The Knowledge: John Benjamin on antique diamond jewellery
Learn more about the glittering world of Georgian diamond jewellery with antiques specialist John Benjamin
When I left school in the 1970s, I started working at an antique jewellery shop in Bloomsbury called Cameo Corner – I took to working with gemstones like a duck to water and it really has been a wonderful career.
The diamond jewellery from the mid 18th century to the end of George IV’s reign (1830) is just beautiful, and the era is significant for collectors, too. Georgian diamond pieces have a style that can be very modern looking. A typical necklace might be a collet rivière – a line of graduated diamonds, mounted in silver, as gold was rarely used until the 1830s. The style is very simple, and that makes it easy to wear.
The diamonds themselves often hail from dried-up riverbeds in India or Brazil – 20-carat diamonds would just be lying there! These alluvial diamonds are often of a great purity and have a beautiful watery ‘white’ colour. Their superb colour is one of the reasons they are so highly sought nowadays.
Another reason is their enticing, reticent brilliance. Today, diamonds are cut for their perfect symmetry and flash, but Georgian gems are more subtle. They were often cushion cut (a squareish shape with rounded corners), foiled at the back of the setting to give them a bit of additional sparkle and fully enclosed in the mount.
The stones are not regular in their proportions, either, which gives each design an individuality. Now, not all Georgian jewellery is super valuable – brooches, for instance, may not be so fashionable at the moment, so could be sensible for a collector – but a desirable necklace or ring will make a substantial sum of money, £5,000–£10,000, quite easily.
If the piece is in its original box then that will add pedigree and, if the box bears the name of a key retailer, such as royal jewellers Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, the value will rise dramatically.
Do ensure that any auctions or jewellers you buy from are reliable. Only go to well-established shops, ideally which are members of the National Association of Jewellers, and look out for sections dedicated to the Georgian era; that suggests you are talking to a specialist.
The cut of the stone and the style of the setting can be strong indicators as to the date of a piece. Broadly speaking, gems became more symmetrical and the settings opened out through the 19th century, so Victorian diamonds sparkle more than Georgian ones. If you think you may have a Georgian diamond heirloom – if the stone is reticent, irregularly cut, set in silver and closed in in the mount – then take it to an expert. Georgian jewellery is rare today, but there are pieces still out there.
FIVE FACTS ABOUT JOHN
- At 17, John had a keen interest in colour as well as antiques, so a careers advisor suggested he work with gems. It proved a great idea.
- In his 25 years on the Antiques Roadshow, John’s favourite memory is when a pair brought along a vast hoard of jewellery, worth thousands, that they’d excavated (with permission) from the local tip.
- John has a soft spot for the Arts and Crafts style: ‘It’s jewellery with a social conscience, I love it.’
- His favourite find was a square silver brooch set with pebbles that the owner thought was worth about £20. In fact, it was such a significant piece that it is now housed in the V&A.
- John’s middle name is Circus – a centuries-old family name.
LEARN MORE Read Georgian Jewellery 1714-1830 by Ginny Redington Dawes with Olivia Collings, Starting to Collect Antique Jewellery by John Benjamin (both published by Antique Collectors Club) or visit the V&A's jewellery room.
Interview: Mel Sherwood
Portrait: Grant Scott
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