n times of uncertainty and inflation, when interest rates are rising, it’s always a good idea to diversify your assets, if you have the means to do so. In addition to gold and precious stones (read more here), the market for antique and vintage jewellery is doing exceptionally well. Just look at the results of the latest auctions and sales at dedicated shows.
“I think it’s a wise decision to invest in vintage jewellery today: in the last 30 years, prices have risen a lot and in times of inflation, like now, jewellery is the best thing to own,” says Marianne Fisher, owner and director of the company Paul Fisher.
- Antique and vintage jewellery at GemGenève in November 2021
Aside from their investment value in turbulent times, there are several other reasons for the success of antique jewellery. “The first is rarity,” continues Marianne Fisher. “More and more people appreciate a piece of jewellery that is different and unique. And they have become aware that the quality of some of the jewels of the past can no longer be found today: it would not be profitable to manufacture pieces as they were made in the past. Back then, jewellers took the time to make their pieces by hand, labour costs were lower and they used stones that no longer exist today. The second reason is the concern for sustainability, which is one of the crucial issues of our time. The idea of reusing jewellery that has been worn in the past is part of a more virtuous consumption model.”
“The idea of reusing jewellery that has been worn in the past is part of a more virtuous model of consumption.”
- Paul Fisher Inc - Harry Winston 52 ct Emerald Ring
Lesser known brands, equally rare stones
If you want to start a vintage fine jewellery collection today and treat yourself to, say, an original Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklace or a Cartier Art Deco set, you’d better have a pretty decent fortune. The price of jewellery made by the big names of the industry has gone up. “Antique and vintage jewellery is the lifeblood of today’s auctions,” says François Curiel, president of Christie’s Europe and Asia. “Clients are looking for this kind of jewellery because it is set with stones that are almost impossible to find today: cashmere sapphires, Golconda diamonds, untreated emeralds.”
- Paul Fisher Inc – Cartier Art Deco Secret Watch
So, which brands to turn to? In recent years, collectors have become interested in other names from the past, jewellers that are no longer with us, whose work is now highly sought after, such as René Boivin, Templier, Verger Frères, Mellerio (the oldest jeweller, dating back to 1613, still in family hands), or Lacloche, whose value has climbed since a dedicated exhibition was organised at the Ecole des Arts Joailliers in Paris in late 2019.
There are other lesser known and therefore less expensive brands that are worth a look, such as Black, Starr & Frost, “The first American jeweller; Marcus & Co, Raymond Yard, Marsh & Co or Charlton, houses that did not survive. These are the names you can bet on when one of their pieces ends up at auction or for sale at a dealer’s,” explains François Curiel.
- Paul Fisher Inc – Art Deco cuff signed by American jeweller Charlton, 1935
Finding them is not easy, as the pieces are rare. But collectors who stopped by Paul Fisher’s showcase at the GemGenève trade fair in November 2021 would no doubt have been delighted to discover a sublime art deco platinum cuff bracelet set with diamonds, signed by US jeweller Charlton. “If this piece was signed Van Cleef & Arpels, it might be worth a million dollars, but instead we set the price at $150,000 because of the name, even though the quality of the work is the same,” explains Marianne Fisher.
Victorian jewellery from the 1800s
What advice would she give to someone looking to start a jewellery collection? “I always recommend buying pieces in perfect condition. It’s also important that you like the item and want to wear it, not just put it in a safe.” She suggests choosing a specific era, colour or brand, and telling a story with your collection.
“What’s undervalued right now is Victorian jewellery from the 1800s: there are a lot of great pieces that you can find at very good prices,” she says. “You can also mix periods and get some Georgian (1714-1830), some Victorian (1840-1900), Art Nouveau (1895-1910), some nice Art Deco (1910-1930), get into the 1940s and so on. It’s a great way to collect.”
- Paul Fisher Inc ¬– Edwardian platinum and diamond bow
What is one piece Marianne Fisher dreams of acquiring for herself? “I love the 1940s and the Duchess of Windsor’s collection, but I’d love to get a Tiffany & Co. filigree necklace set with Montana sapphires and antique moonstones. There are very few left and they are very rare.” While Kashmir or Ceylon sapphires are world famous because they are the most highly sought-after, few people know about Montana sapphires. Those from the Yogo Gulch mine, recognisable by their periwinkle colour, made their international debut at the 1889 Paris Exposition, where Tiffany & Co. presented an all-American jewellery collection.
While Kashmir and Ceylon sapphires are world famous, few people know about Montana sapphires.
