For the latest in our series of editorials focusing on Irish Women in Business, we’re talking to Ann Chapman, fine jewellery designer and owner of Stonechat Jewellers, located in Dublin’s Westbury Mall.
After decided she wanted to become a CEO at the tender age of ten, Ann honed her craft after first bagging a degree in European Studies. From there she went to NCAD for a metal work course and a FÁS traineeship in jewellery skills, then claiming a coveted place on the Crafts Council of Ireland Goldsmithing and Design course.
Fast forward to today, when Ann stocks her own designs alongside some of the finest Irish and international jewellers in a bespoke workplace that includes a work station where customers can see the magic in the making.
Here, Ann talks to Her.ie about ambition, inspiration and priceless advice.
Where did you grow up, and is there a history of entrepreneurship in your family?
I grew up in Howth, Co. Dublin.
My Dad is an academic (a lecturer in Trinity College) and my Mum ran a business making and decorating wedding cakes from our kitchen. Both of my parents had a huge influence on my career path – I was always encouraged to be whatever I wanted to be and that I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it. They gave me a great confidence in my abilities. There was also a strong ethos of ‘if you are going to do something, do it properly’ – both of my parents are perfectionists and I definitely received that gene!
What was your first indication that this would be the career for you?
I was always creative and loved working with my hands. From my mid-teens I began making jewellery from home – simple strung necklace using beads that I bought in hobbyist shops wherever I went.
My parents were keen for me to go to university before deciding on my career path so I went to Trinity for four years. I walked out of Trinity on the last day and straight up to NCAD where I signed up to a short course in metal working – from day one I was hooked!
My degree was in European Studies. From there I did a FAS traineeship in jewellery skills so that I could build a portfolio to apply for the Crafts Council of Ireland Goldsmithing and Design course.
Only 12 people are accepted onto the course every two years and I was fortunate enough to get a place. It was a two year intensive course where we learned all of the traditional goldsmithing skills.
At what age did you first suspect you would eventually go into business for yourself?
When I was 10! My brother always laughs at me and tells me that when I was a child and he asked me what I wanted to be when I was older I replied a CEO!
I worked in service right through school and college and always knew that I would enjoy running my own business. When I finished in Kilkenny I knew I still had to gain a lot of experience but was sure that one day I would open my own store.
Did you pursue other careers before launching your business?
None. My degree was completely unrelated but I’m so glad I did it. I think I would have been too young to start in this industry at 18.
What were your goals when you set up your business?
To create a comfortable shopping experience for design–led jewellery. Prices showing and an open door are extremely important to me and I love when customers come in and browse without feeling obligated to buy.
I also wanted to stock collections in a wide range of prices to show that handcrafted jewellery does not have to cost the earth.
What challenges have you faced thus far?
Expanding so early on in the business! It doesn’t sound like a challenge but we reached a point last year where I felt the business was going really well and that we were likely to need a bigger shop and workshop in the near future but it was a tough choice to make. Investing in a second store only two years after the fit-out of the first one was not on the original game plan but thankfully it was the right decision to make. We would be really stuck for space if we were still in our first store and business is only getting better!
Do you think there are certain challenges that are unique to women who set up their own businesses?
Unfortunately, yes. For women who want to have children setting up a business is a difficult decision. I opened Stonechat when my daughter was nine months old which on the one hand was madness and, on the other hand, was the perfect time. My priorities changed once my daughter was born – if I was going to leave her to go out to work each day it had to be for something I absolutely loved. It is also so important to build a future for your family once you have children and I was acutely aware of this.
I try to be 100% in work when I’m there and 100% with my little one when at home. It is a tough balance to strike but now that she is three I get firmly told off if the laptop is out! I’m also lucky that my husband is hugely supportive and does a large amount of the chores so that I can spend more time with Eve when I’m at home.
I’m now pregnant with my second child so the next few years are going to be a rollercoaster!
What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?
Earlier this year we were highly commended for Best in Service in The Irish Times Best Shops in Ireland Competition. I was overwhelmed! Service is so important to me so to come second in the country was an amazing achievement. I have a fantastic team that work for me so it was lovely to have all of their efforts recognised.
What is your favourite part of your job?
There is nothing quite like helping someone find their perfect engagement ring. As a jeweller I am so lucky as my customers are nearly always celebrating – birthdays, engagements, weddings, new babies… we hear all this lovely news all day long!
I have customers who bought their engagement ring from me and then were back for the wedding rings followed by the eternity ring – it is lovely to watch new families grow.
What is a typical working day for you?
It is completely varied! I am an early riser so I’ll either leave the house at 7 or work on the laptop for a while before leaving. Once the doors open at 10 I can be dealing with customers, in consultations for bespoke designs, working in the workshop, drawing out new designs, adding to our website, doing the paperwork…. The list goes on! We always make time for coffee and cake in the afternoon though.
I get home at 7 and then my focus is on jigsaws, colouring and reading stories.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Working with metal and gemstones is generally where my designs stem from. I like to play with metal – cut out different shapes and apply different textures. From there I go to the drawing board to sketch out variations and then it is back to the workbench to start working on the prototypes.
Fear of the cost might prohibit some women from looking into custom-made pieces, what do your prices start from?
It really depends on the materials and time involved. We have made simple silver earrings for €100 and diamond and platinum rings for over €5000 and everything in between!
Where do you go when you’re shopping – favourite designer/high street store?
I try to support Irish as much as possible. Like my jewellery, I like clean lines and block colours. I love Niamh O’Neill’s work and have been coveting one of her coats for some time now. I’m also a big fan of Ana Faye handbags. I’m hoping Santa might bring one of these this Christmas!
Are there any other women in business that you look up to?
Lots! I really admire anyone that goes for it and sets up their own business – men and women alike.
My mum was definitely an inspiration – I have vivid memories of her being up until 2 or 3am decorating a wedding cake and yet she was always there with breakfast when myself and my four siblings got up in the morning for breakfast. She worked so hard and never complained one bit.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Two pieces of advice have always stuck with me…
‘Surround yourself with people who are better than you are’ – I think it is really important to hire staff who can bring something that you can’t to your business. Getting past the idea that you are not the best at everything can be challenging for a business owner!
‘Remember to work on your business not in your business’ – it is so easy to get caught up in the day to day of your business and forget about planning for the future. Being on a shop floor makes this even more important for me so I try to set aside time to work on the bigger picture.
What advice would you give to other Irish women who wish to get into business for themselves?
Be sure it is the life that you want to choose as it is not easy but, if you are sure, then jump in with both feet! Get lots of experience in your specific area and be prepared for a lot of hard work and equally fantastic job satisfaction.
What are your plans and ambitions for the future?
Immediate plans are to sell my collections through other retailers starting in 2015. After that… another shop perhaps. Time will tell!