The History of Fairfax & Roberts
Australia’s oldest jewellery house
THE HISTORY OF FAIRFAX & ROBERTS
The year was 1842. Young Queen Victoria and her handsome consort Prince Albert had been on the throne for five years and the bustling town of Sydney had just been declared a city.
Richard Lamb, who had emigrated from London to Sydney in 1836 and established himself as a jeweller and optician was joined by Alfred Fairfax – of the Fairfax publishing family – to create Sydney’s first emporium for fine silver and watchmaking, Lamb & Fairfax at 394 George St – already the bustling artery of the growing city.
In 1858 Lamb & Fairfax registered their marker’s mark with the Assay office in London.
In 1886 the name was changed to Fairfax & Roberts after Richard Lamb had passed away and new investor Oscar G. Roberts joined the business.
Lamb & Fairfax quickly became a partnership recognised for excellence in the face of increasing competition.
A number of businessmen and merchants were establishing themselves in Sydney’s burgeoning commercial district, but the pair continued to manufacture the most reliable timepieces, and import the finest silver, in the young nation. A testament to their excellence is their work, with Lamb & Fairfax clocks still keeping time today.
While the jewellery of the time was much influenced by European styles, Australian jewellers such as Lamb & Fairfax made their own mark on the craft by producing pieces that strongly reflected Australia’s identity as a colony.
Women’s brooches often featured native flora and fauna, set with European silver, around a cameo or mosaic. Gentleman’s jewellery consisted of ornate breast pins, studs and gold watch chains, which signified status and style within a conservative period.
The discovery of gold in the 1850s brought a gold rush to NSW and Victoria, and with it Australia’s prosperity and population grew.
Along with a new wave of immigration came new styles of jewellery. And it was in this environment – rich with confidence, that Lamb & Fairfax was truly established, the bedrock of the brand that still exists today.
The Australian gold rush attracted fortune seekers from around the world, a number of whom were jewellers.
Craftsmen came from England and Europe and brought with them skills and an eye for design that were welcomed in the colony. Many set up in the goldfields before moving into manufacturing premises in the city and, at a time when photography did not yet exist, souvenir jewellery that literally depicted life, and success, on the goldfields was very popular. Brooches often featured mining equipment surrounded by fauna to create mementoes of the time.
The boom in population and new wealth in Sydney created a desire for luxury goods – both locally crafted and imported.
Sydney’s upper class grew rapidly and the city was full of life. There were museums and zoos to visit by day, and at night, gas lamps lit the streets as citizens travelled to theatres and parties. Lamb & Fairfax became a household name synonymous with quality and luxury and the store was the destination of choice for wealthy rural families who visited Sydney from their inland estates.
Australia at this time was still heavily influenced by Europe, but a sense of national pride was emerging.
The Sydney International Exhibition, a world trade event of the time, was held in 1879 and articles reported “a very large display of colonial jewellery and gold and silversmiths’ work, and the Sydney houses are extensive exhibitors. As a rule the style is distinctly Australian, the designs being suggested by incidents in aboriginal life and portraying the natives, their implements and habits and the indigenous fauna and flora of the country. The precious metals and gems employed are principally colonial.”
On 15 March 1879, the Town and Country Journal illustrated a gold bracelet presented to Lady Robinson, wife of the governor of New South Wales with the following description, “Designed and manufactured by Messrs Lamb & Fairfax.
The gold bracelet is massive, containing over 3 oz of fine gold, and has a depth of 2 inches. On the front are her ladyship’s initials N. R. in raised gold ornamental cypher, studded with 30 brilliants in a gipsy star, and burnished settings. The gold under each stone being left open adds considerably to the lustre of the gem; the lower half has the inscription “Sydney March 1st 1879” nicely engraved on its inner side. The bracelet has been fitted into a casket with nickel and silver mounts and rests on a bed of red velvet.”
Following the death of Richard Lamb in 1876, Alfred Fairfax’s nephew, Barton, had joined him in the business.
