A baroque cultured pearl and diamond 'Tale of Tahiti' necklace, by Grima, A gold, boulder opal and diamond pendant/necklace, by Grima, (2) An 18 carat gold and citrine wristwatch, 'Teak' from the About Time Collection, by Andrew Grima, A unique 18 carat gold and pink tourmaline watch bangle, 'Greenland', No 15 from the About Time Collection, by Grima, A citrine and diamond-set bangle, by Grima,

Even among the film stars and aristocrats of Swinging London, Andrew Grima was a celebrity. Nicholas Foulkes tells his story

At the distance of half a century it is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate the excitement that surrounded 80 Jermyn Street, where Andrew Grima opened his eponymous jewellery shop in 1966.

Until that point, a smart jeweller's shop was a sepulchral place with a grandeur approaching that of a stately home, a place as formal and dignified as the merchandise that sparkled demurely in its vitrines and under glass. Andrew Grima changed all that.

The shop's exterior was a foretaste of the revolutionary designs inside. It featured a screen of asymmetrical paving slabs and tombstone-sized planes of slate bolted to a welded skeleton of oxidised metal, which was wrapped around the building. It did, however, leave peepholes through which curious passers-by could glimpse strangely shaped confections of textured gold and huge rainbow-hued stones. Beyond the screen and through the automatic aluminium door, the interior, with its futuristic showcases and shimmering translucent spiral staircase – "a helix of light", recalled one customer – was pure Barbarella meets Bond villain lair. In a case of life imitating art, this film set of a shop could even boast its own Bond girl: Ursula Andress was just one of the beautiful people who wore the jewels that were sold there.

The shop is no more, but this September, Bonhams Fine Jewellery Sale in London will offer 55 exquisite pieces, all from a single-owner collection, that range in date from 1966 to 2007, covering the landmarks of Grima's oeuvre.

Born in Rome in 1921 to a Maltese father and Italian mother, Grima was unconventional. He had moved to England when he was four, growing up to be an artistic child who could spend all day happily sketching; rather less idyllic were the years from 1941 to 1945, when he fought in the British Army in Burma. Demobbed, he would have liked to study at art school, but took a secretarial course instead. He was the only man in a class of women, one of whom he married. He went to work in his father-in-law's jewellery business. There, in 1948, he experienced an epiphany when two stone dealers turned up at his office. As Grima remembered, they had "a suitcase of large Brazilian stones – aquamarines, citrines, tourmalines and rough amethysts in quantities I had never seen before. I persuaded my father-in-law to buy the entire collection and I set to work designing." Untrained as a jeweller, he designed instead as an artist. "This", he later said, "was the beginning of my career." And 18 years after that encounter with the Brazilian stones, Grima was famous for the avant-garde designs he created and sold from what was then the West End's most exotic shop.

It was the year that Time magazine declared London 'The Swinging City', likening it to Paris in the Twenties. The cliché may have long staled in our minds, but once in a while something happens that enables us to reach across the chasm of five decades to understand the true spirit of the time. One such moment was when I was shown tray after glittering, gleaming tray of Grima jewellery. I adore the work of Andrew Grima, and when I ran my fingertips over the textured surfaces and allowed my eyes to gorge on the saturated colours of these major pieces from the key periods of their creator's life, I was transported to an England very different from our own. It was an England in which Grima, a pipe-smoking, Aston Martin-driving habitué of Annabel's (he would sketch designs on the backs of the menus), was one of the most daring and creative talents of a daring and creative time.

Often the 1960s is reduced to just a few mental snapshots: Carnaby Street, the King's Road, miniskirts, mini cars and Mick Jagger in a smock. But the London of that time was rather more complex. It was a time of social mobility, but also a time when aristocracy and royalty still mattered. Grima's jewels may have looked like the quintessence of Time's 'swinging city', but they were worn by women who did not appear in Bond films, but rather between the covers of Burke's and Debrett's. It was the time of Tony and Maggie Jones – as the Earl of Snowdon and Princess Margaret were affectionately known – and they presided over a parallel court of actors, musicians, artists and bohemians, as well as noblemen.

Indeed, it could be argued that Tony Snowdon gave Grima his big break. Snowdon's status as a royal consort and success as a photographer have eclipsed his other accomplishments, and it was in his role as a designer that he wrote an article bemoaning the lack of excitement in modern jewellery. Grima read the article and invited Snowdon to visit his workshop. The two men became friends: Grima created a gold model of the Snowdon-designed aviary at London zoo – Snowdon complained the model was missing one vital cable, without which it would have collapsed. As well as bedizening the Snowdon set, Grima was awarded a royal warrant by Her Majesty the Queen, who remained a loyal admirer of his work. In 2007, for instance, Her Majesty wore one of his brooches for her televised Christmas address. Back in 1966, royal recognition positively showered down on him: he won the Queen's Award for Industry and the Duke of Edinburgh's Prize for Elegant Design. Later, Grima's work would even be presented to visiting heads of state as royal gifts.

