James Hall has lost count of the times he's been up a ladder to hang a priceless chandelier and some bright spark has called out: "Brace yerself, Rodney." But the famous scene from Only Fools and Horses, when Del Boy and Rodney let a chandelier crash to the floor because Grandad has unscrewed the wrong one, is a far cry from Hall's rarefied world.
Hall, the chairman of Dernier & Hamlyn, is the holder the Royal Warrant for the design and manufacturer of bespoke chandeliers. "I have held the warrant for 20 years and my father had it for 50 years before that," he says. "We did the new lighting for St Paul's Cathedral last year and obviously we have done work for the Royal Family as well as Saudi princes and lots of celebrities."
But Hall admits that money doesn't necessarily bring taste. "We were called in for a lighting consultation by an interior designer in a grand country house belonging to a merchant banker. I was told to think about what might fit with the new decor and to remove the existing chandelier and chuck it in the skip on my way out. I could tell that this chandelier was an amazing piece, worth well over £100,000. To their credit, the designer and client agreed to leave it and decorate around it."
Of course, this isn't strictly speaking the right way to go about it. Colin Thompson, managing director of Tindle Lighting, sister company to Dernier & Hamlyn, says that you should plan your room first and then choose the style of chandelier to fit that, rather than the other way around. Tindle sells a vast array of vintage chandeliers, and the company has no truck with modern pastiche copies.
Over the past few years, chandeliers have come to dominate the lighting departments of modern design stores. But, while the attraction of these reproduction chandeliers is fading, and as they become fixtures in so many homes, their antique forebears have a timeless appeal.
"You can buy modern ones, and they might well be cheaper – although some of them are very expensive in their own right. But the main thing about vintage ones is that they will hold their value," Thompson says. "If you spend £2,000 and then decide to sell it or to change the look in a few years' time, you will get your money back.
"If you spend £500 on lights from a modern lighting shop, it's worth about £25 five minutes later. Even if you spend £150 and it's allegedly brass, you'll find that it tarnishes really quickly and looks awful," he says.
"And the other thing is that all the neighbours will have the same one. The joy of a vintage chandelier is that they are almost impossible to duplicate, so you will get something really valuable and unique."
Thompson finds many of his chandeliers in French country houses and chateaux. Taken mainly from the side rooms and bedrooms, the lights aren't too large for the average British home.
"Chandeliers have always been popular, and nowadays more people want something different and are prepared to spend a little more money buying something of value," Thompson says.
Gay Brown runs Façade, an Aladdin's cave of 20th-century lighting that features all sorts of chandeliers, many of which are suitable for those on a tighter budget. "Sometimes they are displayed almost as works of art for the home, which they can be," Brown says. "We price our lights to sell, so that we don't have to look at the same ones all the time. Prices start at about £150 for a small one."
Brown says that anyone can buy a chandelier, and as long as your home isn't too modern, and as long as it doesn't have very low ceilings, they will complement all forms of decor. Rather in the way earrings can finish off an outfit, so a well-chosen chandelier can really bring a room to life. But they should complement and enhance the rest of the decor, not drown it out, she says.
"Really contemporary and minimal homes look great with vintage chandeliers. And of course, if you match the lighting to the period of the property, that will also look great," Brown says. "The key is that they shouldn't be too small or they will disappear."
The best way to tell if you are buying a quality item or cheap tat is to examine the quality of the glass. "Also examine the pins that are holding it together. If they are shiny and bright, that can be a sign that they were cheap."
How to choose the right chandelier for your room
*A chandelier should be two inches wide for every foot of room width. In other words, a room that's 15ft wide should have a 30in chandelier.
*The more elaborate the design of the chandelier the bigger it will appear, so take this into account when deciding on the style.
*Although it is very hard to find a matching pair of chandeliers, if you are trying to light a classic double reception room, you will need a light at each end – one oversized one positioned in the middle will tend to look out of proportion.
* The Façade, 99 Lisson Grove, London NW1; 020-7258 2017
* www.tindle-lighting.co.uk; 020-7384 1485
* www.dernier-hamlyn.com; 020-8760 0900