Golden oldies spark revival
On prominent display in the salon of antique and vintage jewellery dealer Michael Youssoufian is a portrait of a well-dressed European aristocrat, resplendent in diamond and pearl earrings and choker.
The sparkle and glitter of antique and vintage jewellery may not rival that of today's flashy bling, but their naturalistic foliage motifs and the subtle brilliance of diamonds in the old European cut reflect the refined taste of a bygone era.
While many jewellery designers keep looking back for inspiration, vintage and antique jewellery pieces are often the reference point.
'There is little originality in contemporary jewellery design. Jewellers in the past hundreds of years already innovated most styles and designs,' said Michael Youssoufian, proprietor of the vintage jewellery and watch dealership.
International brands such as Cartier have re-launched collections of their most successful vintage pieces and staged widely publicised exhibitions. It is exactly this fascination with the past that has sparked a renewed interest in vintage and antique pieces from a new generation of connoisseurs in China and India.
'These countries have long been the source of inspiration for renowned brands,' Youssoufian said. 'Also, today's younger customers are less superstitious compared with previous generations.
'In the past, many believed wearing jewellery once owned by others would bring bad luck.'
Most style-conscious customers, who appreciate antique and vintage jewellery, have individual and unconventional tastes. They seek different items that make them stand out.
Aside from their rarity, many antique and vintage pieces encapsulate the aesthetics and styles that define the important periods of artistic development over the past several centuries.
The Youssoufian collection includes a brooch in silver and gold circa 1750, with natural pearls from the Gulf region and antique-cut diamonds that evoke the regal opulence of the Ottoman Empire. A diamond tiara comb pairing horn and silver and gold is of an iconic starburst design unmistakably Victorian. A platinum brooch with a large central pearl surrounded by diamonds exemplifies the prevailing elegant femininity of the Edwardian period.
Michael Youssoufian is one of a handful of antique and vintage jewellery specialists who have set up a permanent presence in Hong Kong. It is part of a family business established in 1865 that deals in important jewellery from the estates of families in Europe.
Youssoufian's father operates an antique jewellery shop in Geneva, Switzerland. Most specialists from Europe and the United States exhibit regularly at the major trade fairs in the city. 'Very few antique and vintage jewellery companies can sustain their operations by selling only vintage jewellery in Hong Kong. We also deal in vintage watches and design and produce jewellery,' he said. 'Most enthusiasts look for antique and vintage jewellery in major cities in Europe or the US where there is a larger selection because of their heritage.'
In Hong Kong, auction houses are the main source of antique and vintage jewellery. 'Specialists and auction houses complement each other. Auction houses act as agents. They do not own the pieces and focus on getting the highest prices for the pieces,' Youssoufian said. 'We, on the other hand, invest our money in the pieces before the sale and generally establish a price based on a percentage of the amount we have invested.'
To attract more competitive bids, auction houses promote their items worldwide. 'Many of my customers prefer to make purchases in a discreet manner,' Youssoufian said. 'They are a select few who are knowledgeable, well-informed and aware of the rarity of antique and vintage pieces.'
Most enthusiasts of antique and vintage jewellery pieces begin with 'signed pieces', or items with the engraved logos of renowned jewellery houses made between the 1920s and the 1970s. They might later graduate to antique pieces of earlier periods, such as Victorian and Edwardian.
'Valuable antique and vintage pieces are very personal and many have been kept in the estates of families through many generations. It is very difficult to find nice pieces on the open market,' Youssoufian said. He said the company was able to acquire important pieces because it had been in the business for so long and established close ties with some old families in Europe that had at some point decided to sell their pieces, perhaps due to inheritance issues.