This article was originally written by Kristen Shirley for Bloomberg Businessweek and published on March 10, 2022.
Jewelry collecting has been a diversion for hundreds of years. J.P. Morgan was a well-known gem collector during his lifetime—Tiffany & Co. even named a newly discovered stone, morganite, in his honor. Indian maharajahs displayed their wealth in opulent jewelry suites featuring hundreds, if not thousands, of carats. Visit any museum in Europe, and you’ll find a dazzling parade of royal crown jewels that kings and queens collected.
Because nothing holds value quite like rare, precious jewels, collecting them can be a rather sound investment. Price makes little difference: In 2003 a Belperron amethyst cuff sold for $28,680; in 2021 that same cuff went for $87,500. In 2012 a 6.7-carat Kashmir sapphire auctioned for $206,500; last year a similarly sized one was bought for $550,000.
Unlike when buying stocks or crypto, you can actually wear and enjoy these assets, so the adage to buy what you love applies here. “I liken managing a collection of jewelry to managing a portfolio of stocks,” says Tiina Smith, a vintage dealer in Boston, who spent years working on Wall Street before changing careers and opening a boutique. “It requires rigorous analysis, making sure you know what you’re about to buy, trying to buy the best in class.”
As with stocks, education is the way to begin. There are many excellent books on the jewelry market, but start with Understanding Jewellery, the industry bible by two former Sotheby’s jewelry executives, David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti. You can also learn by taking online courses, visiting museum exhibitions, or attending previews at auction houses.
Once you’ve trained your eye and have a grasp of the different eras, houses, and designs, a great next step is to think about what you truly love. Many people will focus collections around their passions, whether colored gemstones, diamonds, or a period such as art deco or the 1960s. Others choose to diversify—as in an index fund, for instance—and mix from various eras to withstand the volatility of trends.
In terms of distinguishing price from value, connections in the industry are key, whether it’s fellow collectors, specialists at auction houses, an independent adviser, or a vintage dealer. These relationships are also crucial for moderation: It can be easy to get swept up emotionally, so it’s always good to have a knowledgeable second opinion. “A lot of people benefit from the kind of advice and the calmness of somebody who has seen and evaluated a lot of pieces of jewelry,” Smith says. “Someone who knows about what price you should be paying.”
Last, patience pays off. Sensational pieces don’t come around often, and jewelry takes time to increase in value—so fast flipping doesn’t really work. “Collecting is a process,” says Fiona Druckenmiller, founder of FD Gallery in New York. “Finding the right pieces and the right stones can take time.”
Even if a bauble doesn’t increase dramatically in value or falls slightly with inflation, a well-made piece from a top designer is a fantastic way to store value. Worst-case scenario? You have a stunning piece to enjoy throughout the years.
Here’s advice from top dealers and collectors on how to build your collection.
The Definition of “Rare”
Russell Fogarty, former head of Christie’s jewelry department in New York and partner of estate jewelry company Kazanjian & Fogarty, has a simple checklist to determine whether a piece is investment-worthy. It should be vintage, high quality, in good condition, beautiful, and signed by the manufacturer. “If you check all those boxes,” he says, “whatever you’ve purchased is going to increase in value over time.”
Vintage is the most important part of that checklist, because it means that the supply is finite, yet demand continues to grow. Think of it this way: Vintage jewelry is defined as 20 to 100 years old. (Anything older is antique.) Many top houses changed ownership throughout the years, causing the quality of designs and craftsmanship to vary. After all, Tiffany was once owned by the cosmetics company Avon.
You’ll want to choose something from a house’s best period—say, from 1920 to 1930 for some designers. That means you have only 10 years’ worth of pieces to collect as opposed to 80 years.
If you’re acquiring contemporary jewelry with an eye on investment, rarity is crucial. Today many jewelers produce a piece in large quantities, which over time will prove less valuable than a one of a kind or something from a limited series.
