Inside the Jewel Vault with Dr Jack Ogden

Listen Now

Inside the Jewel Vault with Dr Jack Ogdenㅤㅤ

Jessica Cadzow-Collins

00:00 / 00:00


JC        My guest today is Dr Jack Ogden, the world leading expert in ancient jewellery, material, and technology.  You might be surprised to know that an academic of Jack’s standing left school at age 16.  He’s author of numerous books and scholarly articles, his first book, Jewellery of the Ancient World, was published in 1982 and was hailed as a masterpiece.  He has looked at Greek gold in the basement of the Hermitage Museum, the Thetford treasure under a kitchen table by torchlight & has even set his hair on fire in the Amman museum.  He has studied around ten thousand pieces of jewellery under the microscope and says, “Most of the modern jewellery market leaves me cold.” Dr Jack Ogden, welcome to the Jewel Vault.  I can’t wait to see what you have chosen for us!
 JO             Hi Good morning Jessica, it’s great to be here thank you for inviting me to be a part of this.  Yes, I’ve got a variety of things to talk about, many pieces I’ve studied and handled over the years, it’s difficult to make a choice.
JC             I bet it is.  Jack, so much of what you handle is so old and often only newly discovered, and when you gaze at an early piece to try and understand its age and how it was made, tell me what is that feeling like?
JO             It’s interesting, because there’s several different levels here, I mean there’s just the beauty of something you look at it and you think wow this is wonderful it was produced 500 or 5000 years ago, it’s a wonderful piece to look at but also when you study it carefully when you look through a microscope you actually see details that you know about, the man who made it or the woman who made it all those centuries ago knew about but nobody in between did, even the wearer of piece is probably unaware.  Little fiddles the way that shortcut something or made a little bit of a botch to get something done all the things you can see under a microscope but it’s like sharing a secret over centuries it’s fascinating
JC             I’m imagining that with the tens of thousands of jewels you have studied and handled, choosing just 6 pieces for your own Vault would be a difficult choice to make.   How have you selected each piece, what was the criteria for including these ones?
JO             I think I chose pieces that had a special meaning to me, they are not necessarily the grandest pieces in the world in fact some of them are fairly minimal, but they are things that are important to my life stages, but also because some of them illustrate something about jewellery history, they sort of shed light on what jewellery history is all about.
JC             So Jack, let’s travel back to your childhood, to find out where your journey in jewellery started.  I know that you had an interest in archaeology from a very young age…What was it that had a lasting impression on you as a child? 
JO             Well my parents, my whole family in fact, moved to Yorkshire in 1955, I think it was, and it was an old farmhouse, my father was really keen to get a really old building and renovate it, so we had this old farmhouse, so all this old stuff was being dug up –bits of old bedstead and sheep skulls and God knows what, broken bottles and stuff, and so from the age of about 7 I had my own my own Museum of the stuff and then my parents bought me for Christmas when I was 8 a book on archaeology and that really did it, you know,  I really got totally engrossed and exciting about the whole thing. 
JC             Tell us about your first piece of jewellery in the Vault, I think we’d love to hear about it.
Jack's Great-grandfather's Ancient Egyptian Earring
JO             Well this is interesting because you mentioned the family business.  Well the guy who set it up in the 1890’s was James R Ogden, who not only set up a jewellery business but was also an amateur archaeologist and he worked quite closely with some quite well known excavators at the time, and he amassed a collection, nothing worth mega millions, various odd bits, most of them went to local museums and things.  And in the attic of the family shop there were a few boxes of bits gathering dust for 40yrs or more and a couple of books.   As I showed some spark of interest in my early teens I was presented with a box of bits if you like and a couple of books and one of the bits in one of the boxes was a little earring, just a little fragment of an earring.  It’s from Egypt, it’s about but 200-100 BC and I suppose that has to be the first piece of in the vault, because that made me interested in gold, because here this combination of archaeology and jewellery and one of the books that had come down mysteriously from my great grandfather was about early Egyptian jewellery manufacture so I could actually look at the book and see the technology in this earring: it was an exciting new light in my life if you like, at that point
JC             That’s fascinating so how old were you when you discovered this piece or were given this piece?
