Sandra Cronan grew up with jewelry in her DNA. Her father was a jeweler and worked in every aspect of the craft, introducing Cronan as a young girl to fossils, gems and shells, as she grew older, she learned more about finished pieces, developing her own taste and sense of style. “That was almost 50 years ago,” explains the woman who became one of London’s well-known and sought-after sources of jewelry from the enduring to the esoteric and from the 18th through the mid-twentieth century. Sandra was one of the first female jewelers to be accepted into the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA)., She partnered with Catherine Taylor, an Australian transplant who also grew up around exceptional jewels 20 years ago and they have built a reputation for period styles chosen for their great design, distinctive character, quality and wearability. Cronan and Taylor are of the “wear your jewelry, don’t buy it to keep it in a safe or as a safe investment mentality.”
Although they specialize in rare antique and vintage jewelry, they are available for working with clients on restoration and creating new jewelry from unsalvageable pieces in which the stones are very much intact, customizing and redesigning pieces with the very best goldsmiths, enamellers and lapidaries that London has to offer.
Here I talk to Cronan about her almost 50 years in business—how she first launched the business, the people she met along the way and how it has evolved over the years.
You grew up around jewelry but what made you take the leap into period pieces?
“I had obtained a degree in art and I started to become interested in the historical aspect of the pieces and the intricate details and incredible craftsmanship in miniature. I thought about selling antique jewelry and my father came to me and said, ”If you fancy becoming a dealer go down to Portobello Road and show me that you can buy and sell.” He gave me £1,000 and wished me good luck. I bought an alexandrite ring for £600 and sold it to another dealer for over £3,000. He was impressed. So was I. I decided then and there to get into the business of selling period jewels, however, since then my business has gone through many transformations.”
Where was your first shop?
“In the famous Burlington Arcade for approximately 20 years. I was learning as I went. In the early years, I created some of my own designs and purchased the rarest jewelry I could find from earlier periods—predominantly Georgian and Victorian and some pieces dating back even further but of course, they were harder to find in excellent condition.”
Didn’t celebrities shop there?
“Oh yes. It was an amazing time. I met, amongst others, Paul McCartney, and Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer who very sweetly gave my daughter a red kit of drums. Once when I was showing an American client a piece of jewelry, a bullet came through the window. I said, “There’s a robbery – get down on the floor” and we transacted the rest of the business under a desk. I also met Ralph Lauren and was showing him a solid gold fountain pen that I had just designed and made, with diamond-set polo players encircling the pen. He asked his personal assistant what he could do with it, and the assistant replied, ‘You could sign the lease on the building which you’re about to buy up the road.’
‘Good idea,’ Ralph Lauren replied and bought it. In addition, he also bought several other pieces which he asked me to deliver personally to his offices in New York. I delivered them to his office, along with a fully worked-out plan for him to sponsor a Ralph Lauren polo team in which I would play. He smiled and said he would think about it. Obviously, that wasn’t a well-thought-out part of the plan to gain more business.”
Didn’t you also have an encounter with Andy Warhol?
“A friend in New York, who knew Andy, suggested I go down to the Studio and interest him in antique jewelry, which he collected. I showed a selection of my favorite pieces. He was drawn to a diamond double clip and asked the price. Which was $14,000 USD. He then asked if I would consider swapping it for one of the pictures on the wall. I shook my head thinking I was savvy. I’m sorry, I said, Cash only. He declined to buy. One that I passed up was a screen print of Marilyn Monroe which sold for $195 million at Christie’s. That was perhaps the biggest mistake of my life and career.”
You were in the thick of the disco era in the early 1980s in New York. Who else did you meet?
“Studio 54 was at its zenith, Isaac Tigrett was opening the New York Hard Rock Café, and I was sent out to scout appropriate pieces. One day I came back with a 1950’s oil painting of a lady drinking Coca-Cola, and Isaac was delighted. It hung in the Café until the Hard Rock was sold and moved to Times Square. I also met Diana Ross, who became a client.”
How did you ever top those days?
“We moved from Burlington Arcade to our gallery on Albemarle Street and gained amazing clients that we still have today—some famous and others are people who believe in our ability to find exquisite and rare pieces from different time periods. We have become a trusted, well-known source. Catherine and I will go to great lengths to find what a customer is looking for if we don’t have it in our inventory. I have also traveled around the globe and found beautiful, original and authentic pieces, some signed, others just extraordinary and enchanting in their workmanship. I have met great dealers and am one of the first some of them will come to when they find a museum-quality piece. These are relationships that you build a long the way with other dealers and your clients. Trust goes a very long way in this business as does having enticingly beautiful pieces.”
Are there favorites in your personal collection and in the selection in the shop?
“I’ve owned a lot of pieces in my life and let some get away. My favorite pieces are not flashy, but well made and in their original condition. I love natural pearls and I have kept a multi-colored three-row necklace and a pair of 18th-century emerald and diamond earrings, among other very rare and early pieces such as a truly unique Giardinetti ring.”
“I also love Edwardian jewelry which was so well made and understated. But I also like the Russian diamond coat buttons which have so successfully been converted into rings and earrings. It’s amazing to think that Russian aristocrats in the 18th century had thirty such buttons on their coats.”
You run the gamut of periods in addition to those you just mentioned. I noticed you also have some outstanding Victorian and Art Deco pieces in your inventory. Can you talk about those?
“Yes, I do think some of these are our most salable pieces. They are two time periods people seem to understand and appreciate most –the Victorian period for its sentimental jewelry and Art Deco for its earlier geometric diamond-intensive styles, new cuts of gemstones and use of platinum which changed the way jewelry was made. And then, of course, the latter part of Art Deco which was influenced by Eastern and Middle Eastern colors, patterns, royal jewels and gemstones.”
“Is there one piece of jewelry that you would call a signature piece that you always wear?”
A gypsy set ring. My favorite is the one I wear on my pinky with a cushion-cut ruby center and two mine-cut diamonds on either side but I also trade off and wear three together –one with a colored stone—either a ruby or sapphire as the center ring with diamonds on each side and the two outer rings are all diamond versions. Gypsy rings are so easy to wear. They are sturdy as long as you check the settings, you can wash your hands with them and wear them much of the time. I try to always buy the Victorian into Edwardian versions when I see them as I like to keep a good stock of them.”
What have you changed since the pandemic began?
“I’ve adapted to the new way of working and have a website (Sandracronan.com) and an Instagram account (@sandraCronan). I also work at home and love to meet old, and new, clients. Often the latter are children, or grandchildren, of the former. I also go to fairs; one of them, Masterpiece which will be held on June 30 through July 6, 2022. It has been a challenging time emotionally and working out how to best serve my clients without the shop but this has panned out so well. We are part of a whole new experience, which I am always up for since the first time I sold the ring on Portobello Road.”