It was a different time, a different world, when I started, as a teenager, selling antique jewellery in one of London’s indoor antiques markets. It was cluttered and chaotic, all day, every day, the “runners” (small traders with jewels often borrowed from other dealers) coming in and out, their pockets or old carrier bags stuffed with treasures. Today, that world – laissez-faire, eccentric, a bit rough around the edges – has all but disappeared, and with it, so has much of the jewellery. However, the antique-jewellery trade, reduced and contracted, has nonetheless scrubbed up into a serious business and taken on its own patina of monied gloss and glamour. And rather than jewels kept stuffed in coat pockets, they’re set out, individually, as hallowed works of art, either in state-of-the-art showcases in private showrooms, or at sumptuously elegant, socially vibrant art and antiques fairs, such as the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht (the grandest of them all), Masterpiece and Art Antiques in London, the Armoury Show in New York, Fine Art Asia in Hong Kong and the Biennale in Paris.
The old guard remain, rather like royalty, as the somewhat anachronistic backbone of the trade: SJ Phillips, formidable and still the best antique-jewellery shop in the world; Wartski, the renowned Fabergé authority, which sells highly specialised jewels to museums and appears to be, as Oscar Wilde said, “always satisfied with the best”; and in New York, the grand A La Vieille Russie, also a Fabergé expert. The salerooms, once primarily serving the trade, now operate as retailers, and online antiques marketplace 1stdibs has become possibly the world’s largest jewellery emporium.
But it is the new-generation dealers who are helping to move the business on. They are finding and fuelling new collecting areas, bringing antique and period jewellery out from its exquisitely carved ivory tower, and presenting it in a contemporary context. In the process, they are making it more relevant to fashion, style and today’s international design and art‑collecting community.
Lee Siegelson is at the vanguard of this new movement. He has been instrumental in changing the image of vintage jewellery and its dealers, by presenting at major art fairs a small, eye-wateringly rare, hand-chosen selection of jewels and objects, mainly 20th century, showcased in a sleekly minimal and contemporary gallery-like setting. Far removed from the cluttered abundance of the archetypal antique shop, each piece is given space, superb lighting and room to breathe, to highlight its presence, personality, rarity and art-historical importance, as Siegelson says, “like a respected work of art, showing clients that these jewels have stood the test of time”.
Siegelson took over his father’s traditional New York jewellery business in 1992 and gradually reshaped it around his own evolving taste for jewels of great beauty rather than intrinsic value. “I went to museums and exhibitions, I saw what people like Joel Rosenthal had made and are making today. This ultimately refined my filter, and I began buying what I loved.” This means extraordinary examples of vintage Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, and jewels by designers such as Boivin or Suzanne Belperron, the buzz name of the moment, once worn by powerful women like Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers or the Duchess of Windsor.
The presentation of superlative jewels in a modern “art” context is key to today’s new-generation antique-jewellery business, but more significantly, this goes hand in hand with a preoccupation, bordering on obsession, with intense, esoteric exclusivity and a rejection of the mediocre and anonymous. The new antique-jewellery dealer is a curator with a pseudo-academic mindset, keen to research, to add depth, history and provenance, all of which, of course, also add both allure and value.
Martin Travis, managing director of Symbolic & Chase, a vital force for change in this fiercely traditional trade, makes waves with his go-getting audacity, the quality of the jewels he’s uncovered, and with spectacular stands each year at Masterpiece London. These he regards as advertising and image-building – a long-term investment, rather than a cost to be recouped at the show. Each atmospheric, darkly enticing scheme is plotted around a particularly important jewel: an early 19th-century enamelled articulated-snake necklace slithered in a jungle of real plants; birch trees were installed around a ravishing Koch woodland-scene choker; and last year, an aquarium with live coral set the scene for the staggeringly rare and historic Mary Tudor pearl.
When Travis bought the monumental baroque pearl at Christie’s in 2004, he commissioned in-depth research from a historian who was able to identify the pearl as Mary Tudor’s famous jewel, lost since the 16th century. Travis estimates the research added in excess of $1m to its value.
