Five years ago, while seeking something sparkly to mark a personal achievement, Sue Gilhooly met Charlie Cullen, then general manager of the jeweller Boodles on Grafton Street. He would go on to be her life and business partner. From Carrickmacross in Co Monaghan, where her family own the Nuremore hotel, Gilhooly studied hospitality management in Cathal Brugha Street.
Before upping sticks for London to work in five-star venues. In the UK, she specialised in project management, organising openings and extensions, redesigns and refits for high-end hotel properties owned by, among others, Ian Schrager and Richard Branson.
Branson was her favourite boss. “I’d meet him once a month and whatever was discussed at the meeting you could expect would be done the next day. He empowers people. And not only that, he actually remembers people’s names. He’s just a great people person — for me, that is a big part of his charisma.”
Cullen carved out a career in jewellery working for Asprey and Watches of Switzerland — yet it was Gilhooly’s passion for pretty things that provided the catalyst for Cullen & Co.
“I’m a girly girl now, but as a child I was a tomboy who was always out in the countryside and never played with dolls,” she said. “But I always loved jewellery. I have the strongest memories of my mother dressing for dinner, putting on her Chanel No 5 and her jewellery, and ever since then I’ve just always found diamonds fascinating.”
Having gotten together as a couple, it seemed logical to Gilhooly and Cullen to start a jewellery business together too. “The timing was perfect in so far as my sister was working in the hotel, I had always wanted to start my own business and had this passion for jewellery, while Charlie wanted to set up his own shop.” Cullen & Co opened in September 2014 at Castle Market on Dublin’s Drury Street, just as that area was taking off as a trendy destination.
“There were still a few empty units when we moved in, but we loved it because of all the independent boutiques.”
Though Gilhooly and Cullen are co-founders and co-owners, they chose to call their business Cullen & Co as his name was known by their target market — “and I’m not sure Gilhooly sounds right for a jewellery shop”.
They definitely wanted a real name over the door. “It had to be personal, not some generic name that didn’t mean anything.”
Having overseen the interior redesign of several hotel projects over the years, Gilhooly was a natural choice when it came to designing her own shop. Yet both she and Cullen design the jewellery too. “In school I wasn’t very good at art so I was labelled as not creative. It was only when I began working in hotels that I realised that, actually, I’m really good at design and visualising and imagining. Now that translates into jewellery.”
They have a number of ranges, including classic and modern collections, which they design themselves and then commission local artisanal jewellers to make up for them. They are quite competitive about whose pieces sell best too.
Today the business is profitable with turnover in excess of €1m, helped by a loyal clientele. Fostering a sense of community — a real one, not a virtual one — has been key. “We have a private lounge upstairs, with two gin bars, and on match days or special occasions we’ll invite customers in for the afternoon. The shop is very much an experience, and most of our business is now repeat business as a result.”
She added: “On top of that, one legacy of the recession which seems to have carried over into the recovery is a desire to support local Irish businesses, and we have benefited from that too.”
The biggest challenge for the pair is the risk of endless shop talk. Even aficionados can suffer gem fatigue. “We have a strict rule which is that we can talk about work in the car but have to stop by the time we are home,” said Gilhooly, who, as a lifelong jewellery lover, still feels like a child in a sweetshop. The hardest part is for her is not filching the goods. But here Cullen is one step ahead of her: “He stopped making the rings in my size.”
Read More: The Times