My First Job: Monty Don recalls his years in the costume-jewellery business

From grave digging to high fashion

Long before he dug his own soil for Gardeners' World on BBC2, Monty Don dug graves. Immediately after leaving school, he dug trenches for two years on building sites, and, after Cambridge, his temporary jobs included a brief spell on the graveyard shift as a sexton. Yet his most Herculean task was digging himself out of the financial hole caused by the collapse of the jewellery business he set up with his wife Sarah.

Two decades ago, the name Monty Don didn't mean gardening, it meant costume jewellery. "We employed 20 people in-house and used hundreds of outworkers. We had a shop in Beauchamp Place, SW1 and we sold in 30 countries, with 60 outlets in America."

Vogue gave them its seal of approval, and Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Liberty all stocked their creations. "Costume jewellery has its value entirely from its design and appearance, not from the cost of its materials. Our jewellery is still in the V&A."

Their customers included Diana, Princess of Wales, Boy George and Michael Jackson, and Monty and Sarah were even invited to Downing Street. Although she preferred a low profile, it was Sarah who was the trained jeweller, and 75 per cent of the designing brains. Her husband was the other - very enthusiastic - 25 per cent, and the super-salesman.

"When we were flying, we were really flying. At our best, we were the best in the world at what we did. But we were never quite as successful as our publicity convinced other people - and ourselves - that we were. We were hopelessly under-capitalised and borrowing constantly."

The 1987 Wall Street crash wiped them out; the USA was their major market and its stores cancelled the orders for which the Dons had already engaged their own suppliers - and taken out loans. "Our collapse was spectacular. We were all along pretending to be businessmen and now our cover had been blown." They managed to settle their debts only by selling their house. Monty was on the dole for all of 1992, and they had three small children at the time. (One of them, now 14, has just had a book published by Short Books, The House that Tom Built, the eponymous teenager's account of the garden sheds that he has been tinkering with since the age of seven.)

"The jewellery business was good fun for three out of our nine years," says Monty. "I was working with someone I loved. And I loved the tools and the skills that came with it.We certainly learnt a good deal from the whole experience."

Monty Don's real loves were writing and gardening, which was handy: suddenly, he had time for both.

'My Roots: A Decade in The Garden' , by Monty Don, is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £14.99

jonty@jonathansale.com

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