JO             I think I was 12 or 13 I think so quite young
JC             And how…
JO             It was the first time I looked a piece of jewellery under magnification I suppose
JC             and can you describe this piece to us then
JO             Well it actually after this build up it’s rather disappointing, I suppose.  It’s just quite small, it’s a bit of an earring, it’s a hoop, twisted wire hoop with a couple of beads one is a white glass and the other one is a small garnet, and there’s a bit missing, it would have had an animal head terminal and which has gone so it’s only a part of an earring but I still have it I’ll treasure it because it is the sort of link, this is the very start of the catalyst if you like.  It’s very simple small piece but it’s meaningful I suppose that’s the secret jewellery has to be meaningful to the owner
JC             so it has a strip – the hoop is formed of two interlocking twisted wires is that right
JO             that’s right
JC             then you’ve got like a granulated decoration around the bead…
JO             Yes, sort of made out of lots of little gold grains, then a sort of white glass bead, another sort of granulated gold bead and then this garnet bead, small garnet bead
JC             And it’s over 2,000 years old, so how would it have been made?
JO             well I mean the wire was made from essentially from hammering out gold sheet it wasn’t pulled through a draw plate like more recent wire, it was hammered from gold and the grains – if you fuse little bits of gold you melt them on a piece of charcoal they form into little gold balls and then you can solder these together using a sort of ingenious early technique which is probably too technical to go into here. So it’s not highly sophisticated goldsmithing work but it’s effective
JC             And all done without the use of spectacles and other ways of checking your work as well it’s just amazing
JO             yes well you’ll be opening a whole can of worms about magnification in the early world, but I think generally speaking magnification was not used by jewellers to look at their work
JC             Jack let’s follow on from your childhood with your early adult life.  You attended Tonbridge, didn’t you in Kent [That’s right] but it seems that your academic side of your character didn’t develop there because you left school aged only 16 didn’t you and you returned to the family business.  Was it just assumed you would?
JO             I think in those days yes I mean there was a family business there and it was the easy way out really I think, I think it was expected of me to go into the family business so coming out of school with more than the O levels or whatever I had at the time it wasn’t considered desperately important one way or the other, so it was there, and that’s why I took the easy way out, partly laziness I think
JC             So where did you start in the firm, then?
JO             Well my father actually was a huge - the guy who was renovating this farm house, he was a sort of reluctant jeweller if you like he really wanted to be a farmer in real life.  He was er a great influence, because actually my first day, Monday morning you know you start at the bottom kid sort of thing, he wanted me to work in the workshops, we had workshops making jewellery and doing repairs, and he wanted me work in there for a few weeks.   Because he thought the most important thing was to know how things were put together, vitally important for anyone involved in the jewellery world to know how things were put together.  So that was a great start, actually getting my hands dirty and burning my fingers with soldering
JC             Ha-ha so you could actually understand the pain that people had gone through creating these pieces
JO             Absolutely
JC             Beautiful, so having caught this ancient jewellery bug tell us about the second piece in the vault
JO             Well the second piece in the vault as they are opposite extreme if you like from my little flimsy little insignificant broken earring.  It’s a piece of jewellery from the tomb of Tutankhamen as you know the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922 and it was this miraculous tomb full of gold jewellery and a huge - everything from a gold sarcophagus, jewellery and God knows what, its an immense treasure and in 1967 my late teens I managed to get myself to Paris and most young men were traveling to Paris for a different reason those days but I travelled there because they were having a huge Tutankhamen exhibition, was the first of the great blockbuster exhibitions ever held in Europe, so I got to actually see Tutankhamen‘s jewellery and treasures, and that just fired me even more,  I wanted to know how it was made and why and how –
JC             Aha, so it really sparked your love and a lifelong passion for the ancient work then?
