Words by Hannah Tapping
Exploring the life and art of gemmologist and jeweller Karol Klimek.
Karol Klimek grew up in Kent, the son of a Polish former prisoner of war and an English artist. He had originally wanted to study geology, then an opportunity arose to complete a four-year apprenticeship with G. Cornell & Sons of Maidstone. During his time with Cornell he studied retail jewellery and gemmology, watch and clock making and took evening classes to study silversmithing and jewellery manufacturing. He went on to become a world-renowned gemmologist and jeweller, but sadly, died suddenly in 2017. I take up the story with his wife Bettina, in celebration of a unique man with an illustrious career.
Karol Klimek, pictured with the model of the State Mosque of Brunei
I first ask Bettina, what exactly is a gemmologist?
Gemmology is a branch of science that deals with the study of gemstones; a gemmologist is someone who identifies, grades and appraises gemstones. Karol completed his F.G.A Gemmology qualification with the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, a status that highlights educational achievements, knowledge and integrity, while also signifying membership of a professional body within the international gem and jewellery trades.
Can you tell a little of Karol’s career?
Karol worked for many prestigious jewellers including Cornell and then Pykes Jewellers in Liverpool. He was also offered a position at Mappin & Webb where he worked from 1968 to 1970 before an incredible opportunity came along as manager of the diamond department for the South African company Katz and Lourie. He worked there from 1970 to 1973, during which time his role took him to the Far East, Africa and Europe to buy loose coloured gemstones and diamonds. He was head-hunted by Asprey, who has held royal warrants since the 1800s when they were first awarded by Queen Victoria, but took a position as General Manager of Jawahir Oman, during which time he was asked by the Palace in Oman to supply high-class jewellery and watches. The early 1980s were spent at Schwartz Jewellers in South Africa before he returned to the UK to set up a retail jewellery shop in Tunbridge Wells.
Karol continued his work as gemmological consultant, and buyer at Camden Diamonds, New York. He was commissioned to supply diamonds and jewellery to the Royal Family of Brunei involving many visits to southeast Asia.
How did you meet and what was family life like with Karol working abroad?
I met Karol when I was on a break from my career as an executive bi-lingual secretary in Paris. I returned to the UK to help a family from the Middle East who had settled near my family. This led to an offer of employment in a jewellery business in Oman in which Karol was the newly installed General Manager. Our honeymoon was supposed to be in Cyprus but was changed to Sri Lanka when Karol had to go on a sapphire buying trip.
When our first child was one year old we moved to South Africa and stayed three years in Johannesburg. When Karol was travelling between New York, Geneva and Brunei, I was at home, first in Tunbridge Wells, and then in France with our four young children for several years. We then moved to Truro from France to give our growing children a stable secondary education and the opportunity came up to buy a small jewellery business. I had, myself, gained the qualification of Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, (FGA) and worked in the new business. We expanded into our current premises in Lemon Street in 2002 and Karol qualified as a Registered Valuer for the NAG the following year. Not ones to rest on our laurels, we also bought a manufacturing jewellery business in New Zealand a few years later.
What do you remember as being some of the highlights of Karol’s career?
Well, certainly the ‘Briolette’ diamond springs to mind. In 1984 Karol suggested to a diamond company in South Africa that the almost perfect octahedral shape rough diamond should be cut into a briolette shape, so maximising the weight from the rough. He took it to a diamond cutter in London and the result was a 116ct, natural champagne colour diamond which became the second largest briolette in the world. He then sold it to the Sultan of Brunei for the South African company. The rough stone yielded five smaller gems weighing a total of 14.93ct.
In 1985, Karol commissioned, and oversaw from start to finish, a replica model of the State Mosque of Brunei. It contained 11kgs of 18ct yellow and white gold and 132cts of yellow and white diamonds. This masterpiece even had its own seat on the plane when taken to Brunei.
He sold a fancy, pink heart-shaped diamond stud earring to Elton John and commissioned a pair of mating lions in bronze specially for him as a gift. Karol was managing a prestigious jewellers in Johannesburg and was asked to travel to Sun City where Elton John was performing to show him jewellery. We travelled together with our two young daughters and at a private dinner with Elton John and his entourage, I modelled the pink diamond heart stud earring which Elton then bought. It was customary to give gifts to visiting performers. He also had a baboon made for Rod Stewart whilst we were living in South Africa
Did Karol follow a particular style?
He designed pieces around the unique and unusual gemstones that he hand-selected. Sometimes these were based around a customer’s ideas and sometimes his own designs to show off the central gemstone in a piece.
How is this style reflected in your business in Truro and what sets Klimek Jewellers apart?
I believe that the knowledge and expertise that Karol brought to the business is quite rare. His belief in offering training to all staff has ensured that we have one of the most highly qualified teams in the business.
Our staff all hold at least one qualification in jewellery. Apart from myself, we have a highly qualified and experienced gemmologist, a trainee gemmologist, two GIA pearl graduates, three GIA Accredited Jewellery Professionals and two holders of the National Association of Jewellers Professional Jewellers Diploma, with two more studying towards the final diploma. Our experienced gemmologist has also passed her Appraisal Theory and is on the way to becoming a Registered Valuer.
We go out of our way to source whatever anyone is looking for no matter how unusual or difficult to find it may be. For example, we have had requests such as a zebra brooch, a diamond set, aircraft-themed pendant, and a ruby studded snake eyes ring. We will explore all the contacts we have accumulated over the past 50 years, to try and obtain at least one for the customer to view.
Through our trips to gem and jewellery fairs worldwide, and our contacts, we have hand-picked rare and unusual gem specimens, and with our design ideas constantly evolving, we have made bespoke pieces, some hand-crafted in our own workshop in New Zealand by highly skilled goldsmiths.
Can you tell me about this New Zealand connection – I can see you have shops there and spend time there?
In 2004, when our children had mostly flown the nest, Karol began to get itchy feet again – he loved to travel and experience different cultures. He saw a jewellery business for sale in New Zealand and we moved over there in 2005. Our daughters were looking after the business in the UK until they joined us in New Zealand. I then took up the main role of travelling back and forth, taking care of the Truro shop.
What is your role now within the business?
I have managed Klimek Jewellers from the outset, first alongside Karol, and more recently alone, having continued my studies over the years and gained qualifications with the Gemmological Institute of America, (the Accredited Jewellery Professional and the GIA Pearl Diploma). Latterly, I have been studying valuation techniques and passed my CAT theory examinations.
Now that you are retiring what does the future hold?
My greatest wish is for the business to continue to thrive under new ownership, but I will always be happy to be available as a consultant. I am then looking forward to spending more time with my family in New Zealand and Italy.