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Articles from ANTIQUE-STYLE JEWELLERY (21 Articles)

Famous face, celebrated history

Geoffrey Munn is widely recognised for his work on Antiques Roadshow but as MEGAN AUSTIN discovers, there is far more to this antique jewellery specialist than what is seen on television.

In Mayfair, London there’s an art and antique business named Wartski. Established in North Wales in 1865, the family-owned business specialises in Russian examples of decorative art such as those famously designed by Carl Fabergé, who was best known for his ornate and valuable Fabergé eggs.

This small but powerful entity fosters a family atmosphere built on the founding principles of Morris Wartski, principles that live on today through Wartski’s great grandson Nicholas Snowman, who owns the business, and managing director Geoffrey Munn.

British jewellery specialist Munn also happens to be the recognisable face of popular BBC lifestyle program Antiques Roadshow. Equipped with a speciality in 19th-century precious metalwork and Fabergé, Munn has worked for Wartski since answering an advertisement in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper at just 19 years of age. Little did he dream that he would become the managing director of a jeweller to six generations of the British Royal family and have famous clientele throughout the world.

Life inside a prestige art and antique centre conjures up images of serendipitous discovery and Munn confirms that there are many stories to be told of lost treasures unearthed as a result of seemingly accidental chains of events. Ranking highest among them is the time a Wartski specialist identified an ornament purchased by a US scrap-metal dealer in 2004. The egg-shaped item for which the dealer paid £8,000 turned out to be a long-lost Fabergé Imperial Easter Egg valued at £20 million.

As it turned out, the egg had been a gift from Tsar Alexander III to his wife Tsarina Maria Feodorovna in 1887. Wartski subsequently purchased it on behalf of a Fabergé collector.

A gold and enamel miniature frame by Carl Fabergé, circa 1900
A gold and enamel miniature frame by Carl Fabergé, circa 1900

There’s also the time Munn located a silver garnet and turquoise brooch designed in the 1860s by Victorian gothic architect William Burgess after showing a watercolour sketch upon which the piece was based on Antiques Roadshow. A viewer watching the show recognised the brooch immediately as one she had planned to sell in a car-boot sale only weeks before.

The brooch’s intrinsic value was only about £120; however, because of its provenance, cultural and artistic value, it fetched £31,000 at auction.

Such tales of majesty and mystique must’ve seemed otherworldly to the quiet, 19 year-old boy from Sussex, and Munn agrees.

“I was brought up in a small holding of a small farm in Sussex and my parents kept chickens to subsidise their income – they sold eggs at the door. I’d only been to London three times in my life when I got the job so it’s a rather extraordinary story, really.”

Diamond and aquamarine brooch by Carl Fabergé; a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to Princess Alix of Hesse on the occasion of their engagement
Diamond and aquamarine brooch by Carl Fabergé; a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to Princess Alix of Hesse on the occasion of their engagement

Munn is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and The Linnean Society, and also a Court Assistant at the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. He is not a formal valuer of jewellery but has spent a lifetime learning about the antique industry first hand. He spent his first 30 years at Wartski under the close mentorship of the late Kenneth Snowman, a man whom he describes as inspirational and exceptional, and who introduced him to the fascinating world of Fabergé.

Since then Munn has published five books. His latest, Wartski: The First Hundred and Fifty Years, details the history of the business, something he says was exhausting to write. He is, however, already planning another work exploring the deep-seated psychology of jewellery.

Universal astonishment

What interests Munn is the enormous fascination that people have with precious gemstones regardless of their station in life.

He describes the world’s love of gemstones as “universal astonishment”.

“You see people hurtling around the Imperial State Crown in the Tower of London like bees around a honey pot and they’re completely hypnotised,” Munn explains. “When you take that power of the precious stone and set it into a piece of jewellery, perhaps by Lalique or Fabergé, it’s a pretty heavy intoxication of art and the natural sciences. From that point of view, it’s very, very powerful indeed.”

Speaking of his role as the longest-running jewellery expert on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, a position he has held since 1989, Munn says he serves two masters.

“You have to be half television presenter and half jewellery specialist,” he explains.

He acknowledges that his input requires a delicate mix of skills but dismisses the title of expert. “I don’t like the word ‘expert’ because it suggests that you know it all; we don’t know it all. We only know a fraction of what we’re dealing with, and so it [his role] is a combination of a lot of skills, really.”

The process of selecting the pieces that appear on the show is long and begins with Munn seating every person who arrives on set with item in hand, hoping for a valuation. The public come in enormous numbers so this is a considerable feat.

There are two criteria he applies when selecting an item as ‘television-worthy’.

“First of all, it’s got to be what I describe; it’s got to be a bit of a pulse-making item or a culturally-interesting one,” he hints,

“but it’s also important that the owner has some character. You’ve got to have somebody with a bit of personality.”

Once pieces are chosen, the showmanship begins. “You have to be reasonably charming to get the reaction from the owner,” he explains.

“This is crucial because the television audience enjoys seeing the owner’s surprise, first of all when discovering facts and then when receiving a value [for their item].”

Estimations vs valuations

Munn is quick to distinguish between the estimations on the show and proper valuations.

“It’s worth mentioning here that the [television] value of an object in the context of valuation is [to give] a complete barometer of its cultural importance.”

