MUNICH, Germany — The Danish entrepreneur who brought the juggernaut jewellery brand Pandora to a $1.83 billion IPO in 2010 has a new venture and it’s already staked a claim to be one of the fastest growing jewellery brands in history.
“We’re just 19 months old! We’re a little baby and we’re just starting to crawl!” Jesper Nielsen yelps joyfully. “And in those first 19 months we opened in 3,300 stores in 17 markets — no brand ever did that before!” Dressed-down in a Superdry sweatshirt and white sneakers, Nielsen is in his element as he pep-talks the British retail partners for his jewellery brand Endless. It’s the second night of the Inhorgenta jewellery fair in Munich, and Nielsen is whipping up excitement among the regional sales reps and store buyers, his plans and vision for the brand spiced up with a dash of risqué humour and jokes about his reputation for hard-partying. A bullish Dane with an endless line of patter and apparently boundless self-belief, this is Nielsen’s tenth visit to the jewellery fair — eight of which were with Pandora, a jewellery brand that he helped nurture to global prominence — and it feels like a homecoming.
This year and last Nielsen was in Munich with Endless, which is owned and run by his family business and has its headquarters in Düsseldorf. In 2014, the brand turned over $30 million. The vast scale of Nielsen’s vision for Endless is evident from the 300sqm stand — by far the largest at the fair — that stretches the length of the back wall in the first hall. Elsewhere, Inhorgenta is a rather calm trade event, but here, dance music pumps out over tables dressed with bowls of candies and brightly coloured promo lip balms, while lightboxes on the walls beam out pictures of Jennifer Lopez — sand-dusted and sultry on a beach far from snow-caked Mitteleuropa — modelling Endless’s signature leather charm bracelets.
Brought on board in August, Lopez is contracted to be a spokesperson and ‘designer’ for Endless for the next three years, and, as Nielsen explains to his retail partners and sales reps, her face and her fame are going to be key to the brand’s success. “She’s going to be very important in promoting our jewellery to our end consumers in the next three years,” Nielsen tells them. On Tuesday he’ll fly to Los Angeles to meet Lopez in the flesh, and will gift her a custom Endless bracelet rendered in precious metals and gemstones, estimated to be worth $1.1 million.
The jewellery industry is a bit sleepy, it’s not very innovative, it needs new thinkers.
Existing points of sale are spread between North America and Europe, including 1,100 in the US, 750 in Germany and 325 in the UK. Nielsen and his team aim to secure 3,000 more by the end of 2015: their financial investment in getting a star of Lopez’s calibre on board is, in part, a show of commitment to those retailers. People may not have heard of Endless — yet — but that’s about to change.
In its current incarnation, the Endless product is simple: coloured leather bracelets in three wrappable lengths that can be dressed with metal charms. “Endless is selling not just charms,” Nielsen reminds the retailers. “Pandora sells charms — Endless is selling charms and bracelets; that’s why we work so much with colours.” While the traditional charm bracelet business model saw customers purchasing a single bracelet to be filled with charms, this model encourages the purchase of multiple, stackable bracelets in a variety of colours and finishes.
Endless currently offers 600 charms, priced from $30, with new designs rolled out regularly to the accompaniment of region-specific social media fanfare. The range of colours for the $60–$90 bracelets expands seasonally in step with forecasted fashion trends: this spring’s collection includes pastel tones of lilac, rose and mint. Jesper’s sister Annette Nielsen — who co-owns KASI, the holding company behind Endless — identifies their customer base as “normal, ordinary people buying each other Christmas and Birthday presents” and notes that with Lopez’s presence, and the slightly ‘rockier’ collection that carries her name, they can reach “Mr and Mrs Smith and their daughter too.” This is a price point that the company feels very comfortable with, and they have no desire to move upscale. “If your husband has £2,000 to buy you something, you are not going to want that present coming in a box from Endless or Pandora,” explains Annette. “You’re going to want Chanel or Bulgari.”
