Auction heirarchy

The Hierarchy of Jewelry Auctions

jewelry auctions
The Graff Ruby

With Magnificent Jewels auction season underway I thought I’d clarify what this term means in the context of jewelry auctions.  When major auction houses hold jewelry auctions the terms “Magnificent Jewels”, “Important Jewels”, and “Fine Jewels” are used to describe them. While, on the one hand, these terms are adjectives that describe the jewelry being auctioned, the auction houses are really referring to the monetary value of the jewelry being auctioned without being so gauche as to say it outright.

According to an article in Gems and Gemology, the magazine of the Gemological Institute of America, starting the late 1970’s Christies and Sotheby’s developed a hierarchy for these auctions. From highest to lowest value they are:

Magnificant Jewels – These sales include jewelry and gemstones that can sell for millions of dollars and include major pieces, sometimes from famous owners.  For example at the recent November 2014 Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels auction in Geneva the top lot was the “Graff Ruby” a 8.62 carat stone that sold for $8.6 million although there were many lots that sold for as “little” as the low 10’s of thousands of dollars.  One of my favorites from Christie’s November Magnificent Jewelrs was a stunning Art Deco diamond and pearl necklace that sold for $5.2 million, over five times its estimate.

Jewelry auctions
Art Deco Diamond and Natural Pearl Necklace
Jewelry auctions
Sotheby’s September Top Lot

Very Important Jewels and Important Jewels – While these are two different categories, in practice “very important jewels” and “important jewels” often seem to get lumped together into “important jewels” auctions.  For example at Sotheby’s September 2014 Important Jewels auction the top lot was a pair of diamond pendant earrings that sold for $1.5 million.  However at this auction there were also many lots that sold in the four figures.

jewelry auctions
Art Deco Citrine Bracelet

If I were rich enough to be shopping at these top-end auctions, I find that there are more items to my liking at Important Jewels than at Magnificent Jewels.  For instance, at Christie’s November 2014 Important Jewels auction this magnificent Cartier Art Deco citrine bracelet sold for $80K.  Though not of particularly high intrinsic value (the term used to describe the value of the precious metals and gemstones used)  the use of color and geometry is exquisite.

Jewelry auctions
Cameo and Intaglio Collection Auctioned in Sept. 2014

Fine Jewels – At these auctions items can sell for a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands.  Splendid antique and vintage jewelry will often be sold in these auctions.  For instance an important collection of cameos and intaglios was for sale at Bonham’s London Fine Jewels auction in September 2014.  This collection included items dating back to the 4th century BC and with estimates of 1-5,000 pounds were affordable for middle class buyers. The Jewelry Editor, one of my favorite jewelry websites, did a wonderful write-up about this collection.

There’s also another category that is occasionally used called “Noble Jewels” which is literally what it sounds like:  jewels that have been owned by royalty. In practice however, “noble jewels” usually get assigned to an auction based on their value .  The exception is if those nobles are also celebrities, in which case they might warrant a stand-alone auction, as in the case of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; other well-known auctions of (non-royal) famous people included Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Andy Warhol.

jewelry auctions
Most famous photo of Jackie Kennedy’s faux pearl necklace

At these auctions items of little value can sell for far more than their intrinsic value because of their provenance; it seems many people are willing to pay a premium to own a piece of fame.  For instance, at the auction of  Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s estate, a faux pearl necklace sold for over $200,000!  And this was back in 1996 when $200K could buy a house in the Bay Area.

Of course, gorgeous jewelry is available at many other auction houses and these regional auction houses are terrific places to buy jewelry (as well as antiques and useful household goods).  Some auction houses hold stand-alone jewelry auctions, others auction jewelry as part of their general estate auctions.  I attend several monthly auctions in the Bay Area to find items for my Ruby Lane shop.  For novices who have never attended an auction, I’ve also written a SnapGuide to walk you through the auction process.

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