A jewel of a shop

After 144 years in New Bond Street, the cel­e­brated jew­eller S. J. Phillips is mov­ing to new premises. Diana Scaris­brick pays a nos­tal­gic last visit to Lon­don’s most at­mo­spheric trea­sure house

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Clara Molden

After 144 years trad­ing in New Bond Street, the cel­e­brated jew­eller S. J. Phillips is mov­ing to new premises. Diana Scaris­brick pays a nos­tal­gic last visit to Lon­don’s most at­mo­spheric trea­sure house

FOR many years, an at­trac­tive part of the Lon­don scene has been the sight of peo­ple clus­tered round the win­dow of S. J. Phillips at 139, New Bond Street, W1 (Fig 1). Crammed with ev­ery type and cat­e­gory of jew­ellery, it drew the eye and in­cited ad­mir­ing com­ments, such as ‘isn’t that brooch pretty?’.

An ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence awaited those, who, mag­ne­tised, ven­tured in­side. The walls of the large space be­yond the win­dow were lined with an­gu­lar, dark­brown ma­hogany cab­i­nets, a long counter formed from glass-topped cases ran along the right-hand side (Fig 3 and 7), with freestanding dis­play fur­ni­ture and, in the mid­dle, a flat-topped desk with chairs.

Shin­ing out from this sober Vic­to­rian set­ting, the bril­liance of the mul­ti­tude of di­a­monds, the gleam of an­tique sil­ver and the lus­tre of gold cre­ated an en­chant­ing back­ground to the an­i­mated at­mos­phere of buy­ing and sell­ing, which con­tin­ued through­out each day. In ad­di­tion to the four well­turned-out sales­men, the three di­rec­tors —brothers Ni­co­las and Jonathan Nor­ton and their cousin, Fran­cis Nor­ton—were om­nipresent, ei­ther stand­ing be­hind the counter in front or seated at a ta­ble at the back of the shop (Fig 8).

As for the cus­tomers of all ages and pur­suits, rang­ing from royalty to rock stars, they were ei­ther look­ing down into the cases, try­ing on what­ever jewel had taken their fancy or bar­gain­ing over prices. Ev­ery­one, both buy­ers and sell­ers, seemed com­pletely at home, as if in a well-run club and, more than that, en­joy­ing be­ing there, part of an in­ter­na­tional co­terie of peo­ple of a cer­tain well-de­fined taste.

How did all this come about? It be­gan in 1873, when the firm’s founder, Solomon Joel Phillips, de­cided it was time to move west from his premises in Re­gent Street and set up shop at 113, New Bond Street. His son ‘Teddy’ and grand­sons Richard and Martin Nor­ton re­mained there un­til 1966, when they moved to 139, re­pro­duc­ing the Vic­to­rian in­te­rior. Sub­se­quently, they pur­chased the free­hold, which, in 2015, was sold by the fourth gen­er­a­tion.

Now that they’re leav­ing and a new S. J. Phillips has been in­stalled at 26, Bru­ton Street, it’s a good mo­ment to as­sess what the firm achieved dur­ing its pres­ence of al­most a cen­tury and a half in New Bond Street.

This is by no means easy, for, like other pro­fes­sion­als—in law and medicine, for ex­am­ple—the iron cur­tain of con­fi­den­tial­ity binds jew­ellers to se­crecy, so any in­for­ma­tion re­ceived is only a tenth of an ice­berg of trans­ac­tions. How­ever, we do know that, while in Re­gent Street, the com­pany’s clients in­cluded John Bowes and his French wife, Joséphine, founders of the Bowes Mu­seum, and the pub­lisher Daniel Macmil­lan.

The Bond Street shop at­tracted the great­est 20th-cen­tury col­lec­tors: John

‘The Nor­tons love the chase of ac­quir­ing the best and out­wit­ting their com­peti­tors ’

Pier­pont Mor­gan, Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst, Clarence Mackay, Sir Wil­liam Bur­rell, Lord Lee of Fare­ham, Ken­neth Clark and all branches and gen­er­a­tions of the Roth­schilds.

Th­ese art lovers could take their pick of gold boxes, minia­tures, rare Queen Anne and 18th-cen­tury French sil­ver and the Rus­sian crown jewels, ac­quired from Christie’s when they were sold by the Sovi­ets through a syndicate in 1927. This pe­riod of ex­pan­sion came to an end with the stock­mar­ket crash of 1929, but, some­how, after the sud­den death of Un­cle Teddy at a race meet­ing in 1934, the brothers Richard and Martin Nor­ton weath­ered the storm. They car­ried on through the Sec­ond World War in spite of bom­bard­ments, ac­tive ser­vice and be­ing tor­pe­doed in the At­lantic.

