The jeweller in the crown of Bury
12th May 2014
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Lesley Ryland is Director at Thurlow Champness, which occupies a splendid Georgian building in Abbeygate Street in Bury St Edmunds.

Lesley started as a sales assistant at Thurlow Champness 23 years ago and has been there ever since. She absolutely adores what she does; so far as to say that jewellery has become a hobby as well as a job. I remind her of Professor Henry Higgins: ‘That's my profession; also my hobby. Happy is the man who can make a living by his hobby! (George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion, Act 1.)

For over 250 years there has been a business selling clocks at 14 Abbeygate Street. The current business is approaching its 200th birthday, which will be celebrated next year. The owners, brother and sister Trevor Salt and Pippa Daniels, are the children of Colonel Peter Thurlow Champness, who in turn was the son of Edward Thurlow Champness. So the business remains in the hands of descendants of the founder, one of whom continues to work there. The provenance is rock solid.

Kristian works alongside Lesley, and has been in jewellery some time although relatively new to Thurlow Champness. He is charming, polite and welcoming, as is Michelle, a relative newcomer to the firm at a mere three and a half years, but already experienced and confident in her knowledge.

The family tradition backs up the tradition of personal customer service. I’ve been a customer since I moved to Bury St Edmunds and although not by any means an extravagant spender, I am always greeted by name and made to feel welcome when I call in. Recently I made a purchase and Lesley recalled that the recipient wore a watch with the face a particular colour, and recommended an item to compliment it, even though she can only have met the person once before and had only seen that lady’s watch that one time. Attention to detail, which regular readers of mine will recognise as a particular obsession.

During my visit I learnt quite a lot about the business. I learnt that the appearance of a diamond and the play of light through the diamond is known as the “fire;” that a typical diamond will be cut so as to display 57 facets, but that a particular style of cut, known as the Phoenix cut and unique in Great Britain to Thurlow Champness, bears 89 facets, increasing the fire of the stone.

While we are on the subject of stones and their value, we come to Hannah. At Thurlow Champness, Hannah is the firm’s valuer. This means that she takes on the task of setting a value on an item of jewellery or a timepiece, for the purpose of sale, insurance, or probate. Hannah is in fact an Institute Registered Valuer of the National Association of Goldsmiths, and has been for 15 years. There are only around 190 of these skilled individuals in the whole of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, so Hannah is in rare company. So, what does valuing involve, I ask. Diamonds and other stones can be measured with very fine callipers, and a value established based on their size and optical clarity. Metals are rather harder. So, in valuing a ring, for example, the stones can be measured but the metal must be tested for its composition, which involves making a tiny scratch on an unseen part of the ring and exposing it to acids of differing strengths and nature, and observing the reaction; this is, in fact, the “Acid Test,” and the origin of the colloquialism.

Being a valuer requires considerable ongoing study and development, and a valuer can expect to be visited from time to time by an official of the National Association of Goldsmiths and presented with items of known value for a valuation to be performed, the work of the valuer then being compared to the established value. A close comparison is expected. A very sophisticated version of the mystery shopper.

We talk about rings. For engagement rings, a solitaire diamond is the most popular setting, followed by three stones in a line, with the more expensive cluster less in demand. Of the coloured stones, sapphires are by some way the most popular. An important characteristic of an engagement ring, and something I was not aware of until our conversation, is the way that the ring will sit with a wedding band adjacent to it. The stone settings of the engagement ring must stand proud so that the wedding band can fit alongside and underneath the engagement ring setting, and not be pushed aside. Alternatively, a wedding band can be shaped so as to fit to the shape of the engagement ring. I had no idea it was so complex and neither, it seems, do many customers; but it is part of the task of selling a ring to bring to the customer’s attention the need for the future presence of a wedding band to be taken into account when buying the engagement ring.

I am fascinated by watches. Thurlow Champness are agents for Rolex, who are, I’m told, particular about who they will allow to sell their watches. They have a Rolex-certified watchmaker on site, a requirement of which is that he or she is present at least two days a week. Each Rolex is unique, in the truest sense of the word, for each bears a serial number, historically on the inside but now on the outside of the case, at the six o’clock position. With Rolex in Geneva knowing which agent sold any particular watch, and that agent knowing to whom that watch was sold, the provenance of any Rolex is completely traceable. Albert Walker was convicted of the murder of Ronald Platt in 1996; Platt’s body was identified by his Rolex, and the time of his death established from the date and time at which the watch stopped.

Which gruesome fact leads us to the Rolex mechanism, which famously is self-winding from the motion of the wearer’s wrist. When first introduced, this was revolutionary, but has been emulated by many watchmakers since, to the extent that most prestigious brands now use this, rather than a quartz, mechanism. Rolex watches in the jeweller’s window appear to be not working. Inevitably, Lesley has had difficult consultations with customers who are convinced that they own a beautiful Rolex watch, purchased at a considerable discount abroad. Not the $5 Singapore version we’ve all heard of, but a more plausible imitation sold for $2,000 rather than $4,000, but a forgery all the same. How do you break the news to the customer? With great tact and gentle kindness, Lesley tells me, but no, they won’t change the battery however sorry they might feel for the deceived party.

Your Rolex is famously accurate, too. How accurate? Chronometer certification requires a standard of no more than 10 seconds per 24 hours, in a range of 4 seconds slow to 6 seconds fast.

They also sell Bremont watches, a good British brand. One range of Bremont watches, a limited edition, needless to say, incorporates material from the machinery at Bletchley Park, and is known as the ‘Codebreaker’ series. Another includes oak timber and copper from HMS Victory, and will set you back upwards of £11,000. But you will be wearing history.

Time draws on, and I get ready to take my leave. As I do so, Lesley makes a request. Please can I ask readers not to be intimidated by having to ring the bell to gain access? Nobody in the shop bites, I am reassured. The locked door is an insurance stipulation and an unwelcome reminder of modern life, but not an obstacle to browsing. Come in, she says, and have a browse. You are most welcome.

About the Author

John U

Member since: 1st February 2013

Born in the baby boomer years, John Urquhart was educated in London and Scotland including a year as a schoolmaster before studying Medicine at St Thomas' Hospital. This took him back to London and Surrey...

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