Matthew Girling on Collecting Jewelry at Auction

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

Bonhams is the world’s fastest-growing auction house. Its global CEO and group head of jewelry, Matthew Girling, talks about why now is a good time to start collecting.

Whenever I’m speaking at a dinner, the first question people ask me when they learn I’m the CEO of Bonhams is: “How did you get such a fascinating job?” The second is:
“What should I be buying now?”

The answer to the first question is a long story to be told over a glass of Pommard. The second answer really depends on what art you are interested in buying.

One thing is for certain — now is a great time to start collecting and exploring investments of passion. These are generally high-value luxury items that people take pleasure from owning and are often in scarce supply or one of a kind. While I preside over sales for everything from contemporary art to watches, my specialty is jewelry. Having auctioned jewelry with a total value of more than $500m during the past 20 years, I continue to be the auction house’s worldwide group jewelry director. And jewelry is my investment of passion.

Historically, jewelry has been a common way to store or transfer wealth and people will always buy it. Think about it: jewelry is found in virtually every market. It is one of the most widely collected assets on a global level, along with art, watches and wine. And it is performing extremely well. According to the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index, investors in jewelry saw returns over 10 years to March 31, 2016 rise by 147 percent.

Indeed, the rarest and most sought-after pieces of vintage jewelry have soared in value by over 80 percent during the past 10 years, far outperforming the real estate market in Manhattan, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

At Bonhams, I occupy a unique position as the only CEO of a major auction house who also conducts auctions, and I am very much in tune with how the market is doing. It’s like holding an antenna for the entire auction sector. I can feel the market telling me something that no spreadsheet figures possibly could.

So what jewelry should you be buying now? My advice: buy what you love and feel passionate about. If you love a piece of jewelry, you will keep it; if you keep it, you will wear it. And an investment that you wear and love is the best type of investment. If you are interested in the inside track of jewelry trends, here are the top ones you should know about.

Jewelry from certain periods such as Art Deco (1920s and 1930s) and Belle Époque jewelry (1890 to 1915) always performs well given the pieces’ outstanding craftsmanship and rarity. Jewelry from the post-war era (1945-1975) is also achieving strong prices and has a growing band of collectors hungry for more.

Jewelry from makers including Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, Cartier and Tiffany are always in demand. Fancy-colored diamonds, Kashmir sapphires, Burmese rubies and Colombian emeralds continue to catch the attention of buyers globally. Given their finite supply, prices continue to increase.

Jewelry is increasingly being considered an art form in its own right. Aptly named ‘artist jewels,’ these pieces are sought out by discerning collectors who are looking to build a collection of jewelry as they might build a collection of contemporary art. These jewels are perfectly constructed small pieces of art and their exclusivity increases their desirability. Names to watch out for include Andrew Grima, Suzanne Belperron, Edward Wiener and Georges Braque.

The x-factor in the jewelry world is provenance. Many of the world’s most famous jewels have outstanding provenance, be it the Hope Diamond, the Dresden Green, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond or the Hope Spinel. Provenance is not just who owned it, but also where it has lived, where it was exhibited and who handled its sale in the past. An interesting piece of jewelry with a fascinating provenance always attracts interest and can achieve excellent prices under the hammer.

Human beings are magpies by nature, not nurture. You can be taught to appreciate great art as you can be taught to appreciate fine wine, but our love of jewelry is innate and enduring. Trust your instinct and remember, no woman has ever said “I have enough jewelry!”

Follow Bonhams Jewelry on Instagram at @bonhamsjewels

Images: Matthew Girling at auction; Art Deco emerald and diamond brooch, circa 1930, sold for $106,250; Cartier ruby and diamond clip brooch, 1931, sold for $367,500