Absolutely fabulous! Jeweller to kings, Bing Crosby, James Bond, Joanna Lumley, JFK and the Queen
The Queen and Bing Crosby. JFK and James Bond. All customers of high-class jeweller Wartski. STEVEN RUSSELL hears how a naive 19-year-old recruit rose through the ranks, found a wife among the precious objects, and graced our TV screens
It’s autumn, 1972, and Geoffrey Munn replies to a short-and-sweet newspaper advert. “Assistant required in well-known antique shop.” He gets an interview but, sadly, not the job. The “charming” manager suggests he tries Wartski, the high society jeweller. The rest is history. Today, Geoffrey is its managing director.
“At this stage I should say that I had very little interest in jewellery and considered it a very minor art, if indeed it was an art form at all,” he writes in a book celebrating the firm’s first 150 years – a story of wealth and opulence, royalty and celebrity, hard work and craftsmanship. The story of a firm that’s served six generations of the royal family.
“That was not the only evidence of how callow I was then. Green as a lettuce leaf, I had only been to London on two occasions and had no idea where Piccadilly Circus was to be found.” Happily, he emerged at the right Tube station and managed to walk the few hundred yards to 138 Regent Street, where Wartski’s shopfront was made of patinated bronze, gold mosaic and stained glass. “The windows blazed with massive pieces of domestic silver, and diamond brooches and tiaras, set en tremblent, scintillated to the rhythm of traffic in the busy street outside. My sense of mounting apprehension was increased by a daunting display of Royal Warrants, heightened with pure gold, glimmering in the October sunshine.” The nervous candidate is ushered downstairs into a luxurious room described perfectly five years earlier by James Bond creator Ian Fleming in the 007 novella Property of a Lady. He perches on the edge of a fauteuil chair from the Russian emperor’s Winter Palace. “A tabletop entirely encrusted with opals caught my eye and it remains at Wartski to this day.”
Soon he’s joined by the dapper Kenneth Snowman and his cousin Cecil. The teenager doesn’t know these gentlemen “were almost as unsettled by the process of the interview as I was... however, the fact that I expected a salary of just £750 a year seemed to tip an invisible balance”.
This was clearly no ordinary place. The firm owned, for instance, three of Carl Fabergé’s imperial Easter eggs – the serpent clock egg, the Lilies of the Valley and the coronation coach. These exquisite pieces were commissioned by the tsars as presents to wives and/or mothers.
Just before Christmas, 1972, the shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos managed to persuade Wartski to sell him the serpent clock egg. In 1979 the other two were sold: to Forbes Magazine for a total of £832,000.
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No, not your everyday business.
The earliest mention of the firm in the UK is in 1876 – in Wales – with Morris Wartski, maternal great-grandfather of the current chairman. He was born in Poland/imperial Russia in 1855, but the family was one of many thousands that emigrated to escape anti-Semitism.
By 1907 it had two shops in the fashionable resort of Llandudno. The business thrived under the support of King Edward VII. Many clients were… colourful – including the fifth Marquis of Anglesey, who liked playing table tennis in a shirt decorated with emeralds.
In 1911 Morris’s son-in-law, Emanuel Snowman, opened a branch in London. He was one of the first people to negotiate with the government of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, buying treasures confiscated from the rich after the revolution that brought exile and executions. These foundations were strengthened by his son Kenneth, who also carried out research, staged exhibitions and wrote books, such as The Art of Carl Fabergé.
Wartski’s delights caught the attention of the monarchy, with Emanuel Snowman telling of an appointment at Buckingham Palace in 1927 to show King George V and Queen Mary the “Russian court jewels”.
As the years went by, Wartski became known for more than the Fabergé. Geoffrey tells how the firm appeared in the Guinness Book of Records because of the sums bid for precious objects – such as £78,500 for a gold snuffbox.
Beautiful pieces attracted the rich and famous. Prince George, the monarch’s son, is likely to have introduced a crowd of arty and society types. They included playwright and actor Noel Coward.
King Faisal II, the last king of Iraq, went to Harrow School and was a Fabergé enthusiast. “Possibly the greatest of all the Fabergé in his collection were ‘twin sprays of lilies of the valley’ represented in pearls, nephrite and diamonds, poised in a rock-crystal vase. It cost £1,500 in September 1956.”
The firm’s visitors’ books include names such as actor Jon Pertwee, film director Sam Wanamaker (whose actress daughter Zoë is a customer today), actor Danny Kaye and Sir Alec Guinness, who “enjoyed looking at the Fabergé but, thwarted by his budget, bemoaned the ‘Fabergé prices’).
Then there was Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
“Bing was always with his wife, but Sinatra usually came to Wartski alone. On at least one occasion, however, the delicate and beautiful actress Mia Farrow, to whom he was then married, was with Frank when he shopped for Fabergé toys at Wartski in the early 1960s.”
The list goes on. The King and I’s Yul Brynner could afford “some of the best that Wartski could offer”, including a gold desk clock.
