Posts tagged jewellery auctions

A publicity photograph of the Grand Mazarin diamond, due to be auctioned by Christie's Geneva next month.

It seems ironic that having written extensively about the French Crown Jewels only a few weeks ago, one of the most spectacular stones from that collection should suddenly appear at auction.  The gem in question is called the Grand Mazarin, a 19.02 carat of very pale pink colour originating from the fabled Indian mines of the Golconda, known for producing diamonds of exceptional clarity.  It is the same mine that produced beauties such as the Koh-i-Noor and Regent diamonds.

The Grand Mazarin was the largest of a matchless collection assembled by Cardinal Jules Raymond Mazarin, Duc de Nevers, Louis XIV’s immensely capable first minister and successor to Cardinal Richelieu as the Sun King’s first minister.  Cardinal Mazarin was a lover and collector of beautiful things and in a privileged position to have cream of the crop.  He put together a marvellous collection of 18 diamonds which came to be known as the Mazarins, of which the Grand Mazarin was the largest.

Cardinal Mazarin, who assembled a fabled collection of diamonds and bequeathed them to the French Crown.

Upon his death, the collection was bequeathed to Louis XIV, who in turn bestowed them on the Crown.  The Grand Mazarin was a personal favourite, often worn on a chain of graduated diamonds.  The Mazarins passed through descent to Louis XIV’s successors.  A disastrous theft in 1792 in the middle of the chaos of the French Revolution saw the collection disappear and scattered to the four winds.  Some of the gems from the theft were recovered, but of the 18 Mazarins, only the Grand Mazarin came back.

The stone was set and reset into various jewels during the Empire, Restoration and Second Empire, as each monarch tried to shape the Crown Jewels to the taste of the day.  With the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870 and a Second Bourbon Restoration being comprehensively bungled by the head of that family, the Crown Jewels were sold off in 1884, the Grand Mazarin passed into private hands.  The sale is being handled by Christie’s Geneva and is the first time the stone has appeared at auction since its sale in 1884.  Experts say that the stone should fetch $9-10 million and after a lacklustre season in jewellery auctions after a record breaking couple of years, the auction houses need a sparkling headline.

It is possible that the French Government may buy it back, as it has been doing with other Crown Jewels that have appeared on the market over the last few years.  I have mixed views on this- I always find it rather sad when a famous stone gets bought and locked up forever, never worn or enjoyed.  On the plus side, if it were to join its counterparts at the Galerie d’Apolon in the Louvre, us lesser mortals would have a chance to gaze, if just for a few minutes, into the facets of history.

A contemporary photograph of the French Crown Jewels before they were auctioned by the French Government in 1884.


The Van Cleef and Arpels necklace made in 1939 for Queen Nazli of Egypt.  It contains 673 diamonds and was sold at Sotheby's in 2015 for over $4.2 million.

Van Cleef and Arpels are currently holding in London a fantastic exhibition of heritage pieces from their archive and in hands of private collectors.  It is not a huge exhibit, but it is a sumptuous one.  The carefully curated pieces take the visitor on a brief yet informative journey of the brand’s history and are a tour de force of ingenuity and craftsmanship which reveal why Van Cleef and Arpels deserves top billing in the luxury industry.

The peony ruby and diamond brooch, a masterclass in invisible setting.

Some of the pieces are monumental, the biggest of these being the diamond necklace commissioned by Queen Nazli of Egypt.  It is an impressive jewel, set with 673 diamonds suspended in almost invisible platinum settings.  The necklace in fact appeared for sale, intact, in 2015 at Sotheby’s, most experts believing it had been broken up.  It fetched over $4.2 million.  The piece had been part of a large parure which had also included a monumental tiara, bracelets and earrings.  The necklace was also an ode to the fact that Van Cleef has long been the go to jeweller to many a royal dynasty- let’s not forget that it was them who created the Empress of Iran’s jewellery for her coronation in 1967.

