Little gems from the 1930s and 1960s that could transform your fortunes
The thing with billionaire investments is that they are, well, quite frankly, boring. Over the long term, stocks and bonds might appreciate, but who wants to discuss quarter-percentage-point rises with a broker when you can treat yourself to a nice Cartier bracelet from the 1930s? The latter is a type of wealth management option that not only looks good in any portfolio, but is also guaranteed to look good on you. More importantly, it becomes even easier to justify your Cartier purchase to your accountants if you choose something rare and unusual that’s guaranteed to pile on the profits.
In just 10 years to 2016, the value of rare vintage jewellery has soared more than 80 percent, according to international auctioneers Bonhams. In that same period, for example, average house prices in the UK rose by just 47 percent.
“After the 2008 economic collapse, people had less confidence in the financial markets and property, so they put their money in jewels,” says David Warren, senior international jewellery director at Christie’s Auction House. “We have had our best ever year, every year since that date.”
Portability and simplicity of selling also play important roles. “You can’t buy a house in the middle of Paris, and when the market drops, simply move to London. But you can fit diamonds in your top pocket,” Warren explains.
There is also increasing demand for pieces that showcase unique design creativity. “Jewellery from makers such as Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, Cartier and Tiffany are always in demand and always perform well at our auctions, but we are seeing a surge in prices for eye-catching jewellery from the 1960s and ’70s, and particular interest in historic periods such as the 1920s and 1930s—periods that are renowned for creating striking pieces,” says Jean Ghika, Bonhams’ head of jewellery for the UK and Europe.
This new appreciation of old classics is simply the way things should be. Before the Second World War, the Art Deco period was an immensely creative time for jewellery design. Sensational precious stones were set in highly imaginative designs and the wearing of large gems was considered de rigueur rather than ostentatious. More importantly, pieces were enjoyed for their immense craftsmanship and artistry as well as the skill of the designer.
“At this time, jewellery was talked about in the same way as we talk about art,” says Pierre Rainero, heritage director at Cartier. “To own an original creation by one of the world’s most famous jewellery houses is in the same league as possessing an original Van Gogh or Picasso.”
Take Cartier’s classic Tutti Frutti designs for example. These were inspired by Jacques Cartier’s trips to India at the height of his company’s creative commerce with the jewellery-loving maharajahs of the early 20th century. Before you could say “multi-coloured priceless composition”, Cartier had rustled up India’s finest gems and created jewellery based on botanical designs featuring sapphires, emeralds, rubies and diamonds cut into leaves, flower shapes and fruit. In 2014, Sotheby’s sold a Tutti Frutti bracelet that once belonged to Evelyn H. Lauder, über philanthropist and beauty powerhouse, for US$2.17 million.
Rarity and A-list association helped boost the bracelet’s value, but this was also an exceptionally beautiful piece. There was not the same aesthetic sense after the war when jewellery became less about design and more about the value of their gems.
From the 1970s onwards, what became known as significant “estate collections” began to dominate auction house headlines. These were pieces collected by the likes of Wallis Simpson, King Edward VIII’s wife the Duchess of Windsor; socialite and philanthropist Barbara Hutton; and Oscar-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor. The combination of highly discerning collections—carefully curated over decades—mixed with often scandalous romance and a legendary cast of characters proved to be an intoxicating combination.
The epitome of this was in 2011 when Taylor’s collection realised a total of US$156 million at Christie’s. A total of 26 pieces alone sold for more than a million each. Before the auction, I called Christie’s international jewellery director François Curiel who had worked with Taylor on a book about her collection.
“She had more than a thousand items, but knew exactly where and when she had acquired each one,” he said. “And she lived with her collection. It was not hidden away in a vault. The pieces sat just off her bedroom in a jewellery room next to a huge dressing room. She had excellent taste and collected the best pieces from the best periods. As a result, her collection featured exquisite examples from the most celebrated jewellery designers from Boucheron and Joel Arthur Rosenthal to Tiffany.”
The actor Richard Burton, who Taylor married and divorced twice, recalled in his diaries how he would wake at night to find her playing with her jewels. Many of them were gifts from him, including the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond (sold for US$8.8 million in 2011) and the Pérégrina, a giant pearl that had previously been owned by Mary I (sold for US$11.8 million). Then there were his “little gifts”. One Christmas, Taylor almost didn’t find a ruby ring he had bought because it was buried so deep in her Christmas stocking.
For mere mortals who struggle to part with US$9 million for a historic estate collection gem that once belonged to a 16th century monarch, there are plenty of more accessible works from the last century to explore. “We are seeing a growing number of customers who are looking at jewellery from a design perspective,” says Bonhams’ Jean Ghika. “For example, demand for work by James Taffin de Givenchy, Joel Arthur Rosenthal, Andrew Grima and Suzanne Belperron is growing all the time. Belperron’s pieces look as contemporary now as when they were made.” (Grima was the favourite designer of the Queen and Princess Margaret in the 1960s and 1970s, and Belperron was the design firebrand who revolutionised jewellery engineering and became a favourite of the Duchess of Windsor.
A Piece of History
It is not just collectors who are scouring jewellery auction catalogues. The big jewellery houses are also getting involved, searching for the legacy creations that defined their histories. Van Cleef & Arpels has already established an archive of 800 significant pieces; Bulgari has been building a collection of its own work under the guidance of heritage curator Lucia Boscaini; and Pierre Rainero is the man with a plan to protect Cartier’s history by curating the jewellery house’s most important early works.
Interestingly, there may also be more and more unique pieces coming to auction. In the past, family jewels would be put up for sale as a result of the “three Ds”—debt, divorce and death. Today, customers are equally likely to sell jewellery as a result of soaring insurance premiums, a need to improve inheritance planning or simply the fact that they don’t want their grandmother’s bracelet to languish in a vault forever.
Should any of these circumstances inspire a desire to sell, Bonhams’ Ghika stresses the importance of proper valuation by experts. “People tend to think that designer pieces of jewellery are obviously branded by their creators, but that is not always the case,” she says. “Often hallmarks, signatures, initials and even a code on the back of a jewel reveal that that piece of jewellery has come from a highly sought-after house such as Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels.”
The specialist cites the example of a Chanel twist necklace that was brought into Bonhams for valuation by a customer who thought it was a piece of costume jewellery worth around a thousand dollars. A discreetly engraved Chanel signature hidden under a link confirmed it was actually a rare work. It was sold for US$120,000.
The moral of the story? The next time you look at your investment portfolio and wonder where your strategy has gone wrong, the solution might be as simple as balancing the books with a little Tutti Frutti. Ideally from Cartier.
By Andy Round