Somewhere on a Gulf of Panama beach in the early 16th century, someone found a perfectly formed, pear-shaped 50-plus-carat pearl. Someone else named it la Peregrina (the Wanderer), and Mary Tudor of England received it as an engagement gift in 1554. (She was 38 and died four years later.)
Kings of Spain, starting with her husband, Philip II, held onto it for a long time. Then, in 1969, at Sotheby’s in London, the Welsh actor Richard Burton bought it for his wife at the time, the Oscar-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor.
She loved it, asked Cartier to design something to hang it from (a ruby and diamond necklace) and wore it proudly. In 2011, months after her death, Christie’s New York sold it for $11.8 million.
“I think that will be the sale of my career — and such an honor,” Daphne Lingon, senior vice president for jewelry in New York, said in an interview this month. (At $137.2 million, the auction also represented the category’s largest bottom line in history.) Ms. Lingon, who joined Christie’s 25 years ago, has seen jewelry’s importance soar, with annual global sales going from about $190 million in 1994 to more than $600 million today.
As the auction season for jewelry begins, there’s probably no better place to examine these sales than Christie’s, which appears to have held the first in 1795. That’s when James Christie’s 29-year-old London auction house sold the glittery collection of Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s longtime mistress, two years after she was executed by guillotine.
Christie’s event of this season is the Magnificent Jewels sale on Dec. 5 at its Rockefeller Center building in New York. The sale is already in previews, so to speak, as the more than 370 lots travel to various Christie’s showrooms to be viewed by prospective buyers (Thursday and Friday in Los Angeles, Nov. 9-12 in Geneva, Nov. 23-26 in Hong Kong and, finally, Nov. 30-Dec. 4 in New York).
Between now and then, on Nov. 5, Christie’s New York is hosting a preview of the Pink Legacy, an almost-19-carat pink diamond that will be sold on Nov. 13 at Christie’s Geneva. “To find a diamond of this size with this color is pretty much unreal,” said Rahul Kadakia, the international head of jewelry for Christie’s.
At the same time as the December live auction, the New York showroom is sponsoring its fall online jewelry sale (Tuesday to Nov. 6). But how do online jewelry sales work? Placing a jeweler’s loup against a laptop screen doesn’t really work. Do people attend the previews in person or send scouts? Do they examine all the variously angled photos? Talk to the available Christie’s experts?
“All of the above,” Ms. Lingon said. Jewelry, however it’s sold, is an auction mainstay. “It kind of transcends time in terms of the workmanship,” she added.
Yet some things do change. The business is vastly more global than it used to be, Ms. Lingon said. Younger buyers are appearing in greater numbers, and more women than ever are buying jewels for themselves. Consider a room full of bidders at an auction of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and pearls: Some are likely to be looking for an alternative, portable, transportable asset; others may just be shopping for a special anniversary, birthday or holiday gift.
The latest Magnificent Jewels sale includes two different sets of Kashmir sapphire earrings (the more expensive pair are estimated at $400,000 to $600,000), some outstanding Colombian emeralds and a René Boivin bangle bracelet, circa 1939, that once belonged to Andy Warhol ($100,000 to $150,000).
Colored diamonds are also a trend. “They’re so rare that when they do come to market, they’re going to cause quite a sensation,” Ms. Lingon observed. “These things have been kept in family collections for so long.” How do they compare with colorless diamonds? “Apples and oranges,” she said.
A heart-shaped 15.56-carat pink diamond with an estimated price of $9.5 million to $12 million may or may not turn out to be this big sale’s top lot. The auction also includes a ring with yellow and clear diamonds (8.06 carats) and a ring with a mostly deep-orange-brown diamond (almost 57 carats).
Another development: Antique jewelry isn’t the only attraction anymore. “Contemporary jewelers have become more prominent in the market at auction,” Ms. Lingon said, mentioning JAR, Edmond Chin and James de Givenchy as examples.
The Alhambra collection from Van Cleef & Arpels, for instance, is barely middle-aged. There are 10 lots of these 50-year-olds here (and more in an online sale), all featuring a four-leaf-clover motif, much like the quatrefoil in Moorish architecture.
Introduced in 1968, these jewels (the mother-of-pearl originals and the other stones that have been added) may never have been at the court of Henry VIII, but they are an acclaimed combination of exquisite workmanship and wearability. How many $25,000 bracelets look absolutely right with a T-shirt and jeans?
Even midcentury pieces can have remarkable back stories. Take the unsigned diamond tube bracelet with platinum and gray gold that clients brought to Christie’s not long ago. They had no clue who the designer was. Christie’s had an idea, did the research and learned it was a 1948 piece by Suzanne Belperron (1900-83), a favorite of the Duchess of Windsor’s.
Ms. Belperron’s career was notable for a striking wartime arrangement: Bernard Herz, a Jewish jeweler, turned over his business to her to protect it from the Nazis. After Mr. Herz died at Auschwitz, she returned half the company to his son, and the two worked together for three decades. This particular bracelet (estimated price of $200,000 to $300,000) appeared in the magazine ad that announced their postwar partnership.
As for change in what kind of people are selling their jewelry, it’s hard to tell. In the catalog, one of the few pieces with transparent provenance is a 28.7-carat diamond ring from the estate of Lee Vandervelde, a financier-collector who died in March.
The owner of a 12.64-carat Harry Winston diamond ring is described only as “an important private collector.”
An aquamarine Art Deco tiara with matching necklace from Cartier is listed as “the property of an elegant lady.”
So there are still some secrets in the world.