Redesigning your mother’s engagement ring is serious business. Reggie Nadelson travels to Gstaad and master jeweler Andrew Grima to get it done right.
“Shall I surprise you?” Surprise me! Andrew Grima, a big man with a generous smile, sits behind his desk in his shop in Gstaad and scribbles a design for a diamond ring on a piece of scrap paper, as he’s done for customers for half a century. Based for many years in London, where he had a legendary shop on Jermyn Street, he still remembers being summoned to Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth in 1966. Like the James Bond of jewelry, he drove through the palace gates in his custom-designed Aston Martin and was ushered into a reception room, where the queen told him how much she liked the ruby-and-diamond brooch Prince Philip had given her, and could he perhaps make a few other pieces as gifts for foreign dignitaries? Six years later, the queen asked if Grima could do a brooch for Mme. Pompidou; relations between England and France were a bit strained. Grima pulled a piece of paper from his briefcase and rendered a sketch. The brooch that followed, a gold starburst with a golden citrine, was a knockout. Mme. Pompidou loved it, pinned it on the minute the queen presented it, and peace, no doubt, ensued.
There were more visits. More jewels. For Princess Margaret and Princess Anne; later for Diana. And a decades-long correspondence with Lord Snowdon, who’s a fan and owns one of Grima’s objets d’art, an 18-karat gold miniature of the aviary Snowdon designed for the London Zoo. All this has a delicious kind of irony, for when Grima—a rebel with impeccable manners—started out, his jewels were considered outrageous: They were, and still are, modern, voluptuous, singular, sexy—often strange and organic shapes resembling the plant life you might find on some newly discovered planet. Take, for example, a fire opal set in beaten gold on a gold neckband, a huge Colombian emerald pendant tied up with ribbons of diamonds, or a brooch made of watermelon tourmaline with diamond stamens. Some of the pieces were wild, almost barbaric. Roman Polanski had his wife, Sharon Tate, photographed nude draped in the stuff. No sweet little strings of pearls here. If you wanted pearls from Grima, you got pearls that seemed to have been formed in some exotic hive. There was one necklace created from 128 water-blue oval opals. It looked like a waterfall, sprayed with diamond drops. Grima laces his pieces with diamonds, or uses them like truffles dusted on a sublime risotto. But Grima’s jewels are not really about royals, or movie stars, or the wealthy clients who pop into his shop in Switzerland, where he lives and works. They are about design, color, and innovation. These jewels frequently come apart: You can wear the neckband alone or with a pendant. It’s as if they were made by an engineer, which Grima once was. The Golden Engineer, as he’s been called, holds up a massive aquamarine pendant and says, unhooking it with delight, “See, you can wear it as a necklace or a brooch. Very practical!” When I first got to know Grima in London, he occasionally let me borrow one of his necklaces. It was a flexible neckband of pavé diamonds and large pearls. When you breathed, the thing shimmied against your bare flesh as if it were alive. Now I’m in Gstaad, and Grima, chuckling softly to himself, is doodling on a piece of paper, redesigning my mother’s engagement ring. It’s a nice round diamond in a decorous, old-fashioned Tiffany setting with a couple of baguettes. It’s what you would call a proper ring, but I rarely wear it. Still, I’m a little nervous handing it over. “Just what did you have in mind?” Grima asks me, looking up as he selects some colored pencils. “Surprise me.” Over the years, I have collected a few pieces of Andrew Grima’s jewelry. He has made me earrings and a ring out of my mother’s bracelet and pin and my grandmother’s engagement ring. I have a pair of gold-and-diamond earrings that look like lilies. This is portable art, and if you have a peripatetic life, as I do, it’s something you can take with you. My own talisman, my amulet, is a comic little pre-Columbian gold figurine that Grima made for me years ago. He put it on an ivory pyramid that I could wear as a pin or on a neckband. He gave it a tray of rubies to hold and dubbed it the “pre-Columbian strawberry-pie salesman.” It is my St. Christopher’s medal, my rabbit’s foot, and I never go anywhere without it. Last year a bit of the ivory chipped off, so Grima covered it with a lone ruby. “Say one of the pies fell off his tray,” he advised. In Gstaad, Grima lives over his shop with his wife and longtime partner, JoJo, also a jeweler, and their 21-year-old daughter, Francesca, who studies design and helps out in the shop. As we sit in an office that is crammed with photographs and catalogues, Grima draws, JoJo is in the workshop, and Francesca is decorating the windows. Grima’s business has always been a family affair. A jeweler’s jeweler, Grima draws fluently and with easy confidence. “His work, his style, is completely identifiable, it’s unique,” says James Taffin de Givenchy, one of New York’s most talented young jewelers. “By being true to his style, he has imposed his vision and undeniably made his mark on 20th- and 21st-century jewelry. It’s no surprise that his work is so collectible today.” Grima’s work is collected by the cognoscenti, prized by collectors. One woman in London who started acquiring Grima’s pieces more than 30 years ago says, “I think he’s a genuine artist. I’ve got lots of his things—I think it’s like collecting another piece of art, of