In Conversation With…Susan Caplan

In Conversation With…Susan Caplan

Born and bred in North London, jewellery curator Susan Caplan’s interest in antiques started young – some might say it was in her blood, with several family members owning and running stores in Camden Passage and Hatton Garden. Following a life-changing divorce, Susan chose to take her hobby more seriously, turning it into the empire we’re now so familiar with. Here, she tells us more about her life, including her inspirational battle with cancer and the business lessons she’s learnt along the way.

I’ve always known about the importance of hard work. I can vividly remember my parents' passion for collecting antiques and going on trips to visit my relatives who had shops in London's Camden Passage and Hatton Garden. Collecting, buying and selling is something that really runs in our family – today, a cousin of mine is one of the top Meissen [porcelain] experts in the world. It probably explains why I have such an eye for detail.
At school, I wasn’t what you’d call academic. That was my sister. Instead, I was quite a rebel, which is why my parents chose to send me to a finishing school – Lucy Clayton – in the 1970s. It was also a modelling school, and you were taught things like how to balance a book on your head and how to get in and out of cars gracefully. It seems like a lifetime ago and not so relevant now...
Growing up, I constantly trawled markets, fairs and car boot sales. Bermondsey Market was a favourite – I’d buy from one stand and sell to the next. It seems I had a bit of entrepreneurial spirit in me early on. But I didn’t have much money to spend at this point. It sometimes meant I bought something that was damaged because it was cheaper, so I soon learnt how to restore things. You can restore the value of anything if you show it some love.
Initially, I trained as a beauty therapist. When I was 21, the opportunity came up to travel the world on the QEII – then the most state-of-the-art cruise ship in the world – and run the beauty services on board. I once gave massages to Rock Hudson and Elaine Stritch (the American actress who used to live in The Savoy). I adored that time – I believe it’s stood me in good stead over the years.
After that, I came back to London and not long after, my father died very suddenly of a heart attack. I was only 24 – it was a huge shock and one of those life-changing moments. Not a day goes by without me thinking about him. His death completely changed my outlook on the world. I don’t take anything for granted and I appreciate each day. I know first hand how short life can be.

A year later I married a Scottish lawyer and moved to Glasgow and had three wonderful daughters. It was during this time I started buying and selling antiques and jewellery. It started in local church halls and quickly moved up to grand three-day fairs in stately country homes. It didn’t take long for people to start to know my name – they used to come in their hordes when they heard I was going to be there selling my vintage jewellery. 
At the end of the 90s my marriage collapsed.
It was a complete sink or swim moment and, at first, I sank. My eldest daughter was 13 and the youngest was nine, and it was devastating. In the context of being a single mother, I initially found it hard to continue what was then a hobby, but there was no looking back. Now, I see it as the moment when my interest in vintage turned into a business. 
From there, I felt really empowered to expand. Once, while walking through John Lewis in Glasgow, I noticed they sold second-hand jewellery and shortly after I became one of their suppliers; I still supply them today. By this time, I was in my 40s and working mostly from home on the top landing with a tiny desk and the eaves were full of jewellery trays. My days started at 6am and often went on until the early hours of the morning. Back then I was a one-woman band. I did it all – the buying, the selling, the invoicing, the repairing and the merchandising. I also travelled the country to make sure my collections were displayed exactly as I liked them.
In 2008, I moved to London and branded the business. When Westfield first opened, I had a large section in the jewellery hall at House of Fraser and on its grand opening, buyers from luxury stores like Fortnum & Mason and Harrods came knocking. It felt like another gear shift and it was so exciting. I couldn’t believe how much everyone loved the jewellery. I then launched with Harrods and Harvey Nichols and I went into those stores with a totally different range of jewellery. John Lewis customers wanted easy-to-wear classics which weren’t prohibitively expensive. But the more luxury retailers wanted high-end, statement pieces, which inevitably came with a higher price tag. By that stage, I knew it was important to diversify and not put all of the business eggs in one basket, so to speak.
I’ve always relied heavily on my intuition. There wasn’t really anyone to look up to doing the same thing as me, which made me feel like a bit of a pioneer – I suppose I still do now. I’ve tended to do things my way, which is probably why we’re the market leader when it comes to vintage jewellery. I never worried too much about success either – it was just about doing what I love. In the end, I’ve found business incredibly satisfying and therapeutic.

Going with my gut is probably what helped me avoid any major setbacks. The business was growing, and everyone wanted a way in to the vintage jewellery market because it was so different. I also really knew what I was doing, because I took every opportunity to learn. reading most of the books on antiques, gone to every auction and spoken to every expert. Being informed is really important to me. Seeing my own branded packaging and merchandising in store for the first time is an unforgettable memory. Customers coming up to me in places like Liberty and saying they love Susan Caplan was lovely to hear, especially when they didn’t know I was Susan Caplan!
Other highlights include opening the annual fashion show at Harvey Nichols. That was very nerve-wracking, though. I also loved giving talks to customers at Fortnum & Mason, where I would also value their pieces and explain their provenance.

