Sean Gallagher meets Colin Weldon for the Sunday Independent

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SEAN GALLAGHER – PUBLISHED 23 MARCH 2014 02:30 AM

Deciding to get married is one of the most important decisions a person can make in their lives. Hand in hand with choosing our perfect partner comes the challenge of choosing the perfect engagement ring.

For many, this is not only a daunting challenge but a major investment decision. There are all sorts of considerations to mull over, such as the budget, the style and shape of the ring as well as the size and quality of the diamond.

This week I meet one man who knows more than most about engagement rings – jewellery store owner Colin Weldon, from C M Weldon, in the Powerscourt Town Centre, in Dublin 2.

Although the business is only a year old, jewellery is in Colin Weldon’s blood. In fact, he is the fourth generation of the Weldon family to be involved in the jewellery business. His great-grandfather started the family’s first jewellery shop in O’Connell Street as far back as 1895. His grandfather took over the business in the Forties and his father Martin entered the business in the Sixties.

Today, Colin runs his own store specialising in fine diamonds and coloured stones as well as extremely rare diamond necklaces and bracelets. His extensive range of antique Irish and English silverware includes everything from serving trays, teapots, bowls, candlesticks and cream jugs.

Colin is currently focusing on four key markets.

“Our customers are predominantly couples wishing to buy diamond engagement rings,” explains Colin. “And we are focused on being able to accommodate most budgets,” he adds as he shows me the wide selection of rings on display in the shop window.

He explains how diamonds are graded according to four key criteria commonly referred to in the industry as the four Cs: carat weight, cut, colour and clarity.

Colin also focuses on supplying international gemstone customers who are always on the lookout for good investment opportunities.

“This is a very different market,” explains Colin. “These buyers are very clued into diamonds as a commodity rather than as a piece of jewellery. They are not buying something to make someone else happy but instead see diamonds as a far better option to invest in compared to property or stocks. This is a rapidly growing market particularly among younger investors and those in the Asian market.”

There are also the jewellery connoisseurs who are constantly on the lookout for speciality, high-end or vintage pieces such as earrings, dress rings, necklaces or bracelets.

“In this context, jewellery is very like the art market.” explains Colin. “But the pieces must be of the highest quality and must be worth the money,” he insists.

His extensive collection of rare Georgian Irish silver also attracts those who are into collectable pieces.

“Americans love these pieces as both investments and from a heritage point of view. They are keen to tie in their investments with something Irish,” he says.

Colin grew up in south Dublin. His first memories of business go back to when he was five years old and would help his father in the family’s jewellery store.

“I’ve served a long internship programme,” he laughs.

After school, he completed a degree in journalism with Griffith College and a Diploma in Entrepreneurial Studies from the Smurfit School of Business. He travelled abroad where he worked in big jewellery houses such as Bvlgari in Beverley Hills in Los Angeles, California. Although he loved the work, he found the culture of these large corporate businesses very different to the much smaller and more intimate family environment that he had grown up with.

He decided to study as a gemologist with the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in London, New York and Los Angeles.

“The GIA is the world’s foremost authority on diamonds and coloured stones and this training qualified me as a specialist in diamond grading and colour stone identification,” he explains.

Returning home, Colin decided it was time to look at setting up his own business, a desire he had harboured for many years. His opportunity came in 2013 when he happened to spot that his current premises was vacant.

“The place had been a jewellery business for over 30 years and I just knew that it was the perfect location. I simply couldn’t let it go,” he says.

From the outset, he was determined to create a family environment which would be different from the large, office-type outlets in which he had previously worked in the US and different too, to the less than romantic environment that some couples faced when they ended up traipsing around the rather impersonal diamond districts of cities like Antwerp.

“However, one of the biggest challenges in starting this business was trying to achieve a balance between buying the right amount of stock to allow me to compete with bigger jewellery stores and balancing my cash-flow capability at the time,” explains Colin honestly.

“Diamonds are very expensive and even now, it’s hard to predict what stock you are going to need. You can be swimming along nicely and then all of a sudden someone walks in with the most magnificent jewel you have ever seen and you just have to buy it. That’s the kind of thing that can play havoc with your cash flow projections,” he admits.

