; since 2011, his jewellery is made using Fairtrade gold and with conflict-free diamonds - a decision he took following a trip to Peruvian gold mines.
I feel happy that people are asking me about my diamonds, my gold or how I get rid of waste
“I was already aware of the fact that we need to be looking (at the business) more sustainably, and to be more responsible in what we do - not because I felt pressure - there wasn’t any,” says Webster, adding there was a lack of awareness on sustainable practices back then, whilst the issue of provenance wasn’t so relevant.
“I went to Peru to see for myself,” says Webster. “And I didn’t like what I saw."
“I came back and I was very vocal about it but I was a bit shocked that even my clients didn’t really care,” he adds. “So, I am glad that everybody is now on board because I feel happy that people are asking me about my diamonds, my gold or how I get rid of waste - and I have the answer,” says Webster, who still travels extensively to source materials.
“And you need to be able to answer those questions, otherwise, you will be history,” he says.
In 2016, Stephen Webster was awarded the ‘Butterfly Mark’ by sustainable consumption organisation Positive Luxury for practicing sustainability across all aspects of its business.
Sustainability, Ethical Sourcing No Longer An Afterthought in the Jewellery Industry
Webster’s artistry is not confined to jewellery; his edgy pieces have found their way to table tops and kitchen counters through his home and barware collection.
His Mexican-inspired tequila-making paraphernalia of ice pick, cocktail strainer and shot glasses carries a distinctive bold Webster flair.
But after building an illustrious career for 44 years, with millions of air miles clocked, future-proofing the business is something the London-based jeweller thinks about quite a bit now.
The spirit of the Steven Webster brand doesn’t feel old
“The spirit of the Steven Webster brand doesn’t feel old; it feels a bit younger even. I tend to get away with it,” he says with a chuckle.
“But I am looking to the future,” Webster adds. “I have a great team that’s much younger than me but I still get asked to be out in the front because it’s everything that we are - it comes from inside me somehow,” says Webster, who remains a big part of the business’ appeal as he fronts the brand image globally.
“But I’m very happy to pass that on.”
He is looking towards his team - and maybe, his 27-year-old daughter too - to take on the mantle, should hedecides to take a step back from the business.
“I asked her last year if she could come and work with us - she did!”
“She spends two days in a week with the design team. She’s really enjoying it and my team likes her being in it too,” says Webster. “And maybe, in a couple of years, she can be here.”
Alternatives in the Jewellery Industry Arising From Disruption