It wasn’t long before people started asking to wear pieces for red carpet events. We’ve lent pieces to actresses who want to wear them at the Oscars and BAFTAs and to production crews on film sets, too. Meryl Streep wore a pair of our earrings when she played Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and Beyoncé also wore some our pieces on the cover of Vogue. That was another exciting moment. The number of celebrities we’ve worked with is endless: Taylor Swift, Cheryl Cole, Dua Lipa, Rachel Weisz, Rita Ora, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Nicole Scherzinger, Zoe Kravitz, Adele, Cara Delevingne, Jordan Dunn, Lily Allen, Rihanna… I could go on. We’re currently involved in some amazing film projects, too – but until they’re released, we’re keeping quiet. 
Stylists also borrow pieces for press shoots all the time. They usually phone or email to tell us what they’re looking for, before coming to browse the archive at our studio – we have drawers full of jewellery. I’m not only a perfectionist, I’m also super organised so everything is arranged by brand, date, stone type etc. When I first started, I used my living room as my showroom – the jewellery was displayed on our baby grand piano, inherited from my childhood. That was the set up for about four years before we moved to the showroom in Camden Town. Over the years, we’ve just got bigger and bigger… even over the past year. 
Vintage shopping has exploded over the last 10 years. People never used to buy my jewellery just because they were pre-loved pieces or because they wanted to help the environment – it was because they loved them. However, now it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Every fashion brand is under pressure to be sustainable and show they’re helping the planet in some way. The fact that second-hand marketplace Depop was just bought for $1.4bn by Etsy tells you everything you need to know about where the vintage and pre-loved industry is headed. 
All my personal jewellery is vintage and I mostly wear silver. Trifari is one of my favourite brands. The Italian founders made the most beautiful hand-crafted pieces of the highest quality. Their designers came from Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. I love buying their pieces and Fortnum’s customers love them, too. Me? I love Dior and Chanel. Another favourite is Monet from the 50s through to the 80s when they made pieces for YSL. Everything I wear or own has to be simple, classic and understated – though it must be said I love a pair of statement earrings!
My other love is gardening. It’s a passion I've had for many years. Now, being in nature is one of the ways I can really switch off. I also love to go for long walks, bike rides and I look after many of my friend’s gardens, too – spending time in nature has helped me get through many difficult times. A lot of Trifari pieces are based on natural shapes, like leaves and vines, so I guess that’s one connection. 

I’m not thinking of slowing down at alI just yet. I seem to have more drive now than ever – the kind of zest for life that makes me an optimist. Plus, I’m always looking to build on what I’ve done so far. My drive comes from my passion and love of what I do – I’m currently curating an Edwardian revival collection with plans for it to be sold in the V&A shop, which will coincide with their Fabergé exhibition in November. We’re also working with Selfridges as part of their bridal concept and joining forces with Astrid & Miyu on an affordable range of vintage jewellery. We’re also about to launch a new collection with Mappin & Webb, too – so it’s go, go, go.
There are projects in the pipeline which will mean more international exposure, but for now it is a secret. So, watch this space.
Online is such an important facet of our business. Ten years ago, everyone was going online, and I believe it’s what has helped us navigate the pandemic, especially when stores were closed. We saw such a big increase in traffic and sales as a result but what has brought that about even more is the importance of saving our planet by buying vintage or preloved items.
The best piece of business advice I could give anyone at any age is never sit still. It’s so important to be ahead of the curve and get your ideas out there before anyone else tries to do the same thing. It’s vital to always be one step ahead. Also, know that luck and timing tend to play a part. It’s important to take calculated risks, too. I’m someone who always tries to look forward, and I’d encourage anyone else to try and take the same approach. Positivity counts for a lot in business.
The best advice I’ve ever been given is don’t sweat the small stuff. It's such a good mantra – not least because of my personal battle with cancer. In 2012 I was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer. That was a real shock, but it gave me some perspective on what is important and what isn’t.
Within a week of my diagnosis, I was undergoing chemotherapy and felt traumatised by losing my hair. The treatment lasted about nine months, and my daughter and son in law moved in with me. Thankfully, the prognosis was good and with treatment, the tumour started to shrink. My treatment plan moved onto radiotherapy and a lumpectomy, and today I’m completely cancer-free. I am definitely stronger and feel more empowered for having gone through another life-changing experience.
Looking back over my life, I’m so grateful for my three daughters. My eldest, Louisa, is the CEO of Beyond, a mental health charity, having gone through her own depression. Meanwhile, my second daughter Gemma is a stylist and also runs a fashion and beauty platform called This Is Mothership and my youngest daughter Rachel is the Creative Content Director for Estee Lauder Companies, where she leads the creative for all brands across all channels. They’re all brilliant at what they do and are such high-achievers. As a family we’re very close and I have four grandchildren, who I adore. Plus, the minute we can travel again I’m going to see my mother, who now lives in Canada, who I haven't seen for 15 months. After that, I plan to retreat to my Mallorcan bolthole where I’ve being going for many years. It’s also where I relax and wind down.
The thing I’m most proud of is bringing up my daughters to be the lovely people that they are. They have been my rock and  inspiration throughout. Success isn’t about not having problems – it’s about how you deal with them and come out the other side. Stronger, hopefully. I honestly think I can handle anything now and in many ways, I know I’m incredibly lucky. 

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