“The name is the disease of our era”
The signature of a great jeweller plays a fundamental role when it comes to pricing a piece. But in the eyes of Thomas Faerber, a renowned dealer in exceptional stones and jewellery and co-founder of GemGenève, “the name is the disease of our age. When I started in this business, when you looked at a piece of jewellery, you were primarily interested in its quality and design; the name of the manufacturer was secondary. I find that unsigned jewellery is a great bargain because you’ll never be able to replicate it at the price you acquire it.”
- Faerber Collection – Art Deco diamond (total estimated weight 16 carats) and black enamel brooch, mounted on platinum with French assay mark and partial maker’s mark (Maynier et Pinon), circa 1930
Without the backing of a name, how do you know if it’s fine workmanship or not? “You have to use your eyes,” Thomas Faerber continues. “If you have a taste for jewellery, you will recognise a very fine piece from the 18th, 19th or early 20th century. The first thing I do, when I look at a piece, is to turn it over, take my magnifying glass, and look at the object from the back. There, you can see the quality of the mounting and setting work.”
While Thomas Faerber talks about his love of unsigned pieces, as if to silently contradict him, a marvel of a Van Cleef & Arpels necklace from the 1970s-80s catches all eyes in a display case behind him. “The value of this necklace lies in the work of the jeweller, but above all in the quality of the Colombian emeralds, which come from the Muzo mine and whose velvety green colour turns to yellow, like fresh grass. A piece like this is very rare. We bought it at an auction. In the past, we could still get good deals there, but since the pandemic and the rise of online sales, prices often exceed what a dealer can invest,” he continues.
- Faerber Collection – Antique matte gold brooch with an oval cabochon almandine garnet of approximately 12 carats in the centre, mounted in yellow gold, unsigned, circa 1900, with a fitted case signed Mellerio dits Meller Paris, with the lid stamped with the initials C.S. topped by a crown
Which brands are still not too overpriced? “Maybe some historic pieces signed by Mellerio, but they are rare. This is the only large house still in family hands and it’s 300 years old. Simply exceptional! Oscar Heyman’s jewellery, too.” When we ask which piece he dreams of acquiring, he answers immediately: “I’d love to buy back Empress Marie-Louise’s demi-parure, which is in the Louvre today and used to belong to us! I don’t regret it, but I would love to buy it back if I had unlimited funds, on the understanding that the French state would never sell it again!”
“In the past, we could still get good deals at auction, but since the pandemic and online sales, prices often exceed what a dealer can invest.”
- F. Torroni SA – Suzanne Belperron Crystal and Coral Necklace
An anecdote that speaks volumes
Someone else we asked for advice was Frédéric Torroni, head of the family business F. Torroni SA, a specialist in coloured stones and antique jewellery. His approach is unusual: what fascinates him, in addition to all the elements that go into making an interesting piece of jewellery, is the story behind it, which goes far beyond the name written in gold on the case.
“When I was a child, my father didn’t take me to the Botanical Gardens but to the flea markets on Saturday mornings, to Drouot or Cartier,” explains Frédéric Torroni. “I live surrounded by beautiful objects and I try to buy them when I can. But beauty is difficult to define. When you start getting interested in jewellery, you have to do it seriously, get attached to the history of the objects and have curiosity about the people behind them.”
- F. Torroni SA – Pearl, diamond and enamel necklase, with a chasing work by Vever, and maker’s mark of the worker who made it, Léopold Gautrait, circa 1904
To illustrate his point, he shows us a delicate necklace with pearls, enamel and diamonds, with chasing work signed Vever: “It was a very great name in jewellery that has disappeared, although since 2021 the family has been trying to revive it. Mr Vever bought Marret and Beaugrand, jewellers on the Rue de la Paix who had won prizes at the World’s Fairs of 1859 and 1862, and these three great names appear on the case. But the most exceptional thing about this piece is that it bears the hallmark of the worker who made it: Léopold Gautrait. He was so talented that he had the right to sign the piece. This necklace was created around 1904. I found it in a small sale in Montpellier. I travelled 800 kilometres in one day to see it because I found it interesting. It brings together some of the great names in 19th century jewellery – Vever, Marret and Beaugrand, and Gautrait, the artisan.”
- F. Torroni SA – Platinum ring with 3.16 ct emerald, from the Boucheron family collection, circa 1930
This anecdote proves how much a hidden story can play a role in the decision to purchase. A piece of jewellery is not like other objects: several factors come into play when deciding to make an acquisition. There is one’s own taste, the name of the jeweller who created the piece or the brand that signed it, the demonstration of savoir-faire, the different techniques used, the origin of the piece, which may have belonged to a historic figure or a famous person, the stones it contains (whether they are old or rare), and all the details of history that led to this object being created at that specific time. Frédéric Torroni is interested in each of these points – he’s both a historian and a detective. And this is what he invites all current or future collectors to do: not to be satisfied with external beauty, but to develop an ear for the story that only the object can tell...