Business Irish

Sunday 23 October 2016

Silver's hallmark of quality

Following in his family's footsteps, Daniel McManus tells Sean Gallagher about his new silver giftware business

Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30

Sean Gallagher with Daniel McManus at Celtic Frames in Dun Laoghaire. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Daniel McManus at Celtic Frames in Dun Laoghaire. Photo: David Conachy

The tradition where married couples receive particular types of gifts, depending on the length of their time together, is a practice that first began in Central Europe as far back as the Middle Ages.

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Traditionally, gifts that were given in the early years of marriage were the more practical household items - aimed at helping a couple start their new home together. As the years passed and it was deemed that the couple might have acquired most of what they needed, the value of these gifts increased.

Best known among these is the gift of silver. Often given to celebrate 25 years of marriage, this precious metal is meant to represent good fortune. Similarly, silver has over the years come to represent status and privilege, with those born into wealth often being referred to as being born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

However, not everything that looks like silver is actually real silver. That's the lesson I learned last week when I visited Daniel McManus, founder of Celtic Frames in Dun Laoghaire.

Specialising in the design and manufacture of handcrafted sterling silver giftware, the company was set up originally in 1987 by his father, Don, and re-established by Daniel earlier this year. Core to its range of giftware is the company's unique range of photo frames - in particular their limited edition of sterling silver frames created specifically to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

"It's definitely been an exciting year," explains Daniel as he shows me around his design and production studio on Lower George's Street in Dun Laoghaire. "Because everything we make is sterling silver, all our products bear an Irish hallmark. Issued by the Dublin Assay Office and dating back to 1637, this hallmark is one of the oldest forms of product guarantee and identifies who made the product, when and where it was made and what the item is made of," he adds.

This year's centenary hallmark was designed by the Company of Goldsmiths in Dublin Castle and will be found on all the Celtic Frames products - up until December 31, when the punch that creates the mark will be destroyed.

"We also heard recently that one of our photo frames was presented to Bill Clinton earlier this year by a well-known Irish business person. So that's very rewarding," explains Daniel proudly. "Our current product range also includes knives, christening mugs, napkin rings and decorative bookmarkers and whiskey measures, as well as a range of silver-trimmed glass and wood decanters - most of which are bought as gifts to mark special occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays or wedding gifts," he adds.

Targeting this luxury giftware market, the company wholesales its products range through leading jewellers and high-end retailers such as Weirs, House of Ireland, Rocks Jewellers and Keanes of Cork.

So what is different about sterling silver compared to other silver products?

"We only use sterling silver, which consists of 92.5pc pure silver with the remainder being made up of other alloy metals such as copper. This is because fine silver, which consists of 99.9pc pure silver, is generally too soft for use in the production of functional type objects," explains Daniel.

"While many products on the market today look like silver, these are, in fact, only silver plated - a process whereby products are made from a base metal and then coated with a light dust of silver, something that can easily scrape or get tarnished," he adds.

Daniel's in-depth knowledge is impressive though not surprising. As the third generation of the family to be involved in the jewellery and giftware business, it's in his blood.

"I literally grew up in the business," he laughs. "My family's jewellery and giftware business, also located here in Dun Laoghaire, was originally established back in 1928 by a great uncle who had moved down from Newry.

"It started off as a pawnbrokers but transitioned over the years to become one of the country's most highly regarded jewellers, specialising in antique jewellery, diamonds and silverware. It was later run by his brother - my grandfather - before being taken over in 1972 by my own father and mother, Don and Maura.

"In 1987, having spotted a gap in the market, my father set up Celtic Frames and began manufacturing Irish hallmarked sterling silver photo frames based on drawings from my mother's sister, Aileen McKeogh, which depicted the Trinity Knot from the book of Kells - a design that I still incorporate into all my products," he adds.

In 1996, a year when Ireland held the Presidency of the EU, the then Taoiseach actually presented one of these silver frames to the head of state of each European country. Business was growing steady until 2010 - when, right in the midst of the economic downturn, the price of silver shot up by over 400pc, forcing his father to close the business.

"The hardest part for the family was having to let go of eight staff," admits Daniel solemnly.

Thankfully for Daniel, his parents wisely decided to keep all the old tools and machinery. So earlier this year, and spurred on by stabilising silver prices and the recovery in the economy, Daniel relaunched the business.

"Growing up, I got a great insight into how the business worked," explains Daniel. "Being a family business, I got to spend most of my early years working there at weekends and during summer holidays. The skills I learned back then are now invaluable - from dealing with customers across the counter from when I was 12, to understanding every stage in the complex manufacturing process," he adds.

During sixth year in secondary school, these business skills came in useful when he and two school friends set up a thriving business selling school rings, graduation memorabilia and personalised T-shirts and hoodies.

After graduating with a degree in Business and Entrepreneurship from IADT, Daniel worked for a while in the family business before moving to Canada, where he found an entry-level sales job phoning up senior executives in Fortune 500 companies in an effort to persuade them to attend the company's business summits.

So good was he at this, that he soon progressed to leading a team of 10 sales staff. However, in 2015, he decided it was time to return home. With the money he had saved and some additional support from his family, he set up his own new company trading under the name of Celtic Frames.

Daniel then demonstrates how a new photo frame is developed from scratch. Everything starts with a hand-drawn design.

"This is then transferred on to a copper master frame which acts as a template for the new frame. From here a master dye is made using resin material which is then placed under a hydraulic press machine. Solid flat sheets of sterling silver are then placed under the dye to mould the shape of the frame," he explains. "The centre of the frame is then meticulously cut out, mounted on a backing plate of timber or velvet and then sent for final polishing, boxing and dispatch to our customers," he adds.

While business is growing nicely, he is anxious to begin expanding and has plans to recruit two new staff in the coming weeks.

"I see opportunities to partner with other Irish producers, such as whiskey producers, where I could produce complementary products such as branded whiskey measures," he explains. "As well as that, I see great untapped potential among the Irish diaspora," he adds excitedly.

Daniel McManus is a passionate up-and- coming entrepreneur. His love of handcrafted design together with his knowledge of the giftware market and his long family tradition in the sector augurs well for his future. All he needs now are more customers, a recovering economy and a bit of good luck. Having spent the afternoon with him, I can happily say he deserves all three.

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