01 December 2015

Wartski jewellery shops: from Russia with love

I am totally invested in Swarovski crystals and can recognise them from 100 meters away, with my eyes blindfolded.  But I knew little about Wartski other than it was a family company specialising in the work of Carl Fabergé, elegant jewellery, silver and perhaps Russian art.

Now the book Wartski: The First Hundred and Fifty Years has come out, written by Geoffrey Mann and published by Antique Collectors' Club in 2015. From war-torn Poland to London’s Mayfair, this new book charts the success of one of the world’s greatest jewellers in its 150th year. Huon Mallalieu reviewed the book in Country Life (May 13th 2015) “in order to look at a sumptuous book that whirls us through the 150-year history of one of the world’s great jewellery businesses

According to family tradition, the business that grew to be Wartski, the Mayfair jeweller by appointment to The Queen and The Prince of Wales, had its beginnings in 1865, in Turek in Poland, then close to the border between Russia and Prussia.

It was not a good time for anyone, let alone a Jew, to set business offering jewellery and haberdashery in Poland. A nationalist uprising against the Russian occupiers had just been bloodily crushed and, throughout the Tsarist Empire, anti-Semitism was on the rise.

So it is not surprising that in 1876 Shemaya and Rosa Wartski, despite declaring themselves natural-born subjects of the Russian Empire, should send three of their sons, including Morris, westwards to Britain. What was less expected was that they established themselves in North Wales, not in the rapidly growing Jewish communities of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds.

Morris Wartski outside his first shop 
Bangor Wales c1895.
photo credit: Wartski London

Morris Wartski (1855-1946) began as a travelling salesman but soon, seemingly as a result of a chance meeting with the Marquess of Anglesey, was able to open a shop in Bangor. On his naturalisation papers in 1893 he is described as a jeweller and furniture dealer and by 1907, he had extended the business to the more prosperous and fashionable watering-place of Llandudno. His customers included the eccentric Lord Anglesey, not a reliable payer, and the family lawyer was David Lloyd George.

Morris was a man of great ability as well as charm and, as he spoke Russian, Polish, Yiddish, German and Welsh as well as Polish-accented English, he was able to aid the authorities in dealing with further waves of immigrants. He died at 91 after a long and full life, which he attributed to ‘plenty of whisky, good cigars and no exercise’.

It was his son-in-law Emanuel Snowman (1886–1970), son of similar immigrants, who opened a branch of Wartski in London  in 1911. And it was Snowman who made many of the acquisitions from imperial and aristocratic coll­ect­ions that were sold by the Soviets between 1927-33, thus making the enduring reputation of the firm. During the 1920s and after the Second World War everyone who was anyone came to Wartski to marvel and to buy: the moneyed classes old and new, royalty by families and Holly­wood by the galaxy. Even the 2nd Viscount Stansgate, later Tony Benn, was there; he consulted the Snowmans on the disposal of his peer’s coronet.

In the book beautiful photographs of beautiful people complement the jewels, the bibelots and of course the fancies of Faberge, including a whole clutch of eggs. Long departed from the subterranean premises in Regent St and settled comfortably yards from Bond St in Grafton St, Wartski continues to attract stars as well as putting on the most wonderful exhibitions”.

**

Wartski’s own page added vital information. In 1911 Morris Wartski's son-in-law Emanuel Snowman was among the first to negotiate with the new Soviet government in the 1920s; he purchased treasures that had been confiscated after the revolution of 1917. For over a decade he acquired many fine works of art, including a gold chalice commissioned by Catherine the Great (now in the Hillwood Museum).

Faberge bell push bought by the Tsar's sister Grand Duchess Xenia,
later owned by King George I of Greece,
silver with purple guilloche enamel and pearls.




detail of a Faberge egg, containing a Vacheron Constantin watch,
sits on a jewelled gold stand,
given by Alexander III to his Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1887.

Emanuel's son Kenneth built on his father's work, adding an academic dimension to the business through his pioneering research and exhibitions. His first book, The Art of Carl Fabergé, was published in 1953. Then Carl Fabergé: Goldsmith to the Imperial Court of Russia and Eighteenth Century Gold Boxes of Europe in 1966. Kenneth Snowman was made famous by Ian Fleming, a Wartski customer, in the James Bond novella Property of a Lady; he was described as being in Wartski’s premises, then in Regent Street. In the next generation, Kenneth’s son Nicholas Snowman succeeded his father as Chairman and continues to support the firm's scholarly traditions. Appropriately Nicholas Snowman is the great-grandson of Morris Wartski.

Two exhibitions specialising in tiaras have been organised by Wartski’s. The first, One Hundred Tiaras - An Evolution of Style 1800-1900, was in 1997 in the Grafton Street premises of this firm. The Queen Victoria's Emerald and Diamond Tiara was one of the tiaras displayed at this exhibition. Queen Victoria's Sapphire and Diamond Tiara, worn in the famous Winterhalter portrait, survives intact in the hands of a descendant of Queen Victoria, who lent it to Wartski for the 1997 exhibition. The second exhibition of tiaras was held at the Victoria Albert Museum in 2002, also organised by Wartski's. The 2002 display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tiaras, included 200 pieces ranging from historic pieces loaned from European royal and aristocratic families.. to modern pieces. It included 20 tiaras of British Royal origin, out of which four were designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria.











