The Stamp of Approval
In an era of international luxury, what does the Royal Warrant continue to signify?
Article by Rupert Watkins Photo by Deniz Karagulle
When the Royal Warrant is mentioned, people’s initial thoughts inevitably turn to the august denizens of Savile Row, Turnbull & Asser or perhaps Fortnum & Mason. It is often forgotten that they are a mark of recognition to any individual or company who provides goods or services to the Royal Households. As such, companies as diverse as sceptic tank maintainers, dry cleaners and Samsung UK can also claim warrants in supplying either the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh or the Prince of Wales.
The warrant itself goes back 800 years, the earliest example being Henry II’s Royal Charter to the Weaver’s Company in 1155. Through the mediaeval period, in order to maintain quality levels to preserve advantageous Royal patronage, trade associations developed – now better known as the livery companies. By the 15th century, Royal tradespeople were recognised with a Warrant of Appointment, a famous example being William Caxton, appointed the King’s Printer 1476. Aside from a brief hiatus under Cromwell, this continued through to the 18th century when, in response to the increased money available in Industrial Revolution Britain and booming commercialisation, Royal tradespeople began to display the Royal Arms on their premises.
As one can imagine, the commercial and social coup of providing to royalty meant that many distinctly dubious operations claimed this honour. In response to this, the Royal Warrant Holders Association was formed in 1840 to crack down in improper usage. From a modern sartorial point of view, two famous tailors can trace their Royal roots back to and beyond this period. Undoubtedly the more well-known is Ede & Ravenscroft, who have supplied ceremonial robes to all Monarchs since 1689. Thresher & Glenny, just off the Strand in Middle Temple Lane, received their first Warrant as hosiers (shirtmakers) to George III in 1783 and have continuously held Royal patronage ever since. The firm believes this to be the oldest continuous warrant in private hands.
Through the Victorian era and early 20th century, further vigilance continued to weed out false suppliers and the Royal Warrant Holders Association received its own Royal Charter in 1907. Many firms were utilised for The Queen’s Coronation in 1953, and this year the association celebrates its 175th anniversary. To this day, a firm must provide five years of regular service to the granting household, and there are currently about 800 firms who enjoy warranted status.
In the world of international and contemporary luxury though, what does the Royal Warrant mean? It does not definitively mean the best or most expensive, but the honour inevitably bestows a certain exclusivity: or “desirability” as Mark Gordon, Managing Director at Benson & Clegg, puts it. A respect for history perhaps? Some of the firms who supply the Royal Households have been in business for centuries – they are experts at what they do. Yet, Jermyn Street emporiums such as New & Lingwood or Hilditch & Key offer tradition, style and incredible quality – but no warrant.
Internationally, firms such as Brioni, E Marinella, and Charvet (to name just three) proudly represent a tradition of craftsmanship, quality and elegance that could be seen to match any company in the UK and all appeal to a similar globally aware and savvy buyer. Chatting to William & Son, the Mount Street luxury and shooting goods purveyor, two words kept coming up: “reassurance” and “perception”. The Royal Warrant is at its most advantageous with foreign customers – especially the US where the phrase “Made in England” enjoys almost cult-like regard. The power of being able to say that they supply to the Royal Family establishes a firm in the minds of customers: or as Geordie Willis of Berry Bros & Rudd puts it, “It offers security to the customer”.
Though a tentative and evolving trend, the Far East is seen to be slowly reacting against mere “brands”: as such the Royal Warrant is very useful in attracting those first-time buyers. The rise of Chinese interest in the “stealth wealth” market will be monitored closely by the more discreet purveyors of style and craftsmanship encapsulated by so many Royal Warrant holders. The European market is too varied to see definite trends – Russian money, for example, has yet to really embrace the understated look most warranted firms excel in – but William & Son sees much of their tourist footfall driven by queries about what the badge above its entrance means. Berry Bros has seen their Hong Kong office doing roaring trade since it was set up in 1999, and Geordie commented on the rapidly improving and discerning palates of Chinese drinkers. In this environment, the stature of the Warrant offers an authority and heritage that appeals to and assures inquisitive buyers.
Further discussing this question with Geordie and Mark, another word is frequently uttered: “innovation”. Far from being hidebound and stuffy, both felt that a sense of relentless progress and continuous improvement is critical to retaining the Warrant. “Companies cannot afford to rest on their laurels,” Mark commented. This sense of constant development also means the firm remains relevant to the wider customer, and globally means that these firms will frequently be bolder and more commercially agile than bigger luxury conglomerates. “Service” is stressed by all the firms spoken to: the ability to listen to and knowledgably advise the customer is part and parcel of why these firms are honoured like they are, and this focus on understanding the needs and concerns of the buyer sets those Royal Warrant companies apart from the more impersonal and indifferent attention one can expect from many high end global retailers.
In the UK itself, the effect of the Royal Warrant is somewhat more elusive. It is seen as a badge of pride and of assurance that a consistent level of quality and attention to detail is adhered to. None of the firms talked to felt it had quite the impact it has abroad. Geordie explained that the UK version of Berry Bros’ wine brochure features the name on the front – as that is viewed as more of an assurance to domestic custom – with the warrants on the back. Given that Waitrose has the Royal Warrant, perhaps there is an element of overload – perhaps even indifference – in this country.
What of the companies themselves and the individuals who hold the Warrant? At Benson & Clegg, says Mark, “There is an immense sense of worth and personal pride – it’s the ultimate accolade.” Geordie adds, “It’s the physical portrayal of the values such as service, progress, authority and integrity [that Berry Bros seeks to do business by].” The sense of achievement and excellence that it means to these businesses is clear by the passion and fluency Riddle met with when researching this piece – not in the sense of being crudely ‘above’ fellow luxury retailers – but in the innate sense of knowing their own worth as a brand and confidence as specialists in their particular arena.
Looking forward, the Royal Warrant will continue to act as that beacon of assurance and excellence. Whether William and Kate will patronise the same shops and traders as the former’s father and grandparents is not guaranteed, though it is unlikely certain warrants will be allowed to fall into abeyance. As with life, the warrant system will evolve.
Berry Bros & Rudd (3 St James’s St, London SW1A 1EG 0207 022 8973; www.bbr.com)