sculpture.” When older pieces turn up at auction, Grima often buys them back for his own collection. He’s never made a “cheaper” line of jewelry, the kind that sells at airport duty-frees. As often as not, his clients are also friends who fly into Gstaad to buy something and spend a few evenings over good food and wine. Among his hobbies, Grima lists painting and sculpture, food and wine. In London, where he has an apartment, he frequently dines at the three-star Le Gavroche. (Albert and Michel Roux, founders of the Gavroche empire, are pals.) My first night in Gstaad, Grima looks longingly at the foie gras on the menu at the Palace Hotel, then gives JoJo a “what the hell” wink and orders a slab. Francesca beckons him to the dance floor, where they perform a nifty fox trot to some old Sinatra songs. There is something of the suave Italian patriarch about Grima in the charm, the fine tweed jackets, the silk scarf tucked into the pocket. In Gstaad, he’s up early every day. In the winter, he walks down the main street in his camel’s hair coat and Russian fur hat, greeting everyone he meets. Grima turned 80 in May but seems like a man 15 years younger. The excitement, the joie de vivre, are undimmed. Andrew Grima was born in Italy in 1921 to a Maltese father and Italian mother. His father had a prosperous business exporting fine lace and embroidery. When the business grew, he moved the family to England. Andrew was six. After Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 there were sanctions against Italy by the League of Nations. Grima’s father went bankrupt, and for the next ten years he was in and out of hospitals. As soon as he turned 17, Andrew left school to help support his mother and six siblings. He studied civil engineering and enrolled in a secretarial course, the only boy among dozens of girls (one of whom he eventually married). In his rare spare time he drew and painted, attending art classes whenever he could. War broke out, and Grima was sent to Burma. An officer at age 20, he had up to 500 men under his command. There’s a picture of a heartbreakingly young Grima in Burma, sitting on a hill and holding a cigarette and a can of beer. “I wanted to look grown-up,” he says, “a man of the world.” The war would define him. “You grew up very quickly,” Grima adds. After World War II, his father-in-law to be offered him a job at his jewelry business in London. “It was very conventional jewelry,” Grima says, “but the work was exquisitely finished.” Here was an opportunity to earn a living and perhaps fulfill some of his artistic yearnings. Grima married Helene, had two daughters and a son, and settled in Sonning, a village on the Thames outside London. In his studio there, he began to experiment with his own designs. He picked up leaves and sticks in the woods near the house and cast them in gold. Each leaf was perfection: You could see the veins, the curves, the stems. Grima still makes the occasional leaf pin set off with a diamond or two. He made sticks and stones the same way. Gradually he began using tourmalines, peridots, amethysts, rock crystal. Back then, these stones were as alien as plastic to most jewelers. Unrestrained by any training in gemology or design, Grima worked on instinct, never in thrall to the value of precious gemstones. He didn’t care about the price of diamonds. He liked to mess around with oddball materials, he liked to play. Gradually, he changed the way people wore jewelry. It was in 1961 that Grima really emerged as a star. Graham Hughes, for years the head of Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, was organizing the first international exhibition of jewelry by modern artists. There was work by Picasso and Alexander Calder, but Henry Moore was the only big British name. “Andrew Grima filled the breach magnificently,” Hughes recalls, “casting and assembling work by Elisabeth Frink, Kenneth Armitage, and Bernard Meadows. He designed a series of pieces of his own, too, perhaps influenced by these painters and sculptors.” Grima became part of the British Style revolution of the ’50s and ’60s. He was to jewelry what Elisabeth Frink was to sculpture or David Hockney to painting, Elizabeth David to food, Terence Conran to home design, or maybe Mary Quant to fashion. Eventually, he hit the road in his Aston Martin, traveling across Europe to place his jewelry in the great shops: Rene Kern’s in Düsseldorf, Georg Jensen in Copenhagen. “I knew Jacques Cartier, so I sold him some pieces,” he recalls. Americans loved Grima’s work, and he won accolades and competitions. But he needed his own shop. “I was tired of seeing jewelry shops remain as they have for over a century,” says Grima. “I wanted to show the world what a 21st-century shop should look like. No counters to form a barrier between customer and salesperson, clean lines, no clutter—everything designed to lead the customer toward the jewels.” So, in 1966 he opened the shop in London. It was as startling as the jewels. Jermyn Street was, and still is, a street of venerable shops. Across from Grima was Fortnum & Mason, where the salesmen wore morning suits to sell you the smoked salmon. Opposite was Turnbull & Asser, where Englishmen of a certain class—gentlemen, dukes, spies—got their shirts made and purchased ties and dressing gowns. Down the road a few hundred feet was the cheese shop Paxton & Whitfield, looking (then as now) as if Dickens had invented it. And there was Floris for ladylike scents. Then came Grima. His brothers Godfrey and George, both architects, designed the shop. Made of slate, the door was a rough, almost brutalist entrance to a shop that