Diamond geezer

Annalisa Barbieri talks to Jess Canty, the jeweller who still hasn't made his wife an engagement ring
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"I had this bet with the guitarist Billy Duffy that I could get off with this girl he was after. So I went up to her and said, 'I'm the A&R man, I signed this group and I've got a Lancia outside.' Then I took her back to my office and shagged her over my boss's desk." The speaker is Jess Canty, owner of jewellers Jess James, speaking about a The Cult gig 16 years ago, when he was 17.

It was this cockiness that had led him to become an A&R man for their record label, Beggar's Banquet, in the first place. He didn't last long. After writing the company boss a list of "what's wrong with your business and how you can put it right", he was fired. After five weeks at another record company he was fired again. "I was just so cocky, far too arrogant. I didn't understand the politics. I used to turn up for meetings, say whatever I wanted and walk out halfway through because I felt bored. And I thought 'people are going to put up with this because I'm brilliant'."

Although Martin Mills, owner of Beggar's Banquet, doesn't recall quite why Canty left, he does remember him rather affectionately as "a fantastically spirited young man. That was why we hired him. I suppose you could say he had a real naive enthusiasm and he certainly did rub some people up the wrong way. And we did have to go round mending some of the things he'd 'broken'."

Jess Canty was born in Greenwich to young ex-Goldsmith art students. They moved to Borstal in Kent when he was three to live on a boat. "My father thought it would be a cool thing to do." His parent separated when he was eight - he stayed with his father - and at 11 was taken out of public school (where he'd excelled) and was sent to South East London School for Boys in Deptford. It was rather a shock for the young Canty "I used to walk into school and the kids would say 'say bread' and I'd say 'berred', 'say rugby' and I'd say 'rar-ger-be' and they'd kick the shit out of me. Within two weeks I had the south-east London accent down to a T, a big knot in my tie. It was downhill from there. I left school with, I think, two O-levels."

After his stint in music, Canty helped his mother buy and sell antiques. His first buy, for pounds 2.50, was a glass bottle which he sold a couple of days later for pounds 500. At 20, Canty went to study gemology at Merton College for two years - which, Canty says, grounded him and made him realise he wasn't the best thing since sliced bread - doing the third and final year at Epsom where he met James Knight (hence the Jess James). Both talked about opening a jewellery shop that was modern and contemporary with none of the "fake homeliness and stuffiness" usually associated with jewellers. With a few savings, an overdraft and an investment from Knight's trust, they signed a deal on their shop in Soho's Newburgh Street, just as they were graduating.

The shop, all steel and glass, was designed and built by Canty with help from friends, while Knight went out looking for designers to stock. "By this time my ego had taken a knock and I was quite timid. James was brilliant at talking to bank managers." Prior to this there were few places selling precious jewellery in a contemporary setting. But Jess James was different and it was a massive hit immediately, helping a lot of now-famous jewellery designers - such as Jacqueline Rabun and Dinny Hall - on their way. It sold covetable silver and gold pieces that didn't cost the earth. It had a fish tank in the middle of the shop and mad, tongue-in-cheek window displays. Once they had a necklace by Simon Costin with 12 phials of sperm hanging off it (it didn't sell).

Knight left the business two years ago to pursue a career in the film industry and Canty bought him and the trust out to acquire sole ownership. Jess James still supports new designers, stocking about five fresh names a year (they are the exclusive stockists for Eric Clapton's jewellery range - hand beaded by Eric himself. OhmyGod). One such designer, Chantal C Eyre was given her break four years ago. "I had been designing jewellery for a year before that in the States and Jess James was the first shop I went to. Jess was really enthusiastic and helpful; when you're starting out that gives you optimism. If Jess James takes you on then other buyers take you on. It's definitely a 'name'."

Today the youthful arrogance - "I was the most arrogant little shit you'd ever met" - has gone and Canty has matured into a nice young man with the odd bit of boyish behaviour now and then. But he retains his keen eye for business and Jess James goes from strength to strength. Canty can now concentrate on the private commissioning side of the business where jewellery - that he designs - is made to order. "I love that bit of it. It's nice to be able to make the jewellery exactly right for someone. I think you should want to wear your engagement ring for 50 years."

Despite being voted thirteenth (out of 50) most eligible man in fashion by Clothes Show Magazine last October, Canty is now happily married to Catherine with a baby due in September. Shamefully, however, Mrs Canty still doesn't have her engagement ring - "I just haven't had the time."

Jess James currently stocks about 30 jewellery designers. Commissions start from pounds 250. Jess James, 3 Newburgh Street, London W1, 0171 437 0199.