The Royal Jewellers S02 ep4 : Wartski Antique Jewellery [London]

Interview with Geoffrey Munn

Wartski is a family owned firm of art and antique dealers, specialising in fine jewellery, gold boxes and works by Fabergé. The firm was founded in North Wales in 1865 by Morris Wartski, maternal great-grandfather of the present day Chairman. The business thrived under the patronage of King Edward VII and a colourful clientele including the Marquis of Anglesey known as the 'dancing Marquis' with his penchant for emerald set ping-pong shirts, and the nocturnal Mr Blair who questioned the spirits in his walled garden before deciding on a purchase.


Wartski: I’m the managing director of Wartski, I’ve been working here for 35 years and I must say
every single day of my career has been a joy because it’s rather like an archaeological site, great
things turn up, there’s no trowel, no brush, but sudden a gleaming treasure from the past comes to
us and our job is to actually bring that provenance to life, to turn an inanimate object with a sort of
silent voice into something exciting and that is really the job of all antique dealers.

Wartski: They found it in a rather unlikely place which was Bangor in North Wales, moved from
Bangor to Llandudno in Wales, the business was founded in 1867 and if you wanted to go on
holiday you had to go on holiday within the United Kingdom and Llandudno is one of the very
famous seaside resorts rather like Brighton for instance.

Wartski: Then Emanuel Snowman married Miss Wartski and brought the business to London and
there it really turned to what it is now because he had the foresight to go to Russia after the
revolution in 1927 to buy anything that was valuable and precious really, perhaps he was in pursuit
of 18th Century silver, maybe even 18th Century gold snuff boxes, but he came back with
absolutely tea chests full of modern gold smiths’ work, little stone animals, flowers, maybe the odd
easter egg, made by a very famous firm of Russian jewellers called Faberge.

Jewellery Theatre Carravaggio

Wartski: Faberge was more prouder of his cigarette cases than almost anything else and there was
a constant search for novelty and for design and in this instance I think he’s taken it to its absolute
limits because the engraving on the cigarette case which stops it becoming thumb printed, suggests
a stream of water and lying in the bottom of this celestial stream are precious stones; a ruby, a
diamond, an emerald and an amethyst, and so this is not only a practical cigarette case with a
sapphire push, but it’s also a little poem, a little visual poem.

Wartski: This one looks for all the world as if its water coming down a window pane and it’s not
achieved in a simple way in fact this is one of the most sophisticated pieces of gold smith’s work
that I’ve ever seen in my life because when we open it up we reveal exactly how that is achieved.
It’s made of green gold and red gold, gold in its element is always yellow and when in its absolute
purity is unworkable, so if you alloy it with copper it turns red, if you alloy it with tin it turns
green, but then how do you join it together? You have to cut it up like paper and then solder it to
join it together without a sign of solder, and then resolve this extraordinarily complicated design
wherever it goes, it must look good here, it’s got to look good there, it’s got to look good here and
above all it’s got to look good on the full face of it and it looks, for all the world as if it’s sort of
made in middle Europe in 1900, but actually owes its origins to Japan and this is quite a well
known komono print and Faberge’s shop was exactly opposite a shop called Japan in the Nevski
prospect and it was a source of endless inspiration to him and what it certainly tells us is that it
comes from an age of unparalleled elegance. So an object at Faberge that cost £40 before the
revolution was for sale at Wartski in London for £2, 1917, £40, £2 in 1927 and the people that took
an interest in all of that were the old customers of Faberge in London and that included various
members of the British Royal Family, Queen Mary was very, very interested in Faberge, Queen
Elizabeth, the Queen Mother too.

Jewellery Theatre Carravaggio

Wartski: This is an astonishing brooch, as you can see it’s completely articulated and it’s designed
by a French woman called Suzanne Belperon and she was first of all an art jeweller I think we
asked a bit of a question about what was art and what isn’t, I think probably her first concern was
to arrive at something which was a sensational design and she’s done it here, she’s delivered a kind
of a truck load of stars to somebody set with diamonds and I think it’s highly successful. If we
could see it being worn by a girl it would be even more successful because it wraps itself round the
shoulder, it has the flexibility of a textile and that’s a signal often of the best sort of jewellery,
rigid jewellery that doesn’t move with the body is not necessarily the best, and platinum,
diamonds. A known maker also who is a supplier to some very interesting patrons, including the
Duchess of Windsor and Frank Sinatra and Diana Vreeland and even Fred Astaire.

