High jewellery is in hot demand. Discover the designers, decades and gems that do well at auction, so you can dazzle now and profit later.
By DIVYA BALA
MARILYN MONROE ONCE sang, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” but could they also be her shrewdest investment?
The past decade has seen a boom in sales of both fine jewellery (pieces made with precious metals and gems) and high jewellery (the most expensive and often unique pieces created by big-name houses). As an asset class, jewellery outstripped performance of New York real estate, gold and equities in the United States, according to Knight Frank’s Luxury Investment Index. The diamond jewellery market experienced a decade-high growth of 29% in 2021. Auction houses also reported a marked increase in sales of high jewellery during the pandemic, with more owners putting pieces on the market than ever before.
At the same time, demand for fine gems and jewellery rose in parallel with share prices. Like shares, jewellery tends to steadily appreciate, is easy to move around and is readily sold. British Vogue’s jewellery and watch director, Rachel Garrahan, called jewellery and watches “the most portable form of wealth in the world”. But fine and high jewellery pieces go above and beyond shares in that they’re also dazzling, wearable status symbols. American financier JP Morgan was so well-known for his gem collecting and purchasing during his lifetime that in 1910 Tiffany & Co’s chief gemologist named a newly discovered pink-toned stone in Morgan’s honour: morganite.
PIECES OF THE PAST
Kristian Spofforth, head of jewellery at Sotheby’s in London, says that pieces by well-known designers from previous eras always do well. “Traditionally, when we’re looking at jewellery pieces that achieve the best results at auction, they usually have some sort of heritage or history connected to the great jewellers,” he says. “Great designers such as Jean Toussaint at Cartier and other names that represent design and flair have shone through and still do well today. Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier are probably the two houses that are most in demand. Also Mauboussin, Chaumet- many of the French and British designers as well. The top names in design are always the ones that achieve the most at auction.”
The three jewellery houses that often feature at auctions are Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Bulgari, thanks to their extensive archives, distinctive designs, reputation for exclusivity and unrivalled craftsmanship. Investors are advised to seek each house’s golden era. For Bulgari, it’s the La Dolce Vita period in the 1960s, featuring a kaleidoscope of colours, cabochon gemstones and ancient Roman coins in yellow gold. Van Cleef & Arpels is also coveted for its 1960s pieces, especially its ballerina pins and carefully themed high-jewellery collections, and its Art Deco-era jewellery. Buying vintage (defined as between 20 and 100 years old; anything older is considered antique) is also advised, thanks to a supply that’s finite but a demand that continues to grow.
STONES TO OWN
When it comes to the stones themselves, diamonds lead the charge in terms of being attractive investments, with records set every year for fancy coloured diamonds (ones that come in many hues, but most sought after in blue and pink), which are rarer than colourless ones. After diamonds, the next big three that perform well are emeralds, rubies and sapphires.
Asia is emerging as a key market for rare gems, with many high-net-worth individuals looking to diversify their assets. In April 2022, the De Beers Cullinan Blue diamond achieved an astonishing $HK450.9 million [$AU80.96m] at auction in Hong Kong, skyrocketing past the presale estimate of $HK380 million [$AU67m]. The 15.1-carat, step-cut fancy vivid blue diamond of internally flawless clarity grade is the largest vivid blue diamond ever to have appeared at auction.
Beyond market trends, Spofforth says it’s important to have a genuine attraction to the piece you choose. “We always see the top-quality stones and high-quality stones — they are always going to appeal and perform well. But so much of it comes down to individual tastes,” he says. “I mean, if you love sapphires, go for sapphires, and if you love emeralds, that’s your choice.”
With subjectivity and trends in mind, how long might one expect to wait for a high jewellery investment to appreciate? For example, a Suzanne Belperron amethyst cuff sold for $US28,680 [$AU44,015] in 2003 and sold again in 2021 for $US87,500 [$AU122,071]. In 2012, a 6.7-carat Kashmir sapphire sold at auction for $US206,500 [$AU199,435], while last year, a similarly sized one sold for $US550,000 [$AU732,757].
“We usually say if you buy something at auction, in about 10 years’ time you could be able to sell it and make a break-even, but that massively depends on trends and styles,” explains Spofforth. “At the moment, 1970s jewellery is very popular, but a few years ago white gold jewellery was very popular. Trends and fashion have a big influence. [Sotheby’s is] usually in a place to advise on those things.”
In terms of tangible indicators of success, Spofforth indicates that Art Deco and signed pieces stand out the most. Signed pieces bear the name or mark of the jewellery house that made it, and command 25% to 30% higher prices than unsigned ones.
