LONDON — Thomas J. O’Neill is returning to his jewelry roots.
The president worldwide of Burberry will step down on July 1 to become chief executive of Harry Winston Inc., and president of Aber Diamond Corp., the Canadian diamond mining company which has a controlling stake in the U.S. luxury jeweler. He succeeds Patricia Hambrecht, who left Winston at the end of December when her contract expired.
Reports that O’Neill was being considered as Winston’s ceo first surfaced in WWD last December.
“It was a tough call, and I’m going to miss Burberry, but I think this is a terrific, terrific opportunity,” O’Neill told WWD in a telephone interview Monday. “Harry Winston is oozing with heritage, there’s a terrific story going on there.”
O’Neill said that, at Winston, the focus will be on the upper end of the market. “So many jewelry houses have gone a different route, and deemphasized the fine jewelry end of the business for a variety of reasons. But at Harry Winston, the focus is on what has made the company great in the first place — the finest gemstones paired with innovative design. There are over 150,000 designs in the archives, only a fraction of which have been used,” he said.
Winston, which has estimated sales of $100 million, has traditionally bypassed lesser materials and focused on diamonds, gold and platinum. In recent years, the company has increased its use of semiprecious stones and has also stepped up its watch offerings. Its chief competitors are De Beers LV, Tiffany & Co. and Graff.
At Burberry, O’Neill’s focus had been on developing the management team, infrastructure and operations in Asia. In addition, he oversaw much of the wholesale business and brokered retail real estate deals for Burberry in Europe.
“Tom leaves the business with a solid foundation in place and a strong management team on the ground in Asia to maximize the extraordinary growth potential that the Asian market represents,” said Burberry chief executive officer Rose Marie Bravo in a statement.
O’Neill’s experience with the Asian market is a key reason Winston sought to hire him.
“[The market there is] one we’re very compatible with in terms of appreciation for what we do, the craft, the prestige and how we bring it to our customers,” said Ronald Winston, chairman of Winston. “Along with watches,” he added, “it’s probably the fastest-growing segment of our business.”
Winston expects to open 10 to 15 more stores in the U.S. and Asia by the end of the year. Boutiques in Las Vegas at the Forum at Caesar’s Palace and in Taipei at the Regent Hotel are already in the works. The jeweler has salons in New York; Tokyo; Beverly Hills, Calif.; Osaka, Japan; Geneva, and Paris.
“We’re in major expansion mode,” Winston said. “The six stores we have are too few for the heft of the name.”
Regarding talk of whether the brand name needs to be revitalized for today’s market, Winston said, “I wouldn’t say [we’re] revitalizing in the sense we went to sleep. I don’t think we’ve done that. But we have a lot of work to do, to bring our stores to people in various parts of the world where it hasn’t been available.”
Winston praised Burberry for its transformation from an old English brand to a household name, especially in terms of its appeal to the Japanese market.
As for the Winston house, such a transformation is not out of the question. However, Winston added, “We’re not the kind of company that would have the multitude of stores that Burberry has because of what we do and the kind of creations that we sell.”
As head of the mining company, O’Neill will be based both in New York and Paris, overseeing sales of rough diamonds.
Before joining Burberry in November 2001, O’Neill was head of the watch and jewelry division of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. O’Neill had been with LVMH since 1997, and worked on the De Beers LV diamond jewelry retail joint venture.
Prior to heading LVMH’s jewelry division, O’Neill was ceo of Marc Jacobs International and president and ceo of LVMH’s fashion and leather goods for the Americas. Before that, he was at Tiffany & Co. for 13 years, rising to executive vice president of its international division.
— Samantha Conti, with contributions from Emily Holt, New York