27 Mar 2019

Bookmarks: Michael Hill

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:19 pm on 27 March 2019

The name Michael Hill is synonymous with jewellery and entrepreneurship in New Zealand. As a young man he worked in his family's shop before taking the jewellery business to a whole new level, nationally and internationally.

Sir Michael Hill with a 1755 Guadagnini named “The Southern Star”.

Sir Michael Hill with a 1755 Guadagnini named “The Southern Star”. Photo: Sheena Haywood

Sir Michael is known to be a keen golfer and enthusiastic violinist. But did you also know he once "traded" his wife's amethyst engagement ring - because he was offered a good deal?  

Sir Michael joins Jesse Mulligan for Bookmarks and picks some of his favourite books and music while discussing a life in gems.

Jesse: Where does the violin come in?

Sir Michael: Well, I left school to become a concert violinist. I was at Whangarei Boys High School, and I was bullied really badly. I couldn't wait to get out of the place to be honest.

And so the only thing that I actually shone with was playing the violin, which I had only taken up a couple of years before, and there was a Danish music teacher who was pretty good. And he said “this boys got talent”. So that was music to my ears. I spent 18 months practicing the violin eight hours a day and I got pretty good. I entered the Herald Violin competition, believe it or not way back in those years, and I came forth, but it wasn't good enough.

My parents took me to one side when I came out and my uncle said "Son, you've been wasting your time for 18 months. It's time you got a real job, you're going to have to become a watchmaker. You're going to start tomorrow morning at eight o'clock". And that's how my life was changed.

Jesse: That’s pretty tough.

Sir Michael: Well, that was the thing in those days and my uncle was very forceful, and my parents were very forceful. And so I had a long apprenticeship. I was no good at watch making so they shoved me in the front with my dad. It was the Electrolux salesman cum new manager of the shop and I stayed there for 23 years. It’s unbelievable. It was an amazing apprenticeship.

Jesse: But you retained your love for the violin.

Sir Michael: I had the love for the violin and it still kept with me, but what actually changed everything was we built a beautiful Claude Megson designed home at Whangarei Harbour overlooking the water and it was impossibly complex and it took two years to build was supposed to take nine months, but we'd finished it, I was just vanishing a bookcase, and with Christine said "you're getting cross, let’s go to the pictures". It was pouring with rain, we went to the pictures, came out, and there was a notice to say our house was on fire.

That night I lost everything. That was the night that changed my life. I’d just turned 40, and I can remember watching that burn, fiercely burn and thinking “oh my god. I've been working for my uncle for 23 years. And really, there must be more to it than that.” I'd always had the inkling I should have bought him out myself, but I never had the guts to do it. That night changed everything. So that was the night that I wrote down on a piece of paper: I either own my uncle’s business, or I get out and start one myself.

He refused to sell to me. So we opened in 1979 open up in opposition. And 18 months later we were taking more than the business that had been there for  50 years. it was the most amazing experience I'll never forget. It was incredible.

Jesse: Did he forgive you?

Sir Michael: Never. He wouldn't ever walk in front of the shop. He would always go across the road and never pass that shop again. He was quite bitter about it, really. So yeah, but he never he never went anywhere with it. He still had the one shop. I end up with 330 shops and quite a big difference.

The origins of the Michael Hill International Violin Competition

Sir Michael: So it all gets back to the violin. It was something always in the back of my mind. And I just thought wouldn't it be wonderful to give back and in 2002 I put the proposition with Miranda Adams, who was concertmaster the Auckland Philharmonic at that stage, and we came up with this idea, and they welcomed it, to form a competition that would be in Queenstown for one week, and then the remainder of it in Auckland, and in the three final rounds the 16 competitors play with a full orchestra.

It's developed now into one of the top five competitions of the world. So it's amazing and some of the previous winners are truly extraordinary players, and it's quite humbling to think what's happened. It's amazing that in such a short time, we've produced some incredible winners.

Jesse: What are the rules for entry?

Sir Michael: You have to be between 18 and 28. And you have to play specific pieces that are listened to by a group of adjudicators to get in. There’s about hundred and 50 or a couple of hundred entries, but of those we choose 16. But they play a complex lot of music, some of the musical play today they have to Paganini and Bach, which is so absolutely totally different. But each of those expresses a different feeling. And if you can't do both of those, you know, you show up slightly and then you play a romantic piece and on it goes.

It's very interesting that different nationalities have different feelings, and the different influences come out. But of course, a lot of them go to the schools in America, the Juilliard in particular, and they are taught in a different way, and then some of the others will come from left field from Europe or Russia, haven’t been taught that way, so they have more of an earthy sort of a sound.

The thing about the violin is it’s probably the closest instrument to the soul. And when it's played really well, which is very rare, the audience is completely spellbound. Everyone's absolutely transfixed and emotionally it takes you in and you can't help but it's just the most incredible feeling.

Jesse: Does it feel good to spend some of your money on something like this?

Sir Michael: Oh, it's the most amazing thing. I've got more out of that than many, many things, it's incredible and changing these people's lives that there's $100,000 they get to launch themselves into a career, because a very difficult career to do. It's one of the most difficult things because classical music is not like it used to be. It's not like a household thing, in Mozart's days everyone was playing a violin or something but not today. It's a totally different thing. To be at that really top is extremely difficult. So this encourages and launches that person or that career.

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