The firm’s metier, invisible setting, is represented by two objects, the ruby and diamond peony brooch and a ravishing gold and ruby minaudière.   The minaudière was the fashion object of the 1920s; it was a sleek and elegant alternative to the handbag made in precious metals, containing a small mirror, lipstick case, powder compact, pencil and sometimes a cigarette lighter.  By necessity they were nearly always rectangular, a shape that lent itself beautifully to the clean lines of Art Deco.  They were the perfect objects to show off the art of invisible setting as initially they only knew how to set the stones into flat surfaces.  The technology quickly advanced and by the 1940s, stones were seemingly invisibly set into curved surfaces.  The diamond and ruby peony brooch is a masterclass in this type of setting and one can only imagine the thousands of hours it must have taken to assemble it.

The jewel which for me strikes the perfect balance of using an important stone playfully yet elegantly is the stork brooch, which in its beak holds an important yellow briolette diamond weighing 95 carats.  It was made in the 1970s as a special order to a client to celebrate the birth of a son.  The piece also continues the Van Cleef tradition of transformable jewellery, as the wings can be detached to be worn as earrings and the diamond can be worn as a pendant.

There are numerous references to flower inspired jewellery, all executed with Van Cleef’s ususal boldness and panache.  Old classics which continue to provide inspiration to their designers today, such as the fairy brooch and the Cadenas watches and bracelets are also given their due credit.  The pieces are truly set off by the extravagant interiors of the showroom and it is doubtful whether one will be able to see such beautiful jewels in such surroundings for some time.  I highly recommend a visit.


The Heritage Pieces of Van Cleef and Arpels is on until the 15th March 2017 at 9 New Bond Street, London, W1

Ingenious: this stork brooch suspends a 95 carat yellow briolette diamond.  The wings detach to form earclips and the diamond can be worn as a pendant.

The minaudiere: a must have for any 1920s flapper, this extravagant alternative to a handbag contains a lipstick holder, compact, pencil, pill box, lighter and cigarette case.  The surfaces have been embellished with invisibly set rubies. 


The Cartier ruby necklace Elizabeth Taylor was given by her third husband, Mike Todd.  It was accompanied by matching earrings and a bracelet.

What could be more romantic than an impromptu gift of rubies from your husband?  This is precisely what happened to Elizabeth Taylor as she was doing laps in the pool of her rented house in the South of France when Mike Todd, her third husband, walked onto the terrace and waved a red leather case with ‘Cartier’ stamped in gold on the lid.  The contents of the case matched the red leather, containing a suite of matchless rubies and diamonds set into earrings, a necklace and bracelet.

Elizabeth recounted the episode in her book ‘My Love Affair With Jewellery’:

A still from a home movie showing Mike Todd fastening the necklace he has just given Elizabeth Taylor.

Another still from the home movie shot when Mike Todd gave a 24 year old Elizabeth Taylor the Cartier ruby suite.  Her delight is palpable.

Another still from the home movie shot when Mike Todd gave a 24 year old Elizabeth Taylor the Cartier ruby suite.  Her delight is palpable.

A youthful Elizabeth Taylor wearing the Cartier earrings and necklace to an event.  With her ususal panache, she is wearing a diamond flower in her hair.

‘When Mike gave me the rubies I was pregnant with Liza.  We had rented a villa... about three months into our marriage.  The most beautiful house you’ve ever seen... I was in the pool, swimming laps at our home, and Mike came outside to keep me company.  I got out of the pool and put my arms around him, and he said ‘’Wait a minute, don’t joggle your tiara’’.  Because I was wearing my tiara in the pool! [Why, one may ask? Because she was Elizabeth Taylor and she could].  He was holding a red leather box and inside was a ruby necklace, which glittered in the warm light.  It was like the sun, lit up and made of red fire.  First, Mike put it round my neck and smiled.  Then he bent down and put matching earrings on me.  Next came the bracelet.  Since there was no mirror I had to look in the water.  The jewelry was so glorious, rippling red and blue like a painting.  I just shrieked with joy... It was a perfect Summer day and a perfect day of love.’

Mike was Elizabeth’s third husband and she was only 24 at the time.  Although their relationship was tempestuous they were very much in love.  The ruby set was by no means the only piece he gave her- he was very fond of presenting her with beautiful things, often laden with meaning or as a gallant surprise.  During one Paris trip, Elizabeth bought an elegant pair of paste earrings.  Some months later, she noticed they felt different- Mike had taken them away and quietly replaced them with diamond copies he had had made for her.

