The Enduring Allure of Historic London Jeweller Bentley & Skinner

However sedately it is nestled at number 55 on the famed London thoroughfare of Piccadilly, it is impossible to miss Bentley & Skinner. But that has nothing to do with the fully uniformed commissionaire who stands, sentry-like, at the front door.

It’s because the amount of light bouncing off the silverware in the heavily laden windows is head-turningly bright. And that’s before you get to the jewels: velvet-lined box after velvet-lined box of vintage trinkets from a timeline that stretches from the Etruscan and Ancient Roman through to today – with a special reputation for Victorian, Edwardian, natural pearls and Fabergé.

What should you call a place full of such riches? An emporium? Treasure trove? Plush boutique? “Just a shop,” deadpans Mark Evans, the current custodian and managing director of this family-owned firm. To be fair, aside from the walls lined with cabinets bursting with gemmary, inside it’s a low-key affair with a central wooden and glass oval display cabinet flanked by two desks, with a chair on each side for appointments.

the historic Bentley & Skinner store on Piccadilly

Mr Evans, as he is respectfully but not remotely obsequiously known by his staff, could not be lower key if he tried. Dressed in a smart navy suit with a pocket handkerchief, a discreet pair of gold cufflinks and a tie clip are the only outward signs that he runs one of the most legendary purveyors of jewellery in the business. He speaks quietly, but smoothly and deliberately. “I think we’re probably the last of our sort of jewellers,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I mean, you see the silver hanging on the butcher hooks and the row of tiaras in the window. I sometimes say, “Shouldn’t we enter the 21st century?” [But] I prefer to keep it as it was.”

For this “just a shop” is not just any shop. “From the very beginning we’ve been specialising in antique jewellery, diamonds and natural pearls,” says Evans. All served up with quiet assurance and timeless charm. This is where the haute-iest people in the world come to buy bijoux: haute fashion, haute society, haute celebrity. If you have style and/ or class – and more than a little dosh to spare – then Bentley & Skinner is an essential destination. If you want flamboyance, how about a Victorian gold and turquoise serpent necklace? There’s usually some sort of snake design in stock. Could you be tempted by a light-as-a-feather gold watch chain from the wreck of French ship the General Abbatucci circa 1860? Or a pair of art deco diamond drop earrings from Peyret & Cie? The selection on offer also means many a costume designer has beaten a path to their door to borrow pieces for movies including Downton Abbey, Into the Woods and Alice Through the Looking Glass.

from left: front row: Gregory Music, Karen Avakov, Mark Evans (managing director), Andrea Pellini, Alexandre Adamov, Alberto Gonzalez, back row: Cody Homewood, Dr Lola Rafieva, Matea Milanovic, Bosco Juliussen, Ilias Kapsalis; a late Georgian gold aquamarine parure circa 1820

If only walls could talk – or even the staff. Sadly for us, though luckily for them, discretion is very much the better part of Bentley & Skinner’s retail valour and Evans is a veritable clam when it comes to fielding questions about clientele. “Jewellery is a very private thing,” he says, especially when you’re renowned for serving glamorous counts and duchesses. He slipped up once, and only once, when he was very young and “got into very big trouble”, enough to ensure he never did it again. The wife of a regular customer came in and he greeted her politely before inquiring if she’d loved the ruby bracelet her husband had bought recently. “What ruby bracelet?” boomed the reply. Fashion circles are more loose-lipped – though Evans clarifies nothing. But it’s said his trinket shoppers include one of Britain’s top fashion designers (who may or may not have a very famous musical dad) and a legendary singer (who always seems to be in vogue).

from left: Mark Evans; Karen Avakov, Mark Evans, Cody Homewood and Andrea Pellini; shop window at Bentley & Skinner

A few clients, or people who have crossed the threshold and appear to have felt at home, have been less discreet about themselves and, as the store has no visitors’ book, have etched their names into the glass of the central display cabinet instead. There’s a scrawled Kate Moss with a heart motif, plus Darcey Bussell, Rowan Atkinson, art historian Sir Roy Strong and “Philip” (as in HRH).

