Jewellery Designer Annoushka Ducas Remembers Her Famous Godfather, Mark Birley
My godfather Mark Birley was a charming and generous man known for his portfolio of London clubs. In 1963, when he opened the city’s fabled Annabel’s, which was lovingly named after his wife, he decided rather daringly not to insist on evening dress, which was unheard of for exclusive West End clubs at the time.
Mark was one of my mother’s oldest friends. In fact, my very first job was as his secretary at Annabel’s and, as a child, I would spend lots of time with him on family ski holidays. He was one of the most elegant (and vain!) men I’ve ever met in my life. He’s the only man I’ve ever known who insisted on wearing his shoes one size smaller because he claimed this made them look better.
Mark had a wicked sense of humour and didn’t take himself too seriously, but I also learned about the importance of attention to detail from him. At his exclusive members-only restaurants, the way the butter was presented, how glasses of champagne were served, and how the Christmas decorations were displayed all had to be perfect. This massively influenced my own understanding of the luxury industry and how we run things at my eponymous jewellery brand.
My mother died when I was 23 and Mark would regularly check in on my husband John and I to make sure we were doing okay. He began inviting us to his holiday home in Andalusia, Spain, which he would borrow from a friend for five weeks each summer. It was a beautiful villa in the mountains just outside Marbella. It had a Moorish-style courtyard with a stunning fountain in the middle and he’d host numerous guests each time he was there. Mark loved to entertain and spend time with the people he cared about.
Growing up, I was always aware that Mark had an impressive watch collection and that it was his absolute pride and joy. He would change his watch as frequently as most people change their shoes. I’m unsure of how many watches he had, but if I had to guess, I’d estimate about 50. A gorgeous Patek Philippe was his go-to choice for everyday wear, but he also had impressive pieces from Blancpain and Cartier.
In the summer of 2007, a year after I had sold the jewellery company Links of London, John and I went to stay with Mark in Andalusia and I noticed at lunch that he was wearing a 1998 Bulgari Aluminium Chronograph, which was reinterpreted for the first time by the watchmaker just last year. Mark knew I loved wearing men’s watches, they’re so minimalist, so I asked if I could try it on and he kindly let me borrow it.
A couple of weeks later, I was back in Hong Kong, where I lived full-time between 1985 and 1988, for business. I thought it would be funny to play a practical joke on Mark, so went to Temple Street Night Market in Tsim Sha Tsui to buy a fake version of his original and smash it up. When I returned to London, I posted it to him with a very apologetic note saying that customs officers had thought his Aluminium Chronograph was a counterfeit and destroyed it in the airport. Needless to say, he was beside himself with fury. Even after I admitted it was all a joke, he refused to speak to me. He eventually came around and saw the funny side of things but vowed to get back at me one day.
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