She was utterly heartbroken when he died, just 13 months into their marriage.  When the necklace was auctioned on Elizabeth’s death in 2011 (the proceeds going to her AIDS charities) the ruby set realised over £5400,000 several times over its top estimate of $600,000.  Although Elizabeth would have been thrilled at the amount of money raised for good causes, jewellery for her was not about the material value but the stories behind it.  In her telling of the story of the ruby suite, it is clear she never lost her naive delight and pleasure she derived from her collection.


Ring set with a 3.15 carat bluish green diamond by Tiffany in their inimitably elegant style.

The biggest, most famous green diamond in the world: the Dresden Green, weighing 41 carats.

Gemmologists and collectors alike are fascinated by green diamonds not only because the hues and tones in this gem vary so greatly, but because it is not yet fully understood why they occur. 

Of the coloured diamonds in the spectrum, red and green are the rarest.  Chromacity is usually determined in other diamonds due to the trace presence of elements; in green the result is thought to come about after the stone has been exposed to radiation over a period of thousands of years.  The source of radiation is usually uranium near the Earth’s surface.  As these unlikely conditions have to be absolutely perfect for this to happen, the appearance of a green diamond is a genuinely rare natural occurrence.  The effect can be replicated in a laboratory, achieving the same effect, making the differentiation between the natural and the artificial extremely difficult.

Green diamonds are always submitted to a gem laboratory to establish the origin of colour, but even with today’s advanced technology it is not always possible for the lab to produce a satisfactory assessment.  Most of them are not green all the way through; many have green radiation blotches or stains on the surface which get polished away during the cutting process, which means the colour is lost.  Cutters have to work their way around this in order to present the highest colour saturation in the best way.  It is highly unusual for a stone to be evenly coloured all the way through, but they do occur. 

Generally, the longer the exposure to radiation, the deeper in to the gem the colour will have penetrated.  How deep the colour has gone will also determine the hue.  Coloured diamonds, apart from their primary colour will also have a secondary colour; green diamonds have two, blue and yellow, making their classification difficult.  Hues, therefore, range from the palest mint green, through to vivid parrot and intense olive green.  More often than not green stones will be named yellowish green, greenish blue, blueish green and so forth.

A yellowish green diamond surrounded by pink and white diamonds.  A perfect example of how much the greens can vary from stone to stone.

The most famous green diamond in world is also the largest: the Dresden Green, weighing in at 41 carats.  It was acquired by Augustus, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony in 1742 and it remains on view in the Green Vaults in Dresden today.  It sets the benchmark for all stones of its kind because its colour is natural and homogenous all the way through, experiments with radiated diamonds not beginning until 1904.  Gemmologists were allowed to study it in detail and their results were inconclusive- they determined that additional research is required to establish the definite cause of green in diamonds.  I rather like the fact that some precious stones still retain some genuine mystery.

A notable example of an exceptional green is the Ocean Dream diamond which possesses a truly unique bluish green hue that gives it its name.  It weighs 5.5 carats and was recently exhibited at the Smythsonian’s ‘Splendor of Gems’ exhibit.  Another gem worthy of a mention is the Aurora Green, a spectacular fancy vivid green weighing 5.03 sold in Hong Kong by Christie’s last year; the sale fetched $16.8 million, or $3.3 million a carat, a record for a stone of its kind.  Enough to wake the green eyed monster in any of us.

The Aurora Green, weighing in at 5.03 carats.  It was sold by Christie's for $16.8 million, setting a record for a diamond of its class.


Boehmer et Bassenge's new Jardin d'Isabelle diamond necklace, composed entirely of pink and D flawless diamonds.  The estimate for their upcoming auction at Christie's is $8-12 million.

Two of the most astonishing pieces of jewellery to be created since the French Revolution are to be auctioned at Christie’s Geneva on the 15th November.  They consist of a necklace called Le Jardin d’Isabelle and earclips named Miroir d’Amour- appropriate Rococo nomenclature given the name of the creator: Boehmer et Bassenge.

