During these unprecedented circumstances, the appetite for high jewellery hasn’t abated with digital auctions thriving. But when faced with enhanced global competition, a digital-savvy millennial audience and zero opportunity to view pieces IRL, will long-standing jewellery collectors ever be satisfied with the new normal?
Spring usually signals fine jewellery sales at auction houses, yet Covid-19 curtailed most of them, with the majority of planned sales either postponed until it is safe to gather bidders together again or forcing auction houses to embrace digital, with a number of online jewellery auctions still going ahead. Even before the coronavirus crisis, online bidding was beginning to revolutionise the auction industry, opening up its gilded gates to international audiences and new generations. In 2019, Christie’s sold £8.5million of jewellery via online sales, almost double the amount sold online in 2011, while at Sotheby’s, half of the winning bids for jewellery in 2019 were placed online.
Giving access to those once in a lifetime pieces, moving auctions online has rewritten the rulebook for sales, making it easier than ever to place a winning bid from anywhere in the world. Most notably though is the digital demographic who are now purchasing in online auction rooms, connecting with collectors of all generations in the four corners of the globe as never before and witnessing first-hand the revolution of online bidding and social media. This dynamic environment has opened up exclusive access to the exciting world of bidding and has led to unprecedented results for unforgettable diamonds and gemstones, perhaps thanks to greater competition.
This move to online bidding gathered pace in the midst of the crisis, with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and dozens of smaller auction houses holding online jewellery sales with ingenious staff moderating virtual valuations and inspections via Zoom. “We had started to have online sales in 2019 and planned to hold more in 2020, but the pandemic certainly accelerated these plans,” explains Jean Ghika, Bonhams global head of jewellery. Despite the current climate, sales soared at online auctions, with collectors having no qualms about purchasing high jewellery without seeing it IRL.
Most notably, in April Sotheby’s put up for bidding a gem-set, diamond and enamel Cartier bracelet. Named Tutti Frutti, the bracelet was created in the 1930s and is a classic example of a popular Art Deco style made famous by Cartier. Featuring coloured sapphires, emeralds, and rubies carved with leaves and flowers in addition to old European and single-cut diamonds, and accented with black onyx and black enamel, the Tutti Frutti bracelet was meant to be sold at a live auction, but lockdown forced Sotheby’s to change track. Following discussions with the owner, the team decided to offer the bracelet in a dedicated single-lot online auction, a pivot that paid off handsomely.
“We have had a long-term omnichannel strategy and developed many digital innovations in the past five years, which meant that the business was ready to quickly adapt to the new market parameters,” says Sophie Stevens, Sotheby’s jewellery expert. The bracelet sold for a staggering $1.34 million, far surpassing its estimate of $600,000-$800,000. Not only is this figure the highest price for any jewel sold in an online auction, it was also the highest price for any jewel sold at auction so far in 2020.
With the Tutti Frutti bracelet breaking the million-dollar record, Christie’s was next to up the ante. Encouraged by increasing digital participation, it hosted an online jewellery auction every month of lockdown, with overall sale totals achieving double the pre-sale estimates. The latest auction featured the most expensive lot the house has ever offered in a digital sale, an emerald cut 28.86-carat, D-colour, type IIa diamond, set on a platinum ring, with an estimate of $1-2 million.
Having experienced greater client confidence of transacting at higher price points online, Keith Penton, Christie’s head of jewellery, explained how the decision to place the item for sale online was due to “a combination of the circumstances we were living in, and to ensure we were meeting the wishes of our collectors. We were confident that our clients across the globe would engage online and elevate the jewels market to a new level.” D is the rarest and most prized colour of diamond and indicates that the stone is completely colourless. The Type IIa classification means that the diamond is formed of pure carbon, with no chemical impurities, so is exceptionally transparent, and with less than 2% of the world’s diamonds classified as Type IIa, Christie’s described the stone as a “miraculous phenomenon.”