Signed pieces, which bear the stamp of the jeweler, command higher prices than unsigned—about 25% to 30%, according to Smith—but unsigned ones can still be worth adding to your collection. (An unsigned vintage diamond riviera necklace will be just as beautiful as a signed one, and you can acquire it at a lower price.)
Another factor to consider is provenance, particularly when a notable person owned a piece—it’s the same for a watch owned by Paul Newman or a car driven by Steve McQueen. Celebrity ownership of jewelry is a less reliable predictor of value, however. The premiums that were paid at the Christie’s auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s collections—a Bulgari emerald and diamond brooch estimated at around $600,000 sold for more than $6 million—will not hold. “It’s still going to sell at a premium compared to a Bulgari piece that a regular citizen owns,” Druckenmiller says, “but it’s not going to go 10 times. It might go two times.”
But jewelry that’s been in the collection of royalty will very likely hold or rise in value. “Any jewel with a royal provenance is going to command a giant premium,” Druckenmiller says. “In the cases of royalty, that premium usually never evaporates.”
When clients find a piece they love, Fogarty counsels them to examine it thoroughly, checking that the back is as beautiful as the front—a hallmark of incredible craftsmanship.
The Stones to Own
Diamonds reign supreme as investments, followed by the “Big Three”: emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. The highest price ever paid for a Zambian emerald—$1.04 million—was in December.
To find a perfect gemstone of any kind is really rare, which is why the industry developed methods to improve the color of substandard stones: to increase the number available on the market. Thus the most sought-after and priciest are untreated specimens—meaning no processes such as heat or oil have been used to improve the color or appearance—but even the best jewelry houses use lightly treated ones.
For colored stones especially, where they came from matters. A D color, internally flawless, Type IIa diamond will command top prices wherever it’s from, but sourcing can dramatically influence the price of others.
The most coveted ruby, for example, is a “pigeon’s blood” Burmese ruby, which has a pure red color without any purple or brown. Last November a pair of pigeon’s blood Burmese ruby earrings sold for almost $3.2 million at Christie’s.
Among emeralds, the most desired are Colombian; for sapphires, it’s those that have been mined from Kashmir. Why these? Kashmir sapphires are renowned for their “velvety color,” says Sara Thomeier, senior vice president and head of jewels for the Americas at Phillips Auctioneers LLC. “It can be almost hypnotizing to look at them.” A Kashmir sapphire could be worth many hundred times the value of one from another geographical region. “Visually, to a layperson, they might look the same,” Thomeier says. “But one would be $5,000, and the other would be $500,000.”
Significant gemstones should be accompanied by recent certificates of authenticity, which dealers provide, from independent laboratories. Druckenmiller notes that certificates should be recent: A stone could have been damaged if it had been worn frequently since it was last inspected. Plus, technology in these labs has also improved, so in some cases, a stone’s origin can be more accurately assessed.
Sellers are taking no chances: An upcoming sale at Phillips features a Kashmir sapphire ring accompanied by appendix letters from not one but three independent labs, attesting to its rarity.
When it comes to diamonds, records are being set every year for fancy colored diamonds, which are rarer than colorless ones. Fancy colored diamonds come in many hues, but pink and blue are the most coveted. In 2007 one sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $1.3 million per carat; in 2015, another sold for over $4 million a carat. In April, Sotheby’s is auctioning off the De Beers Cullinan Blue Diamond, a 15.1-carat fancy vivid blue diamond that’s estimated to go for more than $48 million.
Where Design Matters
Most historic houses are strong investments—think of Belperron, Oscar Heyman, David Webb, Verdura, and Harry Winston—but at auction, three names stand above the rest: Bulgari, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels. These names come up repeatedly, less because of the stones and more because of distinctive designs, impeccable craftsmanship, and one-of-a-kind status.
Each has its own golden era. For Bulgari, these would be the La Dolce Vita period in the 1960s, when pieces were exploding with color and smooth cabochon gemstones. Its Monete collection, which features ancient Roman coins set in yellow gold, are in huge demand.
