Treasures Of The Tsars In London's Premier 'Faberge' Shop

Wartski of Llandudno and Fabergé in London
Wartski of Llandudno and Fabergé in London
Lorraine Haist

LONDON — In London's posh Mayfair district on Grafton Street, just around the corner from where international art dealers and high-end jewelry brands are clustered, the adage about not being fooled by appearances rings truer than ever.

Here there is a branch store of the contemporary jewelry brand launched by the mining consortium Gemfields. The brand reintroduces the legendary name Fabergé, and the 3-year-old shop, with its glossy lilac-colored front, takes its inspiration from a guilloché enamel Fabergé egg. Jeweled eggs were one of the specialties of the famous St. Petersburg jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920).

The contrast with the store's direct neighbor couldn't be more stark. "Wartski of Llandudno," as a sign mounted on the facade reads, is located in a building representative of the 1970s "brutalist" style of architecture. The store's five display windows, each framed by darkly patinated bronze panels, create an almost severe effect.

Only collectors, or people conversant with that famous English understatement and eccentricity, will recognize that this establishment with a name most people have never heard of is actually one of the planet's most exclusive dealers in old jewelry, objets d'art made from the most precious gems and metals, and original Fabergés. Instead of gem stones the size of pigeon eggs, like those displayed at Gemfields right next door, at Wartski's you'll find items such as hammered silver goblets and finely chiseled bowls, a crystal carafe with a silver chimpanzee-head stopper, a small round enamel table clock or a brooch of two diamond frogs with sapphire tummies and ruby eyes.

Near the entrance of Wartski's are the coats of arms of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, as Wartski is a supplier to the court. The arms of William, Duke of Cambridge, are still missing, although the Duke had the wedding ring he gave his wife Catherine made by Wartski.

"If you want to be literal about it, we are a kind of general store," says Kieran McCarthy, a polite gentleman wearing a navy blue suit. Since 1995, the Fabergé expert has been working at Wartski's, a family-owned company founded in 1865 in Bangor, Wales, by Morris Wartski. (They later relocated to the seaside resort of Llandudno in Wales, and then, in 1911, to London.) "We will acquire for you whatever you collect or would like to have, whether it's 18th century gold boxes or dog collars fashioned from precious materials," he says.

A fondness for Fabergé

Some of the most sought-after pieces are those both large and small that come from the workshop of Peter Carl Fabergé, which between the turn of the century and the Russian Revolution was the venue of choice for gift-buying tsars, members of royal houses and the international high finance elite like the Rothschild family.

The end of the Russian empire in 1917 spelled the end of Fabergé"s London branch, and it wasn't long before the Soviets liquidated the entire business. So it was Wartski that saw to it that collectors, including Britain's Queen Mary, were kept supplied with the Fabergé objects they desired — little figures of animals, flowers, enamel picture frames and cigarette cases, and bejeweled bonbonnières, walking stick handles, and letter openers made from agate, nephrite and mountain crystal.

In charge of acquisition was then-Wartski owner Emanuel Snowman, who possessed both charm and considerable business savvy. In the 1920s and 1930s, he personally traveled to Moscow many times to purchase from the Soviets as many of the tsars' treasures as he could transport home. Among other things, he brought back nine imperial Fabergé eggs.

Snowman's "Rosebud" Fabergé egg — Photo: Mikhail Ovchinnikov

Wartski managing director Geoffrey Munn says it's a "tragedy" that the imperial collection was broken up, which seems somewhat paradoxical given that Wartski's success is in large part due to dealing in these once highly personal items. "Our approach goes over and above buying and selling things," says Munn, who with his mixture of Queen's English, wit, and occasional grimaces is so very British you might mistake him for a Monty Python member.

"We work within the capitalist system, but in that regard Wartski is like a dinosaur that bites its own tail," he says. "A great deal of what we sold at one time comes back to us after several generations. By reselling these items, we feed them back into the flow of history."