The original Boehmer et Bassenge were the court jewellers to Marie Antoinette, who created an infamous diamond necklace which could be said to have been the fuse that lit the French Revolution.  The Parisian jewellers began composing a necklace in 1772, consisting of 647 diamonds weighing a total of 2800 carats, all of them reputed to be D flawless, costing some 2 million livres.  The jewellers were hoping to persuade Louis XV to buy it for his mistress Madame du Barry, who was known to be exceedingly fond of diamonds.  Unfortunately, before the necklace was finished the King died and Madame du Barry was sent away, leaving Boehmer and Bassenge without a buyer.  The necklace was offered to his successor Louis XVI for his new queen, Marie Antoinette, but the royal couple turned it down, the Queen stating that she had enough diamonds.  The monarchs sensibly suggested to the pair that at such an exhorbitant price they might like to break up the piece and sell the stones separately in order to recoup their costs.  But Boehmer and Bassenge had spent so much time and energy creating this unparalleled jewel that they could not bring themselves to carry this out.  Rather pathetically, they toured most of the courts of Europe trying to flog the necklace without success, even going as far as Constantinople to offer it to the Sultan.

The fuse that lit a Revolution:  A replica of the diamond necklace by Boehmer and Bassenge.  Turned down by Marie Antoinette and all the other crowned heads of Europe, this piece cemented France's hate against the Queen.

The Comtesse du Barry, Louis XV's beautiful, not very clever mistress.

Marie Antoinette painted in all her courtly glamour.  Although her dress and hair are decorated with priceless jewels, ironically she was rarely painted wearing a necklace.

Hearing of their plight, an adventuring conwoman calling herself the Comtesse de la Motte offered her services to the jewellers to act as a go between between them and the Queen in order to effect the sale; in fact it was all an elaborate ruse to steal the necklace.  The Comtesse in fact had no position or influence at Court and had never even met the Queen.  However, she managed to persuade the gullible Cardinal de Rohan, Grand Almoner of France.  He had fallen out of royal favour; desperate to regain his high courtly position, he gullible enough to try anything.  The Comtesse persuaded him through various means that she was in the Queen’s confidence and that she was longing for the famed necklace, but was too frightened of public opinion to buy it openly.  Would de Rohan act as intermediary between the Crown and Boehmer and Bassenge and act as buyer on her behalf?  Astonishingly, he agreed.  The necklace was delivered to the Cardinal, who passed it to the Comtesse to give to the Queen.  The Comtesse promptly ran off to London, broke up the necklace and sold the stones.  Inevitably, when the jewellers did not receive the first instalment owed, they approached the Queen, who was confused to say the least, and the entire affair came out into the open.  All those implicated went on trial, including the duped Cardinal.  At this date (1785) Marie Antoinette was widely loathed for her perceived extravagance; the trial effectively became a trial on the Queen’s character and although the Comtesse de la Motte was convicted as a thief, the Cardinal was acquitted.  It was a widely held belief by the public at this point that the Queen had secretly spirited away the necklace. The whole affair merely solidified her as a scapegoat figure for the country’s economic woes and unleashed a poisonous vitriol towards her of an intensity that would be hard for a modern mind to comprehend.  The ironic thing is that in her portraits Marie Antoinette is rarely seen wearing a necklace of any kind. 

Miroir d'Amour earrings by Boehmer et Bassenge.  Each of these pear shaped diamonds is D Flawless and weighs over 50 carats.  They are the largest of their kind ever to be offered at auction.

The new incarnation of Boehmer et Bassange is as yet hard to pinpoint.  A thorough internet search yields only opaque results and elegantly worded press releases.  The message, however, is loud and clear: to create pieces of such peerless quality that they will pass into legend.  And no doubt they will- in accordance with the famous name they are trading under, Boehmer et Bassenge work only with D Flawless diamonds.  The Miroir d’Amour earrings are the largest pear D Flawless pair of pear shaped stones ever to be offered at auction.  The two stones weigh over 50 carats each and the pre-sale estimate is $20-30 million.  The Jardin d’Isabelle necklace, although not the gargantuan 2800 carats like the Queen’s, is nearly 150 carats, the largest stone in it coming in at 31.8 carats.  The estimate for the necklace is $8-12 million. These lots are being offered without reserve, so it is worth watching this space to see what happens.  Every single diamond in the piece is D-Flawless.  These stones are not just the top 1% of diamonds mined; they are the world’s top 100th of 1%.  Regardless of what happens at auction it is an astounding, unheard of collection.  Madame du Barry, the original intended recipient of the original necklace, would have approved.