JO             absolutely
JC             So you’ve chosen this bracelet, describe it to us please
Tutankhamun's Cuff
JO             well I’ve been a bit of naughty I suppose.  Most Egyptian jewellery is  very iconographic it sort of figures Gods and symbols and you can actually read a piece of Egyptian jewellery,  it means something in hieroglyphs, but I’ve actually chosen one of the few pieces from one or two pieces of Tutankhamen‘s tomb that are actually atypical: this is a sort of a broad bracelet like a cuff, in modern jewellery we’d call it a gold cuff, it’s gold it’s elaborate with lots of little grains and wires and filigree work but it has a sort of a half bead, a barrel shaped bead set in the top of it, forming the body of a duck which has two heads which is a kind of mutant duck – no one quite understands the symbolism but this is very unusual type of Egyptian jewellery; and that’s one of the intriguing things because it makes you ask why is this different?  It’s usually assumed to represent foreign influence, foreign work, maybe foreign goldsmiths because there’s nothing in Egypt of this period.  Because there’s so much to study about this stuff, there are endless books on Tutankhamen’s treasures, ever more magnificent photographs but it’s never really been fully studied, a few bits of it of been studied in detail, but that is never been properly published nearly 100 years after the discovery of the tomb, the jewellery never been published in a proper full publication, extraordinary.
JC That sounds a bit like a job for you then
JO             I wish!
JC             So with the cuff, you’ve described that is has this sort of – is it a brown stone, do you know what sort of material it is?
JO             I’m not sure I think it could be lapis lazuli, it’s a bluish 
JC             Ah ok.  So Jack moving on in your career, tell us how you got started in your commercial activity & how those developed alongside your more academic interests.
JO             well as I was getting more and more interested in ancient jewellery and the family business was in what I would call modern jewellery, I mean there were some antique pieces going back to 18th 19th century but it’s predominantly jewellery produced over the last century of two. So I managed to persuade the rest the family that might be an interesting idea to actually start buying and selling a few pieces of early jewellery, there is a market, it’s not a huge market but there are pieces they come on the market from old collections through the auction houses occasionally.  And um they agreed, I was actually quite surprised, at the time, but they agreed so I started building up buying and selling a few pieces of early jewellery and that in a sense really took over my end of the business and so I was both buying and selling and so as, if you like the sort of the research was being financed by actually buying and selling the stuff which is sort of a no-no in the modern academic world, commercial activity is sort of frowned upon, but it was back in the 70s and early 80s it seemed to be alright
JC             And you mentioned earlier your microscope examination techniques so who - I think we’d love to know - who first introduced you to this
JO             well a year after I went to Tutankhamen, I went to in 1968 I worked for a company run by Dr Gubelin in Lucerne in Switzerland for 8 months.  The idea was to sort of see another business to get a broader thing than just the family could provide.   So I was there for8 months ostensibly sort of to sell watches to English speaking customers visiting beautiful town on Lake Lucerne and to get some skiing in as well of course!  Dr Gubelin was as much a scientist is a retailer it is a very famous gemmologist,  and famous for his work on gemstone inclusions and I think he saw that I was more interested in technology than selling watches so he encouraged me in this and quite early on in my stay there he even let me look at some early piece of jewellery he  had in his office through a microscope and that was it - so I’d say my first ride on a microscope, so it was quite exciting
JC             very and what an incredible opportunity there from one of the leading names isn’t it?  And so moving on and back to London then, and your commercial activities are funding your interests, what was it that led you to pursue a doctorate?
JO             Well I’d written the book on Jewellery of the Ancient World, as I say it came out in 1982, and there was a famous book on early Egyptian materials, materials and industries, and it had been revised by someone called Prof John Harris from Durham, and it was quite a big influence on me because it is a study not just on jewellery but on everything from mummifying to stone sculpture, and mummies and it was really quite an influence, so I actually sent him copy.  And when he was in London from Durham he came and visited me and he said you know have you ever thought of doing a doctorate and I said well no I don’t  - I only just have ‘O’ level sort of thing, and he said well your book could count as an equivalent academic whatever it is to count towards a doctorate, it’s the equivalent of a degree certainly, the book, so maybe Durham could do this.  So we chatted about it and we both had quite a lot in common because his family also came from Harrogate in Yorkshire which is an amazing coincidence, so anyway the end of it I came to do it as a distance doctorate from Durham University which took seven years of hard slog
JC             AS well as running the commercial pursuits in London?
JO        well yes but at that time I was actually beginning to get more out of the dealing world and taking on more and more consultancy side and in fact that actually started a about that time, I think that leads neatly into the next couple of pieces in my Vault.
