On Edinburgh’s cobbled Thistle Street, just beyond the main shopping arteries, Joseph Bonnar is undeniably something of a patriarch – a position he’s been cultivating since he opened his eponymous shop in 1970.
“In those days, the street was nothing but a derelict back alley,” Bonnar recalls, “not really the place to be.” But around the same time that Bonnar started to, in his words, “play with antique jewellery” in the city’s Stockbridge Market, the local auction houses also began buying up properties on Thistle Street with the aim of reinventing it as Edinburgh’s antiques destination. Bonnar, whose keen eye for jewellery hadn’t gone unnoticed, was invited to join them. “I declined at first as I couldn’t afford the lease, but they said, ‘Just pay us what you pay for your stall’ – and that was that.”
Fast-forward four decades and Bonnar’s shop, now surrounded by the chic boutiques that ousted his antiques comrades years ago, has remained virtually unchanged. He still uses the same sources he relied on in the 1970s – dark alleys in Jaipur, cattle auctions in the Highlands (he once got a tip-off that jewellery was coming in from a nearby estate) – and his emerald-painted cave of a shop is still brimming with rare stock.
A 1972 Kutchinsky diamond ring originally made for actress Diana Dors (£8,500) sits in a glass case next to a striking platinum ring set with a 20.88ct Ceylon star sapphire flanked by two half-moon-cut diamonds (£32,500), and there’s a large collection of gold, mid-Victorian pieces from the first Marquess of Dalhousie’s estate, such as an opal, diamond and enamel brooch (£4,600).
Indeed, the shop has one of the largest collections of antique Scottish jewellery in the country, everything from an 1860 agate, amethyst-and-citrine-set brooch (£2,150) to a chunky 1875 gold bracelet inlaid with agate slices (£2,850). “Mostly, the Scottish pieces are from the third quarter of the 19th century. Queen Victoria made Scots agate very chic during her time at Balmoral, bless her.”
Underpinning the vast and eclectic collection is the shop’s only rule: no branded pieces, unless they are at least 50 years old. “I’d never stock recent Mikimoto pieces, for example,” Bonnar explains, “but we’ve got some Mikimoto from the 1960s, such as a pair of 1961 cultured pearl and diamond-set earrings [£5,650].”
Bonnar also designs his own new pieces. “We tend to reflect trends in our use of colour – gemstone necklaces [from £400], for example – but I avoid anything that will look dated in a few years.”
Peering out of the shop’s tiny Georgian window, you sense that Bonnar’s influence extends beyond his four walls. “I have been known to buy up leases on the street,” he admits, “to make sure no sandwich shops move in.”