An Interview with John Benjamin: Antique Jewellery Expert

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John Benjamin is a specialist in antique jewellery, lecturer and author. After leaving school at 17, John got a job working at Cameo Corner, an old-fashioned antiques shop in Bloomsbury, London. He then qualified in gemmology and there was no turning back. John is now an independent jewellery valuer, historian, lecturer and author. He was formerly ‘International Director’ of Jewellery at Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers in London, and in 1999 he set up his own lecturing and valuation consultancy. John frequently appears as an expert on the BBC Antiques Roadshow.

Was it a stroke of luck that you went to work for the Cameo Corner with their specialists in renaissance and 18th and 19th century jewellery?
It was pure chance, My father, noticed my love of colour duly wrote to Cameo Corner, a celebrated antique jewellery shop located a stone’s throw from the British Museum and I got the job of junior sales assistant which started me on the most amazing journey

Tell us about your time working for Phillips?
I was a square peg in a square hole.  After qualifying as a Fellow of the Gemmological Association (FGA)  I joined Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers in 1976 ultimately becoming International Director of Jewellery responsible for the sale programmes in London and Geneva.

What is the most treasured item you have bought?
A few years ago I visited Paris.  At a curio shop next door to my hotel in Place de Luxembourg I managed to buy a rare and elegant Napoleonic Emerald and Diamond Ring which was being sold as glass.

Which piece of jewellery would you love to own?
When I was much younger a friend gave me a unique and quite extraordinary spherical gold pendant intricately carved on one side with the face of a laughing satyr and on the other with a grimacing grotesque.  I stupidly put it into a suit pocket – and sent the suit to the dry cleaners. I never saw it again and would pay anything to get it back.

Jewellery has been a common way to store or transfer wealth and is widely considered the most collected asset on a global level. Do you think jewellery and stones should be bought as an asset or as a piece to love?
I am an incurable romantic. I get rather depressed when I see rare and beautiful gems purchased purely for investment, seldom worn and barely cherished. I am a firm believer that jewellery only really comes to life when it is handled, worn and loved by its owner.

 

Which period in history would you start collecting now?
Antique jewellery – particularly jewels of 17th and 18th Century origin – are increasingly hard to find today.   A charming Georgian ring, a pair of elegant antique earrings or a pretty and wearable Victorian bracelet can still be purchased at an affordable price and will always convey individuality, style and implicit good taste.

Which part of your career do you enjoy the most? Being on the Antiques Roadshow or buying and selling jewellery?
I have been a contributor to BBC Television’s ever-popular Antiques Roadshow for 25 years and have always loved the challenge of processing literally thousands of pieces of jewellery owned by several hundred people over the course of a single day. You simply cannot beat the excitement of coming across a rare or valuable jewel owned by someone who thinks it’s worthless.  The reaction is, quite simply, priceless.

I am not a dealer and therefore don’t buy and sell jewellery for myself.  I do, however, help private clients to source the jewel or gem they are seeking and assist clients wishing to sell jewellery either through my network of leading members of the trade or at international auction.

How many lectures and events do you do a year?
I am an accredited speaker for the Arts Society (formerly NADFAS) .The  business world  hare always appreciative of the secrets I give them on enjoying jewellery..  Later this year I will be embarking on a 4- week lecture tour of New Zealand and in 2020 I have been booked to tour Australia.

How would you suggest people should start a jewellery collection? Do you buy for the stones or for the design?
Always go for what you instinctively like and never for what you are told is “in fashion”.  Design is key and do try the thing on to make sure it sits comfortably first . It amazes me just how many people buy jewellery which is completely unwearable!

Do you agree that a jewel’s provenance is not just who has owned it but where it has lived and where it has been exhibited?
An important painting  with cast iron provenance which has been exhibited in a number of international art galleries will inevitably attract more interest than another which appears on the market unannounced with no previous history. So it is with jewellery.  Provenance is crucial; just look at the prices which the Duchess of Windsor’s or Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery fetched.  I doubt that a simulated pearl necklace estimated at $500-700 would have fetched a staggering $200,000 if it hadn’t been owned by anyone other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis!

What do you think of the trend for the bling jewellery and the mixing of stones that is prevalent in Old Bond Street?
Whether we like it or not jewellery is driven by fashion.  A few years ago  Bonhams sold a group of pieces by the post war designer craftsman Andrew Grima for thousands and the whole market changed overnight.– I’ve never known a shortage of buyers, for example, for a pair of vintage Cartier earrings.  To put it another way, fine and wearable Edwardian, Art Deco and well-made jewels of the post war era will, in my opinion, never lose their appeal. For me, there are two key features of a piece of jewellery which never seem to go out of fashion;  wearability and simplicity.

All images courtesy John Benjamin.