Travis had previously worked at Christie’s, but set up Symbolic & Chase 10 years ago with a US dealer in vintage racing cars – later buying him out and changing the focus towards fine and rare jewellery. Since then, the annual turnover has gone from £913,000 to between £7m and £10m, with a 10-year total of some £60m. He specialises, in the new-gen way, in 20th-century jewels of strong style – a Jean Fouquet 1920s pendant, a Cartier Tutti Frutti brooch – but also anything he particularly likes, such as an Ancient Roman gold chain. Travis has a large Middle Eastern clientele, who, he says, understand tradition and heritage and “appreciate the individuality of period pieces”. And, most likely, the investment potential that comes from their increasing rarity, as well as the fact that, despite escalating prices for “signed” 20th-century designer jewels, they are still considered undervalued in terms of artworks. “It helps, too,” says Travis, “that they know names, such as the great Place Vendôme jewellers, from buying in the 1960s and 1970s – names that have been passed on to a new generation of clients.”
Travis believes technology has given him an edge. “I was trying to find an avenue in a well‑established business, where I was up against fifth-generation firms.” He built a website as his shop window and has every piece professionally photographed. He also created his own iPad app in a bid to change the traditional shopping experience. It has clearly worked: he has sold two $1m Cartier jewels by showing pictures on his iPhone. He also goes the extra mile, or thousand, to build relationships with customers. He has, he says, slept overnight in his car waiting to deliver pieces to a private jet, he’s trained a Pekingese puppy, shipped horse medicine and furnished two houses.
Discoveries and in-depth research drive the dynamic young dealer Sam Loxton, who runs Lucas Rarities in an upstairs showroom off Bond Street. Loxton spent six months researching a stunning carved emerald, diamond and sapphire aigrette, and believes finding out that its designer was Paul Iribe, Coco Chanel’s great love and one of the most influential early exponents of art deco, increased the jewel’s value fivefold; he had uncovered a “real treasure”.
Loxton started out, aged 16, as a porter at Bonhams, then worked in the jewellery department at Christie’s while he was studying for his gemology exams. In 2007, he was given the opportunity to run Lucas Rarities, the London office of Dominik Biehler, owner of the Munich-based jewellery and gem merchants Ernst Farber and whose family have been in the business since 1692. Loxton has also focused on 20th-century signed jewels, especially those by Belperron, which are his passion, as well as on other rare vintage pieces. “Being mainly wholesalers, we had to move the business in that direction,” he explains. “The number of antique jewellers to sell to is dwindling. At the same time, jewellery is greatly undervalued as an art form. There is no equilibrium between exceptional jewels and fine art.”
Now, like many new-generation dealers, Loxton sells both in the trade and to private clients, roughly a 60-40 per cent divide. When he started, he says, a dealer could buy a piece of commercial antique jewellery and “flip it” for 10 per cent profit. “Today, mediocre jewellery doesn’t sell. It’s easier to sell something for £500,000 than for £5,000. People are looking for bigger and better, holding out for the right thing, and when it comes along, they are happy to pay a premium.” He has high hopes for Art Antiques London (June 11 to 18), when he unveils a rare collection of 1960s Kandinsky jewels based on early-20th-century designs by the artist, demonstrating both the craft of the goldsmith and the correlation between jewellery and art that Loxton is keen to push home.
These new-generation London dealers have largely opted for showrooms over shops, partly to keep overheads low and partly to preserve a sense of discretion and personal attention. As Sandra Cronan puts it: “The trade has moved upstairs.” Cronan is one of a few, like the former Christie’s experts Humphrey Butler and Simon Teakle, plus Hancocks and Bentley & Skinner, who have successfully navigated the changes of the past decade. Butler set up in Pall Mall, while British-born Teakle opened his own private salon in Greenwich, Connecticut, where a thriving hedge-fund community appreciates the exclusivity of his eclectic collection, which includes a c1780 paste moth brooch. One client has made three seven-figure-plus transactions in the two years since the salon opened. As for Teakle’s female clients, he explains: “They realise that today’s fashion frames antique jewellery perfectly; you only need one piece as a wonderful spotlight.”
