Percy Marks – Four generations of Sydney jewelers are famous »J-Wire

June 21, 2022 by Ruth Lillian

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Percy was born on July 6, 1879 in Wellington, New Zealand, the son of John Marks, a London-born jeweler, and his New Zealand-born wife, Eliza Jane Levy.

Opal King Percy Marks at the time held the largest opal in South Australia

The family moved to Sydney in 1880 where Percy was educated at Paddington Superior Public School.

At the age of 14 he was enrolled to study jewelery and design at Sydney Technical College and was apprenticed to Sydney jeweler Richard (RH) Jenkins of Market Street. He married Eliza Robinson Barton in March 1899 and later that year opened his first shop in Market Street. The business known as ‘Percy Marks’ has become one of Australia’s most respected family jewelers, with four generations of the Marks family behind it. From 1908, he advertised his business as “vice-regal jeweler”. The store is currently located in Castlereagh Street Sydney.

In 1907, impressed by samples of black opal from Walangulla (Lightning Ridge), Percy obtained a miner’s right. Although he only earned shin-crackers himself, he recognized the trading potential of opal and bought whatever was available. Captivated by its “brilliant splendour”, he described it as “the orchid of gemstones” and named it “black opal” to distinguish it from the more common pale form. Promoting it as Australia’s national gem, he dismissed the superstition that the opal was unlucky and made a collection for public display. He won the ”grand prize” at the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition in London and at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco.

In 1919, the state government commissioned him to investigate the trading of opals in Europe and North America. He has exhibited his collection at the Foire Internationale de Lyon, France, and in Paris, and has presented collections of rough and cut opal to eight French museums and mining schools. Believing that the opal trade was hampered by the miners demanding excessive prices, he suggested in his report to the state government that a small advisory board be appointed by the government to protect and harmonize the respective interests of the miner , the jeweler and the public. In 1925, the French government appointed him an Officer of Public Instruction.

With a “courteous manner” and a “clean”, “polite” appearance, he had a childlike fancy. He enjoyed presenting jewelry of his own design to celebrities. At a dinner in honor of Anna Pavlova, each guest received a silver foil “chocolate” – in reality, a black opal. Others to receive gifts were Australian opera singers Dame Nellie Melba and Elsa Stralia, American conductor John Sousa and aviator Amy Johnson. The opal presented to the Duke of Gloucester in 1934 by the Federated Retail Jewelers’ Association of the Commonwealth was selected and mounted by him. Percy also made a miniature opal coffin for Queen Mary’s dollhouse. He has donated sports trophies and charity appeal prizes, and presented opal collections to Sydney’s mining, geological and technology museums, as well as twelve high schools.

Percy received the Silver Jubilee Medal from King George V in 1935. He had a wide range of other interests: golf, billiards, swimming, yachting, fishing, gardening and Freemasonry. He is survived by his wife and four sons, he died of cancer on September 23, 1935.

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