The story of Hester Clarke jewellers in Aylesbury
PUBLISHED: 11:41 11 April 2017 | UPDATED: 16:47 12 April 2017
You'll find many more extraordinary stones - and some fascinating tales at this family jewellers in Aylesbury, Sandra Smith discovers
Ask anyone in mid Bucks to recommend a quality jeweller and it’s very likely that the response will be Hester Clarke. The suggestion is sure to be followed by recollection of unique gifts and bespoke birthday pieces before you’re pointed in the direction of their Aylesbury Cambridge Street premises. So far, so impressive. Yet the company is far more than a purveyor of sensationally gorgeous jewellery. For this family enterprise, synonymous with customer service, has attracted five generations of Clarkes who have devoted their careers to a company which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary.
In their spacious shop, where glass cabinets reveal tempting jewellery from contemporary silver hinged bangles to traditional gold pendants, and white and rose gold rings, Christopher Clarke traces the company’s origins.
“Wilson & Gill was founded 1892 when my grandfather, Victor, was a commercial traveller for a jewellery manufacturer in Birmingham and used to call on them. The late Victorian times were a boom period for the jewellery business. W&G offered Victor a partnership. Before too long Mr Wilson retired and Mr Gill died, leaving my grandfather the sole owner.”
Christopher joined the firm in 1955. A natural progression, he says, and one without pressure though having “grown up with it” the step was logical. Now Chairman, he shares with me the nature of the locality during the Sixties.
“Aylesbury was very much a thriving market town. Lots of shops closed at lunchtimes and on market day. This made for a civilised life. We started in Temple Street, an old part of town full of dress shops. When we first moved to these larger premises traffic flowed the other way and there were traffic lights at one end of Cambridge Street.”
The jewellers’ other presence – in Princes Risborough – coincided with the small town’s domination by private outlets at a time when customers were “country people with cloth caps.”
Evolving fashions during the Sixties and Seventies had a knock on effect. Jewellery, the octogenarian recalls, became a must-have and distinct from those traditional pieces created since Victorian times, overseas travel influencing styles and leading to a desire for jewellery which complemented outfits.
“Pearls were very popular then,” he adds, “though there was very little silver jewellery. We use the same techniques now, but the way metals have been adapted makes jewellery much lighter and easier to wear.”
Presentation has similarly evolved. Gone are the unimaginative displays of rings lined up in padded boxes. More creative staging, however, is only part of Hester Clarke’s success.
“People come here for personal attention. The internet has opened up a huge vista for everyone, but we are a destination shop offering an unhurried shopping experience. We can restyle a piece someone has been left or we have a designer. We’ve always had a lot of notable customers – actors and authors, even the head of MI5 and two major football pools winners.”
We’re joined by Christopher’s daughters, Julia and Nicola. Both hold senior positions in the company, though are just as comfortable front of house.
“We were Saturday girls,” remembers Julia who joined Hester Clarke in the late Seventies when trendy items included chunky jewellery and wide patterned wedding rings.
“I worked at Princes Risborough when they were short of staff. It’s a very emotional thing we’re doing here, dealing with people and often around special occasions or fixing things. I find that fascinating. Every week here I see something and think, ‘Goodness that’s beautiful!’ Things move in fashion, and jewellery is similar. And we like UK designers. There’s a move towards wanting UK items with a quality inherent in the products. We do a good deal of bespoke work for customers. Some people are interested in a particular style but we offer advice if we think something won’t work or isn’t durable; we have to be practical.”
Nicola, who has recently celebrated 40 years with the company, initially experimented with other career options: “When we left school we were given the option of trying something else first. I trained in City & Guilds catering. But I always did Saturday work in the shop, packing parcels and making tea.”
Catering continues to have its uses, she smiles, though it was the family business to which she was tempted with its appreciation of customer loyalty, ongoing courses (“Tomorrow we’re learning how to deal with difficult customers”) and attending trade fairs.
Whilst talking to the amiable Clarkes, the personal nature of their work becomes more apparent. It isn’t only that customers cover all age ranges. Or are looking for jewellery on which they can spend an inheritance. Maybe find a purchase that will become an heirloom.
“Customers tell you an awful lot,” Christopher quietly confides. I don’t pry for details. Even if I chose to be so bold – or foolish – I’m sure his discretion is far too ingrained to succumb to my questioning. You see, there’s a delightful old school aura about Hester Clarke. Traditional values and all that. Standards which are balanced with a modern outlook and equally up to date focus. Yet their ethos extends much further. Christopher and his daughters are Freemen of the City of London. And each of these three relatives are involved – whether as Master, Father, Steward of Liveryman - with the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, livery companies which date back hundreds of years. Christopher proudly elucidates.
“The Clockmakers maintain a free gallery at the Science Museum which is a staggering success. England in the 17th century was a world leader in clocks and watches; the Swiss were also-rans. Clocks were important for navigation at the time because of our expanding Empire. We meet in a suite of rooms at the Carpenters’ Company premises.”
Professional links with the Capital aside, it is in a corner of Aylesbury town centre which is set to be revamped over the next few years where Hester Clarke is one of our county’s success stories. You see, their jewellery may have changed during the past decades but the company’s quality, dedication and customer service is as timeless as when it first began 125 years ago.
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