In 1943, the Nor­tons were in­volved in Op­er­a­tion Mince­meat, by pro­vid­ing an in­voice for a di­a­mond en­gage­ment ring placed in the wal­let of ‘The Man Who Never Was’. With a pho­to­graph of his at­trac­tive fiancée, it helped es­tab­lish the iden­tity of the corpse planted on the shore of Spain, who was car­ry­ing fake plans for the in­va­sion of Greece, so as to de­flect the en­emy from the Al­lies’ in­ten­tion to in­vade Si­cily.

In the next phase, ac­cord­ing to Arthur Grimwade in Sil­ver For Sale (1994), S. J. Phillips be­came ‘the great­est trea­sure house of ac­quirable pos­ses­sions for lim­it­less pock­ets in the world’. Fa­mous works of art that passed through their hands in­clude the ro­man­tic 16th-cen­tury Burgh­ley House nef, now in the V&A (Fig 2), the 12th-cen­tury Sav­er­nake hunt­ing horn and the solid-gold wine cool­ers given by Queen Anne to the vic­to­ri­ous John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marl­bor­ough, all now in the Bri­tish Mu­seum.

The shop also at­tracted for­eign pri­vate col­lec­tors: the Amer­i­cans Judge Un­termyer, Bradley Martin and Arthur Gil­bert, the Chilean Ar­turo López-will­shaw and Baron Thyssen-borne­misza from Lugano.

At home, the lead was taken by Queen Mary (Fig 9), who, in con­trast to her rep­u­ta­tion as stiff and un­bend­ing, en­tered into the spirit of the shop, talk­ing to the other cus­tomers and ad­mir­ing the new­est ac­qui­si­tions. Many mem­o­ries must have been brought back by the jewels of the Vic­to­rian banking heiress Baroness Bur­dett-coutts, a staunch friend of Mary’s mother, the Duchess of Teck. Queen Mary even con­sid­ered ac­quir­ing the great Burmese sap­phire clus­ters sold to Baroness Bur­dett-coutts by the Em­press Eugénie, a thought that must have re­minded her of how far she had come from her im­pov­er­ished girl­hood.

An­other re­mark­able woman, Margaret Thatcher, who came to the shop de­ter­mined —against all ad­vice—to buy hair­brushes

for the bald Mikhail Gor­bachev, ac­quired for her­self an 18th-cen­tury di­a­mond jes­samine flower for less than £10,000. Pinned to the lapel of a jacket, it be­came so closely as­so­ci­ated with her im­age that it sold for £158,000 when her clothes and jewels were dis­persed at auc­tion in 2015 (Fig 5).

Of the many cap­tains of in­dus­try in S. J. Phillips’s clien­tele, the palm went to Gio­vanni Agnelli, au­to­cratic ruler of Fiat, who demon­strated his ex­cel­lent taste by pur­chas­ing for his wife a unique and exquisite Re­gency di­a­mond neck­lace made for the Count­ess of Shrews­bury.

It is sig­nif­i­cant that, for years, when­ever in Lon­don, other jew­ellers, such as mem­bers of the Bul­gari fam­ily, have al­ways come to buy for their own plea­sure from the Nor­tons. Many more devo­tees come from the world of fash­ion and the doyenne of them all, Dame Anna Win­tour, ed­i­tor of the Amer­i­can edi­tion of Vogue, ex­plained why in her fore­word to the cat­a­logue of an ex­hi­bi­tion of paste jew­ellery in 2010: ‘It is al­ways a very spe­cial treat to visit a place of such charm and char­ac­ter run in the best tra­di­tion of a fam­ily busi­ness. It is a re­flec­tion of the Nor­tons’ pas­sion for what they do, that ei­ther Jonathan, Ni­co­las, or Fran­cis is in­vari­ably on the floor ready with a warm wel­come and an in­formed point of view. When I am there I of­ten feel as though I have stepped

Fig 1: The ex­te­rior of S.J. Phillips on New Bond Street. Fig 2: The 16th-cen­tury Burgh­ley nef, a ves­sel for serv­ing salt and spices

Fig 3: In­side one of the long dis­play cab­i­nets: sim­ple ar­range­ments al­lowed the jewels to speak for them­selves

Fig 6 right: The Dud­ley pearl. One of the finest nat­u­ral pearls, it was named after a 19th­cen­tury owner, the Count­ess of Dud­ley

Fig 5 above: Margaret Thatcher’s 18th-cen­tury di­a­mond brooch

Fig 4: An 18th-cen­tury Por­tuguese Badge of the Or­der of Christ

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