Van Cleef & Arpels is noted for its art deco period as well as its ’60s and ’70s pieces. Outside of that, the Zip necklace, created in 1950, was inspired by the then-relatively new type of fastener. Its ballerina pins and thematic high-jewelry collections are also sought after—recent examples include those inspired by the story of Romeo and Juliet, in which emeralds and tsavorites cascade from a brooch that is shaped to look like the Verona balcony under which the star-crossed lovers meet.
Cartier’s art deco pieces from the 1920s and ’30s are among the most iconic from the house, including the legendary Tutti Frutti, which was created after Jacques Cartier traveled to India in the early 1900s and discovered the tradition of carving gemstones. Tutti Fruttis featured leaves and berries in emerald, ruby, and sapphire.
It’s impossible to make more vintage jewelry, so these are cases in which “the iconic designs transcend the intrinsic values of the jewels,” says Frank Everett, sales director for jewelry at Sotheby’s.
In 2011, Sotheby’s sold a Tutti Frutti bracelet for $842,500; in April 2020 one went for $1.3 million, despite the house having to host online-only auctions because of the pandemic. It didn’t matter. “The market knew what it was and didn’t need to see it in person,” Everett says. “The bracelets are that rare and come to auction seldom. We previously had not sold anything of that value online to a buyer, sight unseen.” It had been estimated go for $600,000 to $800,000.
But even the hot pieces of today aren’t guaranteed to stay hot forever. Take Bulgari Monete jewelry. A few years ago, “nobody wanted them,” says Angelina Chen, senior vice president and specialist at Christie’s. “It wasn’t cool. But in the last two years they’ve seen a revival, and you can’t get enough of them.” It’s possible the Tutti Frutti bubble will pop in a few years as collectors move on to more attainable pieces.
In addition to the big names, smaller makers such as David Webb have been collected for decades. Although they likely won’t drastically increase in value, all have their own hallmarks, which make them a solid investment.
The New Guard
You don’t need to look only to the vintage market or auction houses to find investment-worthy jewelry. Many exquisite designers are working today whose pieces are already commanding high prices and have avid collectors. The three names at the top of everyone’s list of the best contemporary brands are JAR, or Joel Arthur Rosenthal; Hemmerle; and Taffin.
Here again, they are defined by rarity and craftsmanship. JAR is a Paris-based jeweler that makes fewer than 40 pieces a year. “It’s almost like a cult,” Thomeier says. Collectors “sit in the auction room, and they don’t put their hand down. They just don’t care what it costs.”
Smith agrees. “I have a pair of JAR earrings that I bought about six years ago. I imagine that if I sold them now, I could probably sell them for seven or eight times what I paid for them. He has a scarce body of work, like a painter who only painted 300 paintings in his lifetime.”
Hemmerle, a fourth-generation German company, is coveted for its recognizable aesthetic featuring reverse-set gemstones and the use of unexpected materials, such as aluminum, bronze, and copper. Its pieces are also one-of-a-kind. Everett notes that “they’re unmistakable, and they command huge prices.”
Taffin, a New York City jewelry house from French designer James de Givenchy, is known for sculptural jewelry that pairs top gemstones with unusual materials such as rubber, wood, and ceramic. “Everything he does is a work of art,” Fogarty says.
But there are dozens of incredible jewelry makers working today. Some collectors love houses with significant and important gemstones set in ultracontemporary designs, like Bhagat, Boghossian, and Sabba. Others, such as Neha Dani, are known for the use of titanium with precious stones.
Cindy Chao’s exceptional feather brooches from her Black Label Masterpiece collections are set with staggering amounts of gemstones and diamonds. Feng.J, Glenn Spiro, Emmanuel Tarpin, and others craft pieces that are more like wearable art than jewelry.
When it comes to acquiring pieces from newer designers who don’t have a proven track record at auction, Chen says you have to trust yourself and your eye. She likens acquiring an early piece from a designer such as JAR to someone who snapped up a Basquiat for next to nothing. They saw potential, and it paid off—but it doesn’t always.
If a piece is one-of-a-kind, features top-quality gemstones, and has beautiful craftsmanship, though, you’re off to a great start.
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