Andrew Grima: Designer who shook up British jewellery with his flamboyant ideas

Andrew Peter Grima, jeweller: born Rome 31 May 1921; managing director, Andrew Grima Ltd 1966-2007; married 1947 Helène Haller (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1977), 1977 Jojo Maughan-Brown (one daughter); died Gstaad, Switzerland 26 December 2007

Andrew Grima shook up British jewellery with his bold use of semi-precious stones. He was an amazing blend of glamour and style, expressed through his energy and generosity, his love of good company, and his admiration for the arts, especially the one he made his own, modern jewellery. His dislike of mediocrity punctuated every aspect of his life, from his fine cars – he owned an Aston Martin and a Ferrari – to his homes and shops in Sonning, London, Lugano and Gstaad, always filled with his own exotic collection of art as well as his stock of jewels.

When I was art director at Goldsmiths' Hall, I was responsible for purchasing and commissioning new jewels and silver to complement the ancestral collections of our medieval guild, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. We ended up with more pieces by Grima than by any other living craftsman, an achievement which tells its own story.

Andrew Grima was born in 1921 in Rome, with a Maltese father who ran a big international lace-making company, and an Italian mother who traced her family from the Farnese of Renaissance fame – one of Andrew's creative forebears had helped to make the Trevi fountain in Rome. Brought up in England, Andrew Grima studied Mechanical Engineering at Nottingham University, which helped him when he joined the REME, one of the gallant British army regiments which fought in Burma during the Second World War in what was called "our forgotten army".

Grima was mentioned in despatches, nearly eaten by a tiger, and rebuked by Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck for not being smartly dressed. He was amazed that people at the top seemed unaware of the desperate conditions in the jungle. He helped to win the battle of Imphal against the Japanese by some brilliant engineering improvisation on his broken-down jeep. There was no technical repair equipment in the jungle. So was born Grima's fascination with craft skills which came in so useful when he got back to London at the end of the war.

There he married Helène Haller in 1947 and later inherited her Viennese father's jewellery business, the H.J. Company. Grima once told me he had loved art for as long as he could remember, so he joined in enthusiastically with the world's first-ever exhibition of modern art jewellery, which I organised at Goldsmiths' Hall in 1961. He now began to win the magnificent series of awards which changed his life – the Diamonds International Award (five times over) and in 1966 the Duke of Edinburgh Prize for Elegant Design (the first time it was given to a jeweller – a great boost for the skilled jewellery workshops).

These led to a phone call from Buckingham Palace asking for Grima to come and discuss ideas for royal presents for state visits overseas. The Duke of Edinburgh gave the Queen a jewel which she often wore and Princess Margaret commissioned Grima to cast some Scottish lichen in gold for a brooch – one of the many pieces inspired by nature at this time. And then came the Queen's royal warrant.

Grima started European travels, frequently with his new lifelong business partner, the master craftsman Geoffrey Turk. Then he went global, opening shops in New York, Sydney, Melbourne and at Seibo, the world's biggest department store, in Tokyo.

Grima felt that the time had come for a London shop of his own – where he would be free to express his own flamboyant ideas. He chose Jermyn Street, St James's, a typically stylish choice. The shop had to be a knockout. So it was a work of art in its own right, created by Andrew's two brothers with the sculptors Bryan Kneale and Geoffrey Clarke.

They contrived a splendid shop front with great slabs of rough, irregular shaped slate, allowing the small rectangular showcases to poke their way in between. The effect was one of intense contrast: primitive, barbaric, blank areas of stone beside delicate pinpoints of lights. It was part fortification, with huge steel nuts and bolts and bars to hold it together, part fantasy in space, luring the observer inside from the bright to the dark through the dark crevices to the chinks of light within.

Grima organised a series of provocative, original exhibitions there on themes of "Super Shells", "Rock Revival" and "Leaves". Best of all was "About Time" in 1971 for the Omega Watch Co, which had commissioned Grima to make a collection of original jewelled watches with faces of semi-precious stones. This exhibition was opened by the Princess Royal at Goldsmiths' Hall and then toured the world. In a grand gesture, Omega hired a jumbo jet to fly their guests to the party on Lake Geneva.

In 1977, Grima, by now divorced, married Jojo, granddaughter of Sir Thomas Cullinan, of diamond fame. They decided in 1986 to move the business to Lugano and six years later moved again, to Gstaad, where they made a beautiful home in a large chalet crammed with antique Spanish chests and Roman chariot wheels and, in contrast, some vast modern American paintings of brilliant colours. The elegant shop was below this great loft-like living room and below that was Andrew's fascinating magpie-like collection of early carpentry tools and Indian pipes.

He was a great enjoyer of life and wanted others to share his enjoyment – hence his great parties in fine restaurants such as the Gavroche in London, the Colombe d'Or in Vence, and the Baur au Lac in Zurich. I like to think of his genial spirit sitting benignly in a corner, enjoying the scene.

Graham Hughes

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