Objects of "supernatural value"

The Wartski approach has always reflected personal interests and a fascination for "things that take your breath away when you look at them," says Munn, one of Great Britain's leading jewelry experts who has worked for Wartski for 41 years. "We are a very small company, which is why we deal exclusively in things we like — and it goes without saying at the very highest level."

Kieran McCarthy, who, in addition to being a Fabergé expert also has a special interest in early Anglo-Saxon gold objects, says it's not always about the value of a piece. The dealer relates that he recently bought a gold ring dating from the 9th century. "It only cost 400 pounds $650," he says. You can't even buy a suit for that."

Munn, who is the author of a standard reference work on tiaras, adds that he too often makes spontaneous purchases, such as the Cartier tiara he recently acquired.

As different as the two pieces are, both found buyers quickly. "We hardly have any walk-in customers, but we more than make up for that in regular customers with whom we cultivate long-lasting relations marked by trust," McCarthy says. "If I call a client in Scandinavia and tell him about the ring, he will buy it without having seen it."

Sometimes, though, the items in question are of great value, such as the imperial Fabergé egg — one of three believed to have been lost — that Wartski sold last spring. The very mention of this exciting sale has Munn and McCarthy fidgeting like schoolboys in their chairs. The piece is an original from the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg and still bears the Soviet registration numbers. The first customer to whom they offered the extremely rare find bought it immediately for a price thought to be on the far side of £20 million ($32.5 million).

"That we finally displayed the egg in our rooms for four days, that was perhaps showing off a bit," Mann says. "But there are objects of supernatural value that basically don't even belong to the buyer but to the whole world. To exhibit the egg again before it might possibly be locked into a safe — we quite simply owed that to the Fabergé community."

Wearing pieces of history

Global interest in Fabergé is huge, and continues to grow, McCarthy says. And that's not just because of the huge prices that make even a pair of cufflinks with the Fabergé seal attractive investment objects. "Fabergé is like Hollywood, with the same ingredients: Easter eggs, flowers, animals, fallen dynasties, treasure, crazy monks, and a murdered, incredibly good-looking family," Munn says. "It awakens a kind of childish enthusiasm in people."

Peter Carl Fabergé at work circa 1900 — Photo: levshei

The egg's extremely wealthy buyer, who is constantly traveling around the world in his Lear jet, did not view the purchase as an investment. He bought it because he fell in love with it, because it touched something within him, McCarthy says. To view old pieces by makers like Cartier, Boucheron and Lalique as investment objects is wrong, even though they stand a good chance of their valuations rising.

"When, for example, a woman buys an Art Deco necklace that makes her look like a goddess when she wears it, she is also getting hand-crafted art, the likes of which no longer exist," McCarthy says. "And she's wearing a piece of history around her neck. If it later turns out to be worth double, super. But if not, she still has an incredibly beautiful necklace."

One of these magnificent items designed by New York jeweler Olga Tritt is a watch made of platinum, aquamarines and diamonds that is priced at £300,000 ($490,000) at Wartski's. The sight of so much sumptuous beauty is dizzying, as it is one of those supernatural objects that make any watch in the same price category pale by comparison. Not for sale are two further bits of art history that McCarthy fetches from the safe at the back of the store. One is a delicate tiara of diamonds and sapphires that Prince Albert designed and had made for his wife, the young Queen Victoria. She's wearing it in the famous portrait by Franz Winterhalter.

The other is a Fabergé brooch with a huge Siberian aquamarine surrounded by diamonds, the first gift Tsar Nicholas II gave to his fiancée Alix von Hessen, later Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. The brooch is one of the purchases Emanuel Snowman made during a trip to Moscow, and it is among the tsars' confiscated treasures. Apparently sewn into clothing, it accompanied the tsar and his family on their last trip to Yekaterinburg. After the murder of the Romanovs, the brooch, along with banal items like soap dishes, socks and shoes, was on the list of personal effects found with the bodies. "This," says a genuinely moved McCarthy, "is authentic Fabergé."

Then with a nod of his head in the direction of their new — and eponymous — neighbor, he says, "That will never be Fabergé. Basically it's art historical theft. A modern monstrosity."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!