Guest column by Emily Barber, jewellery department director, Bonhams
Since the earliest times we have been drawn to valuable jewels and gems for their sparkling, magical and miraculous beauty and have used them to express our prosperity, power, political, religious and social preferences.
Jewellery is the ultimate means of luxurious adornment being visible, wearable and immediately recognisable for what it is worth. It is also the traditional means of holding wealth in the form of easily transportable valuables.
In 2015, the global auction market for jewellery accounted for US$ 1.26 billion and Bonhams sold more gems and pieces of jewellery than any other auction house in the UK.
In the same year, Bonhams made jewellery auction history by setting four new world records in its New Bond Street salesroom, the highest price for a spinel with the sale of the historic Hope Spinel; the highest price for a jewellery creation by society jeweller Andrew Grima; the highest price per carat for a Madagascan ruby; and the highest price per carat for a fancy greyish-blue diamond.
The Knight Frank Luxury Index points to a 159% surge in the jewellery market over the last 10 years. The reason for this exponential growth is in part due to a perceived investment potential; in times of economic uncertainty and geopolitical tension, buyers seem comfortable putting their money in jewellery.
New buyers are also aware of the attraction of owning rare and beautiful jewels and are increasingly educated and discerning about what they spend their money on. Auctions are no longer the dealer’s domain, in today’s saleroom private collectors and enthusiasts, both male and female and of all ages, jockey with the trade for the best pieces. Exceptional gemstones, diamonds and period jewels of superlative craftsmanship are sourced from an ever diminishing pool of the finest examples.
The geographical reach of potential buyers is much wider than it was 30 or 40 years ago and includes Russia, Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia as well as the oil-rich Gulf States. Middle Eastern buyers are no longer the only major players in the market as they were in the 1980s and 1990s. There is also an increased participation in buying at auction due to the emergence of online platforms and the auction market is accessible in a way it has never been before. Geographically, you no longer need to be in the same location as the jewellery you are buying – the entire market is a click away and accessible from wherever you are in the world, be it at work or from the sofa at home.
Social media is also transforming how we view jewellery and “Instagrammers” enable jewellery lovers to keep abreast of jewellery on sale from the likes of auction houses and retailers. Bonhams’ own Instagram channel has gained more than 40,000 followers from all around the world in just under 12 months.
But what motivates a seller to pull their jewels out of a bank vault?
It is no longer the case that debt, death and divorce, the three Ds of the auction business, are the primary factors in keeping the jewellery market going. Quite simply, selling a jewel at auction, especially if it is rare, of interesting provenance, or unique, is a one-off opportunity to present it to a worldwide audience of professionals and collectors in order to achieve maximum exposure and realise the highest possible selling price.