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Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Royal Jeweler Speaks

Above the entrance at Wartski is the Coats of Arms of Queen Elizabeth II, which serves as the symbol for the royal warrant of appointment, in this case serving as the royal jeweler. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

LONDON — Geoffrey Munn is one of Britain’s foremost authorities on antique jewelry with a particular emphasis on 19th-century precious metalwork and the House of Fabergé. He is best known in the U.K. as one of the experts on the BBC Antiques Roadshow. He has authored four books and curated several exhibitions.

Geoffrey Munn, managing director of Wartski, discusses the provenance Faberge items in the display case. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco
Munn, 59, is an extremely engaging person and a master storyteller with a rapid-fire speaking style who can discuss with passion, empathy and a sprinkling of humor, the human stories (often tragic) behind finely crafted antique pieces. However, there is one subject he won’t discuss: His relationship with the royal family. You see, Munn is managing director of Wartski, an antique dealership with a “royal warrant of appointment.” In other words, he and the store serve as one of about 850 companies and individuals and one of a handful of jewelers that supply goods and services to the royal family.

“Mums the word,” he said from behind the counter at Wartski, where he has worked since he was 19.

A Fabergé collection of about 10 items made of Siberian jade, known for its dark green color with black markings. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco
 
When it was time for Kate Middleton to have her wedding ring fashioned from the royal supply of Welsh gold, it was Wartski that did the job. The store also supplied the engagement and wedding rings to Queen Elizabeth’s grandson, Viscount Linley, when he married Serena Stanhope in 1993. It made the wedding rings (also of Welsh gold) for The Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles for their 2005 wedding.

The store, located just off of the Bond Street luxury shopping boulevard, specializes in Fabergé and other objects of royalty. The façade is neat and somewhat modern for a place that deals with antiques. Dark slate surrounds large display windows with items neatly in place. Above the doorway is the Wartski name and the Coats of Arms of Queen Elizabeth II, which serves as the symbol for the royal warrant of appointment.

Among the items in the display case at Wartski is an antique jeweled humming bird brooch in mid flight with its wings, pave set with cushion shaped rubies and old brilliant cut diamonds. The beak and feet are made of yellow gold, its single eye mounted with a cabochon emerald. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco
 
Despite containing the rare and expensive valuables of royalty—along with the triumphs, loves and tragedies of their former owners—the store is a picture of understatement. Jewelry and other antiques are neatly stored in a long glass display case that serves as a counter on one side of the room or along light-colored wooden wall displays.

Objects of Art neatly arranged in wall displays. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco
 
In the store on this particular day, June 15, was a collection of about 10 Fabergé items made of Siberian jade, known for its deep green hue and black markings, in one wall display. In the glass case standing out among the pieces was an antique jeweled humming bird brooch in mid flight with out-swept wings, pavé set with cushion shaped rubies and old brilliant cut diamonds. The beak and feet are made of yellow gold, its single eye mounted with a cabochon emerald. Also standing out in the glass among several sparkling diamond pieces was a diamond set “Comet” brooch made of platinum, round brilliant cut diamonds and step cut diamonds.

Faberge Siberian aquamarine and diamond brooch was a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to princess Alix of Hesse. They were executed July 17,1918, and she was wearing the jewel right up until the time of her death. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco
 
He showed our group several pieces of rare objects with special stories, including a brooch with a large translucent aquamarine stone surrounded by diamonds. Here’s how he tells the story behind the brooch.
In here we have a Fabergé brooch, a Siberian aquamarine surrounded by diamonds. That’s all we knew for a while. It’s an exemplary aquamarine and it’s of extraordinary color. (women in the group gasp with amazement). I know, I know it’s fabulous. (But) it’s only the beginning of the trouble. Because this really is going to wreck you and you’ll need a stiff drink afterwards. It’s an exemplary aquamarine and it’s a Siberian one and they don’t really come in that color unless they do come from Siberia.… The story of this is really quite awe inspiring because the color blue in the lore of lapidary stones stands for love and then there’s sort of the interlock of two lives with diamonds forever. And that’s all we knew for a very long time until my colleague sent off the number to Russia and back came the provenance and it said that it was bought by the Supreme Autocrat of all the Russias—a pretty hot title—and there’s a note beside it saying it was the engagement present from (Russian Tsar) Nicholas II to princess Alix of Hesse. And that is sort of stratospheric. But then what happens later is even more heartbreaking because when they were taken to prison in Siberia (during the Bolshevik Revolution), they went to a place called The House of Special Purpose—a very menacing title—and you know what happens next but this (the jewel) was with her just before she was taken to the basement and riddled with gunfire. It was confiscated and it isn’t actually open to debate because it was a civil service theft and so they made an inventory of what they’ve taken from her and they photographed it on the table so you don’t hear any fanciful stories. I think possibly that’s as far as jewelry will ever take you.
Munn, who has spent most of his life at Wartski, is in the process of writing a history of the store with insider stories of the many of celebrities and royalties who have passed through its doors. With his knack for storytelling, it should be an interesting read.

4 comments:

  1. WOW - what a great trip! ...love the story of the Aquamarine...what a stunner!

    Robyn

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  2. Thank you so much, Robyn. I'm just happy to be able to describe what I experienced.

    ReplyDelete