Alistair Zelley is a 35-year old manager of his family’s long established jewellery business – Zelley Norwich. Zelley Norwich mostly deals in fine pre-owned items, antique and vintage primarily but they do stock a compressive range of new items of fine jewellery. In this interview, we explore the fascinating story behind this 4-th generation family business.
Minnirella Magazine: Zelley Jewellers is a 4th generation family run business. How have the business and the services/products you offer evolved over the years?
Alistair Zelley: The business as a whole has changed greatly since my Great Grandfather started out in the industry during the reign of Queen Victoria. Obviously the last 10 years have changed the face of the high street greatly with e-commerce so we have had to change the business model to align with demands and trends. Fifty years ago the business had a variety of shops around the county all selling clocks and watches, silverware of all shapes and sizes, porcelain and glassware products as well as operating extensive workshops to service and repair the vast quantity of mechanical timepieces being sold.
Clocks were being imported from Germany and Switzerland on a bi-weekly basis by the lorry load. That has all gone though. Time is so readily available now thanks to the electronic era that the need for mechanical clocks is reserved for prestigious pieces. There is a market but a very specialist market now and although we still have a large collection remaining, clocks are not a priority to us. The watch market has however seen a drastic boom in the last five or six years with prices sky-rocketing but it is a facet to our business that we have let go to allow us time to concentrate on the items of fine jewellery I have a real passion for.
We are focusing our efforts greatly on sourcing, restoring where required, and offering up for sale unique items of jewellery. Particular attention is being diverted to developing our online presence as much as possible but we came from retail premises and will remain to operate a physical retail shop indefinitely. Getting lots of ‘likes’ is great but seeing the beaming smile on someone’s face when they find their next piece of jewellery is a heartwarming experience.
Minnirella Magazine: How old are some of your oldest pieces? What are the oldest items you’ve ever worked with?
Alistair Zelley: We have some Georgian pieces for sale of which the earliest is from the first part of the 1800s. Some items we acquire we like so much that they simply go into our own collections and never make it for sale in the shop or online. We have had the pleasure of stocking some items of great historical merit dating back to the Roman Empire.
Minnirella Magazine: Have there been any interesting stories that you’ve discovered when studying your jewellery?
Alistair Zelley: Recently I received a phone call from a lady who had a Chalice. A religious beaker of sorts used for ceremonial services which had been damaged and was in need of repair. She brought it into the shop and initially it simply looked like any other Chalice. I took a quick glance at the worn hallmark and immediately knew that it was a piece of Norwich silver. The last items to be hallmarked at the long closed Norwich assay office were in 1701 so I knew it was old. A few minutes referring to the books confirmed the piece to date back to 1568. A 450+ piece of silver that had survived being plundered during centuries of battles and wars only to find its way into my care for repair.
Minnirella Magazine: What has been one of the most interesting things about studying jewellery hallmarks?
Alistair Zelley: Hallmarking is the oldest form of consumer protection. It ensures that the alloy you are purchasing is up to standard. Very few people actually know what a hallmark is and simple assume that if an item has a funny little stamp someone that the piece is kosher. When you get really involved in the where and the how of marking jewellery the history of the pieces themselves start to appear. Not every country has such an extensive system in place as we do here in the UK but thankfully the most prestigious makers and manufacturers will ensure their work is directly attributed to them.
Faberge, the most prestigious of the jewellery houses, stamped their articles fairly thoroughly. Faberge himself never actually made anything but rather he employed ‘Work Masters’. Each of these men were masters of their independent fields so one would head up the picture frame department, another would be a master box maker while others were experts in jewellery such as brooches and neckwear. Each Work Master would employ their own team of skilled craftsmen creating master pieces through team work and precious engineering. The stamps and marks found on Faberge items allow us to identify which of these Work Masters’ departments any particular item came from and as such gives us a timeline. We have a couple of Faberge pieces safely tucked away in our collection and it is amazing handling them knowing that the very workshops these came from also gave us the Faberge Eggs.
Minnirella Magazine: In jewellery, every era has its own style, fastening, clasp, gem stones, sizes also vary. Do you have a particular favourite era in jewellery or trend? And if so, why?
Alistair Zelley: Are Deco is a favourite not just because of design but variety and the sheer volume of unique items available. The booming 20s and 30s gave significant rise to decadence and opulence meaning vast quantities of fabulous jewellery was being made.
The Victorian era as well is another favourite. It is hard to exactly say why but sometime you just look at an item of Victorian jewellery and think ‘wow, that is amazing’.
Minnirella Magazine: Are there any special rules for storing and caring for antique jewellery? For e.g., people say that you shouldn’t keep real pearls in a closed, dark space because it discolours them. Are there any Dos and Don’ts for preserving antique jewellery?
Alistair Zelley: Keeping your pearls in the dark will not damage them in any way shape or form. You have to remember pearls come from oysters meaning they sit in pitch black submerged in salt water. The main reason pearls become damaged is due to cosmetics. Do not spray perfume while wearing your pearls. Spray your perfume and leave it twenty minutes or so before putting pearls on. Pearls also do not take kindly to the acids found on your hands. Try not to fiddle with them while out at dinner. My Grandfather while out at dinner parties was apparently notorious for going over to people playing with their pearls, slap them on the wrist and tell them to ‘stop fiddling’. All I would say is ask as many questions as it takes from whoever you are purchasing your jewellery from and realise that antique jewellery was never designed for daily use.
People never used to wear their items around the house and they were reserved for going out to social events. If you want an engagement ring to wear all day every day and you work in an industry where it is likely to get knocked around on a daily basis, antique or vintage might not be the thing for you.
Minnirella Magazine: Do you have any tips on the key things to look out for to decide whether an old item of jewellery could be worth something?
Alistair Zelley: Speak to people such as ourselves. Find someone on social media who looks like they handle similar items and send them some pictures. This is always a great way to start the ball rolling. Those of us who have handled valuable items for many years are able to quickly spot if something is costume jewellery or would require closer inspection. Do spend a bit of time doing your research though. The internet and social media is full of people in the trade who paint a pretty picture of their business but ultimately wouldn’t know a diamond from a cubic zirconia unless it was labelled as such. I am forever reading absolute rubbish about jewellery that is factually wrong but worded so eloquently that it would come across as gospel to the layman.
Knowing who to trust is very hard in this business! If you can speak to someone face to face go and do it. Get a measure of how articulated they are and how passionate they are about the items they are commenting on. Ask a second or third opinion. If someone seems very keen to buy an item of yours yet say it’s not worth very much alarm bells should be ringing.
Minnirella Magazine: What are some of your favourite pieces that you have in stock right now?
Alistair Zelley: There are so many right now. We are so very lucky to be able to stock the things we like rather than things we feel we have to sell to turn a profit and pay the rent. I love opals and particularly emeralds, they are mesmerising.
The thing I love so much about our stock is the diversity. The term cluster ring for instance can cover an extremely extensive range of variations. A quick search of ‘cluster’ on our website will show you what I mean.
Minnirella Magazine: Finally, where can we find you?
Alistair Zelley: Simply search Zelley Norwich to find our website or go to
The best place to follow us though and keep an eye on current and new stock is our Instagram page