JC             Brilliant so tell us about these pieces
JO             Well I think – there are two pieces I’ve chosen here.  One sums up what I sort of call the Academic/Dealer dichotomy you know, you can’t really do both, or it’s difficult to be both.  My third object is a Roman ring, it was part of a collection of a guy called de Clercq who had been collecting in Syria in the late 1800s it’s a large Roman ring with this big brown lump on the top of it as this was shown to me by another London dealer and he said Jack what do you think this stone is we’ve been told it’s topaz, and I looked at this thing and like an idiot I suppose I said that’s not a topaz, that’s a large diamond.   And indeed it is, it’s a large 7ct diamond crystal it’s actually a sort of intergrown diamond crystal, but it’s a brown diamond, it’s the largest brown diamond form the ancient world and if I was a real dealer my first question would have been, ‘How much’ rather than being interested in what the stone was – the honesty -  more interested in the material that actually potentially making money on the piece!
Roman brown diamond ring
JC             So tell us, can you describe how it’s made
JO             It’s hammered gold again they weren’t using casting for much of the jewellery world in those days, the books often say there was casting but there wasn’t, it was very rare in Jewellery until post-mediaeval times and so it’s a large raised bezel,  a sort of the collar holding the stone is raised up above the finger,  with his big thing looks like a bit like a brown iceberg set in the middle of it.  So it’s open at the sides so that is the ring is open underneath and at the side so the light what little would get through the stone, would get through, which is a sort of very modern approach to diamonds really if you think about it
JC             Yes, so the diamond is not faceted obviously
JO             They couldn’t cut diamonds back then that came many centuries later.
JC             So it’s literally the natural crystal.  And it’s this amazing browny colour.   How much do you think this ring would be worth?
JO             I would hate to put a value on it but let’s say an awful lot of money,  many tens of thousands.  As I understand it there is another ring also a diamond ring originating from the same collection sold for well, let’s say a considerable sum not many years ago.  I probably - back in late 70s - I probably could’ve bought and if I hadn’t said it was a diamond, I probably could have bought it for a couple of hundred pounds. 
JC             Isn’t that always the way
JO             It is
JC             So tell us about the next piece in your vault.
Side view of Late Roman ring, Thetford Treasure
JO           The next piece is another ring, from the Thetford treasure or the Thetford hoard.  The ring’s interesting because it’s the hoop ends in two ducks heads, well they look like ducks heads, but I think they are probably dragons’ heads.  And the central bezel is an amethyst and around it in sort of 8 containing emeralds and something that is missing, the missing stones were probably pearls or something that has decomposed with time.  Now the Thetford treasure was a find that was discovered in Norfolk in late 1978 a lot of the books say 1979 but it’s actually late 1978 and this is the sort of the turning point for me because I heard about in 1979 this find, and it’s a tricky one because obviously the finder didn’t do the right thing, he didn’t put it though the treasure process -  the old treasure trove process and declare it - and he was trying to sell it and I was approached to see, as a dealer, if I wanted to buy it and of course, back to the same thing I do I want to make some money or do I do the right thing, and obviously  I did I didn’t buy it in the end and eventually it ended up in the British Museum, it’s a longish story but I wasn’t interested in it from a commercial point of view, put it like that, so it ended up finally where it belonged, in the British Museum, but this whole ethical considerations were really coming to a head there in the sort of early 80s a lot of pieces, a lot of looting was going on in the Middle East, Turkey,  and pieces were coming on the market that really shouldn’t have come on the market.  I mean there’s arguments on both sides here because if some farmer in Turkey finds a piece of Roman gold is it better that he sells it on the illicit market or melts it down to provide dental work for his family, I mean it’s a difficult decision to make from an ethical point of view.  But the worry about this to me so I actually gradually got out of the dealing world by the mid 80’s because it really was a difficult decision on where the piece was from an ethical background or whether it was something I shouldn’t handle so I got out of it.
JC             so yeah I can understand so this piece is part of the treasure that’s now on display permanently in the British Museum, a huge hoard isn’t it?
JO           Absolutely it’s a huge hoard, a wonderful group of jewellery and that has been published unlike Tutankhamen, that’s been published very well by the British Museum curators.
 JC            So you’ve keep this ring in in the vault, what is it about the ring that you love so much?