“I think one of the most interesting things about Art Deco pieces is that they really took on the influences of the whole world, so it was a global style. You get these amazing pieces with influences from the Middle East and Far East architectural styles,” says Spofforth. “One of the other things I find fascinating about Art Deco is its simplicity. It’s very black and white. Nice, clean lines, very straight. The mind craves order and simplicity, so I think that’s why some of the Art Deco pieces appeal.”
Beyond a static investment, a high jewellery piece is almost like a living thing, its glittering stones coming to life in the light. These luxury pieces are designed to speak volumes about the wearer at their most opulent, so the key is to invest in jewellery that speaks to you —because chances are it’ll speak just as clearly to whoever’s eye it catches next.
“At the moment, 1970s jewellery is very popular, but a few years ago white gold jewellery was very popular. Trends and fashion have a big influence. Sometimes you might have to hold on to a piece for another few years, sometimes you might have to sell it sooner.”
10 history-making jewellery auctions
- ELIZABETH TAYLOR’S COLLECTION
- In 2011, the late actress’ iconic pieces were sold for a combined $115 million by Christie’s New York, becoming the most expensive jewellery collection ever to go to auction. It included La Peregrina, the 50-carat pear-shaped pearl with a 500-year provenance, having been owned by several Spanish monarchs and Joseph Bonaparte. Mounted on a diamond Cartier necklace, the piece fetched $11.8 million, breaking the record for the most valuable pearl sold at auction.
- MARIE ANTOINETTE’S COLLECTION
- A royal treasure trove of jewellery owned by Marie Antoinette fetched 53.5 million Swiss francs [$AU73.5 million] in a 2014 Sotheby’s auction in Geneva, smashing pre-sale estimates. The pieces were smuggled out of France by a loyal retainer before Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine in 1793. The standout of the collection was a natural pearl and oval diamond pendant, which fetched 36.4 million Swiss francs [$AU55m].
- THE PINK STAR
- The 59.6-carat pink diamond ring (below) features the largest internally flawless fancy vivid diamond ever graded by the Gemological Institute of America. Selling for $HK553 million [$AU94.3m], it is now the most expensive ring in the world and the most valuable gemstone ever sold at auction. It was sold to Hong Kong-based jewellery conglomerate Chow Tai Fook.
- THE OPPENHEIMER BLUE
- The 14.62-carat fancy vivid blue rectangular- cut diamond ring sold for 56.873 million Swiss francs [$AU89m] at Christie’s Geneva in 2016. Believed to be sourced at the Cullinan mine in South Africa, it was named after renowned diamantaire Sir Philip Oppenheimer, who gave the ring to his wife, Pamela.
- THE MEMORY OF AUTUMN LEAVES & THE DREAM OF AUTUMN LEAVES
- This set of fancy coloured pear-shaped diamonds- a 14.54-carat fancy vivid blue diamond and a 16-carat fancy intense pink diamond— fetched 41.9 million Swiss francs [$AU60m] at Sotheby’s Geneva in 2017, making it the most expensive set of earrings ever sold at auction.
- BLUE BELLE OF ASIA
- Weighing 392.52 carats, the Blue Belle is the fourth- largest sapphire known to man. First discovered in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1926, the gem appeared at auction for the first time at Christie’s Geneva in 2014, selling for 17 million Swiss francs [$AU21m] — becoming the most expensive sapphire in history.
- DE GRISOGONO EMERALD AND DIAMOND NECKLACE
- The 163.41-carat flawless emerald-cut diamond forms the centrepiece of a magnificent necklace by Swiss jeweller de Grisogono. The stunning piece also features 5,949 brilliant-cut emeralds, and took 14 craftsmen more than 1,700 hours to create. It sold for 33.5 million Swiss francs [$AU47.2m) in 2017.
- THE HUTTON-MDIVANI JADEITE NECKLACE
- The 27 enormous jadeite beads were said to have once belonged to a member of China’s Qing imperial court, before being passed on to Cartier, who set the necklace and added a sparkling ruby and diamond clasp. US heiress Barbara Hutton received the gift from her father in 1933. In 2014, the piece went under the hammer for $HK214 million [$AU38m], more than double the estimate — ushering in a new era of record-setting jade jewellery.
- THE ORANGE
- The 14.82-carat fancy vivid orange pear-shaped diamond (right) is the largest known diamond of its kind, and sold for 32.645 million Swiss francs [$AU49.5m] in 2013.
- MOST EXPENSIVE JEWEL AUCTIONED ONLINE
- In July 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, a 28.86-carat D-colour emerald-cut diamond of VVSI clarity, set on a platinum ring, became the most expensive jewel ever sold via online auction, after bidding from 31 vendors across the world reached $US2.115 million [$AU3m].