Four generations of Norwich's Zelley family have plied their trade as jewellers.
PUBLISHED: 10:00 25 February 2013
Howard Zelley never questioned whether he would go into the family jewellery business - it was just accepted that he would.
FJ Zelley (Norwich) Ltd, which incorporates A Ames, was originally established in 1886.
Currently, two generations of the Zelley family can be found at the flagship St Giles Street shop, where its premises, which cover 1,000 sq ft, are situated in a grade two listed building dating from 1750, with a 15th century undercroft.
Everything about the shop, which also doubles as an amber museum and is featured in the local museums website, oozes history.
Howard Zelley’s grandfather, Frederick John Zelley started the business in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, in 1886.
Coincidentally, it was the same year that Albert Ames started his jewellery business in Norwich. Mr Zelley’s father, Claude took over the Ames company in 1947.
Zelley’s has had a shop in St Giles Street since 1982, and before that it was based in Lower Goat Lane. Mr Zelley said: “I came to Norwich in 1947/8 when I was just six months old. I was born in Bishop’s Stortford, but I’m Norwich through and through. I have travelled about a bit, but have always been Norwich-based.
“I have worked in the jewellery business since the mid 1960s. I came straight into it, and it was the only thing I had ever looked at. If you had a family business at that time you automatically went into it.
“My son Alistair is the fourth generation of the family in the business and he works here with me and my wife, Susan.
“We previously had shops in Lowestoft and we have still got our shop in Ely. Another branch of the family still has the original shop in Bishop’s Stortford. I don’t know why grandfather originally started in jewellery.”
The 65-year-old has been all around the world buying jewels.
Next month he’s off to the annual amber fair, which boasts 500 stands of items on sale, in Gdansk, which is the centre of the Polish amber trade.
It will be his 18th trip there, and he started selling amber about 20 years ago.
“I will have about three or four days at the fair. Also, this year I’m off to Vilnius, to the Lithuanian fair. The amber comes from a quarry at Yantarny, near Kaliningrad in Russia.
“I bring whatever I buy back in a suitcase. It used to be a lot more complicated bringing amber back in the old days. You had to have a list of the items when you left Poland, but it’s easier now.” He said he had always been interested in gemology, which is the science dealing with natural and artificial gems and gemstones.
“It was what I specialised in. I did a degree in it. I first bought a piece of amber with an insect in it, about 30 years ago, from one of my German suppliers. It has quite a fascinating look. Back in the 1930s amber was very popular in the UK, and it’s coming back.”
The firm stocks about 20,000 items.
“Our customers are a cross-section. They include younger people who don’t want the glitz on the high street. Amber appeals to younger people, but it’s fashionable right across the board.
“We are unusual in that we don’t do modern watches, we only do second-hand. We got rid of quartz watches about 15 years ago, because they don’t last.
“We have had clocks since the 1970s. We used to import longcase clocks from Italy, and cuckoo clocks from Germany. But the traditional cuckoo clock is now being supplanted.”
The museum, which contains items that are not for sale, is based at the back of the shop.
In one cabinet there are Neolithic items, which are the oldest. Another cabinet contains fakes and imitations, while you can see Roman beads and amulets elsewhere.
He added: “Some of the Roman bits were found in Norwich, in Thorpe Road. They are Late Roman 5th/6th century glass beads.”
One item in a display case that took my fancy – especially as I’m reading a book on the ghosts of East Prussia – was a set of spoons from jewellers, Fritz Fehrmann, from Tilsit, formerly in East Prussia, Germany.
“They were displayed at the 1904 great exhibition in St Louis. They were on display at the German pavilion there. Six have got insects in their handles. I bought them more than 10 years ago at an auction in the Lake District,” Mr Zelley said.
I’m also partial to grandfather clocks, which the shop has a good selection of. Another item that is very hard to miss is a giant piece of rock crystal from Brazil, which arrived following a sale at the Brazilian embassy in London.
“That is about 56lbs of amber from Brazil, which would cost about £600 to buy, if anyone wanted to buy it,” he said.
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