Harry Collins is having a busy year. In fact, he barely has time to show me around his jeweller’s shop, in the High Street of Royal Tunbridge Wells, before rushing off to the Tower of London (as you do), to put the finishing touches to a new display of the Crown Jewels; he is the only person permitted to handle the historic treasures. Curiouser and curiouser, you’d be right in thinking, but then Collins, of G Collins & Sons, is the current Crown Jeweller and personal jeweller to the Queen.
It seems unlikely to find such an illustrious personage in these humble, low-ceilinged, oak-beamed higgledy-piggledy old rooms, tucked away in a quiet and genteel high street in Kent; but somehow, when I meet him, and look around the shop, it makes perfect sense: this small but buzzing independent family business – inviting, unpretentious, a throw-back to another time – is exactly the kind of enterprise that forms the backbone of the British jewellery trade. Based on tradition and trust (all the descriptions and prices on the pieces in the windows are clearly handwritten, in pen and ink, on little white tickets), G Collins & Sons has the sort of values and style, or anti-style, that the Queen herself exudes, yet at the same time, are light years away from the glossy big-name brands one associates with royalty. It is reassuringly unchanging and quintessentially British.
Harry Collins opened his jewellery shop in Tunbridge Wells 26 years ago, having married a “girl from Kent”, he explains, and worked for some years for other jewellers in London. He began in a small way, mainly selling antique pieces, which remain a big part of the business and Collins’s personal passion. He has a particular love of art-nouveau jewellery, and an in-depth knowledge, so that fine French art-nouveau pendants and brooches, their lyrical lines etched in soft gold, glistening with leaves, flowers or sunsets of enamels, take pride of place among the tempting, wearable and well-priced antique and period jewels. Collins’s daughter, Zoë – who has joined the business, along with her brother Josh – prefers Edwardian and art-deco pieces, such as a highly covetable pair of art-deco onyx, coral and diamond drop earrings. I’m shown a superb Renaissance-revival bangle, with pearls, diamonds, white, black and pastel enamel, and a central stone by the late 19th-century art-jeweller Carlo Giuliano, in its original box, and I spot an early 18th-century “Stuart” crystal ring. At the other end of the time-and-taste spectrum there’s a set of 1950s gold feather jewels with diamond spines and a pair of diamond earrings, all swirls of baguettes and streams of light.
The business has grown steadily, even through three recessions. “Tunbridge Wells is an affluent area,” Collins explains. “We have a ‘thinking public’ and discerning collectors. Clients come from all over Sussex and London, but also the world, including the US, China and India, especially for engagement rings.” Even Hollywood stars turn up at the door, although Collins says he never recognises them, and Zoë, like her father the soul of discretion, prefers not to name names. This is, presumably, the Crown Jeweller effect, although Collins doesn’t like to emphasise the connection, and has continued his business in the same simple, single-minded way, since his appointment in 2007. “It’s a question of balance, keeping it small and sensible, not charging too much for a name, and being completely individual – the opposite of a designer label,” he says.
According to Collins, it was “through various recommendations” that he first began working as personal jeweller to the Queen 13 years ago – he can’t be drawn on what this involves; I’m assuming repairs, gifts and similar – but obviously it went well, so well he was invited to become Crown Jeweller five years ago, an unparalleled honour for a British jeweller. The previous incumbent, David Thomas of Garrard, was retiring; the role of Crown Jeweller is invested in an individual, not a company, but Garrard had held the warrant of Crown Jeweller since 1843. It was time for a change.
As Crown Jeweller, Collins is responsible for the care of the Crown Jewels and the Queen’s personal collection, especially important this year when royal jewels will be on parade, part and parcel of the ceremony and majesty of the Jubilee – the Crown Jewels took up residence in their refurbished Jewel House in the Tower in April.
I’d hazard a guess the appointment has been good for business, but by all accounts G Collins & Sons has always been a “buzzy” shop, offering a wide range of services, from repair and restoration of antique jewellery and changing watch batteries, to bespoke design and manufacture in its own workshops.
In the past three years, Collins says, clients have shown more interest in buying for investment. “They want to hold it, feel it, touch it.” Demand for Patek Philippe watches, for instance, has doubled among collectors. The key, he feels, is a strong curatorial element – choosing carefully for his clients, with an emphasis on “quality, quality, quality”. This applies particularly to the coloured stones he sets into the handmade, one-of-a-kind jewels, designed by his long-term employee, Philip Luck, in classic style, using traditional techniques such as fine knife-edge settings. He shows me a wonderful Edwardian emerald and diamond heart pendant, nicely plump, with a criss-cross design, the sort of jewel, of enduring appeal, that serves as inspiration. The new pieces – a ring and pendant each set with diamonds and a huge aquamarine of blissful blue, and a “target” ring, of concentric circles, with a whisper-soft pink sapphire, offset with a fine line of purple enamel (the Collins colour) – have become a speciality.
Helped by his 12-strong team, Collins buys stones from a “fantastic source”, often direct from the mines, always the best possible quality and certified. He unwraps a huge, honey yellow sapphire of 67 carats (£75,000); he has an unsuspecting client in mind for the jewel this delectable gem will become, someone who loves pastels. His is a very personal business; he knows what his clients will want before they know it themselves. “I still feel like a kid with these stones, but it’s all about enthusiasm, and I find the more involved I’ve become with coloured stones, the more we sell.” He buys diamonds in the same way, often making engagement rings to order, starting with the loose stones, and eternity rings that look good coupled with a family heirloom such as an art-deco engagement ring. I am very taken by the triple-row eternity rings (from £12,600) that somehow look both antique and modern. There are also fine pearls in rare colours, a strand of divine South Sea “goldens” or mixed Tahitians, drifting from bronze, through grey to the most desirable peacock blue-green tones.
Contemporary jewellery is chosen carefully, for style and quality rather than name, and with his customers in mind. The old-established Spanish jeweller, Masriera, still makes art-nouveau-style jewels from designs that became its speciality around 1900 (from £1,285), influenced by the genius of René Lalique; these romantic gold and enamel jewels, finely crafted using 100-year-old techniques, mesh perfectly with Collins’s own passion for art nouveau, which he clearly passes onto his clients. For modern, Italian casual chic, he turns to Fope – its chunky, but stretchy, knitted gold chain necklaces, rings and bangles, in yellow, white or rose gold, are bestsellers (from £1,600). Four years ago, searching for an even more modern design aesthetic, Collins discovered the Belgian designer Martine Hul, of Hulchi Belluni. Made in Italy, her distinctive collections (from £2,500) feature waves or “pastilles” designs, floating clusters of rose and yellow gold and pavé diamond bubbles.
Collins encourages clients to mix old and new. Georg Jensen silver adds a more accessible range, from its Heritage collection, art nouveau in origin, through iconic designs by Torun and modern ranges such as Fusion or Cave (all from £100). For men, there are classic or amusing enamelled cuff links and antique stick pins (all from £80). Collins’s aim is to appeal to every taste and pocket – fine jewellery starts at £1,000 and goes up to about £79,000, which seems a reasonable price tag for the extravagant diamond chandelier earrings I spot an alluring cascade reminiscent of 1960s jet-set style. Displayed among the rows of antique tooled leather boxes, each with an individual jewel, old or new, lined up in the windows, these luscious earrings seem to combine old-world British charm and tradition with the glamour and glory of both movie star and majesty.
“We’re everyone’s jeweller,” says Harry Collins, Crown Jeweller to the Queen of England.