Grima's fame increased, and in 1969 the leading Swiss watchmaker Omega commissioned him to make a collection of 80 unique timepieces called About Time, creating some of the most remarkable watches in the history of timekeeping, such as the extravagant bird nest-like 'cerini' watch. He was soon as much of a star as the people who wore his jewels. As well as in London, he opened shops in New York, Zurich and Sydney, and Grima and his work were the subject of films.

Grima did not need celebrity endorsement, instead he bestowed it: Canada Dry felt his suave charm was perfect for its ginger ale and featured him in its advertising. In a style reminiscent of Peter Stuyvesant cigarette advertising, the turtleneck-wearing Grima was presented as an international man of taste and action: boarding a plane, sketching at his drawing board, contemplating an egg-sized diamond poised between thumb and index finger, and, of course, smoking his pipe. In the words of the copy writers at Canada Dry, "Few would dispute that this designer has made more impact in Britain (and probably the world) than any other jeweller in the last ten years."

To view Grima's work as 'just' jewellery, however magnificent, is to place an unwarranted restriction on its significance. Its modernity was a great part of its appeal and his body of work must be set, not just in the context of the jewellery of the times (and it was ahead of its times), but in the wider span of creativity and design. In architecture, this was the era of Basil Spence and Denys Lasdun. By 1969, the decade's great Franco-British engineering project Concorde had taken its first flight. Richard Hamilton was challenging received notions of what constituted art, while fellow Canada Dry laureate Terence Conran was busy introducing the nation to the duvet and the chicken brick at his epoch-defining shop, Habitat.

Grima's jewellery made just as strong an impression as Brutalist architecture, sleek supersonic aviation, pop art and design-led retail. Importantly, he undermined the convention that the value of a piece of jewellery resided primarily in its stones. Instead, Grima saw the work of the jeweller as an art, with stones and precious metals the materials the artist used for self-expression. The collection at Bonhams includes such classics of the Grima oeuvre as his 'pencil shavings' brooch. As well as such characteristic elements as a textured surface and asymmetrical shape, here seasoned with a few brilliant cut diamonds, the piece is animated by its pop-art sensibility. By elevating quotidian wooden shavings and inviting their re-examination, Grima does what Warhol and Caulfield were doing with their paintings.

Grima's artistic approach was first revealed in 1961, when Graham Hughes, art director of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, curated what he called the "world's first international exhibition of modern artists' jewellery", in which he enlisted Andrew Grima. There had been a paucity of pieces by British artists and to rectify this, Grima cast and assembled work by Elisabeth Frink, Kenneth Armitage, Bernard Meadows and others. He also designed a series of new pieces of his own, and – as Hughes points out – he was perhaps "influenced by these painters and sculptors to be ever more theatrical and dramatic".

Everywhere the eye alights in this collection, there is delight and variety, demonstrating the versatility and virtuosity of Grima's work.

One of the earliest pieces on offer is a gold textured wire necklace, which at first appears to be rigid in design. But, rather brilliantly, each wire is painstakingly soldered to the next with hinges discreetly integrated into the back, so that the work has a lightness and flexibility that embraces the wearer. Texture is, of course, a characteristic richly appreciated by collectors of Grima, and it can be enjoyed in so many of the pieces at Bonhams. Take a ring featuring a 20-carat pink tourmaline encircled by Colombian emeralds, and brilliant cut diamonds, all set in tactile yellow gold wire. Or the almost minimalist, tribally stark necklace of four citrine crystals set in roughened gold and mounted on a gold rod.

Grima was also a master of what one might call the 'power stone'. His artistry is magnificently expressed in the Boulder opal and diamond pendant, a fist-sized rough-hewn example of Grima's favourite stone, that was, he said, the largest and most exciting opal he had ever seen. Another pendant, part of the Sticks and Stones collection, places a large green dioptase crystal within a 'scattered' border of overlapping gold squares of matt and textured finish, with eight square-cut diamond highlights, mounted in 18-carat yellow gold.

One magnificent gold citrine and diamond necklace from 1974 exemplifies a further aspect of Grima's work. It took almost 250 hours to make, and yet it appears as though the stones – 41 diamonds and 68 triangular citrines – have been scattered carelessly around the wearer's throat, exhibiting the cleverly contrived quality of apparent haphazard nonchalance that is one of his leitmotifs.

In 2007, Andrew Grima died in Gstaad, where he had lived with his second wife, Jojo, and their daughter, Francesca, since 1986. But through his family, the Grima legacy lives on. Jojo and Francesca have continued to design jewellery and look after Andrew's vast archive, which includes thousands of sketches, designs, and gouaches. Thanks to these records, and the existence of the superb single-owner collection on offer at Bonhams, one can grasp Grima's extraordinary contribution – not just to jewellery, but to the world of art.

Nicholas Foulkes is the editor of the Watch supplement for Vanity Fair and author of Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-artist (2016).

Sale: Fine Jewellery
Wednesday 20 September
Enquiries: Emily Barber +44 (0) 20 7468 8284

  1. Emily Barber
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8284
    FaxFax: +44 20 7499 5364

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