By  on May 1, 2006

LONDON — Theo Fennell, the British jeweler known for its sorbet-colored gemstones and bejeweled cross, key and horn pendants, is looking to grow by taking another stab at the U.S. market.

The label, founded in 1982 by Theo Fennell, a tall and dashing Eton graduate who began his career as a silversmith, is popular among London celebrities, including Elton John, Liz Hurley, and David and Victoria Beckham. But Fennell said it's time to turn the business up a notch.

"We've finally decided to go for it and not keep ourselves a secret anymore," said the designer from his South Kensington office, located above the label's flagship. "We are constantly being asked to move into new markets, but we are a design-led business and we don't have the infrastructure to grow."

Fennell, 54, who designs and produces all of his jewels in-house, said he's open to a variety of future options, including selling the business — but retaining creative control — or handing over a minority stake.

"What we're looking for is a financial partner with the skills to help us be a serious international player," he said, adding he's looking at the U.S., the Middle East and the Far East as potential markets for growth.

In addition to expanding on the retail and wholesale front, money from a potential partner would go toward investing in high-end gems.

"We're too poor right now to have enough floating, high-end stock," he said. "Ironically, we have the clients, but not the gemstones, and we'd also like to have enough stock to resupply wholesale and franchise clients quickly."

The business is listed on London's AIM stock exchange, although Fennell and board members Viscount Cowdray, Richard Northcott and Charlie Carter own 70 percent of the company.

The company's annual sales for the year ended March 31 will be released in June. Last year's sales were 16.3 million pounds, or $29 million at current exchange. The market capitalization is about 6.3 million pounds, or $11.2 million.

Fennell's latest collections have a Victorian flavor and feature gold honeycomb heart pendants with bees crawling over them, diamond pavé snakes slithering around chunky jeweled crosses, and glittering mermaids, fairies, bats and bugs on rings, pendants and pins.Retail prices for the in-store collections range from about 395 pounds, or $703, for a pair of yellow gold disk earrings to 78,000 pounds, or $140,000, for a three-stone diamond ring. Fennell also makes many of his jewels for private clients on commission.

Silver is another part of the business. The designer crafts everything from unexpected pieces such as Crème de la Mer jar tops and vodka bottle holders to more staid objects such as salt-and-pepper shakers and picture frames.

In addition to the flagship in South Kensington, not far from the Victoria & Albert museum, there's a store in the City of London's Royal Exchange. There are also shop-in-shops at Harvey Nichols Manchester, Harrods and Selfridges, and 17 wholesale clients worldwide in markets such as Hong Kong, Dubai, Barbados and the Maldives.

While Fennell already has a private client base in the U.S., he said he's hoping to make a fresh start there.

"About 10 years ago, we were selling the jewelry at Neiman Marcus and the silver at Bergdorf Goodman, and it just didn't work at the time," he said. "There is nothing worse than knocking on America's door and not being able to support what you're selling with good service and the proper infrastructure."

This time, he said he'd like to set up a small distribution base in the U.S. and sell through department stores, with an eye eventually to opening freestanding units.

But there's no way he's changing his designs to suit the locals.

"I think there's a certain desperation that foreign companies feel when they go to America," he said. "They think they somehow have to please everyone and that they have to jazz up their goods to make them appealing."

The company also plans to launch its first fragrance with Juniper Brand Development, the British company that has the license for Matthew Williamson's signature scent. The launch is set for next year.

Fennell, a married father of two girls, believes the fresh financing he's seeking would not only be good for the business, but for his state of mind.

"I'd like to find that a new partner would allow me to spend more time on the design, manufacturing and selling to clients, which is what I do best," said the designer. "Great jewelry is about visual joy, emotional impact and the craftsmanship that goes into making the pieces. What the stones and gold are actually worth in the end is secondary."

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