JO             I think it’s relative simplicity: showing a love of gems, in that the gems - they’re literally in your face aren’t they, really showing off the gems, and this is something that was coming in the Roman period, this love of coloured stones, as, in the way we might of think of them sort of sparkly transparent materials.  If you go to Egyptian jewellery it’s sort blocks of pigment, mostly opaque stones, but here we have a love of transparent stones, beginning to come in.  I mean they’d started coming in a little bit earlier, a few centuries earlier, but in the late Roman period they were really beginning to have a sort of a modern approach to gems
JO             and it’s quite interesting combination of amethyst and emeralds, because a few people in recent years modern designer use a combine purple and greens which always used to be no-no in the art world and you know this from the new combination but here that they were doing it 2500 years ago, 1500 years ago, I’m sorry
JC           Amazing!  Jack we’ve got 4 items now in your vault and you can have 6 so what else is going in?
Jack's gold bracelet ca 2700 y
Finial detail of Jack's gold bracelet
JO             Well I have to talk about, I don’t have jewellery I haven’t made a collection of jewellery over the years, some of the best collections have been made by dealers who kept the best pieces as they’ve been dealing, I was always more interested in obtaining books and knowledge, but there’s one piece I obtained in the early 80’s and it’s a bracelet, a simple bracelet a sturdy gold hoop, ending in these very simple heads probably lion, lioness panther something like that, and it fits!  In those days I was buying a very old collection and there were two bracelets one of them was broken and one of them was not, so as part of the deal, I bought the bracelet, or let’s say the bracelet came off the back of a deal on a collection of rings, and it fitted and I’ve pretty much kept it on ever since.
JC           So tell us now - what is your final piece in the Vault?
JO           Well I wanted to choose a more recent piece, by recent I say recent in my terms  not necessarily  in other people’s terms, and I thought I’d chose a gem this time, it’s a piece that sums up so many things about the jewellery history world and it’s a thing called the Black Prince’s Ruby.  It’s this large red stone, it’s a pear shaped stone, sort of bright purplish red stone, it’s 4.3 cm long and it’s set in what’s now the Imperial State Crown. It’s called the Black Prince’s Ruby, it’s not a ruby, it’s a stone – a gem called a spinel.   And the reason I chose this, first cause, I think it’s a very beautiful stone.  And it’s a very simple polish, it’s just a pear shape, the stone was found originally and it was polished to retain as much weight as possible, and just to show off its colour, it wasn’t cut to conform to some sort of particular taste that changes every generation anyway, of what a cut stone should look like, so I like it’s sort of gem cut au nature if you like, in this form and the other interesting thing is that it’s a stone with legends attached to it and you look at the web and there’s all these incredible legends, it was given to the Black Prince in the 1360’s in Spain - Black Prince being the son of Edward III - fighting in Spain and then it’s been handed down, it’s worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt on his helmet and wonderful legends which are repeated ad infinitum on the web and in books as gospel truth.  So recently I’ve been trying to study this going back to the original Spanish sources, English mediaeval sources sort of going through and the Black Prince quite possibly did receive a red spinel, one or two of them, while he was in Spain: there’s some records of this, but there’s nothing to link it to the stone today, it’s possible that the stone in the Imperial State Crown does go back to the Black Prince but there’s no way of proving it.  And the link with the Black Prince was actually only made relatively recently in the last few centuries, there’s just a hypothesis based on a possible relatively portrait identification that’s probably not right anyway, so there’s just a sort of hotch-potch of patriotic optimism if you like, to this legend of the Black Prince.
The Black Prince's Ruby
It’s not impossible the Black Prince’s ruby can go back in a direct line to the Black Prince in Spain and 1360s but it’s a very tenuous link and I think this sort of sums up so much that so much you find a book and particularly on the web these days just repeat stuff about gems and Jewellery without questioning it I think various philosophers over the years have said you know “ask questions, question everything” I think that’s the route of Jewellery history is to question everything:  don’t accept what you read – even stuff I wrote,  don’t accept it, find out for yourself, you know there’s always more to learn and I think that really sums it up.  The Black Prince’s Ruby.  It’s a gorgeous stone, and I think it sums up this thing that there’s always more to learn, never accept what people have said, go on and delve deeper and deeper and deeper, because there is no limit to what can be found out in the jewellery world.
