Indians’ affinity for jewellery is well known. Indians are typically know to flock jewellery shops to buy ornaments and precious stones. What is not so known is Indians are now increasingly participating in auctions to acquire jewellery. Global auction house Sotheby’s did sales of $551-million last year in jewellery bids. Indians played a significant role in these sales, particularly through online auctions, according to Nikita Binani, jewellery specialist at Sotheby’s.
Edited excerpts from an interview: How do you analyse the Indian market for jewellery auctions?
We are in a phase of cultivating relationships. Jewellery is at the centre of Indian culture and we need to understand how the market is evolving from the viewpoint of what collectors want, what the new generation is looking for, and how we can tailor our vision to their needs. While we don’t have an auction platform for jewellery in India, several Indians value what they see in our catalogues. We look to advise them on the buying and selling at auctions and we invite them to our Geneva, London, New York or Hong Kong live auctions, where they have the opportunity to participate in our sales.
How large is Sotheby’s jewellery segment?
We were the market leaders in 2017 with $551.3 million worth in sales worldwide. This is a small portion in relation to the global jewellery market and encompasses various distribution channels. We focus on the rarest and best collections and jewels. At Sotheby’s, we believe jewellery is a form of art.
How big is the jewellery auction market in India?
The jewellery market in India is very extensive. We are still exploring its contours. Indians speak the language of beautiful jewels. However, establishing an auction market in India is a long-term game. We have to understand the taste of the new generation and what value it places on jewels with provenance. The traditional jewellery market in India is very well established. We cannot come in and dictate how things are done. We have to adapt to India.
Who are your core clients—collectors or those who buy for personal use?
We have a versatile list of clients. There are one-time clients who want to gift a rare piece of jewellery. There are clients who purchase for an occasion such as weddings, anniversaries or birthdays. We have clients who are building or refining a collection and those who are not end-users, but are buying on behalf of a collector. While traditionally, live auctions have been the means to sell and they continue to be so, private sales are also an important part of the business.
How are your traditional auction centres performing?
Based on the state of world economy, we see some centres performing better than others at different points. But Geneva has seen constant growth, year-after-year. Since 2007, we began to host an annual Noble Jewels auction along with the Magnificent Jewels auction. On an average, it has 89 per cent sell-through rate. Our online auctions, too, are doing well.
You are holding a live jewellery auction in Paris this October after several years. How important are centres such as Paris and Milan?
In the centres of Paris and Milan, we receive a lot of family jewellery collections with world provenance. Paris is a wonderful centre for both paintings and jewellery, particularly fashion-focused jewellery. A vintage jewel by Chanel could find an audience in Paris, for instance.
How large is the online auction segment for Sotheby’s?
We have realised that if we want to be competitive, we have to go online. In India, for instance, the e-commerce eco-system is well-entrenched and there is a great understanding of how online auctions work, especially as far as art is concerned. Our online platform for jewellery was set up about two years ago. It helps attract an audience beyond our sales centres and gives us a truly worldwide reach. We have planned for 62% more online sales this year, as compared with 2017. But the kind of jewellery we sell online are slightly different from the ones we sell in live auctions. It is difficult to sell coloured diamonds such as pink, blue or a rare red diamond online. Online buyers are more comfortable bidding for a white diamond that comes with a certificate and standardised prices. They are also happy bidding for modern pieces from brands such as Cartier or Tiffany, as they understand the current retail value and design.
Where do you source the jewels that come up for auction?
From all across the world. There are various reasons for why individuals and families approach auction houses, such as change in lifestyle, unfortunate circumstances, inheritance and family heirloom. They come to us for a valuation and advice on the right time to sell. To someone, a piece of jewellery may represent an emotional experience they may want to let go of. Often, the younger generation inherits jewellery and finds that it doesn’t match their taste.
Can you tell us about some of the significant collections that have come up for auctions over the years?
There have been several. The 306 lots of ‘The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor’ in 1987 sold for $50 million. Our top-selling pieces have included an onyx and diamond panther bracelet by Cartier, Paris (
circa 1952), and a ruby, sapphire, emerald, citrine and diamond flamingo clip, mounted by Cartier, Paris ( circa 1940), which sold for $2,678,954. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis collection , auctioned in 1996 , netted $8,915,600. The Jewels of H.H. Begum Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan collection (auctioned in 2000), sold for $4.6 million. A rare ‘Tutti Frutti’ Bracelet by Cartier circa 1928—the design of which was inspired by the Mughal tradition of intricately carving stones as leaves, flowers, berries and fruit—sold for US $ 2,165,000 at Sotheby’s New York. Some of the jewels of the Maharani of Baroda was auctioned in July 2014 as part of our London auction, and included creations by Van Cleef & Arpels. Which is that one rare collection coming up for auction in the near future?
‘The Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family’, one of the most important collections of royal jewels ever, will be auctioned in Geneva on November 12 this year. It spans centuries of European history, from the reign of Louis XVI to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and will offer fascinating insights into the splendour of one of Europe’s most important royal dynasties. It is highlighted by jewels that belonged to Marie-Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the French revolution.
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.