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
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