To counteract this, he worked hard at developing very strong relationships with his key suppliers which helped ensure that he had the right mix and level of inventory.

“However, trying to get people in the door when you have zero money for advertising was definitely my greatest challenge,” admits Colin.

He decided early on to focus on developing a strong understanding of social media and social networking as a more direct and more cost-effective means of promoting his new business.

He began to upload posts on line every day, adding pictures of new rings or diamonds that had just come in, or stories, articles and information about the jewellery sector. His approach proved very effective and soon, word of his new store began to spread.

But with many other jewellery stores in the city also trying hard to compete, Colin knew he would have to seek to differentiate his business if he was to stand out from the crowd.

“Our business is focused on offering a combination of total transparency, unparalleled product quality and expertise and a warm and welcoming family environment,” explains Colin.

“Traditionally there has always been a lack of transparency in the jewellery business, particularly relating to the cost of diamonds, how they are bought, and the mark ups that jewellery houses make. To counteract this, we offer diamonds at a true market value rather than an over-inflated price and this has really helped us build trust with our customers,” stresses Colin.

He continues to travel throughout the world to access pieces for his customers and quickly dismisses the perception that Irish jewellery store operators can’t get access to valuable stones.

He is happy, too, to be able to draw on the support of his family. His dad is now officially retired from the jewellery business but regularly helps out in the store as does his mother, Gay, and his sister Renee. His wife, Lorena, is also an important part of the business. Originally from Venezuela and a dentist by profession, the couple met while they were both studying part-time in the Gaiety School of Acting.

“Our family is one of the oldest in the business in Ireland. That sense of family is a very important aspect of the shop and so, too, are the relationships we build with our customers. Some will end up being lifelong customers, while the aftercare we provide on our rings and silver may well pass into the next generation. That’s how this business works,” he explains.

Business is good now for the new entrepreneur, and growing steadily. While couples are still spending, they are certainly much more discerning and ask many more questions before deciding to purchase.

He also notices a recent trend where some Irish couples who are living abroad have come home to Ireland to get engaged.

“Over Christmas, five separate couples who now live in Australia travelled home to Ireland with the distinct purpose of getting engaged and buying their engagement rings here in Ireland. It’s great to see them supporting Irish businesses and Irish jobs,” he says.

What about the future?

Colin is keen to see the shop recognised nationally as a leading jewellery brand and a go-to place for engaged couples and investors alike. He is keen too to diversify into other luxury items, such as high-end watches and branded cuff links for men.

He would also like to develop a trading base in both London and New York. And he is excited about the idea of being able to create jobs in Ireland.

“I can’t think of anything more satisfying and gratifying than to be able to create even a few jobs in Ireland at this moment,” he says.

As I leave his shop, I am truly inspired by Colin Weldon’s courage in opening a new retail outlet given the economic challenges of recent times.

C M Weldon’s is certainly an impressive jewellery store that offers a stunning array of both modern and traditional jewellery, precious stones and stylish silverware. Colin’s own knowledge of the sector is equally impressive and infectious.

His wife Lorena and his sister Renee are as elegant and charming as the jewellery they sell. And his parents, with a lifetime of experience, are calmly on hand to share their in-depth knowledge.

For most people, the challenge of opening a jewellery store in the heart of Dublin city would be a daunting one. However, Colin has embraced this challenge with a clear focus and a definite plan. He wants to offer world-class diamonds and jewellery at affordable prices while still retaining the atmosphere and feel of a small family store.

And he wants to help create jobs in Ireland. Having met him and his family, I would say that Colin Weldon is well on his way.

Colin’s advice for new businesses

1 Embrace your own fears “Your own fears can sometimes be your greatest obstacles. Embrace these fears and decide to take action anyway. The only way to overcome fear is to do the very things you are afraid of.”

2 See your suppliers as partners “Develop strong partnership-type relationships with your suppliers. They will play a critical role in your future success by helping you gain and sustain your competitive advantage.”

3 Learn from failure “Failing is a natural part of taking a risk. We all have to be willing to fail if we want to succeed at anything. The important thing is to learn from your failures and keep moving forward.”

If you have a business worth talking about, please contact Sean at seangallagher@independent.ie