Hamilton & Inches



As personal and professional athlete Debbie McKernan put her all into the last set of physical education and recreational management exams at Telford College, eagerly anticipating her next venture into a personal training business, she never could have guessed that fifteen years later she would be jewellery manager and buyer at long-established high-end Scottish jewellers, Hamilton and Inches.

Debbie is quick to admit that she “kind of fell into the trade by default” after developing a back injury that dramatically changed the direction of her original career aspirations: “It’s very difficult when you have your mind set on a particular profession and have put so much hard work and dedication into getting there, then in the space of a few weeks, everything you’re striving for is completely shattered.”

Debbie’s injury obviously had a devastating effect but her rehabilitation period stirred a historic interest and childhood fascination: “I was brought up admiring sparkly stones. My mother loved jewels. She had very fine taste and was actually a customer at Hamilton and Inches. I realised I actually had a basic understanding of the trade, passed on from my mother over the years.” She returned to her retail roots, capitalising on part-time work experience she had gathered during her College years. She quickly realised it wasn’t challenging enough and secured her first role in an Edinburgh jewellers, the city where she was born and bred. A year later she moved on to Hamilton and Inches as a trainee and, in the fourteen years since, has “become part of the woodwork there.”

“The initial transition into a completely new industry was difficult but, at the same time, it was very exciting. We’re lucky in this business that we learn something new every day. It’s a very interesting trade. Suddenly there were lots of new prospects for me; new products, new qualifications. I thrive on a challenge.”

On joining Hamilton and Inches Debbie embarked on her first training course, a recognised European qualification from the National Association of Goldsmiths, and sped her way through a two year study in just a year. Meanwhile, on the shop floor she was learning about the history-steeped business and was spending time across the departments, from the silversmiths to the repairers to the valuers: “There was a lot of learning and a lot of cleaning,” laughed Debbie.

One year into her career with the company, Debbie had a change of scenery and was trusted to launch the Hamilton and Inches concession in Edinburgh’s Harvey Nichols retail haven. This was a prime marketing opportunity, taking advantage of the department store’s excellent footfall in a bid to more extensively market Hamilton and Inches to the Scottish public: “It was my opportunity to get something up and running and to make it a success. It was my baby.”
This was Debbie’s first time managing a small team and, despite occasional difficulties in balancing Harvey Nichols’ rules and regulations with that of Hamilton and Inches’ own standards, it was a great success: “Sometimes the two companies were conflicting but we had to merge our ideas. I realised that’s what management is about; finding ways of pleasing both parties.” Debbie returned to the iconic George Street store two years later and spent a brief time in the watch side of the business before naturally transitioning to the jewellery team, her original passion. Seven years ago, she became the jewellery manager and is now head of jewellery, a role that is about both overseeing the team on the shop floor and managing the jewellery itself. “Although I’m a manager, my role is often more about finding the correct product for the client and ensuring our visual merchandising is the best it can be, as opposed to managing people.”

Five years ago her role expanded to include jewellery buying; making Debbie responsible for every piece of finery the business buys. Her key diary date is an annual fair in Switzerland: “Buying has to be a logical decision. I do my research beforehand; 90% of my feedback is from clients. Jewellery is such an emotive purchase. I fuse their ideas with current trends – not just in jewellery but in other luxury brands – and do my best to honour what they’re after. It’s all about the quality and the service.”

“When the recession hit we were being advised to lower our quality to remain competitive with our peers. But that’s something we will never compromise, from our £80 silver earrings to an £8,000 necklace. The reason Hamilton and Inches has been around for almost 150 years is the quality of our products. It’s about rarity and exclusivity too. It’s up to us to educate our clients as to why the ring in our window is more valuable than the one down the street. We’re producing beautiful, timeless pieces that ladies will wear and love for a lifetime.”

Despite its historic roots, it is important the business can evolve by developing its own product lines too. Last year, Hamilton and Inches launched its first fine jewellery collection, driven by Debbie: “I sourced the external designer and manufacturer and presented them with the concept. I gave them my story in sketches and they produced the more complex designs. To know I started from scratch then to see these new pieces arrive gives me butterflies. We’re hoping that, in a few years, as the collections evolve we will eventually be able to make them in-house. This will be the next step for really developing the brand.”

Debbie, still thriving on a challenge, is eagerly looking to the future: “It’s our 150th year in 2016. It’s going to be such an exciting time. There’s a big celebration planned but it’s all firmly under lock and key at the moment.”
“I’m so passionate about the business; it’s very much in my blood now. When someone puts on a piece that I have designed and falls in love with it, that is what makes my job worthwhile. But I’m still a cog in a wheel of a very talented team who are driving Hamilton and Inches forward.”