The seventh generation of the Asprey family to specialise in the sale of luxury goods, William Asprey, sits in a roomy office behind the shop, his desk and bookshelves brimming with books. They detail some of the finest collectibles, old and new, that money can buy – from auction catalogues, to a volume chronicling the works of one of the world's most exclusive jewellers, Buccellati, and a book about antique and rare steel watches recently exhibited by Francois Paul Journe. Huge paintings of William Asprey's father, John, and grandfather, Eric, adorn the walls.
This year sees William & Son celebrate 10 years since first opening its luxury emporium on Mayfair's Mount Street. Five years ago, William, 44, also opened another shop devoted entirely to guns and hunting, two doors away.
"I was brought up in the luxury world of Asprey. I wanted to create a shop providing the kind of goods that you don't find elsewhere," William exclusivley tells Campden FB. His career in luxury goods began with spending school holidays as a teenager working as a porter and packer at Asprey, before heading off to Watches of Switzerland and Mappin & Webb, which were owned by Asprey at the time.
William opened up William & Son on Mount Street in 1999, after leaving the family business, Asprey, based on Bond Street. A dispute with Asprey's new owners at the time meant William was banned from trading under his own surname. But as it turned out, many loyal followers of his family's brand, both suppliers and customers, came with him. The exclusive nature of William & Son's offerings means that this is very much a business aimed at those in the know. After all, William's ancestors served Queen Mary, consort to George V, when she did her shopping at Asprey almost a century ago. In the 1920s, India's Maharaja of Patiala called on William's forebears to order huge teak travelling trunks lined in blue velvet, containing silver bathing utensils with ornate tiger head waterspouts – one for each of his wives.
In a street which is now home to numerous fashion boutiques, whose displays bear a far greater resemblance to untouchable art installations than clothes and shoe shops, William's reverence towards a sense of history and family tradition somehow feels novel.
Many of the antique shops that inhabited Mount Street first have now been overtaken. In their place big name brands have arrived, including designer Marc Jacobs, Spanish house Balenciaga and the fashionista's shoemaker Christian Louboutin, as well as re-opened seafood restaurant Scotts and Australian beauty brand Aesop. Just round the corner, hidden in the flower-lined Mount Street gardens, stands the breathtaking Church of the Immaculate Conception, where an on-call priest is available for confessions from big spenders daily.
Today, even despite the global economic meltdown, William is determined to remain at the top of the luxury game. He says his customers are putting more thought into each purchase, with less impulsive purchases and more focus on one or two outstanding items that will stand the test of time. Last year he was awarded a royal warrant from the Queen. William considers this one of his proudest achievements of the last decade, alongside running a successful business.
William's father John is a consultant to the business and William has children aged 13, 12 and 10, who he hopes will one day join the business. But "they will not be forced into it," he says.
There are few shops which sell so many different objects under one roof so successfully. Regular customers range from influential heads of state to business people, financial leaders and artists, according to William. "Our customers are collectors who probably know a lot more about what they're buying than we do," he says.
William & Son offerings range from a silver embossed duck's head walking stick to a Georgian style tankard, luxurious dominoes in a choice of coloured leathers, a black calf cocktail bag with grey galuchat panels, Limoges handpainted porcelain boxes and William & Son jewels. A £39,500 gun for shooting geese "profusely engraved with bold foliate scrollwork", is available at the William & Son gun shop. All items are made in Britain.
As well as the unique in-house offerings, William & Son customers routinely commission bespoke items. "A person's progression into the world of luxury is typically accompanied by a desire to be seen to be successful and the person wearing well known labels. Later a person might choose more obscure brands. Then they move on to custom made. We're well situated to cater for that bespoke customer. Our label is always positioned discreetly on our goods and our intention is not to have everyone know where we are," explains William.
He is proud to offer a service where customers can commission "anything they like." Recent custom made objects range from a pendant intertwined with initials of children's names, leather desk sets and objets d'art such as a four foot silver candelabra with matching bowl.
Watches are a personal passion of William and William & Son is home to some of the rarest and most valuable timepieces in the world. "The reason watches remain so fascinating and desirable is to do with their beauty, skill and precision and the fact that so much can be put into something so small and built to such perfection," says William. "Watchmaking is a real skill and art and the boundaries are constantly being pushed by using new materials and creating new ideas. I love to see mechanisms and the obvious passion that has gone into producing a really special watch. I am in awe of the skill of the people who create these things and really appreciate their efforts."
While William & Son's best selling watch brands are Jaeger le Coultre, Audemars Piguet, Franck Muller and Piaget, the shop also emphasises far more unusual brands, such as FP Journe, De Bethune, Romain Gaulthier, H Moser & Cie and Charles Oudin. Favoured by watch connoisseurs, these more obscure watches are known as "independent brands" because they are owned by the watchmakers themselves, who have the freedom to research, develop and produce watches as they wish. William & Son is the only place in the UK where these watches can be found. William believes his shop is the perfect showcase for these kinds of watches. "We try to retain the boutique attitude of a small family-run business with staff who possess the kind of expertise that engenders trust," he says.
Take FP Journe, a watchmaker who produces its Petite Grande Sonnerie piece, purely on a made-to-order basis, with a usual waiting list time of two to three years. Or Romain Gaulthier, another watch brand with a normal waiting time of three to four months for delivery of any one of the current pieces. "William & Son has a piece which the right customer can simply walk in and buy there and then," says William.
An avid collector of watches, William is also chairman of British Masters, a company which owns two very British watch brands, Graham and Arnold & Son, neither of which are aimed at the fainthearted. The Graham Chronofighter watches, for example, have a hefty trigger instead of a crown to operate the chronograph. William owns one watch from every watch brand stocked at William & Son – testament to his love of watches and his commitment to championing the brands he sells.
A large proportion of William's customers are fascinated by shooting, which explains his store devoted entirely to the sport. Though he started young, William believes shooting is a sport anyone can take up and enjoy, although he acknowledges it is hard to master.
"My father and step father were both into shooting and so I grew up with it, although I did not start shooting properly until after I left the army," says William. "My step father's family have an estate in North Yorkshire. I used to have a go at the pigeons and rabbits around the farm buildings but I did not shoot in the line until much later."
The fascination is in the nature of the sport, says William. "We are hunter gatherers and there is an excitement and adrenalin surge you get when out shooting, especially when you have a good day. It is also a very good social occasion and can be a good networking opportunity too."
Looking forward to the next decade, William is as dedicated and optimistic as ever. "We always concentrate on the best products we can find with an emphasis on quality and originality. We shall continue with this philosophy for the future, and always try and have the products that others don't. We need to be the best and most original in our field."