From Australia’s Jewish Past: Percy Marks – Sydney’s four generations of jewellers fame

June 21, 2022 by Ruth Lillian
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Percy was born on 6 July 1879 in Wellington, New Zealand, the son of London-born John Marks a jeweller, and his New Zealand-born wife Eliza Jane Levy.

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

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

At the age of 14, he was enrolled to study jewellery and design at Sydney Technical College and apprenticed to the Sydney jeweller Richard (R.H.) 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 jewellers – with four generations of the Marks family standing behind it.  From 1908 he advertised his business as a ‘vice-regal jeweller’.  The store is currently located in Castlereagh Street Sydney.

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

In 1919 the State Government commissioned him to inquire into the marketing of opals in Europe and North America. He exhibited his collection at the Foire Internationale de Lyon, France, and in Paris, and presented collections of rough and cut opal to eight French museums and mining schools.  Believing the opal trade was being hampered by 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, jeweller and the public. In 1925 the French Government appointed him Officier d’instruction Publique.

With a ‘courtly manner’ and a ‘clear-cut’, ‘polished’ appearance, he had a boyish whimsicality. He delighted in presenting jewellery of his own design to celebrities. At a dinner in honour of Anna Pavlova, each female guest was presented with a silver-papered ‘chocolate’ – in reality, a black opal. Others to receive gifts were Australian opera singers Dame Nellie Melba and Elsa Stralia, the American bandmaster John Sousa and aviator Amy Johnson. The opal presented to the Duke of Gloucester in 1934 by the Federated Retail Jewellers’ Association of the Commonwealth was selected and mounted by him. Percy also made a miniature opal casket for Queen Mary’s doll’s house. He donated sports trophies and charity appeal prizes, as well as presenting opal collections to the Mining, Geological and Technological museums in Sydney, as well as to twelve high schools.

Percy was awarded King George V’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935.  He had a wide range of other interests: golf, billiards, swimming, yachting, fishing, gardening and Freemasonry. Survived by his wife and four sons, he died of cancer on 23 September 1935.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or its Facebook page.

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