Design & Decoration S02 ep3 : Mark Evans, Bentley Skinner Jewellery, [???]
Interview with Mark Evans
Bentley & Skinner, Jewellers by Royal Appointment to both Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, have between them been buying and selling the loveliest jewellery for over 180 years Recently, Bentley & Skinner was charged with producing the DAMIAN HIRST skull which sold at Auction for over $100million - making it the most valuable pieces of modern sculpture.
Skinner: Bentley & Skinner is a high quality end jewellers of the old tradition. To me it’s a family
business which I was born into and it’s one of the very last businesses of its type in London and it’s
my love and duty to keep the flame burning.
Skinner: It was established by my uncle in 1934. He was the son of a friend of Lenin who got into
political trouble and had to flee. He went to Africa where he pursued his knowledge of metallurgy
in defining certain procedures for the purification for gold being mined there. Unfortunately he
caught a tropical disease and had to retire to Europe but as all he knew about was gold he started a
gold smelting business in the city of London. In 1931 England came of the gold standard and the
price of gold started to soar. People would sell everything from gold teeth, spectacle frames,
trimmings from gold lame shoes, even fine 17th Century picture frames that had the canvases
removed and frames burnt. And in fact, many of my great grandfather’s contemporaries thought he
was crazy to buy up the demolition rights of the Scarlet Playhouse in London but he realised that
the front boxes of the playhouse had re-gilded year after year for 200 years so he had all the plaster
chipped off and put in the furnace. It helped consolidate a very successful business but
unfortunately so was a huge amount of very fine antique jewellery which was confined to the
crucible. His son who started working with him at the age of 14, couldn’t bear to see the beautiful
things being destroyed but knew that the only way to protect them was to try and trade them and to
help other people to realise the artistic integrity.
Skinner: In 1934 his son discovered a little business for sale on the first floor of a shop in Upper
Bond Street and he traded successfully there until his death in 1985.
Skinner: I didn’t really want to be a jeweller I’d ran away from school to join the theatre but my
uncle thought this was very shocking and I remember very clearly that he said to me when I was 17
years old, however successful you are as a theatre director you’ll never be able to afford to buy
jewellery but even as a moderately successful jeweller you’ll be able to go to the theatre every
night of the week. Try it for a week or two. Really the business isn’t my life, no try it, just see, you
can always leave if it doesn’t suit. And honestly if that 35 years later I’m still trying.
Skinner: I’m very proud that we were appointed as jewellers to both Her Majesty the Queen and
the Princes of Wales. People sometimes ask me what is the warrant of appointment for? It’s
nothing to do with the amount of value of what we sell, it is to do with integrity.
Skinner: It belonged to Anna Pavlova and many would consider her the greatest ballerina to ever
have lived, and it is really an honour to have a jewel which was one of her favourite pieces. When
Pavlova died her dresser looked after another very famous ballerina, an English dancer, and when
the dresser died she left this to the other dancer. And the other dancer eventually died, very sad the
such a beautiful piece should be so tied up with death and a relation of hers who had no use for the
piece and wanted it seen worn by someone who’d love it sold it to us. It was probably constructed
in about 1860, English design, English style, it’s set with a very finely matched spread of Burma
rubies mounted with old cut diamonds and two beautiful pearls.
Skinner: Juliano was one of England’s favourite jewellers between 1890 and 1910, his worked
depended very much on design and craft, rather than the value of the stones and we’re very
fortunate to have quite a large collection of his pieces. This is a very fine example of his work.
Skinner: This necklace was made in about 1780, what the cut of the old diamonds used to do was
to refract the light like a prism so you get this wonderful play of colour. One might say that the old
diamonds glitter whereas the new diamonds dazzle.
Skinner: We do a little manufacturing as well, we don’t have a brand style, but when we find a
very special gem, we like to mount it ourselves, we have a very good workshop and we also
undertake a lot of remounting for customers’ jewellery.
Skinner: Probably the most valuable thing has been the diamond encrusted skull of a modern artist,
Damian Hurst. But why did he choose us when a company like R… has a bigger workshop than we
do, a company like Cartiers has a higher profile, why Bentley & Skinner? And he said, because I
feel really comfortable with you and it was very nice this thing that he could have said. It was a
huge undertaking, for 200 years there hasn’t been a project as big as this in terms of jewellery
manufacture and there were times when I thought we’ve really bitten off more than we could
chew. But it all came together in the end and it was the most exciting project we’ve ever worked
Skinner: He’s a man with a very big imagination, and I said it could not be possible. It’s certainly
not possible to work on a piece that size and set it, but being Damian Hurst he said well you’ve got
to make it possible for me. We did.
Skinner: Really we’re, the manufacture of jewellery there are two parts, the mounting and the
setting and with the mounting it’s creating the structure, it’s for setting of the gems that can make
or break a piece and when one’s setting important diamonds, it’s very, very important that the
setting is absolutely perfect. We’re very lucky that we have our setters here on the premises, but
one can’t ask them to do more than is humanly possible. So the platinum was formed in pieces,
each piece was set then they had to be welded together and then the plates had to be welded
together but in such a way that the diamonds weren’t burnt because it’s very easy to burn a
Skinner: So having welded the plates together, we then had to set over the welding marks which
was incredibly difficult, they're supporting the weight of the skull, but at least it was less setting of
the whole skull than it would have been if we’d just presented one platinum skull to the centre. We
were given a very difficult challenge in jewellery terms, apart from the manufacture and that was
acquiring the stones, every single stone had to be of the highest quality and it was a two year
operation just to get hold of the stones.
Skinner: It was modelled on a real skull. He brought many skulls to our premises and we spent a
long time discussing which one.
Skinner: It took two years.
Two years, and I gather that was two years under wraps too because no one needed to know about
Skinner: That’s absolutely right, apart from anything, from a security point of view because of the
huge value the piece has. We were paid to make it but we weren’t paid to ask questions.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Mark Evans, Bentley Skinner Jewellery, ???