Wartski: Well I suppose the only way really to define it is that we’re dealers in precious metalwork
fundamentally and so if we can find something from the 17th Century, we’re very thrilled, if we
can find it from before the 17th Century we’re doubly thrilled, but that’s terribly, terribly rarely
found because society was much smaller and the output was much smaller. So what tends to
happen is that we have 19th and 20th Century precious metalwork.

Wartski: It’s almost on the move isn’t it, it’s sort of alive, it’s like a chrysalis and it’s a miracle of
craftsmanship, it’s made of platinum except the diamonds, and it does almost have a life of its
own. I mean it’s a suspension of various loops, a graduation, and it’s worn on a very, very long
chain actually when the girl wears it, it’s quite far down on her body, and it just returns light in the
most extraordinarily animated way. It’s almost certainly by Cartier but we can’t absolutely prove
it, and I don’t think I can show you a jewel that’s technically more superb than this and what a joy
when she was given that, the girl, maybe Christmas morning, to be given a jewel by Cartier of that
nature, so chic and so astonishing and as I say, almost on the move. In my experience of looking at
jewellery in three decades, is that I’ve never seen anything like it before and I doubt that I ever
will again.

Jewellery Theatre Elements

Wartski: If you do find something that you can identify with a prominent firm from maybe the 20th
Century more than likely, sometimes in the 19th Century it might be Castelani and Juliano, it’s
almost an assurance that that object is going to be well made, it’s also an assurance that it’s going
to be an interesting object and so people are interested in what were essentially brands of the past,
but actually it’s a bit of a red herring because you can find marvellous things that are completely
anonymous, things that are not identified with a particular maker.

The important thing to remember about this frame is that it was actually made to contain a signed
photograph of Nicolas and Alexandra. When you're Emperor of all of Russias, you have the frame
by Faberge made to fit your photograph. On the reverse which forms the strut is their conjoined
initials. It's N2 then A overlaid on it. The Russian N, the Syrillic N is like a H , so it looks like H2
but its actually N2 & A for Nicolas and Alexander and it was given by them to a noble family
living in Russia called Imrotinsky.

Wartski: It was a great tradition to be, you know to serve a very long apprenticeship as a gold
smith or a jeweller and that was very, very important in keeping the very high and exacting
standards where they were and those standards were not, they were completely mandatory. I mean
the customers demanded it, they demanded it in jewellery, they demanded it in furniture, in
ceramic, and silver and dresses, in needlework and so they would settle for nothing less at that time
and now something’s happened, society has become much more even which is a very, very good
thing, but it’s not good for art and the best art comes from uneven societies and you could say that
Faberge it was the most uneven society you could possibly imagine, the best gold smith’s work
comes from pre-revolutionary France and the best gold smith’s work comes from pre-revolutionary

Jewellery Theatre Fairytales

Wartski: It’s a hand grenade and in every sense of the word it does work, you can take the pin out,
pull this up and the only catch is, this one’s not going to explode, but it might cause an explosion
of laughter because it was actually made as a table lighter to be filled with oil and then the taper lit
and then it would be brought in with the cigars, on a tray, to the gentlemen after dinner when the
ladies had retired. When the ladies had retired that was a signal for things to get just a little bit
racy, the conversation and the jokes would be, proliferate, the smoking would happen and, and of
course they were probably quite well refreshed and so by the time that had happened, perceptions
might have altered a bit and the butler would be coming in with a hand grenade with a piece of
flame coming out of the top, so there would be a sort of jokey scattering of people, it’s actually
quite an interesting thing because it’s also a cigar cutter, you put the cigar in here, pull that down
and cut it, and this is English and I, it’s an object with great sense of humour and great charm. It’s
a bit baleful in a way because it was actually made in 1914 at a time when the whole world was to
be thrown into chaos and hand grenades were something, anything but a joke.

Wartski: If we thought we knew about wealth, if we thought we had any concept of what true
wealth is, we don’t, we’re complete amateurs. In the 19th Century both here and the United States
and in England there were fortunes of incomparable power and buying power and patronage and
they knew about patronage and the link between great wealth and patronage of works of art is
something that’s rather thin on the ground at the moment, largely because people have to see good
things in order to ask for them. In the past great retailers and great manufacturers would offer great
things, now wealth comes so quickly to people that that level of patronage simply isn’t happening.

This is an enormous, probably 100 carats of Blue Topaz from Russia and Faberge liked to use
wherever possible stones that were found in Russia and this is a brilliant cut facetted blue topaz .
You can see that it is astonishingly deep for a precious stone and there is a reason for that, because
the colour is very fugitive, very pale so its a very deep broche and often mistaken for a box. and it's
made of gold and heightened with diamonds in the neoclassic taste and again it's another high
rank. This is a court jewellery from 1900 from imperial Russia and one can only guess at what the
other arrangements of the lady would have been like, her dress would have been like, the situation
she would have been in when she wore that and it was a picture of luxury that has frankly never
been equalled.

