Hammering out the details: signed jewels and white diamonds are some of the safer bets for collectors, insiders say.
For the past 15 years, momentous events — including wars, recessions and Covid-19 — have had little impact on the auction market for gems and jewels. During the worst and best of times, the monied class has viewed hard luxuries like jewels and watches as sound investments and collectible items of beauty. In addition, auction houses have proven agile in developing creative and innovative ways to sell their items. Some auction-house officials say they’ve also been successful in attracting a new generation of collectors through online sales and special selling exhibitions.
This resiliency was highly evident in the first half of the year as rare items reached record-breaking prices. However, with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and sky-high inflation, prices for marquee items leveled off in the latter half of 2022, leading to what may be a cautious 2023.
“It’s going to be interesting what this year brings in the auction world,” says Benjamin Goldberg of New York-based diamond and high-jewelry firm William Goldberg.
Quig Bruning, head of jewelry for Sotheby’s Americas, says it is more difficult to predict what will happen this year than in the past. “Usually, at this point in time, we have a pretty good sense of what the market looks like for the next six to 12 months,” he explains. “This year, we’re all trying to figure out what’s going on in the world. It will have an impact.”
Buyers are getting younger, a trend that should continue into the new year amid the draw of online sales and themed selling events, Bruning adds. “We had an aging demographic getting older year over year, and now it is creeping down a little, as we are attracting more younger buyers than we ever have before and becoming a much bigger player in all categories.”
In that vein, he also reports “seeing a push from buyers in the Middle East.”
Collectors continue to value high-quality items, and this, too, will likely persist, according to Greg Kwiat, CEO of Fred Leighton and owner of Kwiat Diamonds. “I think the auction houses had a mixed year, but they still showed a lot of strength in certain categories. There were ups and downs in prices achieved, and there were [auction] lots not sold. If I’m trying to understand what it all means, it’s that there is still a very active customer base in the gems and jewelry market. Great pieces still attract those who seek value. That’s the story of the market today.”
The leveling-off in the latter part of the year did little to dampen year-end totals for the auction houses. At Sotheby’s, global jewelry sales came to $507.2 million for 2022, up by “more than two-thirds” from 2021, a spokesperson said.
Christie’s combined its jewelry sales with its luxury category, which includes watches, handbags and wine. This group saw sales reach $988 million for the year, a 2% increase.
At Bonhams, 2022 global jewelry sales increased by 23% year on year to $73.98 million, according to global head of jewelry Jean Ghika. “This makes 2022 the most successful year for the Bonhams global jewelry department to date.”
Much of this increase is attributable to the proliferation of online and themed sales at auction houses, as these add to the number of items on offer each year. Some dealers have expressed concern that the growing number of products moving through auction houses is holding down the value of individual items, even as sales totals increase.
“There’s a lot of auction houses, and they all are competing for the same wallets,” Kwiat says. “The pace at which things are becoming available is increasing. With this pace, there is a decrease in the urgency of buyers to purchase, because it’s as if there’s always going to be something new on the horizon.”
This may have been the reason for the disappointing results of the De Beers Exceptional Blue Collection, posits gemologist Gary Roskin of the online magazine Roskin Gem News Report. Sotheby’s has been offering the group of eight fancy-blue diamonds over several auctions.
“Climbing out on a limb, I think that the rarity factor became overshadowed by the group image. Those of us in the colored-gemstone arena call that the Tucson effect,” Roskin says. “Because you see so many in a group, as you would see Paraiba tourmalines at the Tucson gem and mineral shows, they must not be as rare as we have been led to believe. And nothing is further from the truth.”
Sotheby’s in particular had an extremely active year, creating more online sales and special selling exhibitions, such as “Brilliant & Black” in London, which featured Black jewelry artists and designers; “Art as Jewelry as Art” in New York, focusing on pieces by some of the most innovative and recognized fine artists of the 20th and 21st centuries; and “Egyptomania,” specializing in historic Egyptian revival jewelry.
Auction houses are doing a good job of diversifying and segmenting their offerings, Bruning believes. “If you look at the auctions we’re conducting, we had a 560-lot auction that was two-and-a-half months before the December [Magnificent Jewels] sale of 160 lots. Maybe there are more auctions [these days], but they are much more tightly curated so you can offer things that are special.”
Photo the 11.15 carat Williamson Pink Star Diamond © Sotheby.