The late Duke of Edinburgh is one customer the firm can be transparent about, as Bentley & Skinner hold two royal warrants: one for Her Late Majesty the Queen and one for the former His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. “We were terribly privileged to have the two houses,” says Evans proudly. He points out that you must be a supplier for five years before you can be considered for a grant of appointment. Some royal purchases have been reported upon, including a diamond tennis bracelet Prince Charles bought for Meghan Markle, which she wore during her royal tour of Australia. And an art deco diamond brooch for HRH Catherine, Princess of Wales has been seen, rumoured to have been bought by Prince William for her 40th birthday. However, as the line of royal succession has moved on and history has welcomed a new monarch, Evans and his team await news about what will continue to be bestowed; historically, they have supplied the Prince of Wales, so let’s hope the tradition continues.

from left: a Victorian half pearl and diamond necklace circa 1880; Mark Evans

Bentley & Skinner’s history is one of two stately family-run British jewellery retailers which both had bases in nearby Bond Street. There was Bentley & Co, first established in 1934 and run for more than 50 years by Evans’s late uncle John Sheldon; it was this branch that specialised in Victorian jewellery and Fabergé (Sheldon was one of the biggest Fabergé collectors and his personal collection was sold at Sotheby’s in 1985). Then there was Skinner & Co, established in 1881, which was kept in the family for three generations. It was renowned for having five doormen and began to supply the royals during Queen Victoria’s reign. The last Skinner at the helm, Richard, had no children and so the two great names with the same great interests entwined in 1998, with Bentley acquiring Skinner and the royal warrants assigned to the renamed firm. The merger went smoothly and Skinner stayed on for two years, later telling Evans that although their offer hadn’t been the highest bid, it was Bentley’s with which he’d wanted to conjoin his name. Not much else changed apart, perhaps, from the customer payment terms. Soon after the union, recalls Evans, “a rather gaudy woman tried on a big diamond necklace and wanted to buy it”. Skinner, a traditional sort, had it wrapped and told her not to worry about payment, that they’d send on their account in 30 days. “Luckily, one of my staff overheard and told him that we needed to invoice now and take a cheque or credit card. Mr Skinner had to say, ‘I’m terribly sorry, madam, but I must take payment.’ She said, ‘Of course you must!’” But Skinner’s faith in human nature – and in his customers – was well-founded; after he died his widow told Evans that he had never had a cheque bounce. “He was a lucky man!” says Evans.

from left: Matea Milanovic; the boutique’s interior

When their Bond Street lease was up the firm moved to its current premises in 2010. Evans determined “that the public should see a proper workshop to prove that the art and craft of jewellery really does exist”. He gave it space on the ground floor and dedicated one of the shopfront windows to it so passers-by can look in and watch the three in-house craftsmen at work on private commissions, transforming pieces to create something new from the old, or carrying out repairs on jewellery and silverware. They are often ogled by the public but have become inured to the attention. One of the best pearl stringers in the business is also in-house.

Despite his family roots, and that last year he celebrated 50 years with the firm (40 at the helm), it wasn’t a forgone conclusion that Evans would follow in the pavéd footsteps of his forebears. At 17 he wanted to study opera direction. His uncle said the idea was absurd and that he should come and work with him, offering a piece of advice. “However successful you are as an opera producer you’ll never be able to buy jewellery, but as a moderately successful jeweller you can go to the opera every night of the week.” So, is he always at the opera? “Not as much as I’d like. And my tastes have changed, I’m more into dance.”

from left: a Victorian diamond-set fringe tiara circa 1890; Ilias Kapsalis

Tastes change and challenges come and go but one of the biggest came from Damien Hirst, who tasked him with creating a diamond skull in 2005. “I said, ‘It can’t be done!’” but Hirst wasn’t having it and Evans and his team figured it out. “We created a series of mosaics about the size of a postage stamp and individually set with pavé diamonds, then soldered [them] together.” The project took two years. “It was exciting, but we didn’t realise what we were letting ourselves in for”, not least that sources for the D flawless 15-pointer diamonds (a popular size anyway) that Hirst wanted quickly dried up and they had to start finding more abroad. “We were paying double the price in the end.” It cost £12 million to make and Hirst had the piece, called For the Love of God, insured for £50 million.

But for all the elite customers that come through the door, the truth is in that wonderfully, eccentric British way, however posh it seems from the outside, good manners dictate that it’s open to all. “We get a complete mixture of people in here from travellers to duchesses,” says a thrilled Evans. While I’m there a smartly besuited gentleman is being served at the other table and a gaggle of puffer-jacketed tourists come in to take a closer look at some beauties they’ve spied in the window. Meanwhile, I sit trying on an 1890s £250,000 tiara festooned with 50 carats of diamonds. “It’s like being at the theatre, you see all of humanity,” says Evans. All refracted through perfect antique gemstones.

Photography by Anna Stokland. Taken from 10 Magazine Issue 72 – DARE TO DREAM – out now! Order your copy here.

from left: Alexandre Adamov (co-director); Karen Avakov (goldsmith), Mark Evans (MD), Cody Homewood (apprentice goldsmith) and Andrea Pellini (goldsmith)

Victorian gold and turquoise serpent necklace circa 1840

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