Wartski: The thing that really distinguishes Faberge above all the other jewellers are two things.
One the level of craftsmanship, and one the level of inspiration because he makes deliciously
useless and charming things, like easter eggs and flowers and animals and it conveys a feeling of
great joy immediately actually.

Wartski: There’s a girl that makes the fabulous design for a piece of Faberge and water colour and
hands it to the workshop and it’s their problem to make it work. Now it may involve casting,
setting, chasing, enamelling, stone setting, a hundred skills, and it would be almost like a sort of
conveyor belt of those skills starting with the most fundamental one of building the structure
perhaps then perhaps the enamel is put on, certainly the stones go after the enamel then a little bit
of chasing, I don’t know what but anyway there’s a strict procedure. Now each one of those
procedures is a lifetime’s expertise.

Wartski: Faberge absolutely finished in 1917, the business completely and utterly over at the time
of the Revolution and there is no Faberge beyond 1917. Having said that, it was the largest
manufacturer of precious metalwork that’s ever been. There were five branches in St Petersburg,
Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, London, there were agencies in Siam and agencies here there and
everywhere, there were 500 employees.

Well this is a 17th century rock crystal skull and it's what we call a "momento more" , it's a
reminder of death. And death, curiously enough was much more part of life than it is today
because mortality of every sort was more common and people's life expectancy was shorter and so
there were constant reminders of the fleeting nature of human life and the preparation for the
afterworld and so collections were made of momento-more and this is a very striking example of
rock crystal.

Wartski: What we see now, retailers up and down Bond Street and Fifth Avenue, selling stones in
minimal settings and so all the moneys gone into the stones and that’s and expression of the fact
that we’re simply not as wealthy as our predecessors because the people that bought from Faberge,
the people that bought from Cartier, from Mobousan, Laclose, there’s no concept of resale or
investment. They were simply spending their money. Now people buy things and there’s a very
subtle distinction between that, they buy them because they’ve always got in the back of their
mind that they would like to preserve their money by doing so. Our antecedents spent the money,
they went there with pure joy like buying a hat and you can’t resell a hat or a dress, you would
never think of reselling your Faberge cigarette case because you want to use it.

Wartski: Lady Padgett went to the Golden Jubilee Ball in London in 1897, she was the daughter of
a New York Hotelier who’d married an English aristocrat and her wealth was incalculable actually
and she spent £4,000 on her dress in 1897, £4,000 you could have bought a village in the United
Kingdom for that without any trouble at all. Properly invested it would be worth many millions of
pounds today, it was made by Worth, the famous dress designer, it was stitched with pure gold, she
had emerald shoulder straps and after her death it was sold for £40 for bullion alone, so £4,000 for
a night out on the town, 112 years ago is beyond contemplation. Now that’s an illustration, that
was American money there were 50 American women in the British peerage in 1900 and they
introduced wealth to United Kingdom that’s difficult for us to comprehend and I say that in a very
menacing way, it was a mountain of wealth coming from your industry, your agriculture, your
mining and it was welcomed in the United Kingdom because these lovely girls could swap their
immense fortunes for a title.

Wartski: This is an electric bell push and it’s rather surprising perhaps to find a Faberge object
associated with electricity because somehow or another we pushed it further back in our minds and
don’t really pay enough attention to the fact that this is 20th Century gold smith’s work in Russia in
the 20th Century, and one could fully expect to be waited upon by servants if one was of Royal
status, and the way to ring for them is to press this amethyst here and then an electrical connection
would be made with a wire coming out of the back, and it was a very, very low voltage indeed, and
so it was insulated only with cotton and silk but it would go under the rug and then all the way
downstairs and the servant would come. And in this particular instance we know the servant was
coming for the Tsar’s sister, Grand Duchess Zania and we know this because of the inventory
number on the object which has revealed the fact that she actually purchased it on the 2nd of
December 1902. It’s always rather startling for people to realise the Faberge is the age of
electricity, it’s also the age of the telephone and the age of the motorcar.

Wartski: When I joined Wartski, which was quite some time ago, Russia was almost closed, you
could write a letter, no reply. Try to telephone, no reply. And so we knew nothing about Faberge in
Russia that was worth knowing and now those archives have opened up and it’s enabled us to
attribute some of these Faberge objects to their first patrons, which is very exciting, and that we do
because it has a little inventory number on it and we can send that off to Archivists and Librarians
in Russia and they return with dazzling provenances.

OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Wartski Antique & Estate Jewellery