Thirty years ago, Gerald Ratner reigned supreme as the king of bling.
By the age of 41, he had transformed his family chain of shops into the world’s biggest jewellery group, with more than 2,500 stores.
With success came the trappings of wealth, including a private jet, helicopter, chauffeur driven Bentley and a luxury home in London’s upmarket Mayfair.
But weeks later his world came crashing down in what has been dubbed the biggest corporate gaffe in history.
During a now infamous speech in front of 6,000 of the great and good of Britain’s business world at London’s Royal Albert Hall, he jokingly referred to one of his products as “total crap”.
To make matters worse, he quipped that a set of 99p earrings it sold was “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.”
Looking back on the event 30 years ago this month, he admits: “It was dumb thing to say.”
His ill-advised comments would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the Daily Mirror, which heard his speech and splashed with the headline “You 22-carat mugs” the next day.
“It was the Daily Mirror, completely the Daily Mirror,” he says.
“If it wasn’t for the Daily Mirror this story would never have happened,” yet adding: “I only blame myself.”
It will on April 23 that the businessman made his speech for the Institute of Directors.
The invitation was a recognition, a mark of respect of his incredible achievements in building the Ratners empire.
Not that he was always a success.
A self-confessed “disaster” at school, he was expelled from one school, “spent all day in a betting shop” while at another and left at 15 to do unglamorous jobs in his father’s business, a chain of 25 jewellery shops.
But life changed dramatically when he was 34 and his father had a brain haemorrhage, triggering a crisis at the firm which eventually saw him take over.
He set about overhauling the business which, like most jewellers of the time, were seen as stuffy and daunting for younger shoppers.
His stroke of genius came when he spotted a rival selling discount jewellery, with queues down the street.
He copied the idea and it proved an instant success.
In an audacious move, it bought rival H Samuel, which was at the time three times its size.
Everything he touched turned to gold, and he eventually controlled 50% of the UK jewellery market, snapping-up Ernest Jones and Watches of Switzerland.
An expansion in the US proved equally successful.
As it happened, his speech of 1991 was not the first time he had joked about a product being “total crap.”
Four years earlier he said the same to a journalist from the Financial Times when giving her a tour of newly bought H Samuel’s warehouse in Birmingham, when she asked how a £4.95 sherry decanter, six glasses and tray product was so cheap.
In his Albert Hall speech, he quipped: “People say to me, ‘how can you sell this for such a low price?’ And I say because it’s total crap”, to loud laughs from the audience.
Next came his earrings gag.
“People say that’s cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer,” he told the gathering. “But I have to say the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings.”
Timing is everything and, by 1991, Britain was in a very different place.
“It was at a time when we were in deep recession and people couldn’t pay their electricity bills, so a lot of people’s sense of humour had gone out of the window,” says Mr Ratner.
“I should not have said it.”
He goes on: “I get it today on Twitter. People say I had contempt for my customers, which I didn’t.
“Or that I said it behind their back, which is rubbish because it was at the Albert Hall and it was televised, or that I said it about all my jewellery, which I didn’t.
“In fact in that speech I said we sell high quality jewellery.”
However, the damage was done.
Instead of queues outside stores, customers demanded their money back and sales plunged.
In a failed bid to contain the crisis, the firm ran adverts with celebrities, including footballer Paul Gascoigne, endorsing its products.
It was not enough and Mr Ratner was eventually fired from his own firm.
“I lost all my money, every single penny because the shares went to 2p,” he said.
“I lost my house, my children had to come out of school. I paid a very big price for that joke.
“I was in deep, dire difficulties.
“I was watching Countdown in bed for seven years, I had given up.
“I read I was unemployable.
“I was suffering from depression.”
It was only when Mr Ratner’s wife, Moira, threatened to kick him out that life began to change.
He started a health club in Henley, Oxfordshire, with no money, sold it for almost £4million, and is now involved in an online jewellery business.
Until the pandemic struck Mr Ratner was also making a living giving speeches – between 50 and 100 a year – about what happened to him, which he says he “enjoys more than running Ratners.” He also mentors others.
The irony is that the jewellery chains Mr Ratner brought together are all still around now, when many retailers from his heyday have gone to the wall.
Mr Ratner is refreshingly honest about what happened to him.
He “won’t be celebrating” next month’s anniversary of the speech.
But he adds; “I am a lot of happier.
“Someone asked me if I regret what I had said, and I said that’s the most stupid thing anyone has ever asked me, of course I do.
“But they said, you love your life now, you appreciate things more, you cycle every day, you are healthier.
“So, I said, I retract my comment.”
He adds: “There is no point in being bitter and there is always an upside.
“There is a silver lining to everything, and my life has turned out to be fine.”