Here's Why Asian Collectors Have a New Obsession For Antique and Period Jewellery
At July’s Phillips Jewels and Jadeite sale in Hong Kong, an exceptional 12.55-carat diamond ring, circa 1953, went under the hammer for an eye-popping US$1.1 million. Designed by Harry Winston with an enormous centre stone and clean-cut silhouette, the design epitomised the luxury and optimism of the post-war era. And at a Sotheby’s auction last year, an art deco emerald- and a diamond-set necklace made for Hélène Beaumont, an American socialite and close friend of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, sold for nearly US$3.6 million to an Asian collector—more than twice what it fetched in 1994.
These sales are indicative of the buoyant market for high-quality period pieces, as well as art deco’s rising popularity in Asia. “There is certainly an increased interest in antique and period jewels in Asia compared to 15 years ago,” says Jean Ghika, global head of jewellery at Bonhams auction house. “There is an understanding and appreciation of these older pieces and the fact that many come with history, are unique or are produced in limited numbers.” The tastes of Asian buyers are evolving from an initial preference for designs with white diamonds and green imperial jadeite to an increased interest in deep-rooted craftsmanship and lesser-known top-grade gemstones.
“Although there is some interest in 19th-century pieces, particularly naturalistic pieces that depict flora and fauna, there is perhaps greater interest in pieces from the first quarter of the 20th century, particularly the art deco period,” says Ghika. “There is a timeless appeal to this era of jewellery design that resonates with collectors. Pieces by famous French and Italian jewellery houses like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari and Buccellati are particularly popular.”
Graeme Thompson, worldwide head of jewellery at Phillips auction house, agrees. “I’m also seeing that jewels from the early 20th century, particularly the Belle Époque period, are becoming very popular in both China and the wider Asia region,” he says. The Belle Époque period of western history dates from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. These were idealistic years spent innovating and exploring new opportunities. A period of confidence and tremendous wealth, it is synonymous in jewellery with the use of vibrant nature-inspired designs.
A Belle Époque ruby- and diamond-set pendant, circa 1910, was sold by Bonhams in 2018 for nearly US$70,000. Described by Ghika as a “wonderful example of jewellery”, a central pear-shaped diamond sits within a calibré-cut ruby, which is suspended from an openworked cartouche of garland design. “The Belle Époque was a period of peace, growth, prosperity and optimism, and there was great innovation in jewellery design, particularly in the use of platinum, which allowed for a much lighter and finer feel,” says Ghika.
Thompson recalls several particularly memorable antique jewellery pieces that have sold at auction in Asia. “One was an art deco ruby- and diamond-set necklace by Cartier,” he says. In May 2013, while working for another company, Thompson consigned this “gorgeous necklace” for a Hong Kong auction. “Unbeknown to me at the time, ten years earlier that same necklace has gone unsold at a competitor’s auction, which had also been held in Hong Kong. We went ahead with the sale, and it was a huge hit, with multiple bidders from all over Asia. It sold for double the amount that it was offered for ten years earlier. It was at this point that I realised that antique and period jewellery was becoming highly sought after in Asia.”
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L’École, which is supported by Van Cleef & Arpels, opened its second school of jewellery arts in Hong Kong last year, marking the occasion by hosting its Precious Art Deco Objects exhibition, which included cigarette cases, powder compacts and vanity cases from the collection of the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, a former United Nations high commissioner for refugees and collector of Islamic art. “I can say for a fact that people’s interest in the history of jewellery is steadily increasing throughout Asia,” says Inezita Gay-Eckel, art historian at L’École. “I have experienced it personally.”
A better understanding of rare gems and artistry has built confidence among Asian buyers. There are now legions of well-informed collectors prepared to pay skyrocketing prices to obtain exquisite antique pieces at auction, whether or not there will be an eventual return on the investment. “Buyers are particularly drawn to antique jewellery items because of the high level of craftsmanship they display,” explains Ghika.
But don’t rush into anything, she warns. Experts advise potential investors to think carefully before they buy. It’s a highly specialised field, so when it comes to investing in a piece of antique jewellery, you should truly want it and know that you’ll enjoy wearing it. Unlike stocks or property, you won’t make a fortune overnight by putting money into a rare Belle Époque tiara. “Condition is key,” says Ghika. “If buying in an auction environment, always examine the piece and ask for a condition report and make sure the stones are original to the piece and not added later.”
And in the meantime, take a look in your own jewellery box. Antique experts say people often don’t bother to have their jewellery valued on the assumption that family heirlooms aren’t worth much. That is often true—but, hey, you never know.
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