Fine jewellery: the market is changing but its appeal endures

New technologies and growing demand from Asian collectors are changing the marketplace, but the fundamental attractions of jewellery remain unchanged


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The emergence in recent decades of ultra-wealthy collectors in Asia and the Middle East has transformed the marketplace for fine jewellery. It has also driven seismic changes in taste, with a knock-on effect on prices. And, along with a raft of new technologies, the way in which items are bought and sold has changed forever.

David Warren, Christie’s Director of Jewellery, has worked for the firm since the 1970s. In 40 years, Christie’s total turnover has grown 50-fold – but staggering growth is only part of the change, he says. His career has traced the development of an industry that was small, even parochial, into something far more sophisticated and global around the world.

The wider growth of 'luxury'

While jewellery was once seen as a distinct “department” for an auctioneer, it is now viewed more as part of a rapidly growing new sector that includes other items such as watches and handbags, brought together under the label of “luxury”. David established Christie’s Asian jewellery auctions in the 1990s and for several years relocated to Hong Kong. “This was a time where Asia was still not fully understood as a market,” he says. “But there is a culture there which places a high value on luxury and jewellery in particular.

“In China, women have an approach to jewellery which is unlike anywhere else in the world. Wealthy women are given jewellery from a very early age, and there is a habit of adding to a collection on a regular basis. Some will study jewellery in an extremely committed, practical way.”

This is partly bound up with a desire to generate wealth, he believes, with gemstones and jewellery viewed as an asset. “In Asia, there is a widespread understanding of financial markets and culture of trading. As long ago as the 1990s in Hong Kong you’d see bus stops where share prices were shown alongside the bus timetable.”

Markets differ by region, refecting local cultures

As auctioneers explored new wealthy markets, they discovered many differences. “There was a thought that the Middle East could take off similarly with jewellery, but it didn’t work,” David says. “Auctions work for art, but not jewellery in that part of the world. They prefer having people go to their palaces and homes with the goods.”

Prices go international, but tastes remain local The global growth in demand for jewellery in recent decades has increased the prices of the “raw commodities”, such as diamonds and coloured gemstones, David explains, but tastes for individual items remains localised. “There is an international price for the raw material. But it is what you do with the material that has a big impact. It is how something is designed that will appeal to different parts of the world.

“David Webb jewellery, for example, sells best in New York. And in China and Hong Kong it is more about exceptionally fine quality gemstones in modern settings by contemporary jewellers such as Wallace Chan, Alex Woo, Edmond Chin and others. In Britain, there is a slant towards antique jewellery, especially from the early part of the 20th century. “Middle Eastern shoppers like very big stones. They may be prepared to sacrifice some quality for size. Whereas in Asia it is more about the rarest, finest quality, and less about the size.”

Bidding in a digital world

David recalls an age when “catalogues were basic”, with few images, which were often in black and white. Today, Christie’s and other auction houses use Instagram and other social media to distribute a myriad of pictures and videos to their global audience. “Of all social media, Instagram was arguably made for auction houses,” says David. “You can vary your posts in the most extraordinary way. Social media allows you to network on a global basis. It’s such a valuable tool.”

Aline Sylla-Walbaum, Global Managing Director, Luxury at Christie’s, explains how online listings reach new, far-flung buyers. “The ability to access a salesroom from anywhere gives people their greatest chance of obtaining real rarities,” she says. “You can’t find vintage Rolexes for example, or specific colours of Hermès handbags, except via an auction. But online means you can do that from anywhere.”

In 2017, 31% of new clients came via online platforms, Aline says. “Online readership of the catalogue is also huge. If we send 5,000 printed catalogues we can expect about 22,000 to be downloaded as well. Online interest is that much larger. Clients are very international. For example, we had some American clients who were bidding in a Hong Kong auction and we had to wake them at 2am – that was when the auction took place.” The ability to bid remotely means that popular auctions can attract huge audiences around the world – with a distinct effect on prices.

“One example was the Rockefeller art collection auction, which raised $646 million on the opening night. I was watching the sales online – it was a once in-a-lifetime event,” Aline says. Some of the major items set world records, but there was also a feverish clamour for even the smallest of objects. Notable examples were pins that Rockefeller had from his time at Harvard, which attracted bids of up to $8,000. “People love to be a part of the dream and that’s why those lower-priced items usually achieve incredible upside against a low estimate,” Aline explains. “This is the part of the dream most people can afford.”

The limitations of digital

Remote bidding has its limitations, of course. “The more recognisable items of jewellery, such as a particular Cartier bangle, go well online. However, if there is an item that someone wants to try on, then they may be less comfortable buying it remotely.

“As auctioneers, we always want to see the item. You cannot rely on high definition images. If you see a perfect stone it is either a perfect stone, or a fake. We have 30 jewellery specialists across the world with an average of 22 years’ experience each. So they have seen many fakes and much real jewellery. They can tell the difference.”

Could machines ever replace humans in the process of authentication? Not soon, according to Aline. “I think that might come in the future. Potentially we could have scenarios where you take digital scanners that flag problems where a closer look is required. At the moment, we trust in the expertise of our specialists. I don’t think buyers would be reassured if a robot decided whether or not an item was authentic.”