The best entrepreneurs are problem-solvers, and Annoushka Ducas is no exception. Aged 19, she had moved to Hong Kong and was working for a local estate agent when her mother, who ran a wholesale fish business supplying top restaurants in the UK, rang her with a dilemma: she wanted to give a piece of jewellery as a gift to 60 of her best chefs, and she didn’t know where to start. Ducas found a good cast in the Philippines – a place for which she retains a particular fondness – and oversaw the production of a set of beautifully designed fish-motif cufflinks. But the only manufacturer she could find required her to place a minimum order of double the quantity she required, so she was left with a spare set. Rather than stashing them away at the back of a cupboard, she took them to show a buyer at Harvey Nichols, who liked them but said she needed to see more. “She probably thought she’d seen the last of me,” says Ducas, chuckling, “but to her surprise I turned up in her office a few weeks later with about six or seven designs!”
So it was that, despite being entirely self-taught, Ducas found herself designing jewellery that flew off of the shelves at Harvey Nichols, initially under the department store’s own label and then branded as Links of London, which she founded in 1990 along with her now-husband John Ayton. Those early years required something of a juggling act for Ducas, whose mother had died unexpectedly the year above and whose fish business she had inherited; she ran the two companies side-by-side for some years (not to mention also raising her children) before eventually divesting herself of the latter.
By the time Ducas sold Links of London in 2007, it had expanded internationally to the US, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong, with about 50 stores and several hundred employees. “I no longer felt that I had that real personal contact with either my team or the people buying my designs, and I was losing my sense of creativity, so it was time to move on – but it was still hard letting go,” she reflects. “The business was a bit like my fifth child…”
Perhaps, therefore, it is unsurprising that Ducas went on to launch her eponymous fine-jewellery brand, Annoushka, despite having planned to take a longer career break. “I just really missed jewellery, and I wanted to be back in charge of my own destiny,” she says. While the new business presented its own challenges, Ducas was able to take lessons from her previous experience at Links of London, not least the importance of maintaining control of the customer relationship. “I knew the value of having that direct relationship with my clients – especially given that I was designing for women just like me,” she says. “I wanted to take the reverence out of jewellery – in particular to give women permission to buy for themselves, which sounds so normal now but really wasn’t then.”
Having an established relationship with buyers helped (“There was a tremendous am0unt of trust”), as did investing early in digital technology. “We completely redid our website about a year before the pandemic, which meant we were very well positioned to weather the storm,” says Ducas.
Most recently, Ducas has applied her entrepreneurial acumen to a good cause in the form of her charitable initiative the Brilliant Breakfast, which she launched in collaboration with the Prince’s Trust and which has raised more than £2.1 million since its inception. “I wanted to do something really simple and fun that would be a reason for people to get together and give whatever they can afford – no donation too big or too small,” she says of the initiative, which encourages individuals and companies to host fundraising breakfasts to support disadvantaged young women. In getting it off the ground, she has used many of the same skills required to run her jewellery brand. “First of all, it’s about having the confidence to do something I’ve never done before, even if I’m making it up as I go along!” she says, smiling. “I’m constantly challenging my team to think like a start-up, which above all means never taking no for an answer. When somebody tells you something can’t be done, always ask them, why not? If you have to say no in the end, that’s OK, but don’t do it without trying first.”
Sign up to host your own Brilliant Breakfast between 10 and 16 October here.
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