JC             And here it is on the Imperial State Crown of our own crown jewels
The Imperial State Crown
JO             Absolutely a fitting place to have it
JC             Now you said famously - but I don’t know actually if you had said it famously! - but most of the modern jewellery market leaves me cold feel.  So please explain, why do you feel this way, because that’s quite a strong opinion of someone who has had a foot in the more commercial field?
JO           That’s a difficult question because I’m gonna probably upset a lot of people, you know when you get your Indignant of Tunbridge Wells writing in.  I think jewellery to me – I mean to be an interesting piece of jewellery, a beautiful piece of jewellery has to combine good design, good materials, and good manufacture.  If you mass produce pieces with poor quality alloys and set with poor quality gems, I don’t honestly see the point of it, you might as well buy costume jewellery.  For example, if you take my bracelet, that is made from gold pretty well as it came out of the ground, but if you find a 9 carat gold ring in a shop that’s, the gold there has been dug up somewhere, it’s been refined and melted and done all sorts of horrible mean nasty things to it over sort of industrial processes, it’s alloyed with other materials that never occurred in those proportions in nature, producing an alloy that is – 9ct gold is just 37.5% gold - and something’s made of that, and that’s stamped with a Hallmark and that’s real gold!  I mean, you couldn’t sell a beefburger as a beefburger if you only had 37.5% beef in it!  So I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy in the jewellery world, I think.  Fine jewellery I love, good quality, good materials, good technique, good craftsmanship, but I think a lot of the rest, I mean I say it leaves me cold, I don’t really see the point of it.  I’d rather buy good looking costume jewellery than a piece of sort of sub-standard modern alloy.
JC             Yeah, so Jack going back to your Vault you’ve got amazing pieces, 6 extraordinary jewels, all from the very early Ancient world through to the Medieval world with the Black Prince’s Ruby.  Overall what do you think jewellery means to you?
JO             Jewellery is a very special area isn’t it, because it combines beauty, art, it combines valuable materials.  So, it’s beauty - greed if you like - cos they’re valuable, but also sort of symbolism and meaning um pieces, cos jewellery has much… I mean the ring on your finger probably in most cases will have more meaning for you than say the coffee mug you’re drinking out of every morning, so there is that meaning there, and that also, gem materials and precious materials have always been traded.  I mean the ancient Egyptians were getting lapis lazuli that was coming all the way from what is now Afghanistan.  5,000 years ago they were trading gems over that material, so jewellery, the history of jewellery, is a history of commerce,  value, beauty, art, trade and symbolism and religion so there’re not many things in the world that brings all these things together so beautifully.
JC             No that’s well put.  So, Jack where will your journey in jewellery take you next
JO           A group I’m interested in at the moment is an amazing treasure in Bulgaria; it was found in 1978, but it’s being studied at the moment and called the Preslav hoard of the C10th and there’s some beautiful pieces of jewellery, they’re absolutely gorgeous and fascinating techniques.
But there’s always something new, it sounds silly to say something new when you’re talking about old pieces, there is, there is always something new.  Life is not long enough to look at all the bits I want to look at.
JC             Absolutely, so we’ve got six items now Jack and one of the rules of the Vault is to ask you which one piece I could if I could grant you one piece to keep safe forever what would it be and why
JO             this is the most difficult question, this is, um I mean where do you where do you start?  I mean it if it’s my own private jewellery vault I think the answer has to be my bracelet my gold bracelet partly because it’s connected to me, it’s something I’ve worn and something that has a meaning for me; also I suppose if I saved any of the other pieces from the jewel vault I’d have a difficult way to explain how they got to be in my private jewel vault to start with.  I think the answer has been my bracelet, which is on my wrist as I speak to you now.
JC           Granted that it is already on your wrist, which one piece would be on the Wish List
JO             Well I mean my bracelet, but probably the Black Prince’s Ruby because I’d just love a large gem like that.  There’s something very special very pure about it.
JC             Yes, Jack.  Thank you, Dr Jack Ogden.  Thank you so much for letting us into your jewellery vault and sharing your life through these 6 very special pieces.
JO             thank you very much Jessica it’s been a great pleasure