It only takes a second for Emily Barber to respond when asked what the most memorable development of the past year at Bonhams has been: the sale of the Hope Spinel, a 50-carat unheated gem from Tajikistan.
“It was exceptionally transparent, rose in colour and mounted in an antique diamond brooch setting, with a tantalising handwritten note pinned in its case saying ‘spinel ruby from the Hope Collection’,” she recalls. “Researching this gem, which the SSEF laboratory termed ‘a true treasure of nature’, is one of the highlights of my career.”
If prove were ever needed of the level of investigative work that goes on behind the scenes at Bonhams’ jewellery department, this is arguably it. Emily was able to verify that the spinel had been in the fabled collection of Henry Philip Hope, a 19th century collector of gems, and traced its journey, via its subsequent owners, from 1839 to 2015.
“It was very exciting – and complicated – detective work and to be generously congratulated by other jewellery historians, whom I have long admired, was incredibly gratifying,” she comments. And the sum the item sold for? A cool £962,500, setting a world record price in the process.
Life in the jeweller auctioning market is constantly evolving. There is an increased international 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.”
That it most certainly is: Bonhams’ jewellery-specific Instagram channel has gained more than 40,000 followers from around the world in the past 12 months.