Sunday, 9 June 2019
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David Warren, Senior International Jewelry Director at Christie's Auction House, talks about what withstands the whims of fashion.
Aside from its shape, cut and size, the most important quality in a gemstone is its color; it should make your spine tingle.
"Colored diamonds are remarkably beautiful freaks of nature," says Warren. "And they are much rarer than white diamonds." An accidental inclusion of boron will turn a diamond blue, slippage of the lattice structure will make it pink, and radiation in the ground will turn it green.
All must be tested to make sure the colors were created by nature, not man. Warren recommends the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) for diamonds and the Swiss laboratories for colored gemstones. 'Those laboratories have the best reputation."
"If you hold a wine bottle up to strong sunlight, you get close to the ideal dark-green color of a Muzo mine emerald," he continues. "For rubies, the perfect color is a darkish pigeon-blood red. Too dark and it can look rather gloomy."
One thing Warren likes to do is to take the best stones from Christie's jewelry auctions in Hong Kong, London and New York, and line them up. Differences difficult to explain then become apparent.
"Kashmir sapphires are sometimes described as hazy or sleepy," he says. "They may contain masses of microscopic inclusions, even if they're not visible to the naked eye, that create the hazy blue color. By contrast, Ceylon stones tend to be quite transparent and glasslike."
Small and fine is always preferable to large and opaque. "You might have a 50-carat emerald, but if it's full of inclusions, who cares?" Warren explains. "What you want is an 8-to-10-carat that's a gem — and worth $40,000 to $60,000 a carat — rather than a 50- carat stone that's worth $2,000 to $3,000 a carat."
According to Warren, jewelry rides out recession well. "After the 2008 collapse, people had less confidence in the financial markets or property, so they put their money into jewels," he says. "We have had our best ever year every year since that date."
The portability of jewels accounts for some of the demand: "You can't buy a house in the middle of Paris, and when the market drops move it to London. But you can fit diamonds into your top pocket."
Warren has witnessed some incredible price increases. "If you had bought colored diamonds in the 1970s and sold them in the 1990s, you would have made a big profit," he says. "And if you had bought them in the 1990s and were selling them now, your profit would be vast."
The mystique of past owners can also add value. After a ferocious table-tennis match between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — two famous aficionados of the game — Taylor emerged the winner. Her prize was a diamond ring. She was rubbing her hands as the pair went shopping. What would she get — a 20-carat? A 50-carat? Burton more than fulfilled his promise, buying her three rings. But he chose the tiniest diamonds he could find in all the shops in Gstaad. Just over 40 years later, her Ping Pong rings, as they are known — set with diamonds of just half a carat each — sold at Christie's New York for $134,500.
But not everyone is impressed by famous past owners: "I was on the phone with a client in America who wanted to buy a beautiful pair of pearl earrings that were once owned by Queen Victoria," he recalls. "He won the lot at auction and said to me afterwards: 'So who was this Victoria lady anyway?' Although the piece had a distinguished history, this individual wanted them solely for their quality."
"From the turn of the 20th century until the 1920s, Cartier held the wrists, necks and hearts of royalty and the international aristocracy in its beautifully bejeweled grip," says Warren. Restlessly inventive, brothers Pierre, Louis and Jacques had, Warren explains, "an ethic that no one else shared. It was: never copy, always create."
By 1909, Cartier shop fronts on Fifth Avenue, rue de la Paix and New Bond Street glittered with stones from far beyond New York, Paris and London. They might bring back a 19th-century carved jade lion-and-cub figurine from China, put the lion on an onyx-and-coral stand with cabochon sapphire details, drill a hole through the top and fit a mystery clock made from a large faceted citrine," says Warren.
Elsewhere, the intricate latticework of Islamic architecture might influence the shape or decoration of a vanity case or jewel, while the fall of tassels on an Indian turban might dictate the dangle of coral beads or a string of pearls.
Closer to home, Louis Cartier would send draftsmen to make sketches of wrought iron Parisian balconies that might become the filigree of a tiara. Because of its clean, linear style, Art Deco-period Cartier has proved particularly robust against the whims of fashion. But "jewels are worn with fashionable dresses," says Warren, "so fashion is crucial."
In recent years, contemporary jewelers have provoked fierce bidding wars. A parrot tulip bangle highlighted with a sprinkling of diamonds by the Paris-based jeweler JAR sold for $3,649,493, well above its estimate of $200,000–$300,000.
There are brilliant contemporary designers working worldwide: Lorenz Bäumer in Paris, Vicente Gracia in Valencia, and Michelle Ong, Wallace Chan and Edmond Chin in Hong Kong. A client of Warren's, who owned some 1980s sapphire and diamond jewelry by Gérard, sent it off to be redesigned by JAR. He returned a cross of five sapphires with a pave diamond border.
"I'm sorry for Gérard that his legacy didn't live on in that piece," says Warren. "But it has become one of the top creations by a true genius, the contemporary equivalent of Fabergé. It's a fat and chunky cross that makes you smile to look at. And the sapphires are so beautiful they make you cry."
For aspiring collectors, Warren has one piece of advice. "A silly advertisement I saw when I was young has stuck in my head: 'It's the fish John West reject that makes John West the best.' Collecting jewelry is like big-game hunting. You have to be patient and go for the right pieces."
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