Kiki McDonough

Don’t underestimate what charm can do.

AM HOF Entrepreneurs Kiki Mcdonough 1920X1080 Clare Bayley

Published: 28/04/2023

Fine jewellery designer Kiki McDonough’s vibrant and elegant creations have won the hearts of style icons across the UK. This includes celebrities and even royalty: the new Princess of Wales reportedly has 18 pairs of her earrings alone.

Since she started the business in 1985, she has seen tastes and fashion change, survived recessions and pandemics. It has taken iron discipline, but, she says, she’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Where it started

Kiki is a fifth generation jeweller, but she knew early on that her path would be different to previous generations. Her father ran an antique jewellery business, Harvey & Gore, specialising in Georgian jewellery. He was a collector and world expert, fascinated by the provenance of difference pieces, but for Kiki, it held little appeal.

“When he looked at retiring, he asked me if I wanted to take over. The trouble is I was wearing long boots and floppy hats and I said that I wasn’t at all interested in Georgian jewellery. Why would I wear Georgian broach on a Biba T-shirt? So that was that. The business was sold.”

But 10 years later, she was lured back to the jewellery business: “A friend of mine who had an antique jewellery shop on Bond Street asked me if I would come and design some modern jewellery for him.”

She admits the whole thing felt ridiculous, but friends persuaded her to take up the opportunity. On her first day, she arrived with a blank sheet of paper. She eventually sketched some designs she liked and brought in a Birmingham-based manufacturer to create them. “He looked at all these mad ideas and said ‘I’m not sure it’s going to work’ and I said ‘I’m not sure either’. He agreed to take a punt. Those pieces are now in the V&A.”

The collection was an instant hit commercially as well. Kiki worked with the same manufacturer for 25 years, and it proved a creative and happy partnership. “He really understood what I wanted to do,” she says.

The business moved on, with Kiki developing her trademark gemstone collections. She started a movement – at the time, few designers used gemstones. Kiki loved the colours – amethyst, citrine, peridot: “They’re so beautiful, but now they’re very popular. I’ve been a victim of my own success!”

How it grew

The growth of the business coincided with a shift in the buying habits for jewellery. Kiki says: “It started with a man coming into buy something, then a man and woman coming into buy something together, then a woman coming in and choosing something and then the man coming into pay for it, and then we arrived at a time where women will say ‘I love it, I’ll have it’. She recognised that the look and feel of her shop had to reflect those changes. It couldn’t be intimidating and austere, but had to feel welcoming and comfortable.

She survived two recessions and a pandemic. Each time, she has had to adapt, rethinking the collections she is offering or how people are buying as people adjust their spending habits. She admits that her most challenging periods was in the early 1990s, juggling a baby and a two-year old, while in the depths of an economic downturn. Her husband’s business was also in a recession.

It was monstrous. I wonder how we got through those years. Certainly, I had never been so tired. But if it’s your business, you find a way. You’ve got to lead.”
Kiki Mcdonough

The business has evolved cautiously but significantly over the years. Kiki started out with a concession, and then went to a small shop, then a bigger shop, before creating the flagship store in Sloane Square. She has also built online and wholesale business. She now distributes through a select group of partners – from Mappin & Webb in the UK to Neiman Marcus in America.

She adds: “I’m forensic about these changes. We’ve got seven wholesale accounts and I’m careful. I wouldn’t wholesale to someone who put the jewellery in the window and forgot about it.

I need the human touch. I like interacting with Fortnum and Mason or Goldsmiths.”
Kiki Mcdonough

Her next ambition is to distribute in America. The group is already in Neiman Marcus and in Holt Renfrew in Canada. She adds: It’s a big place and I know you can get your fingers very badly burnt. It will be a slow process. We’ve had a big introduction. The Princess of Wales wears my jewellery and I’m very proud of that.”

Sound advice?

Her father gave her two pieces of advice: ‘never judge a book by its cover’ – i.e. never judge a customer when they come in and ‘nothing is ever cheap, it’s always inexpensive’. She says: “Those were the two things he told me, which I’m not sure 100% helped me!”

Her view is that a business like hers requires some talent, but also significant discipline. That meant turning up when she felt rotten, never turning the answer phone on and never putting a sign on the door saying ‘back in five minutes’. “I’ve built this brand on my own without any directors or shareholders and so I’ve probably had to be more disciplined.”

She believes she has had plenty of luck, but adds, “don’t underestimate what charm can do. I never get cross with my suppliers! They’ve been fantastic to me. They deliver on time, we pay on time without them asking, it builds up trust over time. Entrepreneurs also need to treat their team well.”

In particular, Kiki says, entrepreneurs need to learn from their mistakes and don’t let those mistakes make them too fearful. “Everyone makes mistakes and they’re part of building a business. We’re all human.”

Would she do it all again? “I hope I’m never reincarnated as anyone else, because honestly, I’ve had the best time. I’ve loved every second. There have been moments when I’ve thought ‘argh’, but I feel so lucky. If I had my time again, I hope I’d come back exactly the same. Well – perhaps without a couple of recessions and a pandemic.”