Back in London, while Hancocks and Bentley & Skinner kept shops, Cronan swapped her Burlington Arcade boutique of 20 years for a first-floor Albemarle Street showroom, cocooned in mauve Edwardian decorations and Wiener Werkstätte furniture, which, she says, her private clients prefer as they look at her refined choice of 18th-century, Victorian, belle époque and art-deco jewellery. She has also branched into later-20th-century jewels; she shows me a whimsical 1950s gold and diamond toadstool brooch. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have looked at this,” she says, “but now it seems just right.”
At Hancocks, an established jeweller in the Burlington Arcade, owner Stephen Burton and his son Guy and daughter Amy have restyled their stands at TEFAF and Masterpiece London to be uncluttered, carefully curated and contemporary. “People are drawn in by the modernity,” Burton says, “and they spend longer looking. It is more exclusive, just as the business is now very selective. Lesser pieces sell only for their intrinsic worth. It’s right that artistic merit should have value.”
Both Hancocks and Sandra Cronan will show at Masterpiece London (June 26 to July 2), where jewellery exhibitors are growing in force and prominence every year. Masterpiece CEO Nazy Vassegh says that this year 70 per cent of all jewellers at the show have vintage pieces in their displays as opposed to 61 per cent last year. “Vintage jewellery is no longer regarded as old people’s jewellery,” she says. “There has been a drastic transformation of the ‘little antique jewellery shop’ – a major shift towards jewellery of artistic importance. The new dealers have taken heritage and given it a modern hit that is drawing in a new clientele.”
In New York, Fred Leighton, one of the best-known names in vintage jewellery, takes a less academic approach. Four years ago, following the retirement of its founder some years earlier, the business was bought by the diamond dealer Kwiat, along with a group of investors. Now the Madison Avenue business is run by the young Greg Kwiat, who is keen to regain and strengthen the company’s earlier pre-eminent position that was gained when Fred “Murray” Leighton (he changed his name to fit the shop) first introduced vintage jewellery – which he had been dealing in since the late 1970s – to a wider world of style and celebrity in the 1990s. “Fred Leighton brought antique jewellery into the ‘now’, made it relevant, exciting to wear, showed women how to wear it, embrace it, be at ease with it.” With a huge depth of inventory, Kwiat is concerned with making vintage jewellery “compelling for young collectors”, showing people in their thirties and forties that they are buying something uniquely individual that also represents good value. “There’s a time and place for museum pieces. We make vintage jewellery fun and fashionable.”
A few blocks away, off Madison Avenue, on the Upper East Side, the FD Gallery is owned and run by super-savvy Fiona Druckenmiller, a former portfolio manager on Wall Street, who, three years ago, turned her jewellery collecting habit into a business. In tune with the current trend, she focuses on 20th-century jewellery by named designers and houses, particularly Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, but also Paul Flato, Suzanne Belperron and Aldo Cipullo, all presented in a relaxed, contemporary gallery environment. “Supply is dwindling and exposure has broadened,” says Druckenmiller. “Brands buy back vintage pieces, big exhibitions attract attention, and a wealth of information is now accessible, so that provenance has become much more important.”
FD Gallery also showcases one-of-a-kind pieces by Daniel Brush and Viren Bhagat, which she feels will become antiques of the future. It is a move that is very much a part of the new-generation attitude. Symbolic & Chase sells the work of Italian designer-jeweller Sabba and Simon Teakle sells James de Givenchy. Siegelson makes his own jewellery. And Amy Burton, at Hancocks, is designing her own jewellery, too, using traditional techniques, while her brother Guy uses old-cut stones in his bespoke range. For the new generation of antique jewellery dealers, the way forward is through the past, using history and the “eye” it has given them to continue an unbroken line of rare, precious jewels as works of art and create a future market. As Druckenmiller says: “It’s like a perfect storm. Factors are converging and I don’t see anything to stop it.”