Bidding ended on 30th June, and after 31 bids the diamond exceeded its high estimate, selling for $2,115,000. This is a new world record for the most expensive jewel ever sold in an online-only sale, eclipsing the Cartier Tutti Frutti bracelet. Early to take advantage of the digital world, Christie’s has been holding digital jewellery auctions since 2011 when it hosted the inaugural online sale for The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor, which achieved $9.5 million. “Year-on-year we have seen an increase in online participation, and the value threshold for transacting online, and the experience gained from the success in online sales since then, proved it was the right time to bring online jewels auctions to a new height,” Penton says.
Despite this growing success, recent high jewellery sales are unprecedented, especially considering the current climate. Offering such high value jewellery online is uncharted territory for the auction houses. Plus, in times of crisis, one would expect collectors to hold o on buying big ticket items, especially without having seen them in real life. Instead, collectors are demonstrating confidence in buying and selling important jewels online, even though in-person inspections are off the cards. “In times of uncertainty, people tend to seek to invest in tangible assets. As some of the oldest and rarest things on earth, exceptional diamonds and gemstones have traditionally been considered a safe haven,” asserts Stevens. “Unprecedented times are often a catalyst for change, crystallising pre-existing trends and accelerating innovations.”
Another way of looking at the increased interest in online auctions is that, for many buyers, it is a very exciting experience to buy and compete for a high value item online against anonymous bidders. The excitement and convenience together make participating in online jewellery auctions a tempting experience at a time of social distancing. Client trust, as well as advanced technology, have also allowed digital sales to thrive. “Many of our clients purchase sight unseen and our commitment to excellence combined with our strong personal relationships has built our reputation, which in turn has created trust, the most important factor for clients when buying online,” shares Penton. “Technology has also played a large part as photo quality has risen and capabilities such as a 3D-view or video have enhanced how objects can be viewed virtually. Going forward, the online auctions will play an even more important role than ever before.”
While traditional live auctions are expected to roar back to life post-pandemic, online auctions have nonetheless proven their own merits. The ease of online bidding has attracted new clientele to the auction rooms and this year, a third of those bidding for jewellery at Sotheby’s were first-time participants – a 35% increase on the number of first timers from previous years. By taking their lots online, auction houses have been able to attract new clients who hail from all over the world. “The jewellery market is constantly opening to more collectors around the world,” explains Stevens. “Since March, our online sales have attracted over 66 countries from across the globe, including a large proportion of collectors from the Middle East region.” Similarly, Christie’s is welcoming a global buyer: “This lockdown period has been an unparalleled time of change and we have seen this reflected in the way clients have engaged with auctions. Our sales have attracted international interest with registrants from 87 countries during this period,” offers Penton.
Online sales have also garnered the interest of a new generation of younger collectors, with auction rooms shaking off their stuffy image and in the process, attracting younger clients for whom vintage jewellery represents a more sustainable form of retail therapy, not to mention a way to discover pieces that are entirely unique. “There is no doubt that the increase in online sales in recent months has attracted a new client base to auction,” adds Jean Ghika, global head of jewellery at Bonhams. “In our Hong Kong Luxury series in April, May and June, 36% of buyers were new to Bonhams and many of these were in the under 50 age bracket.” For Sotheby’s, the ease of online bidding and an appetite for heirlooms has also attracted digital-savvy millennials. “In the past few years we have witnessed the strong appeal of vintage jewels among younger collectors, perhaps partly linked to the growing preoccupation with upcycling fashion and luxury goods, but also a fascination for antique jewels with historic provenance,” explains Stevens.
This year has presented unprecedented circumstances, enabling auction houses new opportunities through enhanced digital platforms, greater client confidence, and a reach to a new generation, with buyers’ appetite for fine and high jewellery clearly reaching fever pitch. The question is whether online is the new direction, or is there room for both formats? “There are some items that are eminently suited to the online format and these will perform exceptionally well in the digital space,” says Ghika. Other items need to be seen and handled in person, such as a pair of Kashmir sapphires that are due to come up for sale in New York on 28th September. “These are rare gemstones where the colour saturation and tone are integral to their value and prospective buyers need to see them. They are therefore much more suited to the traditional live auction format,” she notes.