“I think jewels still have the feeling of the former owner,” says Ljuba Lurje, a Russian businesswoman living in Italy. “If this were a noble person, with whom you can yourself identify, it’s wonderful – you feel that you are part of the chain of history.”
Lurje is a passionate collector of what auction houses call “noble jewels”. “I have a jewel that was owned by Maria Feodorovna, bought at auction from a museum in Geneva. I love it.” The diamond brooch was a gift to Maria from her husband, Tsar Paul I, and is so important that Lurje has loaned it to the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. But it’s not too precious to wear to “private invitations and events at the Embassy”. Her fellow countrymen know what she’s wearing and “go crazy when they see it”.
David Bennett – chairman, Europe and the Middle East of Sotheby’s jewellery division – is involved in the saleroom’s regular Noble Jewels auctions, initiated in 2007. “Most of the jewels are 19th- and early-20th-century. The aristocracy in Europe at that period was still highly privileged, so buyers have the endorsement of people who could have the best.” He adds, “Each piece is a history lesson. In the collection from the Thurn und Taxis family [sold in 1992 at Sotheby’s Geneva], many jewels came out of the Schatzkammer in their original cases with notes saying who owned them, whether they were gifts, and so on.”
But it’s not just an academic interest in history that drives buyers. It’s romance. Behind many lots are love stories, coupled with abundant and extravagant gifts. The stunning yellow Donnersmarck diamonds – sold in 2007 at Sotheby’s Geneva for $4.66m and $3.25m – were owned by the courtesan La Païva, who married Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck. The intensity of the couple’s devotion to the Parisian jeweller Chaumet matched the passion of their affair.
The collection owned by Wallis Simpson, for whose hand Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, also combines a celebrated love story with fantastic jewels. Sold at Sotheby’s Geneva in 1987, 306 lots fetched $50.3m – more than seven times the pre-sale estimate and still the record for a single-owner sale. The highlight was a flamingo brooch, studded with precious stones and designed by Jeanne Toussaint, Cartier’s high jewellery director, in 1940. Bennett recalls, “We valued it as if it were from Joe Bloggs, at $93,000 to $120,000. It made $806,667.”
Caught by surprise two decades ago, the specialists are still uncertain how to value noble jewels. The Duchess of Windsor’s flamingo is coming under the hammer again in November, at Sotheby’s, with an estimate of £1m to £1.5m, but it could fetch 10 times that. “We’re loath to put an estimate on it,” admits Bennett.
The formula for valuing such jewellery is “the four Cs plus a P” – ie, colour, clarity, cut and carat, then throw in something extra for provenance, says François Curiel, international head of Christie’s jewellery department and president of Christie’s Asia. “Provenance adds a premium you can’t put your finger on. It’s whatever the market decides that day.” In some cases, the market decides to more than quadruple the value: the Poltimore Tiara, which Princess Margaret wore at her wedding, was estimated at £150,000-£200,000 and sold for £926,400 at Christie’s in 2006.
Daniele, an Italian who works in real estate, is unwilling to give his surname out of concern for the security of his collection, but is keen to enthuse on his favourite topic. “My preferred field is 1920s to 1960s, but jewels of all periods with a provenance are of interest. If a piece is made as a commission for a royal patron, the jeweller is giving the best of his art. He would see it as an advertisement for his skill. If Cartier were making jewellery for the Duchess of Windsor, you can be sure the jeweller’s using the best stones and most exquisite settings.”
While most noble jewels are bought to wear, some are purchased as art objects. Kazumi Arikawa, a Japanese dealer and collector, has amassed one of the world’s largest private collections of jewellery. Arikawa says it’s not primarily history, provenance, power or status that draws him to collect. “My interest is based on beauty and inspiration.” He owns tiaras from 1800 to 1940 that are associated with names such as Princesse Marie Bonaparte and Cartier. Arikawa is not alone in this passion. In 2007, the 1890s Empress Josephine Tiara, made by Fabergé, created a frenzy among aficionados, fetching £1.05m at Christie’s (the top estimate was £600,000), an auction record price for a tiara.
A Fabergé tiara may not fit with your lifestyle, but a magnificent necklace might come in handy. This summer, Jackie Kennedy Onnasis’s three-strand necklace of simulated pearls, with emerald and diamond clasp, went for £30,000 at Bonhams’ Vintage at Goodwood auction. The Duchess of Windsor’s Cartier pearls sold in 1987 for $733,333 to Calvin Klein and his wife Kelly; when they were resold in 2007, they made $3.625m, its double-interest provenance increasing the value.
For noble jewels at more reasonable prices, Geoffrey Munn, MD of London-based Fabergé specialist Wartski, has a suggestion: “From the late-19th century until 1917, the Russian imperial family commissioned Fabergé trinkets as gifts and souvenirs by the roomful. The starting price for a good piece is £5,000.”
Unsurprisingly, other Fabergé treats are rather more expensive. Wartski has a pair of diamond-set mother-of-pearl and enamel cuff links that belonged to Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovitch Romanov, brother of Tsar Alexander III, which will set you back more than £50,000.