Interview with Till Schoeffel, CEO of Schoeffel, Germany

Founded in 1921 by German pearl trader Wilhelm Schoeffel, the Schoeffel family has dedicated itself to locating the world’s most beautiful pearls. Four generations in, the family has gained acclaim for designing a line of jewellery fit to house the carefully selected gems. Handed down from father to son for nearly a century, the Schoeffel brand has penetrated markets around the globe, continually fulfilling its promise to provide the highest quality standards. But what lies at the heart of the family’s quest for perfection? And how has the Schoeffel family been so consistently successful in what is today a rare trade? In interviewing Till Schoeffel, the CEO of Schoeffel, Tharawat magazine learned of the attributes that have allowed the family brand to sustain over 90 years of success.

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Why did you join the family business?

‘Pure luxury. Since 1921.’ These are words I have heard time and time again since my early childhood, just as my father heard them when he was growing up. They have influenced every generation of the Schoeffel family, calling on us to keep this time-honoured promise.

However, these words did not force me to join the family business. In my opinion, it is much more the promise, inherent in our company slogan, that seduced me in some way and was calling me to continue the family tradition. When I began working here in 1996 after extensive international training, it seemed the only natural thing to do. The family business was the right place for me. I can therefore say that while it was not planned, perhaps it was my destiny to develop what my ancestors built with so much entrepreneurial passion. There is a good reason why we talk about a tradition of passion in our family’s corporate philosophy. All four generations share a passionate interest for the beauty of pearls – truly luxurious gifts that exude a precious sensuality. I believe it is the same passion has made countless people around the world love the work we do.

You are a 4th generation member. Are there any other family members working with you?

It may be no coincidence that our tradition has always been passed down from one only son to the next. Instead of siblings, we had the company, which was there to captivate our imagination at an early age. When my grandfather told stories about his adventures in Japan, a mysterious world would open before my eyes, full of distant cultures, customs and traditions. It was a world I could not share with anyone. At a very early age, this fostered an understanding of how exclusive the products are that we deal with so successfully. After joining the business, I managed the company together with my father for eleven years. He imparted all of his knowledge and experience through this very close working relationship. Such an approach is extremely important in a market as small and sensitive as the international trade in cultured pearls. Everything depends on trust and experience. And, of course, the ability to continue developing a business when conditions change in a radically different era such as the one we are witnessing now. My family has succeeded in doing so for more than 90 years, and I certainly aim to reach a full century.

Your family has been known as experts in the pearl industry for decades. Can you tell us more about which specific characteristics define the pearl trade? How has this evolved since your family founded the business in 1921?

We never refer to it as an industry. There is a good reason why we refer to our trade as cultivation and harvesting, which are terms that befit the luxury character of our products. The pearl trade is a special business that requires personal relationships of the highest quality and span several generations on the one hand, and an individual appreciation of aesthetic value and a confident understanding of style on the other. On the whole, the level of expertise that is necessary can only be learned and taught in part. Although it is certainly true that the eye can be trained to spot flawless beauty, the pinnacle of aesthetic perfection is something more emotional than rational. The same is true for all other items of value and beauty: Sometimes you feel that it is the pearls that find the right person rather than vice versa. A twinkle of light perhaps, at the precise moment when you are receptive to it can make the difference. Yes, there is an emotional side to our business, and this should not be underestimated.

At the rational level, I personally inspect and select every pearl that bears my name, providing a personal guarantee of the exceptional quality that makes it a Schoeffel pearl. Such an approach is of great importance to maintain our company’s international reputation. We can only fulfil our unique luxury promise when providing this personal guarantee. The personal guarantee of the family is also what has set us apart ever since the company was established. It is at the very heart of our approach to business. Furthermore, each generation has achieved its own milestones: My great-grandfather founded the company, my grandfather established deep customer relationships in Asia, my father developed the business into a prestigious international brand, and today my job is to continue to develop this global structure with a product quality and range like no other.

A Passion for Pearls – How a family has been striving for perfection for four generations
Image courtesy of Schoeffel

Your family’s craft exists within a sphere, which is rich with tradition. In what ways has the Schoeffel brand injected entrepreneurship and innovation into the pearl trade?

People began cultivating pearls a long time ago, yet the pearl trade has not been an area of business dominated by innovation. Of course, the local methods of production have been refined more and more over time and breeding conditions have been continuously optimised, but the business itself has experienced little change. Without a doubt, the innovations that can be seen concern design; the production of unique lines of jewellery, and the amazing richness of colours that the pearls provide. There is also a place for innovation when it comes to developing the right kind of marketing. It is essential to identify social developments at an early stage. We pay very close attention to which fashion trends prevail in which markets and which brands. Naturally, there is also such a thing as cultural preferences, and these are reflected in our collections. There may be different demands among customers in Asia for a certain style than in Russia, and we have to take into account the German taste for Purism as well as the popularity of intoxicating beauty in Arab cultures. The secret of our ability to innovate lies in stylistic diversity combined with a unique aesthetic signature. We have always continued to develop, but we have remained true to ourselves.

How does a pearl trader like Schoeffel approach CSR?

That is a very interesting question. It is one that has influenced our business since the early days. It is only in recent years that corporate social responsibility has become more important for businesses. I can proudly say that the pearl trade would have ceased many years ago in the absence of such an outlook. CSR is a central preoccupation for us. Our business helps to create employment in distant and very remote regions. However, I would say that the most important aspect is the maintenance of almost paradisiacal landscapes. This is because oysters require water of the highest quality. Our company is synonymous with a level of luxury that cannot be achieved by working against nature, but only by embracing the environment. This is how we have always operated.

It is probably no coincidence that the unearthly beauty of pearls, their breathtaking sensuality and their feminine charm demand a high degree of responsibility. When we decorate and venerate a woman’s beauty with pearls, both male honour and business etiquette dictate that it be done in a responsible way. In my case, it is the business itself that requires such a high level of commitment.

Will family ownership remain a core objective for Schoeffel?

Nobody can see into the future. However, I am confident that family businesses will continue to play a significant role. The economic strength and innovative power of my country rests mainly on family businesses that demonstrate personal responsibility.

Almost every company in the luxury segment started out as a family business. For our part, I can say that we are already making preparations to celebrate the centenary of Schoeffel. We are an enthusiastic team of managers, brand ambassadors and designers. We are both convinced of and enthusiastic by the challenge we face anew every day and remain true to our vision: Pure luxury. Since 1921.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 20, 2013