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HOLLAND & HOLLAND CHANGES HANDS — AGAIN

Holland & Holland has been acquired by Beretta.  Word first came out of London in mid-December and the sale became official on Feb. 1, ending a three-decade attempt by the French fashion giant, Chanel, to turn the venerable old English company into “the Ralph Lauren of the shooting world.” 

Details on the actual transaction are scant, to say nothing of Beretta’s plans for the London icon.  However, information that has dribbled out of Bruton Street over the last 10 or 15 years suggest that H&H is in for some drastic changes. 

The cost of maintaining the Bruton Street store itself, in the heart of Mayfair — one of the world’s most expensive venues — is bad enough.  The company’s factory on Harrow Road, now almost 120 years old, also faces changes beyond its control stemming from London’s problems of excessive traffic.  Finally, there is the shooting ground at Northwood, a large piece of real estate of astronomical value on the one hand, but presenting the difficulties of getting rid of almost a century’s worth of lead buildup. 

As for the commercial value of Holland & Holland’s most prized products — shotguns and double rifles — the outlook is grim.  After 30 years of being highly fashionable, side-by-sides of all descriptions are in the doldrums.  One generation of collectors and enthusiasts has faded away (reducing demand) and their collections have cascaded onto the market (flooding supply). 

Image courtesy Holland & Holland

The fabulous H&H guns ordered by prominent collectors like Robert M. Lee, the subject of many a drooling magazine article in the 1990s, have trouble finding a buyer willing to pay even a fraction of what they would now cost new.  At Rock Island last year, a set of five double rifles from Lee’s collection failed even to meet the reserve, which itself was less than five new basic double rifles would cost today — and these five sported the finest walnut and most elaborate engraving to be had in the bygone excesses of the ‘90s. 

On the face of it, no one in his right mind would consider buying H&H if future profit was a real consideration.  But then, the same thing was said in the 1980s, before the double-gun boom really took off.  The company had been on the market, off and on, for years, before Chanel stepped in and bought it.  Several other potential buyers looked at it, including Asprey’s, the New Bond Street jewellers.  When they were outbid (or reconsidered) they began building guns with their own name, using highly skilled London outworkers, but that lasted only a few years.  A cobbler, they say, should stick to his last, and Asprey’s decided that gold and diamonds were their forte, not steel and gunpowder.  Wisely, as it turned out. 

Chanel, from the beginning, was less interested in Holland guns than they were in the Holland name.  The Ralph Lauren reference above was a real statement from a Chanel executive.  High fashion being their thing, they felt they could parlay the Holland name into a retailer of very expensive jackets, ties, cuff links and the like.  To this end, they opened retail shops in such far-flung locales as New York, Moscow and Beverley Hills, with more to come.  These closed almost as quickly as they opened, at considerable expense, as Chanel learned to its sorrow that the Holland name means almost nothing to anyone outside the shooting world, and an ill-fitting jacket is an ill-fitting jacket, regardless of the label. 

On the positive side, Chanel poured money into modernising the production facilities on Harrow Road, including an investment in computers and CNC machinery to the tune of millions of pounds.  Although the new deep-pocketed owner was willing to spend money, the Chanel bean counters were never as enthusiastic as the estate-owning, game-shooting Wertheimer brothers, who owned it.  And never once, in the years that followed, did ownership of H&H bring a gleam to a bean counter’s eye. 

In 2004, rumors began to circulate that the company was up for sale once again, and — I am ultra-reliably informed — a sale to Beretta reached the stage of signing the contracts.  It fell through when the Wertheimer assigned to put his name on the paper set the pen down, said “I can’t do it,” got up, and walked out. 

Now, the deal has been done.  No company in the world knows more about guns, and corporate survival in a changing environment, than Beretta.  After all, they’ve been around since 1526.  Whatever the future holds for H&H under their stewardship, it has to be an improvement.  One thing is (almost) for sure:  They will concentrate on H&H guns and rifles, and leave the cuff links to others.

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