As a rule of thumb, very old money inherits very old jewelry, while those whose fortunes are so newly minted that the ink rubs off on their hands tend not to inherit Great- grandmother’s pearl sautoir, Aunt Lydia’s Cartier diamond brooch, or Mummy’s emeralds.
That doesn’t mean that the pricelessly elegant cachet of old money and elite social standing can’t be acquired; you just need to know where to look. In recent years, “estate” or “vintage jewelry” (terms which refer to jewels previously worn, owned, or inherited by someone else) have soared in popularity. In addition to their sense of history and temps perdu, older pieces often required more painstaking workmanship. The diamonds are usually rose or mine cut, making them softer and more subtle than newer cuts. Rare stones, such as Kashmir sapphires which have not been on the market since the 1930s, are only found in estate pieces. Celebrity jewels belong in their own category. Originally belonging to socially prominent or iconic women, they are sold at auctions that become star-studded, social events. Many collectors believe that it was Sotheby’s 1987 auction of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels that kicked off the frenzy for vintage jewelry. Magnificent though the jewels were, the unheard of prices fetched at that auction reflected more a fascination by a celebrity cult than the intrinsic worth of the jewels. Subsequently, prices on all estate jewelry escalated skyward.
If you are in the market for a piece with a provenance, the best place to start is at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, both of which have several jewelry auctions coming up in December. Sotheby’s will put jewels on the block from the collection of socialite Mrs. Charles Wrightsman; these include great pieces by Verdura, JAR, and Cartier. Christie’s will hold their “Important Jewels” auction in New York and in London. Both auction houses provide extensive catalogs online; so finding out what’s up for grabs is easy.
If you’re not fond of auctions, check out famous jewelry houses like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. They’ve been buying back their old pieces and restoring them to pristine condition. Currently, Van Cleef offers some exceptional bracelets — one of which, the “Chinese Dog” is a spectacular hunk of carved onyx with emerald eyes set in 18K gold and trimmed in diamonds. Another, considered best of all, is an estate minaudiére in 14K yellow gold, studded with rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. The “Cartier Tradition” collection is a gold mine (pardon the pun) of fabulous estate jewels. It’s a mother lode for old diamonds and at the moment, includes a grand gold cuff topped with a mound of diamonds and sapphires and inscribed: To Clara… November 1, 1933.
Other excellent venues for heirloom pieces are jewelry shops that devote themselves to antique or estate jewels. Among the cognoscenti, S.J. Phillips in London, which has been owned by the same family since 1869, is the place to go for a little number from the 16th century or for a piece that once graced a royal personage. S.J. Phillips’ website will keep you fascinated for hours on end. Fred Leighton in New York is another collector’s mecca and much nearer to home. Even closer, you’ll find House of Kahn and Richter’s, two Palm Beach establishments. House of Kahn has some eye- popping pieces, including an irresistible 65-carat diamond bracelet marked #3, which belonged to the third wife of a Saudi prince who lost it, along with the bracelets of wives #1 and #2, at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo. Richter’s specializes in signed pieces created between the 1920s and 1970s. They usually have a stunning selection on hand of David Webb’s, the jeweler darling of the 1960s Ladies-Who-Lunch crowd. Happy hunting! Remember that very special pieces, even if they are brand new, may be left as heirlooms for your own family to crow over in the future.