One of the U.K.’s Last-Remaining Expert Pearl Stringers Is in High Demand

In her small loft-style workshop atop a nondescript building in London’s Mayfair neighborhood, Renata Terjeki cuts an unassuming figure.

A casual observer would not know that the craftswoman, who is understated and chic in a jean jacket, wrap skirt, and Converse sneakers, regularly rubs shoulders with Europe’s rich and famous. As one of the U.K.’s last-remaining expert pearl stringers, Hungarian-born Terjeki is ingrained in the fabric of London’s jewelry world; auction houses have her on speed dial and she works on rare pieces, sometimes worth millions of pounds, for clients around the world.

Pearls are increasing in popularity as younger generations take an interest in what has traditionally been seen as an older woman’s jewel. But few people are learning to string them today.

“It is a dying-out trade,” says Terjeki, 44. “All my competitors are in their 70s and 80s.”

When she began learning to string pearls a decade ago, Terjeki was worried the work might be dull. A goldsmith by training, she was looking for bench work making metal jewelry when an older London pearl stringer offered to take her on as an apprentice.

“I thought, I’m probably going to be stringing [single-row] pieces for really old people,” Terjeki says. “Then I realized what a variety you can have.”

The changing market demographics allow her more scope for creativity—stringing chokers and French plaits, making earrings and hair pins, restoring auction pieces, and creating her own designs.

“People have started discovering how many different options they can have—color, size, style,” Terjeki says. “It isn’t always about a necklace: pearls could be sewn on a pair of shoes or a skirt, broaches are coming back… I think sometimes people have to be presented with options because they can’t always think outside of the box.”

“The spectrum has changed massively over the last 100 years,” says Kristian Spofforth, head of sales for Sotheby’s London jewelry department.

He said artificially made “cultured” pearls such as Tahitian and South Sea pearls are becoming more common and bringing the jewel into the mainstream. They are more affordable than natural pearls, which are formed organically when minuscule bits of grit make their way into oysters.

“Design becomes more innovative,” Spofforth says. “A lot of the little pearl necklaces and bracelets we see now are lighter, driven towards a young market, because they are a lovely thing that are easy to use, very versatile.”

Sotheby’s, however, trusts few people to work with their pieces. When it comes to pearl skinning—a technique used to add luster to dull pearls—Spofforth said there are no longer any qualified experts in the U.K. And as for stringing, there are only two people in London that Sotheby’s regularly commissions.

“If [Terjeki] decides to hang up her hat, I don’t know what we will do,” he says.

The luxury jeweler Alisa Moussaieff is another regular client of Terjeki’s. She said pearls are becoming “all the rage.”

“They are no longer perceived as conventional, and designs are more modern, playful, and edgy,” she says. “They are a symbol of female empowerment and direction.”

The bulk of Terjeki’s work comes from referrals from clients such as Moussaieff, the auction houses, colleagues in the industry, and, once, the Victoria and Albert Museum. She does not have a website or name over her door and acknowledges that it adds to her mystique.

“It’s kind of like an underworld,” she says. “You press the buzzer—‘Hi my name is so-and-so, I came to see so-and-so’—the door opens, you go in the back.”

(Terjeki’s rates depend on the piece’s length, intricacy, and age, and start at £80 for a basic 20-inch single row of pearls. She recently charged £2000 for a pearl set consisting of an intricate necklace, earrings, a bracelet, broach, and hairpiece, which she anticipates will take 3-4 weeks.)

But, Terjeki says, the secrecy can also make it difficult to gain exposure. She sometimes signs confidentiality agreements barring her from speaking about clients or claiming credit for her work. Previous customers she cannot name include a European royal (“I thought it was a joke—somebody just phoned me up and said, ‘Her majesty will be in town’”), and a British duchess who has since passed away.

Three years ago, a client came to see her at the busiest time of year asking for a rush job on an unusual necklace, claiming it was “really important.”

“I said, ‘Yes but it’s only a week to Christmas, who is it for, the Queen?’” Terjeki recalls.

In fact, the recipient was one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s daughters, she said. The piece was like a string of prayer beads with pearls, tassels, and gold beads. Though it could likely have been strung in Russia, she was told it was more alluring if handmade in London.

Pearl stringing has to be done by hand, unlike other kinds of jewelry where machinery can be used, according to Terjeki. Each knot needs to be hand tied between each pearl, and pearls scratch or damage easily if held by claws like the kind used for diamonds.

According to Spofforth, there are still jewelers who can perhaps string a single-row necklace, but few who can do anything more complex than that.

Being in the Bond Street area, where Terjeki has worked for the past three years, certainly adds to her professional appeal—even if her office feels like a far cry from the posh world of her customers.

Her fourth-floor rented space resembles a Parisian attic with skylights overlooking neighboring rooftops. A simple (and portable) workstation includes sewing scissors, tweezers, small pliers, and a basic needle with a wooden handle for knotting string. On the desk, a bright red cloth helps her to see the pearls and is meant to prevent them from rolling away—though, she says, “they still do anyway; I’m always on the floor.”

Her method of washing the jewels might appear rudimentary—tap water and dish soap—but when Terjeki begins stringing them into intricate patterns, she works with the deftness of a seasoned professional. She can spend hours on end on her ergonomic kneeling chair, stringing under the glow of a day light. (The work has made her short-sighted, despite the lamp.)

When Terjeki works on highly expensive pieces, clients sometimes send a bodyguard to sit with her; other times, they will not let her keep the jewelry overnight, even though her office is secured with a fob system, cameras, and a heavy fire door.

Transporting expensive items is another concern, though she is steps away from many of her clients, including Bonham’s and Sotheby’s. She is careful not to take phone calls or listen to music when carrying jewelry.

One person Terjeki frequently pops in to see is diamond-mounter and goldsmith Paul Bradley, a few minute’s walk from her in another unmarked workshop. He does the metal work for the pieces she strings.

Bradley says he is seeing more pearls nowadays as clients move away from traditional single-row strings and toward new styles. One pair of pearl earrings he has been working on can be worn five different ways with minor adjustments and additions.

“People realize they’re something special… they’re not like diamonds where they can just keep being dug up,” he says.

Scared to Touch

Terjeki said there are few sophisticated courses in pearl stringing, unlike with other types of jewelry.

“Nowadays jewelers don’t know much about them and so they don’t want to touch them,” she says. “Many people are scared to touch really expensive things.” She has worked on pieces worth as much as £12.5 million (US$15.8 million).

Terjeki does have her eye on an apprentice, “but sadly she’s only 10,” she said.

She hosted the girl, a client’s daughter, for an afternoon last year and was impressed her with her ability to knot the string—the hardest part of the job—as well as her willingness to keep working until she got it right.

“I thought, ‘You’ve got what you need, really,’” Terjeki said. “You need to have determination.”

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