Turning a passion into a profession

British jewellery valuer John Benjamin examines pieces on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow television show. Photo: BBC
British jewellery valuer John Benjamin examines pieces on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow television show. Photo: BBC
John Benjamin has appeared on the BBC hit show Antiques Roadshow for 25 years valuing jewellery. He tells Rebecca Fox that jewellery brings out all sorts of emotions in people.

If someone turns up at his Dunedin talk with an early 20th-century Cartier brooch or bracelet, John Benjamin will be a very happy man.

''That would be fabulous; I'd love to see something like that.''

Benjamin is a British antique jewellery valuer, author, historian and lecturer, who is travelling the country this month with the Decorative and Fine Arts Societies to give talks about his work and his specialist interest - 16th-century jewellery.

''It is very rare.''

Leaving school with few qualifications and little direction but an interest in antiques, galleries and art museums, Benjamin got his first job at Cameo Corner, an old-fashioned antiques shop in London known for its stock of ancient, Renaissance, 18th and 19th century jewellery, only after his father approached them asking if they had a job for his son.

During the interview he was shown a tray of cameo brooches.

''I had a lot of interest in the arts and classics. I looked at all these cameos and recognised what all the subjects were - Hercules, Venus, Jupiter - all these different classical mythological figures. I could describe them all and identify them all. She said 'OK young man we'll give you the job'.''

It was there that his passion for jewellery developed and he qualified in gemmology.

''I took the exam and did very, very well. I was a square peg in a square hole. I really knew it was the right subject for me to be doing.''

He went on to get the Gemmological Association's Diamond Diploma with distinction and qualified as a Fellow of the Gemmological Association.

''There is something eternal about jewellery. I've always been interested in the romance of gemstones. I love gems because of their talismanic purpose. In the 16th century they wore garnets against their skin, as apparently they thought invisible vapours would pour out which would have directly benefit the lungs and livers - and stop you having nightmares.''

Benjamin then joined Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers in Bond St, London, as a cataloguer and valuer. He stayed for 23 years, ultimately becoming international director of jewellery with responsibility for the sale programmes in London and Geneva.

‘‘It’s an interesting job. You see jewellery from an extraordinary range of people — valuing a straightforward diamond or a fancy coloured diamond or maybe a piece of 18th-century jewellery.’’

He left there in 1999 to set up an independent jewellery valuation consultancy where he gives advice and values jewellery. He also lectures about it.

‘‘It’s always been very interesting and diverse subject. A piece of jewellery can be something made last week or it can go back to ancient Rome or ancient Greece.

‘‘The thing about metals like gold is they are noble metals, they don’t change, they don’t deteriorate. You can have a gold ring that goes back to ancient Rome that is the same as it was 2000 years ago.’’

Jewellery is also a good indicator of social changes over the decades providing a social commentary of what was worn and what was fashionable in those times.

It also can mean a lot to families and become part of a family’s heritage.

During his years in the trade he has been lucky enough to see some rare jewellery such as coloured diamonds — pink or blue — or jewellery from the ‘‘big houses’’, such as Cartier or Tiffany.

‘‘They’re phenomenally rare; they can be valued in the millions of dollars.’’

He has also written a book on collecting antique jewellery.

Along the way, he became an expert on BBC’s massively popular Antiques Roadshow, clocking up 27 years of road shows.

‘‘It’s still popular. It is still drawing in something like six million viewers a week and people pour into venues all over the country — at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any flagging in popularity.’’

He recently took part in a roadshow where 5000 people waited in long queues for their gems to be assessed.

‘‘Because jewellery is so portable they don’t just come along with one piece, but bring along 20.’’

The days were long, starting at 8am and often finishing after 7pm with experts spending hours at tables assessing jewellery and antiques.

‘‘You hope to get one or two very good items, but 99% is not worth filming — they’re family curios you value for people because they have hugely sentimental value and as such are priceless to the holder.’’

It is often about the people who bring the antiques in and the stories they have about the piece.

‘‘The ones who bought it in a car boot sale and bring it in and it’s worth considerably more — it’s often all about the personality of the people we are filming with. Often it can be more important to have a good story to tell and it’s the person themselves and how they come across on camera, they can be the great stories.

‘‘It’s very much a programme about people. Watching their reaction when they find out what its worth — that is priceless; TV gold.’’

Benjamin has seen many wonderful items during his years on the show — too many to pick stand-outs.

‘‘There was one woman who brought in a gold ring with an inscriptions she couldn’t identify inside it so they decided to do it on camera and it turned out she had been reading it upside down, when we turned it up the right way with the macro unit on it to get the close up, what she thought was a Hebrew inscription, we could see it said Cartier London — that was funny. It was a very good reveal.’’

One of the better-known stories is the ‘‘so called’’ Cliveden tip woman who brought along a bunch of jewellery for him to look at.

The woman had been given the official rights to scour the local tip at Slough and found gold jewellery, sapphires, opals and jade.

‘‘It was an extraordinary, not what people throw out knowing or unkowingly, but the woman herself was an amazing personality. She brought her son along and they were joshing on camera. It was wonderful. The jewellery was worth several thousand pounds.

‘‘It was one of those wonderful moments where you didn’t have to do anything, it just evolved. That’s what we are looking for — people with a story, and also a personality.’’

Last year, the show did a special episode which looked at jewellery that had been retained by families through the Holocaust years.

‘‘Though extraordinary lengths people went to. It’s not about value, it’s about the story.’’

One woman had a small gold pendant given to her grandmother that she managed to keep throughout her years in a concentration camp.

‘‘Some stories make you cry.’’

Benjamin will be talking about leading 20th-century British jewellery designer Henry George Murphy. It is a subject he knows a little about: he co-authored Arts and Crafts to Art Deco: The Jewellery and Silver of H.G. Murphy.

‘‘He had an amazing life and career. It’s a hell of a story I promise you.’’

To see
John Benjamin, presented by Otago Decorative and Fine Arts Society, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Wednesday, 7.30pm.

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