And then there was JFK – John F Kennedy. “Quite how the 35th president of the United States found his way to Wartski remains unclear, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the allure of the window display in the shop front of the premises at 138 Regent Street,” says Geoffrey. “If it failed to attract him personally, his sister-in-law, Lee, Princess Radziwill, who lived in London, would certainly have seen it… Jacqueline Kennedy’s unerring taste for the right thing at the right time led her to wear a (£2,290) diamond star in her hair, chosen for her at Wartski by John.”
In 1985 a Mrs Rosenberg visited: “Witty and highly intelligent”.
“She was in London because her alter-ego, the ironic comedienne Joan Rivers, was playing at The Pizza on the Park Nightclub.
“When in the company of Mrs Rosenberg, one had the strongest sense that the character of Joan Rivers was a sort of comedy genie who could only be enticed to leave the bottle by the lure of the limelights. The lights at Wartski were simply not bright enough to bring her out, and try as I might to entice her, Joan Rivers stayed firmly in the bottle.”
Geoffrey found her charming. “She always asked after my family, and sent books and presents to Wartski in the post.” Joan and daughter Melissa assembled a “super-refined” collection of Fabergé in memory of late husband Edgar.
“A faithful friend, Joan never hesitated to trumpet Wartski’s name at every opportunity...”
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother bought two enchanting flower studies by Fabergé in the early 1940s. She’d later bring her granddaughter, Princess Margaret.
Margaret would visit Wartski many times “and she showed a deep, almost contemplative fascination for what was on show. The only exception proved to be the Fabergé animal studies, which Her late Royal Highness disliked intensely”.
Wartski was granted the Queen’s warrant in 1955 and the Prince of Wales’s in 1980, “and had the honour of making the Welsh gold wedding rings for the Prince and Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles” in 2005.
“Welsh gold given by the Queen was also used when Wartski made the wedding ring for Miss Catherine Middleton for her marriage to HRH The Duke of Cambridge...”
Has Geoffrey never been tempted to move on? “Well, I have always been tempted to be a writer or journalist, and like everyone I think I might have one good novel in me yet, but I have not started to write it,” he tells the EADT. “I have had huge luck falling where I am and I think I was clever to recognize the fact and stay put!”
n Wartski: The First One Hundred and Fifty Years is published by Antique Collectors’ Club at £65.
My history of Southwold was my mid-life crisis book!
Geoffrey was raised in Sussex, but says “my heart is in East Anglia”. His maternal ancestors came from Wissett and Halesworth.
He and wife Caroline have a home at Southwold, where they’ve put down proper roots. Caroline left school at 15 and got a job as a secretary at Wartski in 1977. There, she met her husband to be. They married in 1983 and had two sons.
Southwold began to work its magic just before their marriage, when they visited friends renting a house in Stradbroke Road. Rather taken with the place, they asked people at the grocery shop who might offer holiday lets, and would come down at least once a year. Later, in the depths of a recession, they were able to buy a dilapidated beach hut.
In 1995 they managed to buy a terraced house in Marlborough Road. Then in 2003, after the death of Geoffrey’s parents, they bought a home on the edge of town.
Geoffrey was awarded the OBE in 2012 for services to charity, has become one of the experts on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, and has written several books about jewellery. In 2006 came Southwold: An Earthly Paradise, which examined the way the town has proved a magnet for writers and artists. “My history of Southwold was my mid-life crisis book and it is probably dearest to my heart!”
Right. Time to be provocative. What would Geoffrey Munn say to anyone who suggests these precious items – particularly the Fabergé objects – are kitsch and vulgar?
“These are perfectly valid judgments but they are judgments of taste, and not only intensely personal but vary from one age to another. This is called fashion and that is arguably a prejudice,” he tells me.
“No matter whether these things are in or out of fashion, they are expressions of their own time and silent witnesses to the past.”
What about the claim they’re obscenely expensive?
“John Pope Hennessy, once the director of the British Museum, said there is no relationship between a work of art and its value. That says it all, really.
“He also said that some works of art have a supernatural life all of their own. The recent record-breaking Picasso is one of these.
“I have had the immense privilege to handle some of them at Wartski. It can be a gasp-making experience, easy to share on the day but difficult to describe afterwards. However, there must be a loose consensus of what constitutes a masterpiece or there would be no competition for them.”
Must be nice meeting all those celebrities. What’s it like?
“I have been very privileged in meeting so many notable people but what this has demonstrated to me is that the Master of all Creation usually gives one, just one, notable characteristic to each of them. Each of us, in fact.
“When you meet someone who is a great actor, singer or painter there is an initial excitement, but soon one realises that they are just human. Not to say that humanity is not the greatest gift of all…”
Finally (and Joan Rivers aside, because you’ve already spoken warmly of her) is there one for whom you reserve a soft spot?
“There are just too many to name here but if you twist my arm I would say Joanna Lumley and Betty Boothroyd have this attribute in abundance, and I love them for it.”