Rocks Solid

Art Deco jewelry is rich in history, beauty, and, yes, investment possibilities.

Stephanie Cooperman, 11.20.08, 06:00 PM EST
Forbes Magazine dated December 08, 2008


Sources: Platinum Fruit-Salad Bracelet, Buckle Bracelet, Greek Key Bracelet, Fred Leighton, New York

Last May, Nicolas Luchsinger, the U.S. director of Van Cleef & Arpels' heritage jewelry collection, was in Geneva for Sotheby's (nyse: BID - news - people ) Magnificent Jewels auction. He didn't know it, as he sat under the tent beside the Hotel Beau-Rivage, but he was about to be ambushed. Luchsinger was there to bid on just one item, an intact Van Cleef diamond sautoir, the long, swinging necklace that was the "it" accessory of the 1920s and has since become a style icon of that decade. The necklace was supposed to fetch between $150,000 and $250,000, and Luchsinger was prepared to go all the way. But he ended up bowing out. The bidding eventually climbed to more than $1 million. "It was the one that got away," he says ruefully.

The incident encapsulates the story of Art Deco jewelry since the late 1980s: frequently underestimated, even by experts. While it has always been popular among serious collectors, its current cachet (and the attendant buying frenzy) dates only from the late 1970s. In fact, there was a time when the pieces were worth less than the stones themselves, leading owners to have jewelry broken apart. "It's crazy," says Ralph Esmerian, the owner of Fred Leighton, a leading retailer of historic pieces, especially Deco. "That's like valuing a masterpiece painting for its paint."

Now the reverse is true: The pieces are worth much more than the stones. And yet, even auction houses continue to underestimate the demand. Luchsinger points to Van Cleef Ludo-Hexagone diamond bracelets, magnificent pieces with circular and baguette diamonds. In 1998, one sold for $74,000; in November 2000, another went for $116,000. And in December 2006, one topped out at $251,000. Yet at all three auctions, the estimates were $40,000 to $60,000. That the demand for Art Deco is so robust--and is expected to stay that way, according to the experts we consulted (see "Deco as an Investment" on page 116)--reflects an unusual vortex of conditions.

First off, the style has gone from Jazz Age to timeless in its vast appeal. What other period jewelry, after all, can claim both the Duchess of Windsor and Sarah Jessica Parker as devotees in their respective times? Rebecca Selva of Fred Leighton, the celebrity go-to estate jeweler, has adorned such stars as Parker, Cameron Diaz, Nicole Kidman, and Uma Thurman in Art Deco for the red carpet. "This is not your typical grandmother's jewelry," says Selva. "It goes with everything, and it's still absolutely chic." Says David Bennett, the head of Sotheby's jewelry department for Europe and the Middle East: "Art Deco was everything jewelry was meant to be--beautiful, glamorous, and romantic."

If the appeal is broad, the number of pieces--not just great pieces--is limited, because production was never large. "Today, jewelers want to be able to sell thousands of pieces," notes Lee Siegelson, whose eponymous heritage-jewelry business specializes in pieces from the 19th century through the 1940s. "In the 1920s, you'd be lucky to have 20 pieces by the end of the year."

Then there's the coup de grĂ¢ce: These pieces are the product of a time many consider the pinnacle of jewelry craftsmanship. "You'll never see anything like it again," declares Esmerian. "Back then, you had to apprentice under a master jeweler. It is not as it was in the 1920s and '30s. Today, people want coffee breaks." Moreover, apprenticeship was the norm in a number of related fields-- diamond-cutting, lapidary, enameling, rendering, carving, gold- and platinum-smithing--and the cornucopia of artisanal talent contributed mightily to the quality.

That is particularly seen in Art Deco jewelry's exploiting of platinum, which began to be used in jewelry-making only around 1900. It enabled fine jewelers to set stones with far less metal, because platinum is so strong and so light. "Cartier became quite famous for their white-on-white jewelry," says Sotheby's Bennett. "They started the monochrome trend." Van Cleef made use of this metal in the newly invented "invisible" settings, for which stones are cut so that they slide into one another, making it appear as though they have no underpinning. "The invisible setting let jewelry take on the look of ribbons of light," Luchsinger says. "Without the adaptability of platinum, it wouldn't have been possible."

Traditional skills were also used in the service of imagination: New cuts were introduced, among them baguettes, trapezoids, and trillions (triangles with slightly curved sides). Jewelers also began cutting hard stones, such as crystal, turquoise, malachite, lapis lazuli, coral, onyx, and jade, to accompany diamonds. The contrasting use of brilliant gemstones gave rise to its own style, known as fruit salad. Cartier's version, called tutti-frutti, is still among the most sought-after.

A well written piece by Stephanie Cooperman written for Forbes Magazine

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