It all started with a shell. Plucked from the sand of a Northland beach, Michael Hill turned to his girlfriend of only a few weeks, Christine Roe, and slipped it on her finger. It was the first piece of jewellery Michael ever gave his future wife, and while it's been replaced by many fine gems during the couple's 50-year marriage, it's still, by far, Christine's favourite.
"She was just fascinated by those shells," Michael (76) remembers with a smile. "She used to wear one on a cord around her neck."
"I'd never seen anything like them," Christine (74) chips in. "I'd just got off the boat from England two months earlier, and I was in awe of everything in New Zealand. I was falling in love – with the country, and with Michael."
Of course, these days, they are Sir Michael and Christine, Lady Hill, and life's about as different as it gets. For one thing, that white shell that once hung around Christine's neck is now 18-carat gold – a reminder of how their incredible love story began. But it also serves as a symbol of how far the couple have come, and how, despite their phenomenal success, at heart, they're still the Whangarei boy who drove a Triumph Herald and the English girl spellbound by the beauty of Aotearoa.
"It was love at first sight. Simple as that," Michael recalls of the first day he saw Christine. It was 1964 and Michael was still working at his uncle's jewellery shop, Fishers, in Whangarei. He was standing outside when he saw a stunning girl with wild curly hair, dressed in a black and white suit. She walked through the door and he was instantly smitten.
"I thought, 'That's a beautiful girl,'" he remembers. "She looked so different from any of the other girls around town." Christine, however, didn't quite share the same enthusiasm for Michael. "She didn't even notice I was there," he laughs. "She's a Scorpio, you see. Very independent!"
"Oh, Michael. That has nothing to do with anything," Christine protests. "I just didn't talk to strange men! And I wasn't looking for love. I was on an adventure. I packed up my life in England and headed out to New Zealand – I'd only been in the country two or three weeks. When I popped into the jewellery store, I just wanted to get a pendant repaired!"
Unbeknownst to Christine, who remained completely oblivious to his affections, Michael told the other staff to alert him when she came back to the store to pick up her mended necklace.
"He said to me, 'Oh, you're from England, aren't you?'" Christine says, shaking her head. "I replied, 'Well, that's painfully obvious, isn't it!' My accent was very strong."
By chance, Michael saw Christine a few days later at the squash courts, and was so excited, he jumped for joy – sending his glasses flying. "They landed straight on the court," he says. "How smooth was I?"
"He did it on purpose to get my attention," Christine counters. "I think he thought it was a bit of a clever move."
Finally, Michael asked the beautiful Brit on a date, and the rest, they say, is history.
"That was that, really," nods Christine. "We just got on so well, it was amazing."
Only two months later, on Christmas Eve, the young couple were engaged, after Michael popped the question in the jewellery shop and presented her with a stunning amethyst and diamond ring. "We'd had this amethyst in the safe and the colour was a beautiful, deep purple. It was perfect," says Michael.
The pair married a month later in a Paihia church. It was a simple ceremony with only 13 people present, including themselves, the vicar and two Scottish girls Christine met on the boat. Although she was keen to get married in one of her smart suits, Michael's mother was having none of that, so a wedding dress was swiftly constructed, while Michael donned a chocolate-brown suit.
"Who gets married in a brown suit?" Christine asks, as Michael retorts, "I liked it!"
After a quick honeymoon in Waitangi, Michael went back to the jewellery shop and Christine began teaching art at a local high school. Their empire slowly started to grow, with the first Michael Hill store opening in 1979. Now, as they celebrate their 50 years of marriage – one, they're not afraid to admit, has included dark times as well as the glaringly bright successes – the couple say their secret is a simple one.
"You must keep doing the things that attracted you to each other in the beginning," Michael asserts.
"And doing those things together," adds Christine. "I've been involved in the business since the beginning," she continues. "I designed the stores, I drew the rings for the brochures, I designed the logo – but I was terrible at lettering, so I drew it on graph paper. But if I'd said, 'I'm going to pursue my own career' – and I know a lot of women do, and I have nothing against that – things might have been more difficult. It's been our life and I've just loved it."
Throughout their ups and downs, the most devastating of which was the 1979 fire that destroyed their Whangarei home and all their possessions, the love has never wavered – even when Michael sold Christine's engagement ring without telling her.
"Okay, it doesn't sound good," he admits. "What you have to understand is that I'm a born trader! I'd taken Christine's ring into the shop to polish it and it was sitting on the counter. A client came into the shop and couldn't find anything she liked – until she saw the amethyst ring, and said, 'That's the one I want!' I replied, 'Sold!' It was a bit naughty," he winks.
"We were probably a bit hard up at the time and it was a bit showy," admits Christine, who has been gifted many replacements since. "We probably needed the money."
Suffice to say money isn't an issue these days – Michael Hill Jeweller has come a long way from the first store in Northland, with almost 300 stores spanning the globe, including two New York locations opening this month. But, aside from the amazing surroundings in which Michael and Christine are sitting and chatting to the Weekly, you'd never guess at their wealth. Both detest any kind of fuss or pomp, despite their titles.
"How did all this happen?" asks Christine, gesturing at their privately owned golf course's sleek clubrooms in Arrowtown.
"How come we're fortunate to have all the things we have? I think, it's to do with the fact that we've done it all together."
They're more similar than they are different – both enjoy the outdoors, art and dote on their children, Mark (46) and Emma (43), and grandchildren, Oliver (15), Nathan (13) and the twins Chloé and Jacob (7). It also helps that rational Christine balances out the sometimes impulsive Michael.
"That's one of the biggest reasons why I love him," she says. "His wild enthusiasm is fantastic. And he just makes me laugh so much."
For Michael, it's Christine's down-to-earth nature that he adores – as well as her artistic talents. "I seem to be attracted to Scorpios," he says, while Christine rolls her eyes.
It's this easy, unshakable relationship that is the secret to their success. "We've never really argued," Christine tells. "I mean, all marriages have those times where you're like, 'For God's sake!' but, quite simply, we're still in love."
And as they celebrate their 50th anniversary – which is most fittingly, the gold anniversary – Michael and Christine are thinking back to where it all began. The romantic couple are currently planning to release a range of shell-inspired jewellery in all Michael Hill stores worldwide – a tribute to their marriage.
"But do you know what the most satisfying thing is?" asks Michael, leaning in. "Living here, in paradise on earth, with the kids and grandchildren all around. How lucky can you get?" he asks, before turning to face his beautiful wife. "Here's to a few more years yet!"
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