The Fairfax duo then partnered with a new investor, Oscar G. Roberts, and in 1886, the name of the business was changed to Fairfax & Roberts. With a new workshop on Hunter St and an outlet in London, the Fairfax & Roberts brand took its place as Australia’s premier jeweller.
In-house workshops in their stores meant that Fairfax & Roberts could offer clients bespoke jewellery that was designed to their specification and crafted by artisans on-site – a tradition the business continues to uphold today.
They worked with partners around the world to ensure that their jewellery was made using only the finest gems and precious metals.
In 1858 Lamb & Fairfax registered their marker’s mark with the Assay office in London, ensuring that customers could be confident their pieces were authentic and had been crafted to the highest standards.
In 1888 the firm was described as manufacturers of jewellery with a speciality “… in the setting to order of diamonds and other gems in rings, brooches, tiaras and other ornaments. For this purpose a large stock of stones on hand”. Roberts brand took its place as Australia’s premier jeweller.
The turn of the century brought with it many changes – significantly, Australia became a nation in 1901, sparking newfound patriotism and a wave of jewellery to accompany it.
Brooches that showcased the country’s native flora and fauna were once again hugely popular and everything from kookaburras to kangaroos and crocodiles featured in these simple pieces that were popular with the masses.
Australia’s independence was accompanied by increasing use of locally mined opals, sapphires, amethysts and diamonds.
A suite of jewellery containing gems from Queensland was displayed at the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899 and the Brisbane Daily Mail breathlessly reported that “all London saw, admired and talked of them and better still, later bought and wore them.”
As the sound of the cannons of World War I faded, it was replaced with the fizz and bubble of the Jazz Age.
Work had begun on the Harbour Bridge and Sydney had a bold style of its own. Post-war enthusiasm invigorated the fashion and jewellery world, and it was in these golden inter-war years that Art Deco was born.
With fashion becoming simpler and more linear, jewellery was changing too, with streamlined, geometric shapes – squares, triangles and chevrons – becoming increasingly popular.
Fairfax & Roberts became the jewellers of choice for design and craftsmanship of luxury jewellery of the time. Materials such as jade, onyx and coral came into fashion with more traditional stones and metals in designs that were sleek, modern and exquisitely crafted.
With a buoyant economy, the use of precious gems was very much a trend worth following, with brightly coloured stones like emeralds and rubies being particularly popular.
These eye-catching gems were paired with precious metals like gold and platinum to create sleek modern pieces that captured the spirit of the times.
So highly regarded was Fairfax & Roberts that when the Prince of Wales visited Australia in 1927, the pair crafted a sterling silver kangaroo pin to present to the future monarch.
He was soon to develop a reputation as a keen jewellery connoisseur when purchasing gifts for his future wife Wallis Simpson, whose collection was legendary.
As hemlines were shortened, women’s hair was bobbed as well – leading to a desire for elaborate jewelled hair ornaments and glittering dangling earrings that were no longer hidden by high-maintenance hairstyles.
Luxurious on-trend jewellery like this may well have been worn to Sydney society events such as the wedding of visiting Italian opera stars Toti Dal Monte and Enzo de Muro Lomanto at St Mary’s Cathedral – an event that was watched by a crowd of 25,000 people who gathered in College St, or perhaps to the wedding of Warwick Fairfax to Miss Marcie Wilson in March, 1928, with six elegant bridesmaids in attendance and a reception at Yandooya in Rose Bay following the ceremony.
While the women of the Art Deco period were simplifying their clothes, the jewellery of the era was still incredibly detailed and, so timeless is this style that much of this design skill and craftsmanship is still in evidence in Fairfax & Roberts designs today.
It was during this era of hope and exuberance that Fairfax & Roberts consolidated its reputation as the jewellers of choice for many of the nation’s most discerning families. Our commitment to design integrity and innovation, coupled with highly skilled artisans and access to the world’s finest gems and exemplary customer service ensured that Fairfax & Roberts turned history and tradition into a path for the future. A path that the business continues to forge with passion and vigour today.