Image may contain: Glasses, Accessories, Accessory, Festival, Crowd, Human, Person, Clothing, and Apparel

Phil Spencer

Phil Spencer Shares His Journey:

From Royal Navy to Colombian Emeralds And Ethical Jewellery

Philip Spencer is the founder of London DE, an ethical jewellery business with a particular interest in diamonds and emeralds. I spoke to him about his love for gemstones and how he moved from the Royal Navy to financial services, and then finally into the gemstone industry.

What was it that drew you to the gemstone industry?

I’ve got a long-standing interest in gemstones and jewellery which goes back to childhood. I have family friends in the jewellery and gemstone trade, and in the Colombian emerald trade in particular. When it came to a point in my career where I realised I wanted a career change into something I was passionate about, my long-standing interest in gemstones, combined with the fact I had friends and contacts in the business, were the factors that pushed me to start a gemstone business in December 2013.

Why are Colombian emeralds special to the gemstone industry?

They’re world-renowned for being the highest quality stones within the emerald species. At one time they made up about 90% of world emerald production, and although that’s now reduced quite significantly to about 50 or 60%, as African production has stepped up a lot in recent years, the highest quality stones are generally attributed to Muzo, Coscuez, and Chivor, the 3 mining centres in the Boyacá department of Colombia.

Why is the ethical sourcing of gemstones important to you?

It’s a combination of a social conscience and the strong business case for ethical jewellery. While we are obviously driven by a desire to do the right thing, there is also a growing awareness of ethical considerations amongst buyers, particularly those from younger generations. This makes it increasingly important to be transparent about your company’s ethics, as it’s something that is rising in importance across the industry as a whole due to consumer demand.

We recently joined the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), and last year we were finalists in the category of “Ethical Jewellery Brand of the Year” in the Retail Jeweller Awards. It’s an area of great interest to us, and one we have worked hard on for years.

How do you go about ethically sourcing gemstones?

The main process we use is traceability. We follow all the stones we purchase back to source, to ensure we know exactly where they come from. By knowing what mine the stones have come from, we are then able to determine whether the mine has sufficiently high environmental standards, labour relations, and human resources standards, as well as being able to see whether everyone has been paid fairly along the whole supply chain, as we would never buy from suppliers who have exploited anyone for their labour. In terms of buying diamonds, we only buy from dealers who have signed up to detailed fair trade policies, as well as being signed up to the UN protocol for the exclusion of conflict gems from the supply chain.

Where’s your favourite place to source gemstones from?

It has to be Colombia. It’s a beautiful country, and it has such a long history of producing gemstones. The ancient peoples of the Second Mayan civilisations initially began mining the emerald regions about 2,000 years ago, so there’s a long history right through the Spanish colonial period to the 21st century.

We’re gradually developing more connections in South East Asia, and we’re looking to develop supply lines into Thailand and possibly Sri Lanka, so that we can expand our range of the coloured gemstones they produce such as rubies and sapphires (known collectively as corundum) and spinel. Our focus has largely been on emeralds and diamonds until now, we do supply other stones as well, but we’re looking to expand more into the coloured gemstone industry, including some rare and beautiful stones such as Paraíba tourmaline from Brazil, which I’m really excited about.

How did you find the transition from working with the navy and in finance to working in gemstones?

I moved from the navy into financial services just because I thought it would be a good career, but actually, it didn’t inspire me that much. I’d always wanted to be an entrepreneur, be my own boss, and build an ethical business sustainably, and around the same time that I was having career doubts I was made redundant, so it was a great opportunity for me to take the leap and make that career change into gemstones and jewellery. In many ways, it was a good transition because I much prefer what I do now, and it has been a really great experience for me.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

A lot of our business was done remotely anyway because we have customers all over the world. Even way before COVID, we were regularly dealing with customers in Australia, Singapore, the US, etc., so in that sense, nothing really changed. We don’t have retail premises per se, but we do have a sales office in London where we meet with some customers in person. For some months during the lockdown, we couldn’t meet any customers, so it’s pushed us more towards the digital space. We have started back up tentatively doing face-to-face meetings, obviously subject to the ongoing advice from the government, but going forward we will retain the office in Hatton Garden, but also will continue to develop our digital marketing channels. We are now offering personalised virtual consultations, enabling people to engage with us on webcam via Zoom from the comfort of their own home if they prefer.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I think it would have to be winning the NAJ “Jewellery & Watch Supplier of the Year” 2018. The NAJ is the National Association of Jewellers, and we had entered their awards every year, and in 2018 we finally won. It was a really proud moment because we’d finally got some industry recognition, which as one of the younger businesses in our industry meant a lot to us. It was great to finally get some recognition and draw positive attention to what we were doing.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?

Fundraising. We started on a shoestring, and very gradually and slowly built up. Obviously to expand you have to raise funds, but at first, it was a very slow and tedious process. By 2018 we’d finally started to gain some traction, and we’ve now raised almost £1.5 million. That’s probably the biggest challenge that we’ve positively overcome and turned into a strength, as we’re now raising funds quite regularly, which makes us really optimistic for the future!