We hear that it has been more than thirty years since you opened your world-famous Nikon-only camera shop in central London. Mr. Levett, could you please introduce us to Grays of Westminster?
Grays of Westminster is a Nikon speciality shop that carries only Nikon products. We carry a wide variety of Nikon products from the latest Nikon cameras, lenses, and accessories, to previously owned equipment, and vintage classic Nikons. From the day we started thirty-two years ago to this date, we have been selling Nikon products and striving to offer a service that is second to none.
In 2014, our achievements were acknowledged by Her Majesty’s College of Arms and we became the first camera shop in the world to be granted a Coat of Arms. This honour was something I could never have imagined when we first started. I was deeply moved that we and the Nikon brand we all love had been recognised by this singular honour. The motto on our Coat of Arms reads ‘Lead in Order to Serve’ and it reminds us daily we must always strive to offer our Nikon customers a service that is second to none.
A lion and green pheasant sit atop the Coat of Arms. The lion, which symbolises Gray Levett, is looking over to the pheasant, which is a national bird of Japan, and the two are amicably communicating to show the relationship between Mr. Levett’s business and the Japanese. Under the lion’s right paw there is a lens. In the centre are rays of sunlight to represent photography emanating from a horn with cornucopia of flowers including the red Christmas rose and a mixture of British and Japanese flowers to represent flourishing growth.
Tell us what was behind your idea to open an “Exclusively Nikon” shop.
When I opened the shop, there were many dealers offering the same type of equipment as Grays of Westminster. At the same time, a recession was in the air and the photographic industry was no exception. I considered that a significant change of course was necessary.
On a very hot day in July 1991, I spotted a store called the Christmas Shop which, even in the midst of a heat-wave, was packed with customers buying Christmas tree trinkets. A thought dawned on me while I was shocked to see this enterprise flourish with unlikely merchandising for the time of the year, even in a recession. “If you could run a successful business selling products that are in use for about three weeks of the year, it might be possible for Grays of Westminster to be equally successful, offering a specialist service just selling one brand, which would be Nikon”. To my knowledge at the time, there wasn’t any another exclusively Nikon store anywhere else in the world. As I had long admired Nikon for their superb engineering and overall quality, I made a decision to re-invent Grays of Westminster as a specialist outlet for Nikon enthusiasts and start new.
In the centre of the Coat of Arms is a red Christmas rose, to symbolise the Christmas shop, which gave me the original inspiration for Grays of Westminster to be Nikon-only and to do one thing, but do it well.
Coat of Arms and Letters Patent
granted from the College of Arms.
A Coat of Arms is an emblematic crest that is granted to persons or groups as a symbol of family or organization. To be honoured thusly, it is necessary to be judged by the College of Arms in the UK as being worthy of such an honour based on the strictest criteria including past achievements and contributions. Only after an evaluation process spanning several months, culminating in the approval by the Earl Marshal of the College of Arms, does designing of the Coat of Arms begin. The design is created adhering to age old conventions, it must not duplicate a pre-existing design, and it must be symbolic of the craft or business of the holder. The crest designer completes the Coat of Arms in roughly one year; the result of numerous rounds of discussion, and consideration of ideas and requests from the grantee. The completed Coat of Arms is coloured, ornamented, and presented to the grantee along with the Letters Patent that allow its usage.
Loyalty to technology and quality springs eternal
You had long admired Nikon even before opening the shop. Tell us, when was your first experience with Nikon? How did you feel when you first held the camera in your hands?
I remember the moment clearly. It was in the late 1960s, when I was working in a camera shop and a customer asked me to help him with his camera. It was a black Nikon Photomic FTN fitted with an F-36 motor-drive unit. I thought it was the most beautiful piece of camera engineering I had ever seen or handled. It oozed class and I knew then and there I had to own a Nikon F one day.
What makes Nikon cameras so special in your opinion?
