When Laings sweeps open the doors of Rowan House on Buchanan Street later this year, the family-run luxury jeweller will be ushering in a bright new chapter, not only for this flourishing Glasgow business, but potentially also for the city’s beleaguered retail sector.
In announcing its £5 million development plans for the B-listed building, Laings was heralding a remarkable new stage of growth and investment that is continuing to unfold against what has been a level of challenge and economic pressure unrivalled in recent history.
As part of its dynamic and energetic vision for the development of its jewellery business, Laings is ready to redefine the high-street experience for customers at its showrooms and workshops, not only by spending money on bricks and mortar, but also on its most precious resource – its people.
Having seen its profits bounce back after the pandemic period, up from £2.8 million in 2021 to £5.4 million in its last financial year, and with a 62 per cent increase in turnover to £60 million, Laings has been embarking on a programme of investment in its high street store estate.
It is a move that might seem at odds with the recent trend for retailers to move online. Yet for Laings, with showrooms in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Southampton and Cardiff, the decision to reinvest back into the business is part of a clear policy in a sector where quality shines alongside talent and where tradition and innovation are also at its heart.
Stuart McDowell, managing director of Laings, says by transforming the company’s showrooms and workshops across the UK, its will be “reimagining the customer experience while ensuring traditional jewellers’ crafts are kept alive”. He insists that plans for this new retail format will “capture the imagination of our clients and further enhance the luxury shopping experience in Glasgow”.
With a total of £10 million now confirmed for revitalising the 19th-century retail and office development at Rowan House, together with the recent expansion of its showroom in Cardiff, and similar development now under way in Southampton, Laings – which is also a strong online player – is underlining that commitment.
In the process, the sixth generation of this family business is helping to re-energise its local retail environments, providing jobs and creating unique, immersive shopping experiences.
Joe Walsh, CEO of Laings and husband of family member and director Wendy Laing, is in no doubt about how important this is. “Along with our highly-skilled workforce, our retail stores are the cornerstone of our business,” he says. “These are where our clients can immerse themselves in the history and traditional expertise of our business and that of our prestigious partners.
“It’s vital we continue to invest for the future, making our physical assets as enticing and engaging as possible. Our online experience has also dramatically improved, helping people to make purchases more easily when they cannot come to see us in store.
“Works are well under way at Rowan House and it’s exciting to see the plans coming together. Our watch workshop will be the first to be completed and we’re anticipating an opening in the next few months.”
It was James Rankin Laing who founded the Glasgow business in 1840, supplying Clyde-built ships with clocks and precision instruments. He was then joined by his brother William 10 years later. Officially appointed as official clockmakers by the Admiralty and Clydeport Authority, a Laings clock still sits in the Clydeport office in Robertson Street.
Today, Laings is well known as an outlet for acclaimed brands, with fine jewellery and luxury watches from names such as Rolex and Patek Philippe. However, the firm is also known for its own bespoke design and repair services from the team’s watchmakers, goldsmiths and jewellery designers.
Laings stresses that it is not only a retailer; it is also a maker, which explains why a determination to value and nurture talent is integral to its business DNA.
When Wendy Laing and Joe Walsh joined the family business in 2011, they brought with them a passion and determination to continue the Laings story, one rooted in heritage and craftsmanship, and looked back to the skills that founded it using those guiding principles of craft to write its future.
“Laings workshops are at the heart of what we do,” says Walsh. “We have a vision of creating collaborative spaces where skilled goldsmiths and watchmakers can work together in a technical and creative space, united by the same passion. It is in this space we see age-old skills paired with new techniques, working side-by-side in perfect harmony to reignite a love of craftsmanship for generations to come.”
Currently occupying second and third floor office space in Rowan House in Glasgow, Laings is transforming the stone-built, five-storey building at 68/70 Buchanan Street. Retail space will span the ground and first floors, as it brings the brands from its showrooms within the city’s Argyll Arcade under one roof.
The basement, third and fourth floors will be offices, with an enhanced hospitality area on the fifth floor, while the second will host a new watch workshop. Expanding the workspaces for watchmakers and goldsmiths, the glass-fronted watch workshop will create skilled job opportunities, while also inspiring the next generation of talent to train in the field. This will also allow Laings’ customers a unique opportunity to join their watchmakers and goldsmiths behind the benches and see them at work.
From this new home in Buchanan Street, Laings will continue its programme of talent acquisition, alongside staff training and development, and with a focus on highly skilled roles such as watchmaking and goldsmithing. Also in the pipeline will be exclusive brand collaborations, new partnerships and one-off events.
There also plans for sponsorship programmes that will offer support to craftspeople and designers from overseas. Laings already has a sponsorship programme to recruit watchmakers, goldsmiths and artisans from different corners of Europe and a vision to house a larger team in-house, giving the firm the opportunity to train apprentices and carry on the centuries-old skills within the next generation of talent.
“Our expanded watch workshop will give employees across the business, who aren’t in the traditional watchmaking field, new opportunities,” says Walsh. “They will be able to visit the workshop, train and learn new skills, taking their incredible retail knowledge and transferring it into a whole new skill set, becoming a watchmaker or being involved in quality control.
“We recently partnered with the British School of Watchmaking and are very proud to be involved in the prestigious watchmaking community, helping us to grow the offering that we have.”
This new chapter of growth fuels the company’s ambition to create a unique, luxury shopping experience for customers, both in-store and online, with continued investment still at the forefront of its priorities for the year ahead. Opportunities to grow and learn are then passed on through in-store experiences, and investing in talented people, the company believes, will ultimately pay dividends with its customers.
“This is a very exciting time for us as a brand and these investments demonstrate our commitment to bringing our clients a luxury retail experience every time they visit,” says Walsh. “Our turnover growth reinforces the decisions we have made to drive the business forward during a highly challenging few years in the retail industry.
“We could not have achieved our successes to date, nor plan for future successes, without the skill, expertise and dedication of our colleagues, who remain at the forefront of our vision to grow the business further. We look forward to bringing our current enhancements to fruition, and to further securing our role as an industry leading, luxury destination across our UK store estate.
‘It’s lovely to mentor younger designers’
Laings say nurturing young talent is vital to its success. Felicity Lynden, who completed a jewellery design course before joining Laings on the showroom floor, honed her knowledge in the retail team where her passion for design was quickly recognised, and she joined the bespoke design team. There she was mentored by lead designer Sarah Alexander, who has more than 30 years of experience in the business, guiding Felicity in how to transform a conversation with a client into a beautiful, sentimental, and forever-loved jewellery piece.
“It’s lovely to mentor younger designers,” says Alexander. “I find it invigorating to tap into my past designs and knowledge to pass on to the next generation, and it’s so nice to see they have the same values and passion I have – always looking to improve and grow our service into something bigger. Sometimes you forget all the work you’ve done, but mentoring the other designers lets me revisit previous chapters in my career.”