Tamara Kaminsky on the thrill of a jewellery auction and famous jewels
The true mettle of precious gems is often only discovered when the gavel strikes the rostrum. Here, an excerpt from Tamara Kaminsky’s book Quintessentially Gems captures the thrill of the sale room and explores why a famous name can bring extra sparkle to a jewellery collection at auction.
The clear measure of a jewellery collector’s eminence is the tension in an auction room as one of their jewels goes under the hammer. Their lives, be they outrageous, scandalous or simply glamorous are engrained in the jewel forever, making it far more valuable than the sum of its parts.
Curators, collectors, the rich and the powerful are left to decide amongst themselves just how esteemed the late owner was. When an entire collection is open for bidding, a small frenzy ensues not just amongst jewellery collectors, but also the general public.
The 2012 auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels reached epic proportions. With an international tour of the collection pulling in crowds from all walks of life queuing to see this immaculate assortment of precious pieces, the late Dame Taylor garnered more attention than she had for decades as a living Hollywood A-Lister.
It was not all hype. The prices gleaned from the sale amazed even their auctioneers, who had grossly underestimated the actress’ popularity. The star, somewhat tarnished at the end of her life, re-emerged in the glimmering light of these gems, glowing as she did when she was first launched by her Hollywood studio as a teenager.
Her jewels have not merely left her immortalised, but restored her to her youth. A fine sign-off for the great star, who would have been thrilled with such a eulogy.
Always one to have the last word, Taylor would have been particularly amused by the attention paid to her jewels by other serious jewellery collectors. Painfully aware of her own vulgarity in the eyes of those in high society, (especially because of her love of giant stones), the fact that those same detractors were now desperately bidding to own such pieces would have filled her with wicked glee.
Taylor is not the only collector to have her jewels auctioned off within a year of her passing. A cynic would chalk things down to it being a matter of settling the departed’s great estate.
Although this is undeniable, these curated auctions with their beautifully printed catalogues and visitors travelling far and wide for viewings and to hear the stories behind the collections, is surely the most personal and fitting tribute for anyone who loved jewellery.
The notorious Wallis Simpson was such a person. Two substantially important jewellery collections to hit the auction block were both from the late Simpson, famous on both sides of the Atlantic for seducing her lover, Edward VIII into abdicating from the British throne.
The personification of controversy, scandal, elegance and American bravura surrounds The Duchess of Windsor even post-mortem. Her fabulous life made her an icon and the beauty of her jewels and magnificent style became her lasting legacy.
Wallis did what every serious collector aims to do: become an integral part of the story of jewellery and challenge the artists to take their work to the next level.
The best example of this would be Wallis’ commission for Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1930s. Looking for a platinum and diamond zipper for a gown she particularly loved, she approached the Maison believing in their technical ability. She was right but she vastly underestimated the task at hand. It took the craftsmen until 1951 to produce what is still their greatest achievement and which when unzipped, is a necklace, and when zipped, is a bracelet.
This design is reinterpreted regularly by the house and each piece becomes another collector’s item. A collector who was not afraid to throw down the gauntlet, was The Maharajah of Patiala who famously approached Boucheron with six chests bursting with gems and who asked for one of the largest known commissions in the history of jewellery. This would have pushed the already imaginative jeweller to another level, in production volume alone. It would also have given him tremendous freedom to create pieces with no limits.
Such collectors still abound. The difference between a collector and someone who just loves to purchase beautiful things lies in their knowledge of jewels and also their selective taste.
Suzanne Tennenbaum not only collects Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery but she is so knowledgeable on the subject that she was able to write about their work.
Favouring pieces from the Deco period and the 1930s, she is of course, “fascinated by the zipper necklace”. This is not simply for its beauty but for “its innovation and the fact that it can actually zip closed, to convert into a bracelet.” Tennenbaum also understands the other technical achievements of the Parisian jeweller, having first purchased one of their mystery set brooches, before becoming a more avid collector. She explains, “I appreciated the Ludo bracelets with sliding ball closures as well as the passe-partout. These jewels incorporate functional elements with exceptional design”.
Whereas most high jewellery purchases are cloaked in secrecy, some ladies are happy to part from their jewels for the right reason.
Ellen Barkin, in 2006, sold off the jewels her husband had bought her throughout their marriage, after her divorce was finalised. A perfect way to turn over a new leaf; she instantly became known worldwide for her immeasurable taste as a collector and as a serious patron of some of the greatest living jewellers.
In particular, the jewels of Joel Arthur Rosenthal took centre stage in the auction; not least because it is the only opportunity most people will ever get to seeing or purchasing one in person. JAR of Paris selects his clients carefully, placing Barkin with her generous collection, firmly in the history books as a collector of note.
A few years later, she was followed by Lily Safra, who sold her collection off for charity. Another JAR collector, her name will be as synonymous with taste as it will with philanthropy.
Due in many ways to such women, the art of jewellery collection has become a high-brow, serious exercise, not merely a question of liberally spending and amassing the largest and most expensive jewels on the market. The editing of a collection has become the most important aspect of serious patronage.
Even more importantly, discovering new artists, gaining exclusive access to them and inspiring them are what the time-honoured ritual of collecting fine jewellery is all about.
This article was taken from the December 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue online, click here.