One of the attractive features, and the reason why I love Nikon, is the fact that Nikon have retained the original F-mount virtually unchanged since it released SLR cameras in 1959. Over the years there must have been a number of persuasive reasons to change the F-mount but Nikon have remained loyal to their original design. The fact that you can fit a non-AI NIKKOR lens onto a Nikon Df and shoot straight away is an extraordinary thing. Nikon cameras are always so well-made, and the superb optics of the Nikon lenses reflects Nikon’s remarkable skills in innovative engineering. We still sell a lot of second-hand manual focus Nikon lenses to the movie industry where they are mounted on high-definition movie cameras.
Would you list the best three cameras in your collection?
My first choice would be my original and much-used Nikon F with a NIKKOR-S Auto 5.8cm f/1.4 and an F-36 motor drive. The Nikon F is still, in my opinion, the most iconic 35mm ever made. I believe Nikon got the design of the camera and the system so right. One of Nikon’s most famous adverts is from 1961, which carried the heading ‘The Man With a Nikon F is Master Of All He Surveys’. It had such an impact and struck a chord with so many professional photographers.
My second choice would be the Nikon SP rangefinder camera – the zenith of Nikon’s achievements in this system. It was an innovative camera at the time featuring a universal finder system compatible with six types of lenses from 28mm to 135mm. The SP camera created a sensation as soon as it was released.
My third choice is a remarkable camera called the Nikon F2 Data camera, which records data. The camera was popular among scientific and industrial applications as it was capable of recording time and data, even handwritten memos onto a film. The model is considered a very rare model today.
Mr. Levett, tell us which camera you use most often today.
The personal favourites that I use most often are currently the D810 and D500 cameras. I love shooting candids such as people in daily life, and street photography. While I shoot, I’m always reminded that even after photography enters the digital age, all Nikon products embody the heritage of the Nikon Model I – the origin of Nikon cameras – and all the innovative technology and uncompromising quality it represents.
Nikon connected me with people around the world.
Do you have a particularly memorable anecdote you could share with us through your history of selling Nikon products?
There are always lots of stories to tell. On one occasion, the shipment for an order arrived too late for us to send the item to our customer who needed it urgently the following day. One of our staff decided to catch a train to deliver the camera in person. The roundtrip from start to finish took eight hours. We received a response from the surprised and delighted customer: “Just a quick note to say thanks again for the truly extraordinary efforts you made to deliver my new camera to me. I've never come across such an amazing high level of customer service, and with such a lack of drama, as if it were an everyday occurrence! You moved heaven and earth.” As much as the customer, we were touched by such a letter of appreciation.
We heard you worked as a photographer in Hollywood before you opened the camera shop. Please tell us about your work then, and whether any of these connections and experiences play a part in your business today.
While I was living in Hollywood, I shot headshots of actors and musicians that adorn the covers of magazines and books. Through work, I met a lot of people in the movie and music industry and not only enjoyed it very much but also gained valuable experience.
I was also very fortunate in the early days of Grays of Westminster to have the legendary film director Stanley Kubrick as a long-term client. Without naming names, I can say that our clients are made up of a wide range of different people, not just A-listers, but also writers, movie and rock stars, film directors, politicians, company executives, and on occasion, royalty. This also represents and proves that Nikon is loved by so many people from all different walks of life.
You also publish a magazine targeted for Nikon users. What interests you most in your role as editor?
I love discovering new photographic talents. I enjoy giving the talents I’ve discovered an opportunity to showcase their works.
This magazine covers Nikon from different aspects by introducing photographs taken by new talents, new Nikon products and technologies, and a variety of news on Nikon Corporation. I enjoy the fact that this magazine helps to widen people’s understanding and interest in Nikon and literally acts as a place to connect Nikon users.
I receive many favourable comments and helpful suggestions on Nikon from long-term readers throughout the world. What I learned through magazine publishing is that Nikon is a brand with passionate and loyal followers of not just cameras and lenses but also to their history. Of course, I am one of those passionate and loyal followers myself.
A Centennial is a very significant event in the history of any company. Nikon have created products that captured some of the most amazing moments in the history. It was Nikon that was chosen by NASA to go into space. Ever since, Nikon have continued to send succeeding Nikons on subsequent missions. There has always been a passion and commitment to excellence, passed on through the years as part of the company’s DNA. I am proud and honoured to have been a small part of this illustrious company. Nikon, a Very, Very Happy 100th Birthday.
Mr. Gray Levett