14 comments:

Deb said...

I was looking up what a bell push was and found this. One set of cufflinks was given to Charles Gibbes, teacher of English to the Imperial children from 1908 on. The cufflinks were sold by Gibbes' grandson to the Wartskis in London. Lovelier still was a Faberge Siberian aquamarine-diamond brooch which was a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his wife, Alexandra. The Wartskis had great taste and must have been well connected.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am sure that a listing of the Wartskis' inventory would be a huge resource for art historians. I am not big on either tiaras or Faberge eggs, but I'll bet that some of the small jewel-like treasures that I have seen in museums have at one time passed through their hands.
--Jim

Andrew said...

We don't see items like those pop up on Antiques Roadshow. Wales is such an odd place to open his business, but who could argue with Morris' success.

Hels said...

Deb

there must have been a great flow of treasures out of Russian following the revolution and not just from royal connections. Wartski did have amazing taste but if he wasn't Russian, I assume all those noble families would have taken their jewellery etc elsewhere.

The Faberge objects are still stunning today.

Hels said...

Parnassus

In my more radical days, I would have agreed with you totally. Over-the-top gaudy wealth for a quarter of the population while three quarters of the population lived on very low workers' wages. But that was exactly what the Revolution was meant to end. My grandfather was only 19 in 1917, but the Revolution was the one wonderful period of hope in his entire life.

Hels said...

Andrew

*nod* I often wonder why immigrants end up where they do. Did the parents back in Russia select a nice looking city for their three teenage boys? Did the boys have an uncle in Wales who would be their guarantor for the first few years, while they learned English and got jobs? Did a clerk in Immigration try to distribute newcomers away from over-populated cities towards cities that needed new citizens?

Morris seemed well pleased when he was able to open a shop in Bangor. They treated him very well.

Dina said...

That small Faberge imperial egg with its diamonds must have been important. It was relocated a couple of years ago and sold for $42 million.

elegancemaison said...

Hel I love this post. We know the London jewellers Wartski and their eminent current MD Geoffrey Munn( not Mann) from his many appearances on BBC Antiques Roadshow series. He is one of the best experts showing such enthusiasm as well as knowledge about the jewellery and artefacts he describes. I am delighted to say that my husband and I have met him many times at antique fairs and even car boot sales in London. A gentle and unassuming man. We have even sold him items ( not jewellery but other art objects that he collects). We have sadly never purchased from Wartski though. He is such an expert on Faberge that one tends to almost squeal in delight when he carefully and gently identifies a lovely item on the Roadshow.

Certainly a book to put on my wish list.

Hels said...

Dina

This one is the previously lost Third Imperial Easter Egg of 1887. So even if the average price of Faberge eggs was only $10+ million each, they were beautifully designed and are as rare as hens' teeth. Perhaps 50 such eggs in the entire universe, all completed before the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Hels said...

elegancemaison

agreed totally. I always watch Antiques Roadshow and even had some items evaluated when the programme came to Melbourne for a week. So I knew about Munn's expertise in jewellery in general and Faberge in particular. But until I read the book "Wartski: The First 150 Years", I had little idea that Munn is the Managing Director of the company. A delight indeed!

JahTeh said...

A bit late to the party but the diamond and sapphire diadem only came to light for that exhibition when the Harewoods were asked if they had any tiaras to put on show. They said they only had a little crown that belonged to Queen Victoria and had come down to the Princess Royal. It was a great discovery of something long thought to be lost or fallen into the hands of Queen Mary who loved nothing better than re-modelling jewells. I now have to search for this book. I love the idea of the Russians learning English in Wales but it would have been a safe place for them.

Hels said...

JahTeh

never too late! I pick up all my best new information via blog posts and responses.

The Harewood tiara is a truly lucky find since a] families might remember their grandparents' stories but no further back than that and b] precious jewels are the LEAST likely family treasure to remain intact. No-one modernises paintings or sculptures and people rarely modernise furniture and porcelain art, but smart women want granny's diamonds and sapphires to look up-to-date.

Student of History said...

Helen

This was a find! The treasures travelled in both directions. In November 2015 the full catalogue of the British Silver in the Hermitage collection, by the curator of silver Marina Lopato, was published by Yale UP. The catalogue is arranged by town of production (London, Birmingham, Chester, Sheffield and Aberdeen) and includes 370+ pieces acquired by the Russian imperial court and the Russian aristocracy.

Hels said...

Student

there is something we hadn't thought about, thank you. From Peter the Great on, the Russian royals and the Russian courts were whipping up a frenzied demand for English silver. I can see from the catalogue that Alexander Menshikov spent the equivalent of £300,000 in one year (1721) on dinner services. Until the Revolution, that represented 200 years of lavish patronage.