The beautiful Jubilee Ruby, with a weight of 15.99 carats, imaginatively set by Verdura.

The beautiful Jubilee Ruby, with a weight of 15.99 carats, imaginatively set by Verdura.

The jewellery auction season is over and now that the blizzard of publicity and eye watering numbers has stopped cascading towards us we can step back and take a measured look at how the sales have performed.

There have been several ‘Biggest Ever’ stones offered at auction this year.  These stones were exceptional not only in size, but also in quality.  We must add a mention here for the largely unsung hero that is the stone cutter.  Coloured stones take months of studying before faceting; not only does the cutter have to remove the maximum amount of flaws to maximise the clarity, he also has to ensure the colour is evenly spread.  Coloured stones are rarely evenly coloured and the cutter must ensure that the colour is as close to the centre of the stone as possible in order to ensure maximum colour saturation.  The cutter is solely responsible for maximising a gem’s potential.

 But I digress- the prices achieved this year did not disappoint.  The Unique Pink Diamond sold by Sotheby’s in May fetched a world record as the most expensive pink diamond ever sold; at 15.38 carats it was the largest pear shaped pink diamond to be sold at auction and it fetched $31.56 million.  It sold to an anonymous Asian buyer who was bidding over the telephone and so far their identity remains secret.

A trio of blues of exceptional quality and size also held auction watchers agog.  The Oppenheimer Blue, a beautiful emerald cut of over 14 carats smashed its $29 million top estimate, fetching $57.5 million. It made it the most expensive blue diamond ever sold, also setting a record sale time of just 25 minutes.

More nervous were Christie’s during the sale of the Cullinan Dream, the 24.18 carat blue behemoth, the largest blue diamond in the world ever to be auctioned.  They had reason to be, after the disastrous withdrawal of the Shirley Temple Blue Diamond earlier that month, which had failed to reach its reserve.  Bidding was slow on this lot and the price went up agonisingly slowly.  However, it managed to reach $25.3 million- still a remarkable sum for a single gem, by any standards.

One more stone that deserves an honourable mention is the Jubilee Ruby sold by Christie’s, beautifully set by Verdura (I do often wonder why some of these amazing stones aren’t more imaginatively set).  A rare stone of just under 16 carats, it set a US record with a hammer price of $12.5 million, plus fees.

Overall, it was a good year for gem auctions.  Although prices held very well, other than the stones mentioned above, no other records were broken and most lots came in just shy of their high estimates, with a few exceptional stones coming in short of their low estimates.

The Oppenheimer Blue Diamond, the most expensive blue diamond ever sold at auction.

The 14.38 carat Unique Pink Diamond.

Auction News: Magnificent Gemstones

The jewellery auction season is upon us and this year Sotheby’s and Christie’s are going head to head with some of the most magnificent stones seen on the market for some time.  I have previously written about the high demand for investment grade spectacular gemstones and the pieces on offer are sure to whet the appetite of collectors.  Each of the auction houses is presenting a stunning array of jewels, but for me the most special ones are the large coloured diamonds and precious stones.  Coloured diamonds have become bona fide investments as they are genuinely rare; there is no need to control the quantity of these diamonds coming onto the market, unlike the white diamond trade.

The Shirley Temple Blue Diamond

The top billing of Sotheby’s show (the pun is intentional) is the Shirley Temple Blue Diamond, a fine example of how a coloured diamond is going to yield a marvellous return. It was bought for Shirley Temple by her father for her 12th birthday as her film ‘The Blue Bird’ was wrapping up.  He paid $7210, or about $118500 in today’s money.  The pre-sale estimate on the stone is $25-$35million. The stone has been termed Fancy Deep Blue by the Gemmological Institute of America, is VVS2 in clarity and is a beautiful 9.54 carat cushion cut.  Due to the intensity of the colour and the superb quality and size of the diamond it is thought to have been originally mined in either the fabled Golconda mines in India or the Cullinan mines in South Africa.  Blue diamonds are given their hue by traces of boron in the crystal structure and the Gemmological Institute of America state that less than 0.5% of stones submitted to them can be called blue.

