He handcrafts some of the finest crystal jewelry in the world. He sacrifices finger scarring and nail breakage for the sake of handling precious jewels, stones and metals to forge pieces of showstopping sparkle. He’s been commissioned to create a diamond-studded shoulder piece for Michael Jackson, a choker and bridal veil tiara for Miss Piggy’s wedding, and costume jewelry for singer Shirley Bassey and actress Dame Judi Dench. His diamonds are a model’s best friend, including supermodel Helena Christensen in an editorial spread for British Vogue. Then the creators of the British drama television series, Downton Abbey—set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate between 1912 and 1926—came knocking at his door to ask him to design the show’s collection of tiaras, combs, bands, bracelets, earrings and necklaces.  This past January, he graced New College of Florida to speak at a sold-out event for the New Topics Lecture Series. His talk, “From Downton to Gatsby: Jewelry and Fashion from 1890-1929,” covered the extraordinary time period where the great couturiers collaborated with the finest artisans to produce jewels of overt opulence. SRQ sat with the king of crystals, Andrew Prince, to gain insight on the unwritten social rules of British hierarchy and the challenge of designing “in the dark” for a television series.

SRQ:  what do you find most interesting about the British imperial era? Prince: The beginning of the 20th century was such a fascinating time because the physical revolutions—as in the fall of the French Monarchies, the Russian Monarchies, all the monarchies throughout Europe—falling after the first World War, the changes that came thereafter, created what we are doing now. Americans and their democratic sensibilities, had the most profound influence on the rest of the world.


How did sovereignty, social class and hierarchy play into jewelry design in this century? The quantity of jewels that you wore showed your importance. Also, coveting historical pieces. American heiresses, they would wear very big, historically important pieces purchased from royal collections. With the older ladies, they would come into a reception and they’d wear Empress Eugénie’s rose brooch, or something like that. That was like walking into a room wearing Elizabeth Taylor’s emeralds—everybody knew what they were. There’s all these things that you have to know about, so fun. And also, so sparkly.


When do you think these cues of flaunting your dominion died out?  Things have changed—it’s not so much jewels, it’s handbags. Nowadays, a woman will walk into a room with a red, crocodile Birkin handbag, with 18-carat gold trimmings. That thing is 300,000 GBP (about $390,000 USD). And that would be like walking into a room with a thumping great crown or tiara. In the days past, you would have a vault you’d walk in, and you’d have a showcase with all your jewels. Now, people have wardrobes of walk-in closets. It’s about showing your empire. 


How did your extensive knowledge in fashion history and background in the trade help you design the jewelry for Downton Abbey?   When working on a series, and certainly working with Downton Abbey, it’s difficult because everything’s very hush-hush. You’re very much kept in the dark—you don’t know the storyline or script, you don’t know who the characters are, you don’t even know what the costumes are. You have almost nothing to go off of. It was often a case of, “We need some tiaras.” “Okay, what is the event and who is it for?” “We can’t tell you.” “Okay, well is it a ball, or is it a reception?” I said, “Because there are different tiaras for different things. A ball is grand. A reception, it depends who is coming and who’s not.” All these different rules applied back then. Knowing all those different rules though, made it easier. 


What other sort of codes that were dictated during this period?  Back then, it was all about the different jeweled headgear. You have to know about those nuances because there was a whole unwritten code of what you could wear, what you couldn’t wear. For example, it was considered extremely vulgar to wear a tiara in a hotel. It was simply not done—no matter who you were. The opera, fine, no problem. Palaces? Absolutely fine. Your own private home? Sure, something to keep your hair up in the shower. If the Queen or the Princess was coming to your house for an event, you’re to downplay, you cannot outshine them. But if you’re going to a reception, at somebody else’s place, you can put it on. But, the host must not try and upstage. There are all these unspoken taboos for this sort of thing.


So, being mostly in the dark about which characters you were designing for, how did you manage to retain accuracy of the social scale? I would send a selection of tiaras in, knowing that amongst those, Lady Mary Crawley, Grand Heiress, would be more likely in a bandeau, or noble headband. Cora Crawley would be in a big, brilliant, modern tiara, because she’s the American Heiress daughter. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, would be pretty grand, old-fashioned as the matriarch. And Edith Crawley would probably be in something frumpy, because poor thing, she was always the dour character. It was like, “Let’s find something small and mimsy for Edith.” Also, working with Caroline McCall, who was the costume and wardrobe designer, and then Anna Robbins, who came into the last two series, and then the film. Both of them have a very strong historical background, so they knew what pieces would have to go with what person. 


What crystals did you source?  I worked with Swarovski on getting some specific stones to cut. In the old days, you used to have a necklace that basically looked like 

screwed up tin-foil on screen because the camera didn’t pick it up. Now, with today’s high-definition cameras, they pick up every single detail. From a historical point of view, I find it irritating when someone’s wearing a diamond necklace and that stone is 100 years out of date. It’s an incorrect cut for that period. This is what bugs me about a lot of costume dramas—they get the jewelry completely wrong. I got Swarovski to cut me different stones that were specific for that particular period including Georgian-type stones, Victorian-cut stones, and Edwardian-cut stones. When  you smell granny’s perfume, and think, “Ugh, that’s old lady perfume.” It’s only an old lady’s smell because it’s set in a particular period, it’s associated with a certain decade. In a way, stones are the same. The cut will change slightly differently, within 20 years. The princess cut for example, which was very popular in the late 80s to 90s, was a very specific cut of that era.


Were you born in the wrong era? No, I like this—we have deodorant and that sort of thing. I mean goodness, what must it have smelled like making love back then?


What goes into creating a collection like the one for Downton Abbey? It depends how it is made. Some items I made for Downton were made like the real thing. All the pieces that actress Maggie Smith wore were made properly, as from the 20th century. They were set in heavy metals, like silver and gold, and using cubic zirconias, cultured pearls, all that sort of thing. If you’re doing one from scratch, it takes far too long—Maggie’s one took six weeks. 


Is jewelry design what you dreamed about doing when you were a kid? I’ve made the stuff all my life—the first piece I made was when I was three. It’s a ring that was made for my grandmother, using a wire pulled out from the back of an old television and beads taken from my grandmother’s wedding dress. She was not happy. Didn’t approve of that. Didn’t wear it. When she passed at the beginning of last year, my mother found it amongst the things she kept in a box. I didn’t know she still had it. Cue the waterworks. Anyway, I left school when I was 15—I didn’t go to college or any of that. Instead, I joined the jewelry trade straight away, at 16, and that’s all I wanted to do. I started off with just a string of beads. Being self-taught, I learned in inverted commas, the hard way, how not to make jewelry. 


What actually happens in your studio when creating?  Appalling fingernails, for one. It is not delicate stuff—you’re using acids, flames and boiling hot water. I strip stones with sulfuric acid. It’s brutal stuff. You’re burning your fingers and you end up with metal spurs. If you’re using copper, sometimes you get thin little needle shards and it can get in your skin. And the tips of your fingers then turn green. It’s not fun stuff. By the end of finishing it, you hate the piece. It looks lovely, but you’ve been putting in 1,500 stones one by one, and you’re just like, “Get rid of this thing.” It’s only when it’s on camera, and you think, “Oh, it is quite pretty.” 


Why do you prefer working with costume jewelry? More design has gone into costume jewelry than has ever gone into real jewelry. You pile it on, it’s fun, it moves, it makes memories. I don’t see the point in discreet jewelry, I really don’t. I want to see a pair of earrings from across the other side of the room. I want big, ostentatious, shiny, flashy, fabulous jewelry. The stuff that takes a bit of courage.  SRQ