Romancing the stones
Throughout the centuries, people used gem stones as talismans to ward off evil and then as symbols of power and wealth. Wars were fought and blood spilled over the glittering greens of emeralds and the deep glistening oceans captured in a single sapphire.
But there is no more exalted possession in the modern world then that of the diamond. Mae West famously proclaimed that 'carats' were more important than 'carrots', and Marilyn Monroe told us that they were 'a girl's best friend'. But this was not always the case.
The history of commercial diamonds started in the Bengal region of India, but development was slow as the ability to refine diamonds proved very difficult. Matthew Girling, worldwide jewellery director for Bonhams says: 'You get primitive diamond cuts from 15th- and 16th-century India, but it is not actually until the 17th century that you get some really sophisticated cutting happening. It took generations.'
The Wittelsbach is a diamond that dates back to the era: an extremely rare 35.6-carat deep greyish-blue diamond, it was part of the dowry of the Infanta Margarita Teresa (1651-1673) upon her engagement to Leopold I of Austria (1640-1705). It sold for a surprising GBP16 million in December 2008.
More modern pieces of jewellery might not garner as high bids compared to their historical counterparts, but Bonhams recently had heads turning with the sale of Bulgari's circa-1960 stunning blue diamond crossover ring in September of this year. Composed of a pairing of a 3.9 carat pear-shaped diamond with another 3.7 carat pear-shaped fancy vivid, natural blue diamond, it was originally estimated at GBP600,000-GBP800,000, but sold for a surprising GBP1.9 million. This was a testament to not only the staying power of jewellery houses, but the rarity of individually created pieces in an increasingly assembly-line world.
Haute joailleries houses such as Bulgari and Cartier might be responsible for some of the most illustrious pieces of jewellery in the world, but they are no longer the small businesses they once were. In today's market, demand is far outstripping supply, and because of this mass production is given precedence over individual pieces.
'As all these houses became multinationals, a lot was lost,' says Girling. 'You can get the same pieces readily available wherever you go around the world. The exclusivity of going into Cartier in Paris in the 1920s is not as available today. Nowadays, if you went into Cartier in London, you would be able to get the exact same design and cut.'
Some might feel that artistry is not as strong as the heydays of post-war era jewellery, when Hollywood glamour met the great designers of Bulgari and Cartier. Screen sirens such as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and most famously, Elizabeth Taylor, graced the red carpets dripping in the finest jewels.
Richard Burton, one of Taylor's husbands, said of his wife: 'The only word she knows in Italian is Bulgari.' Following her death this year, Christie's will auction her jewellery collection in New York in December, including the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond; a 33.19-carat diamond ring estimated at US$3 million.
The auction sales have made major jewellery houses take heed of consumer demand, with a return to the design of spectacle. De Beers' new Wildflowers collection emulates the delicate romance that built its name and made it the most powerful diamond supplier in the world. The necklace is set in white gold with more than 1,413 white diamonds, while the matching ring with 214 diamonds has a weight of 2.5-carats and makes a fine pairing.
Chopard has seized the aesthetic of Hollywood opulence with its recent more-is-more Red Carpet Collection of coloured diamonds. The collection's crowning glory is a unique ring with 33-carat yellow diamond shoulders and a pave-set diamond band. It represents a return to form for the Swiss jewellery house, once renowned for its impeccable craftsmanship and daring design.
Growing consumer demand from China and India, as well as consistent interest from the West means that people are still looking for a unique piece which will outshine all the rest, no matter what the price. 'When a woman walks into a room, she wants everyone in that room to see what jewellery she is wearing,' says Girling.
Indeed, last year's sale of the Graff Pink is a prime example: Sotheby's Geneva had set a pre-sale estimate of between U$27 million-US$36 million, for the exceptionally rare 24.8-carat pink diamond of the purest, vibrant hue. It instead sold for an unprecedented US$46 million to Laurence Graff (hence its new name), with the enormous price being attributed to the exceptional rarity of a pink diamond exceeding 20 carats.
Sourcing stones that will create such a stir, however, is not easy. 'This year for our Christie's Hong Kong Magnificent Jewels Autumn Sale, we had a pair of 35.77- and 35.61-carat D-flawless round brilliant-cut diamonds available,' says Giam. 'But finding a pair like this today is rare.' (On November 29, the diamonds were sold at auction for HK$64.5 million and HK$63.38 million respectively.)
Today the fine jewellery market is in a new state of flux. Big business and a focus towards mass production has meant that many of the very rare pieces are left in the hands of the auction houses, but the discovery of new stones of quality is finite. Still, the buzz created from such sales has spurred jewellery houses into recreating their golden age of truly exclusive pieces.