Annette is not the only other Nielsen on board — Jesper’s parents have always played key roles in his business ventures — and the sense of family in the team is palpable. Marketing director Søren Colding and Communications and PR director Steen Laursen both have connections with Nielsen dating back through multiple ventures (including his notorious hands-on sponsorship of the AF Copenhagen handball team). The first retailers to buy into Endless were all contacts built up during Nielsen’s time selling Pandora and other jewellery brands in Europe. Here in Munich, after delivering his pep talks, he will treat some 450 of his sales reps and retail partners to a lavish party during which — against a backdrop of 1980s chart hits — they will be plied with shots and instructed to get drunk and get bonding.
Endless is a resolutely sales-centric business: their retailers are the antennae of the company, and their feedback is key. The brand first launched with a designer who favoured semi-precious materials, but retailers reported that the product was too expensive. Endless and the designer swiftly parted company and the charms were relaunched at a lower price point.
Nielsen himself is a salesman to the bone, working in gas station marts straight out of high school, before moving into supermarkets, and then jewellery sales and distribution through KASI. He first encountered Pandora at a jewellery trade show in Denmark in 2004, four years after it was founded by Per Enevoldsen and Kenneth Ramstrup. While successful in Denmark, it was unknown outside the country: Nielsen proposed that KASI distribute the brand in Germany, where he had an existing network of some 1,500 retailers. From there he expanded into other territories. Driven by Nielsen’s growing sales network in continental Europe, Pandora flourished, blazing a trail for branded fashion jewellery. Nielsen cemented brand awareness through then-radical marketing strategies that included magazine supplements and prime-time TV spots. In 2006 in Hamburg, he persuaded Enevoldsen and Ramstrup to allow him to open the first of what was to become a global network of Pandora stores.
When Pandora was sold in 2008, 90 per cent of Nielsen’s earnings came from the company. In 2009, he was offered $81 million and a share of Pandora’s profits for the next five years in return for the company taking over the role played by KASI. A clash of management styles ensued, and Nielsen pulled out of Pandora altogether in 2011, signing a non-compete clause to stay out of the jewellery industry until 2013.
Nielsen is unabashedly bitter about what happened with Pandora, describing the management strategy in the most withering terms in his 2014 autobiography Inside Pandora and speculating gleefully that they were "freaking out at the prospect of my re-entry into the business." When asked why he decided to re-enter the jewellery market, his immediate response is “I wanted my baby back.” His ‘baby’ seems to have been less the brand itself than its share of the affordable luxury jewellery sector he helped create. “In the jewellery industry there is a limit — you can never make a revenue like Walmart, Tesco or H&M does, but there’s still room for a couple of billion dollar companies in our industry as I see it. But the jewellery industry is a bit sleepy, it’s not very innovative, it needs new thinkers.”
As Nielsen’s first step into product development and manufacturing, Endless is a very different entity from his previous family ventures. Currently, the charms are designed by Julie Sandlau, an independent Danish jeweller who also has a family-owned facility in Vietnam where the components are manufactured. According to Annette Nielsen, the factory employs some 1,200 people: it currently has the capacity to produce 50,000 Endless charms a week, and is taking on some 200 new employees monthly.
Both Nielsens say they are confident of their ability to supply their rapidly expanding retail network with product, and are equally adamant that they will continue to adhere to the responsible manufacturing practices that were historically so important to Pandora. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the development and manufacturing of jewellery is a departure for both, and that they are not only going into it at some scale, but with an eye to ferocious growth.
Nielsen is forthright in his ambition for Endless. In the immediate future the company will work on building brand awareness, on opening more points of sale in its strongest markets and moving into Australia. On 7 May they will open their first mono-brand stores — seven of them — in Taiwan. More stores will follow, as will online sales, though Nielsen aims to keep 80 percent of his business wholesale, to permit the widest possible reach. “Endless should be available for women worldwide, not just in the big cities like London — that’s a part of creating a massive brand for the mid section.” Over the next two or three years, the brand is planning to expand its offer to include necklaces, rings, and a different bracelet design, all of which will work with the existing charms and bracelets. In the mid term there is talk of Endless becoming a wider fashion accessories brand.
For the long term, Nielsen, as ever, is thinking big. “My vision in 20 years? I see 10,000 Endless stores worldwide. One day I’m going to hand it over to my son, and he’ll have to take over an empire.”