AT the head of the table in a wood panel led room in the bowels of the venerable Bond Street antique jewellery dealer SJ Phillips, Nicolas Norton is explaining why the company has decided to leave the famous street after 144 years.
“Customers have become more concerned with security and they don’t necessarily want to walk straight into a shop from the street. They like things to be discreet. Yes, we will miss passing trade, but many of our customers will prefer it,” he says.
With his brother Jonathan and cousin Francis Norton, he is part of the fourth generation of the family owned firm that was founded by their great-grandfather Solomon Joel Phillips in 1869.
The trio jointly run the firm and, after years of discussion, decided to sell the freehold of the shop in 2015 and are now moving to the second floor of 26 Bruton Street in Mayfair.
Shareholders of the company, including the Nortons, all received a share of the profits from the sale of the freehold for what is thought to be in excess of £60m.
Despite the Nortons deciding not to pass on the business to their children, there are no plans to retire in the short term. Nicolas Norton will be 78 this year, his brother Jonathan will be 74 and Francis will be 70.
However, Nicolas said: “Our father died at 94 and was working up until six weeks before he died. We will all continue and my brother Jonathan will probably work forever.”
Martin Norton, who died in 2005, was credited with ensuring the business (that survived the Great Depression and two world wars) remained renowned among the world’s wealthy elite.
SJ Phillips was famed for its ability to buy and sell jewellery and vertu once owned by royalty or people of status including collections of Victorian heiress Baroness BurdettCoutts, a brooch originally made for Catherine the Great and a necklace owned by Empress Marie Louise.
Originally the company dealt in antique jewels, vertu, miniatures, snuff boxes and silver. It will now focus on jewellery and boxes, and trade in a very limited amount of silver. Norton describes jewellery as its “backbone” which can weather difficult economic times.
Shortly after SJ Phillips’ relocation to Bruton Street, the company will be exhibiting at TEFAF Maastricht. Among the jewellery and vertu it will be showing are:
Nicolas says: “There are always rich men with girlfriends. This, to a degree, insulates the jewellery market.”
A number of galleries and antiques dealers in central London have left their premises for upper floors or closed altogether as demand from fashion brands has led to soaring rents.
However, the new home in Bruton Street still allows the company to retain its traditions such as a dining room so the Nortons can entertain their clients.
With no heirs lined up to take on the business there is no guarantee the SJ Phillips name will survive the remainder of the 21st century.
Nicolas will only say: “Any art and antiques business, or any business for that matter, is only worth the management running it. My brother, my cousin and I are all in our 70s, and as SJ Phillips and the Norton family are synonymous, who can say what will happen in the future.”