Blowers Jewellers in London has a very wealthy clientele that often stop by the store to pick up pre-owned luxury vintage timepieces too.
As a British squash champion, Mark Blowers was destined for a promising career playing the sport at an international level. From the age of nine, he had excelled in the competitive sport and notched up a string of trophies.
But a freak attack on his father Ian’s jewellery shop changed the course of his life – and eventually helped turn a high street store into an international high end watch supplier boasting Premier League footballers and Formula One drivers among its clientele.
Mark, then 22 years old, was playing squash at a tournament in Edinburgh, Scotland, when his life was turned upside down. The national news bulletin reported an armed robbery at a jewellery store in Hull in the UK, where shots had been fired and the proprietor injured. The victim was his father Ian.
“That was 20 years ago and I did not have a mobile phone,” recalls Mark, now 41. “Someone said, ‘Something’s going on in Hull and I think your dad might be involved’. It came on the television news so I rushed straight down there.”
His father, who had been battered over the head with a crowbar in the assault, miraculously survived, although he was hospitalised by the attack. The armed robber, a man called John Holden, was already wanted for two murders, drug smuggling and possible gun-running. Cornered by police, he shot at them then turned his gun on himself.
Officers found he had been carrying gaffer tape, chains and about 70 rounds of ammunition when he held up Ian Blowers Jewellers before killing himself. He had cased the shop a week earlier and returned, Mark says now, because he knew Blowers senior worked alone.
“After the robbery my dad said, ‘It’s about time you hung up your squash racket and gave me a hand’,” says Mark. “I’d had a successful career playing squash professionally and travelled all over the world doing what I loved but I was ready for it. Squash was never going to be a sport where you could earn a good living, compared to golf, tennis, football or other high profile sports.”
At the time, the store was a small, independent operation trading in coins, stamps, gold bullion, jewellery and “one or two gold watches”. Numismatist Ian had opened the shop in 1970 and happily traded on a small scale in Hull’s Savile Street for nearly three decades with a turnover of about $630,000 a year. When his son joined the family firm in 1997, shortly after the robbery, it threatened to upset the apple cart.
Mark says: “As a young boy, my father was an enthusiastic stamp and coin collector. It was a natural progression to a bit of jewellery. I had helped out before and worked the odd Saturday but when I gave up squash, it was tough making that transition from training to working nine-to-five. A few of my friends ran a sweepstake saying, ‘I give you two weeks’.”
His father, too, made some tough demands. He was unimpressed when Mark spent most of his time setting up a website, which in the early days of the internet was still rare for a high street retail business. And he nicknamed his son ‘daft lad’ after Mark took nine months to sell his first watch, a steel Rolex Explorer II, with a profit of just $140. But Blowers junior saw the potential of those few watches in store, which always caught the attention of customers. He realised if he launched the business online, they could captivate a much bigger audience.
“People used to say it looked like the kind of website that was made and developed in someone’s bedroom,” says Mark. “Well, it was—it was me who did it in my bedroom. I had no IT skills at all and begged and borrowed bits of information to get the website up and running.”
At the same time, he taught himself about watch specifications, timekeeping parameters, power reserves, dial options and bracelet combinations.
“If you buy a watch, you have to learn about it before you can retail it,” says Mark, who is wearing a steel Patek Philippe 5960. That first sale gradually became one watch a month, then one a week, earning Ian’s begrudging praise. Blowers Jewellers now has a turnover of nearly $17 million a year and sells up to 35 watches a day with prices ranging from $700 to more than $140,000. Mark often wears the stock so he can tell customers how it feels.
“You become very aware if a watch is heavy, uncomfortable to wear or if it is something that does not suit people’s lifestyles. We are really honest, detrimental to a sale sometimes but that has paid dividends in the long term.”
The company also buys back pre-owned watches when customers want an upgrade.
“We have some guys who are crazy about watches and will exchange them every three months,” says Mark. “Some guys love to change cars, watches, go on loads of different holidays, own different suits. Not having your fingers burnt every time you buy and sell a quality pre-owned watch is the key and keeps people enjoying being collectors and watch enthusiasts.”
Blowers Jewellers’ customers include high profile sports players, celebrities and city bankers. One client has a watch collection worth an estimated $35 million while others like to swap their pre-owned Rolexes and Patek Philippes on a regular basis. Former Hull City FC captain Ian Ashbee, once a loyal customer, was recruited by the firm in 2014 to join its staff of 12 and has enticed Premier League footballers to buy vintage watches. Meanwhile the company has increased the number of customers in the UAE from 50 three years ago to 450.
We are really honest, detrimental to a sale sometimes but that has paid dividends in the long term.
The firm, whose trade is now 80 per cent watches and 20 per cent jewellery, still maintains its base in Hull but opened an office in London’s Mayfair two years ago after an increase in inquiries from the south of England, Europe and the Middle East. A shop in London is set to follow this year while Blowers Jewellers plans to expand with several authorised dealerships for its pre-owned watches and concessions within stores.
But Mark, now a father of three, is anxious to maintain the feel of a family business and has kept the personal touch, even delivering watches in person and answering phones. “When people have an expanding business, they can get so far removed from the frontline that a business can lose its charm a bit and become very corporate. Customer service and care goes out the window.”
His father, too, keeps hold of the reins, despite retiring four years ago. Ian is enjoying a “second lease of life” after re-marrying last year and moving to Umbria, Italy, where he produces his own oil from olive groves. But he still remotely checks in with the Savile Street store via its online security cameras and cannot resist ringing up when a regular customer walks in.
“It’s like we are haunted because we get phone calls from him when customers he used to deal with come in,” says Mark. “He is still heavily involved. He was tough and did not cut me any slack at all but to see him mellow over the last 10 years has been fantastic.”