The Unique Pink Diamond

The next star to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s is the ‘Unique Pink’ Diamond. This stone comes with an estimate of $35 million.  It is the largest pear shaped Fancy Vivid Pink diamond ever auctioned; it weighs a whopping 15.38 carats and comes from the Williamson mine in South Africa.  Unlike the famous Argyle mines in Australia, which specifically mine pink diamonds, the Williamson mine mainly produces white diamonds and if a coloured stone emerges, it is considered a bonus.  The Williamson also produced some decades ago a 20 carat pale pink diamond of superb quality; known as the ‘Williamson Pink’, it was gifted to Queen Elizabeth II and it often graces her lapel.  Pink diamonds are irresistibly mysterious, as no-one really know why they are pink- they do not contain traces of anything else found in coloured diamonds.  Even with this eye-watering price tag, the value can only go up- the Argyle mine in Australia, which produces over 90% of the world’s pink diamonds, is due to close in the next few years as it is running out.

The Jubilee Ruby

Completing the fabulous trio of amazing stones is the Jubilee Ruby being auctioned by Christie’s.  The oval fiery stone weighs 15.99 carats and is set in an inventive ring floral ring by Verdura- it is finished in yellow gold which only highlights the superb warmth of the stone.  The estimate: $12-$15 million.  It is known to come from the Mogok mine in Burma, which produces the world’s finest rubies.  As natural rubies of over 5 carats are supremely rare, to see one of this size exceptional.  It has no treatment at all and so is the dream of every gem collector.

I have no doubt that in the coming few weeks, some auction records will be broken and it just remains to us to watch this space.

Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels Starring the Shirley Temple Blue Diamond: 19th April 2016, New York

Sotheby’s Magnificent and Noble Jewels: 17th May 2016, Geneva

Christie’s Magnificent Jewels and the Jubilee Ruby: 20th April 2016, New York

Christie’s Geneva Magnificent Jewels: 18th May 2016, Geneva

Golconda Diamonds: Gems of the First Water

The Archduke Joseph diamond, a Golconda stone of 76.02 carats that sold for $21.5 million at Christie's in 2012.

Jewellery buyers have become increasingly discerning in the last few years and with that knowledge comes a desire for stones of the highest quality.  We have seen this in the price surge for important coloured gemstones, with several stones smashing world records at auction last year; we are seeing this now with diamonds mined from the Golconda.  In real terms, white diamonds have not proved to be a completely failsafe investment. According to Martin Rapapport, developer of the industry approved Rapapport Index, prices for diamonds of 1 carat have fallen 7% over the last year.

The Golconda Fort in India

It is a different story with Golconda diamonds. The Golconda was a fort in India fabled for holding diamonds from the nearby Kollur mine, in the Guntur district.  Not only was it one of the most productive mines in history, it was known to produce extremely high quality stones.  These were known in the 17th and 18th century as ‘Diamonds of the First Water’.  It is a term very rarely used nowadays and describes an elusive quality in a diamond, more commonly known as ‘brilliance’ or ‘life’.  We now have the skills to bring out the best in diamonds, but in those days of basic lapidary, a stone had to be judged on the purity of the crystal alone, or ‘water’.

The Dresden Green in its current eighteenth century setting.

The Kollur mine started operating in about 1570 and was written about by the famous French explorer Tavernier when he visited India in the 17th century.  After producing some of the most famous stones in history, including the Koh-i-Noor, the Regent and the Dresden Green, the mine was depleted by the mid 19th century and closed.  And as with most finite resources, these stones command a substantial premium.

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother wearing the Koh-I-Noor in her crown at her Coronation in 1937.

Why?  Because Golconda diamonds are notable by the absence of nitrogen, which renders them remarkably pure and the classification is known as Type IIa.  This allows them to transmit UV and visible light, which Type I diamonds block.  Type IIa diamonds are now mined in South Africa and and Lesotho, and some diamond experts such as Laurence Graff use the term Golconda and Type IIa interchangeably.

Like so many things in the world, things that weren’t so rare 20 years ago are today as connoisseurs expand their expertise and fuel demand.