Howard Graham is celebrating his 40th edition of IJL this year. He chats to Ruth Faulkner about how it has changed since the 1970s and why he still loves the buzz of the show floor.
When I started doing the fairs a long time ago I used to see old men walking around the halls and now I am one of them,” jokes Howard Graham. Now managing director of fine jewellery supplier Ntinga, and a very familiar face in the trade, Graham attended his first edition of International Jewellery London (IJL) in September 1977 while he was working at Hatton Garden-based supplier Joseph & Pearce.
“The show was at Earls Court in those days, but the old Earls Court, before it got moved to the new Earls Court and years before the move to Olympia [in 2014],” he recalls. “Joseph & Pearce still do the show today, but 1977 was my first trade show and I remember being very involved in helping to set up the stand.
“Of course, it was a much longer show then as well,” he says, referencing the show’s change to three days following its move from Earls Court to London Olympia in 2014. “I also remember at the first few shows I did, there weren’t really the same facilities you have today.
“There were no food outlets and in the old hall at the old Earls Court there was no air-conditioning either. It was all so much more primitive than it is now and, even in those days, building a stand was quite an expensive thing to do. There were no prefab stands like there are today, so you just had to make the investment and sort of put it together yourself. I guess you could say I have worked on some nice stands and some not-so-nice stands over the years.”
in 1983, Graham left Joseph & Pearce, after being made redundant, and made the decision to set up on his own, launching The Colorado Gold Company Ltd (Colorado) that very same year. “The name came from a holiday I had taken in Colorado,” he says. “So that was my very first company on my own and my first stand at IJL as my own company.
“I was selling just about anything I could think of that would be popular, which included things like corals and pearls and freshwater rice pearls and beads, before anybody was doing beads. I brought them in from overseas and we did phenomenally well with it because it was the right thing at that time.
“We did a lot of business at IJL in those days – I think it was roughly about £40,000 at the first show, which is amazing for a new company, when it was just me and my wife.”
Graham also recounts a chance meeting with Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies when she opened an edition of IJL. “I got to know her and made her some jewellery, and after that she came back and opened a couple of stands for us,” he says.
Graham was at IJL every year with Colorado until the recession hit in the early 1990s, forcing him to close the business in 1993. “At that time, the banks wanted all their money back,” he explains. “So we had to wind things up.”
Undeterred though, and still passionate about jewellery, Graham set up Futuro with his brother-in-law later in 1993. “Futuro is Italian for future,” he says. “We were selling lots of diamond rings. I guess you could say it was more design-orientated than Colorado and focused on more unusual designs.”
The business also had a retail outlet located in London’s historic Hatton Garden jewellery district, and under the Futuro company name Graham continued to exhibit at IJL.
“We were travelling overseas a lot and were always on the lookout for new and different product that we could introduce to the UK,” he explains. “We tried to produce quite varied jewellery over the years. We brought silver jewellery over from Italy and this was in the early 1990s when no one was really selling silver at all.”
Following a split with his business partner, Graham left Futuro in 2006 to start over. “I literally had to get a bag of product and start again and that’s how Ntinga was born,” he says.
The name Ntinga was again inspired by Graham’s love of travel, this time a holiday to South Africa. “There was a jeweller in Cape Town called Ntinga and it is a Zulu word,” he says. “When Zulus throw their spears they shout ‘Ntinga’ and it literally means to soar high in the sky.”
One of the best-known ranges started by Graham at Ntinga was a line of magnetic silver bracelets called Pure Attraction. “It’s the sort of thing you see everywhere now but we were the first people to do it and we had about 200 stockists all over the UK,” he says. “But then the silver market started to get flooded and so we pulled away from it and went back into fine and diamond jewellery.”
He might have only just started the business in 2006, but Graham was determined to show at IJL and let industry friends and colleagues know he was back with a new venture. “I managed to get space and my stand was literally an Ikea table with whatever stock I could get my hands on,” he recalls. “I had my daughter Steph help me hang curtains and blinds from Ikea on the back of the stand and we used bits of wood and twigs to decorate the stand area.”
Despite the short lead time and Graham’s rather DIY attempt at a stand build, the first IJL for Ntinga was extremely successful. “There was a lot of support from people who had known me through the years and they came to me because they knew me and we had an amazing show.”
The 2006 show with Ntinga is one Graham also recalls for another reason. “My mum, who was 90 last week, has always been a really great supporter of everything I have done,” he says. “She always makes biscuits for the stand, in fact she still does it now, and ahead of that first IJL with Ntinga in 2006, she gave me, for luck, this ostrich pen with ostrich feathers. So I stuck it on the stand with me and we did have a good show.
“Meanwhile, there was this guy from Germany selling watch winders on this huge lavish great stand next door to me and he was having a terrible show. I got chatting to him and he asked about the pen because he could see it on my stand. I explained that it was a lucky charm from my mum and he asked if he could borrow it. So he borrowed it on the final day of the show and did phenomenally. At the end of the show, he asked me if he could keep the pen.”
Graham didn’t hear from the exhibitor again until about four or five years ago when he bumped into him at Baselworld. “He had this huge great stand with all his watch winders and there, on his stand, was the pen. He still takes it everywhere in the world with him, to every trade show.”
Graham has countless tales from IJL and other shows and believes that, even after his 40 years, trade shows are still a vital part of this industry. At this year’s event, to mark his 40th IJL, the Ntinga stand will feature a time line charting Graham’s history at the show and the team is also inviting customers and friends of the business along to stand B81 for a drink to mark this important milestone.
“I still get a buzz out of IJL and I enjoy it even after all these years,” he concludes. “Trade shows can be aggravating at times and also a lot of hard work, but there’s a great atmosphere at Olympia and IJL is a very good meeting place.”