Exemplifying, Munn says the most interesting jewels are not necessarily the most valuable: “There are things that have very modest value – really modest value – but are hugely interesting and then there are very valuable objects that have no cultural interest whatsoever.”

Munn admits that fashion has a big part to play in value.

“Eighteenth-century diamond jewels that were so popular in the 1970s are worth a fraction of what they were then in real terms while diamond double clips we were all taught to scorn in our youth are now at a premium,” he says. “So fashion has got a part to play with valuation.”

Platinum and diamond bracelet by Paul Flato, circa 1940
Platinum and diamond bracelet by Paul Flato, circa 1940

Munn identifies one of the major changes in the jewellery industry over the past decade as an increasing interest in identifiable makers. Famous virtuoso jewellers from the 19th century onwards, such as Giuliano, Castellani, Lalique and Van Cleef & Arpels, are today highly collectible, often achieving record prices at auction.

While he acknowledges that collectibility is a powerful force in stimulating demand, he also laments it because a piece of jewellery from an unknown maker that is equally as beautiful or technically proficient as a signed one may be considered less attractive to collectors.

“In a way it’s slightly disappointing because there are great things out there that are completely anonymous that sold for a fraction of the price,” he says, adding, “Context and provenance is at a huge premium.”

Munn believes an item of jewellery is a very high form of art that encapsulates something culturally and aesthetically unique about its era of creation.

Platinum and diamond fringe necklace, circa 1900
Platinum and diamond fringe necklace, circa 1900

He emphasises that the greatest artists in the world, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, Cellini and Nicholas Hilliard, were all trained as jewellers.

In this sense, Munn regards his work as a voyage of discovery, commenting that it can be just as exciting as digging up an ancient barrow and finding gold. “There are wonderful, wonderful things to be found.”

Thousands of viewers ride this journey of discovery alongside him each and every week. Reflecting upon the popularity of the show, Munn says people are lured to fabulous jewellery like butterflies to a candle flame.

Dismissing sales techniques

Interestingly, despite a lifetime promoting the industry, he cautions against becoming intoxicated with the world of jewellery, suggesting that truly grand jewellery can never really belong to anyone and that humans are merely on the outside, peering into a miraculous world.

Art deco diamond and aquamarine necklace by Olga Tritt, circa 1939
Art deco diamond and aquamarine necklace by Olga Tritt, circa 1939

Thus, a degree of modesty and prudence is important where jewellery is concerned. In terms of selling jewellery, Munn dismisses sales techniques that are based on the art of persuasion, and instead firmly believes that beautiful jewels will always sell themselves.

“You can’t sell anything to anybody ever. You can only articulate what is wonderful about a particular piece,” he muses. “If you do that then you’re a good salesman but if you think that you can sell something to somebody against their will then I think you need to go into a hat shop where you’ll do a lot better.”

The best tip Munn gives to retail jewellers is that they should deal only in what interests them. If they do that, their enthusiasm will not only be obvious but also infectious and consumers will come from far and wide just to share in it.

Second-hand jewellery dealers are not immune to many of the key issues faced by everyday bricks-and-mortar jewellery stores around the world, including Australia. In particular, the rise of wholesalers who open ‘salerooms’ for the purpose of selling directly to the public is, in Munn’s opinion, applying significant pressure to small and medium-sized jewellery businesses.

“The international salerooms have made the jewellery trade very tricky to compete for a tiny organisation such as our own,” he explains. “It’s jolly hard because we have the same expenses, the same insurance, the same rents and rates but we can’t possibly access that power, so a lot of jewellery shops are being completely subsumed by the salerooms.”

Geoffrey Munn examines jewellery on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow
Geoffrey Munn examines jewellery on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow
Art nouveau gold and pearl pendant by René Lalique, circa 1902
Art nouveau gold and pearl pendant by René Lalique, circa 1902

Changing consumers

Consumers’ views on jewellery have also changed enormously in the UK. The grand, bejewelled decadence typical of high society in the 1960s and 1970s has declined in modern times to the point where diamond tiaras and opulent necklaces are now only seen at public events like the State Opening of Parliament or the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.

Munn explains that consumers view the purpose of jewellery differently to yesteryear and jewels that were once bought for display are today bought for investment purposes.

“I think there is a very strong sense of hoarding going on here [UK] with very valuable things,” he says. “People buy them in the hope that they’re going to be a good investment and perhaps they will or perhaps they won’t.”

In his experience, when people do wear jewellery, conservative pieces by famous makers are especially popular, such as slinky little diamond line bracelets by famous French companies that are immediately identifiable.

Munn reflects that branding has become a powerful motivator for consumers when choosing more modest jewellery, a sentiment that is shared by Australian consumers.

Despite these changes, the style of pieces sold by Wartski hasn’t changed too much over the years. The business has embarked on a couple of new areas of interest, including antique French jewellery and Munn’s speciality – 19th-century revivalist jewellers Castellani and Giuliano.

Otherwise, Munn believes that Wartski’s strength is that it doesn’t really change. He asserts that the store’s small number of staff, conventional attitude and conservative nature is valued at a premium today because the rest of the world is very quickly changing.

“People feel comforted by something that’s very old and established.”

Megan Austin

Megan Austin FGAA FGA Dip DT BA, is a gemmologist and registered valuer. She operates Megan Austin Valuations.
Visit: meganaustinvaluations.com.au.

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