It has been a long journey, with many twists and turns, but here I am, 35 years down the line, still loving working with antique jewellery and discovering new things every day. So let's go back right to the beginning...
I was born in the heart of the Midlands and raised in the countryside. I had a wonderful, classically English upbringing and I have happy memories of riding my horse in fields full of jersey cattle!
However the big city called and I moved to London aged 18, in 1971, to study art at The City and Guilds College in Kennington.
Every summer we had 3 months time off so I embarked on my travels across the world. It was on my first big trip - an overland expedition from London to Delhi - that my interest in jewellery started. We took the Orient Express to Istanbul then headed East by various means of transport. Stopping off at small towns and villages along the way, I would buy pieces of ancient jewellery, which were plentiful, and sold to me by itinerant traders. In those days you could go through Afghanistan with no problems. Reaching India I journeyed down to Ajmer, a place well know for selling gemstones. I was fascinated to learn the different types of stones, and the varying qualities.
I returned to London and continued my art career, but had a secret urge to have my own stall in Portobello Market. Luckily I had met my future husband Nick at college who shared the same interests in antiques and beautiful things as I had. On our lunch break we would scour junk shops and whiz around town on our two Honda motorbikes, searching for that elusive bargain!
Our travels once led us to a famous old book dealer near the British Museum, who had a very damp basement in his shop, full of amazing, gently rotting, old books. It was paradise - full of wonderful early steel engravings, etchings and all sorts of interesting ephemera. We were able to acquire a large amount of prints for next to nothing, which led us to set up stall on a rickety old table at the very bottom end of the Portobello Road, under the West Way.
The early days at Portobello Market gave us a taste for dealing. It was exciting, fun, and we met lots of different and interesting people - and the odd thief!
Time moved on, and back we went for more and more prints, which we sold to an ever growing audience at first light each Saturday morning. Our capital slowly grew, and our confidence with it. It soon became safe to experiment a little!
One day I bought a silver brooch for 50 pence and sold it the same day for a pound. I thought three things: 1. it is very pretty; 2. it does not take up space and 3. it does not disintegrate. It made sense to investigate jewellery. So we moved on to dealing in cheap pieces of jewellery and beads. We went every week to Portobello Road on our motorbikes, with boards strapped on our back, and set up our stand at 6am on a Saturday morning.
One day we decided to give up the ephemera altogether, and my brother-in-law managed to get rid of it all by holding each print in the air and offering them for £1 or less. If nobody wanted them he would tear them up. This led to a crowd around our stand, because they didn't want the prints destroyed. This way we disposed of all our paper stock in one day. Having done this we concentrated solely on finding antique jewellery.
In those days one could go to Cutler Street in the East End and Bermondsey Market in South London. Both markets were hives of activity with dealers rushing hither and thither, buying and selling antiques. It was such an exciting time - it meant you had to get up very early to be the first to find that elusive piece, but the adrenaline kept us going. We had now really got the bug!
We actually had a stall on Cutler Street for a very short time and were warned off by an East Ender, who said that it was dangerous for the likes of us to be there. However we had a stand in Bermondsey Market for 14 years, arriving there every Friday at 4:00am and trading through until midday. It was often freezing cold; I used to wear cut-off gloves, so that I could handle the pieces and examine them with my loop when I was purchasing. But it was a fantastic training ground.
- Our week in those days was structured:
- Wednesday – 4:30am rise to go to Camden Passage (to buy)
- Friday – 3:30am rise to go to Bermondsey Market (to sell)
- Saturday – 5:00am rise to go to Portobello Road (to sell)
- Sunday – 8:00am rise to go to the Sunday fairs (to sell)
During this time I produced 2 boys and felt that I needed to move into a more permanent place of trading.
Having made enquiries I found there was an opportunity to go into Grays Antiques Market, just off Bond Street. In those days it was very hard to get into Grays so we took over someone else's stand, keeping their name and trading under ours, until 2 years later when we were able to rename the stand.
It was about the worst stand in Grays as it was underneath the stairs in the basement. But as time went on our customers found us there, and we built up a good business. I dropped Portobello Road and Bermondsey Market and felt much more comfortable - and certainly warmer - in Grays.
In 1990 we suffered a huge burglary and all the stock I'd worked so hard to build up was taken from under my nose - and I had to start again! One thing they cannot take from you is your brain, so tentatively I built the stock back up again.
So here we are today – 25 years later.
A lot has happened since those early days under the Westway. In 2008 my son Matt built a simple website and started listing some of my items online. Little did we know that over the next several years The Antique Jewellery Company would grow to become the leading online destination for antique jewellery in the UK.
Matt and I are now partners, Matt focusing more on the online and the direction of the business whilst I focus on what I love - buying jewellery and meeting wonderful customers from all over the world! Together we have very exciting plans for the future.
It has been an exhilarating journey, of highs and lows, and I can't wait to see what the next chapter has in store!Olly Gerrish