looked like a cave. The walls were bare rock. There was a free-floating staircase between floors. The jewels were placed in niches as if some fabulous miner had just pulled them out of the ground. You could buy pieces for a few hundred dollars. All kinds of people showed up at this Aladdin’s Cave on Jermyn Street. In the Swinging Sixties, of course, everything was up for grabs. The Beatles met the queen. Hairdressers were the new society kings. Paco Rabanne made dresses out of plastic discs. Dukes talked like Mick Jagger. And Princess Margaret, defying convention, was married to a commoner, a working photographer named Tony Armstrong-Jones, who later became Lord Snowdon. Snowdon, intrigued by Grima’s work as early as 1964, wrote to him, “It is indeed marvelously encouraging to know that there is someone in this country producing such excitingly new work in the field of jewelry design.” Grima was in the thick of it. Eventually he opened other shops, in Tokyo, in Sydney, in Zurich. He traveled constantly. The planet was literally his: He would visit the H. Stern family in Brazil to see what stones their mines had thrown up; he’d settle in on Japanese TV for a chat about his watch collections, where he used gemstones instead of crystals, in one case a very big emerald. (Grima wasn’t sure it would work, so when it came to cutting the emerald, even he was a little nervous.) People came to him, too, like the Australian opal miners who turned up at his door from time to time, or the guys who brought the biggest amethyst geode in the world—it sits in the shop in Gstaad now. Grima delighted in the old artifacts he discovered: the pre-Columbian figurines, the 2500-year-old Inca noseplate, which hangs from a Grima neckband worked with pavé diamonds. It’s a piece of almost unsettling exoticism crossed with Victorian delicacy. Grima has set diamonds in petrified wood millions of years old. A pearl in the shape of a camel’s head was used for a gold cigarette box resembling a pack of Camels. A gin and tonic was fashioned of rock crystal with a gold lemon slice on the rim. Tahitian pearl ducks swim on a rough slab of amethyst sea. These were things you could collect, things to make you laugh. But Grima is famous for his craftsmanship, and there were the requests from people who wanted family jewels remade. There was even a brooch in honor of John F. Kennedy. The headmistress of the school attended by Grima’s daughters had known the Kennedys and asked him to design a commemorative brooch to be presented to the top girl every year. He made an elegant JK in gold with a diamond over the J; the first one was presented to Jackie Kennedy. In the 1970s, Grima met JoJo, a young South African studying jewelry and working as a D.J. at Annabel’s, the nightclub on Berkeley Square. After they married in 1977 they built a holiday house in the South of France that was always filled with friends. Then things went bad. Credit restrictions and banking crashes took their toll. Grima sold his shops. Instead of retiring, he set up in Switzerland, unstoppable, determined. In Gstaad, the Grimas have a building off the main street. There is a small workshop at the back, but many of Grima’s pieces are made for him in London by craftsmen he trained in the ’60s and ’70s. The basement is where Grima keeps his collections; he’s a magpie, a collector of 18th- and 19th-century items that include an egg scale, coffee mills, even old Dutch skates. “I’ve been a collector since I was born,” he says. “It’s a connection with days gone by. Many things can’t be reproduced because the craftsmen don’t exist.” He pauses, running a finger along the blade of one of the ancient skates. For this most modern of jewelers, there is a visceral relationship with the bits and pieces the past throws up. “It’s related to the jewels because of the tactile and historic pleasure. It puts your mind back, it teaches you history.” He pulls out bundles of letters to and from his mother written during the war. Stacks of letters from people for whom he’s made things. Awards. He says with a diffident twinkle, “I have more international jewelry awards than anybody in the world. Of course,” he adds wryly, and a little ruefully, “I’m older than anybody.” Upstairs in the apartment, JoJo sets out platters of mozzarella and tomatoes, of viand de grison, the air-cured Swiss meat, and prosciutto. There’s crusty fresh bread. Andrew pours his Campari and soda into a silver mug designed by his friend Gerald Benny. He pulls a bottle of white wine from the fridge. We sit around the table, the sun streams through the windows, the olive oil catches the light. It’s a spacious apartment with Italian sofas in red leather and a collection of paintings by the American James Twitty. There’s a little Pissarro on one wall; more collections, of silver and ivory; books, many by friends, stacked on the shelves. Lingering over lunch, we gossip about travel and painting and design and friends. We drink some more wine. But you were wondering about my ring. Like Mme. Pompidou’s brooch, it will be a drop-dead piece, the stone—in a modern embossed yellow gold setting—bolder, more glittering, much more beguiling than before. A traveler’s ring, Grima calls it. Turn it up and you show off the diamond; turn it around, the diamond is hidden and you see only the two little baguettes and a small dark-blue sapphire that Grima has added. “So, you can show the diamond here in Switzerland, where it’s safe,” he smiles, “and the other side back in New York.” Lunch over, Grima is scribbling on a bit of paper, improving the design, restless, ripe with new ideas, and very, very surprising.