The impressive results of Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale entitled “Sui Generis. Bejeweled Treasures of Time” this April reveal Chinese clients’ growing predilection for antique jewelry especially 19th-century European.
By Marie-Laure Cassius-Duranton.
Organizing such a sale composed of chatelaines, micro-mosaic ornaments, enamel earrings and shimmering brooches in Asia is unprecedented and would have been inconceivable even a few months ago. Indeed, the market was mainly structured around jadeite, diamonds, colored stones and recently manufactured jewelry. And while some of the most beautiful collections of antique Western jewelry are in Asia, such as the exhibition at Albion Art in Tokyo or the Liang Yi Museum in Hong Kong, the practice of wearing secondhand jewelry, with several previous owners, has not been particularly popular until now. Superstitions have kept clients at bay…
The times they are a-changin’…
According to Brenda Kang, who was a jewelry specialist at Christie’s for over 15 years and founder of the Revival Jewels boutique (Singapore) in 2013, “The Chinese clientele is a fast learner and far more daring than their counterparts in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Traditionally, they bought to invest and did not understand the prices of antique pieces without stones, unlike the new generation, who are more aware of the artistic and historical value.” According to Magali Teisseire, director of the jewelry department at Sotheby’s Paris, who works closely with the Hong Kong team, “Chinese customers initially favored designer brands and more particularly those of well-established and reassuring Western jewelers.” In other words, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, etc. “They’re now venturing into other territories,” she continues. “They’re no longer just buying a piece of jewelry, but a story.”
Education, education, education
The success of the heritage exhibitions of the major French jewelry houses is evidence of the Chinese public’s infatuation with the history of Western jewelry. Witness the development of courses such as those of the School of Jewelry Arts (which now has a permanent campus in Hong Kong) or those of Vanessa Cron for Christie’s, which are also very successful. It is no coincidence that in the sales catalogs, additional notes now accompany descriptions even of those jewels without provenance. Meanwhile, social networks also play a key role in spreading the vogue for these European antique jewels in China. In addition to sites such as the famous Wechat or the new application XiaoHongShu (meaning Little Red Book) specialized in foreign products, influential Instagram accounts like that of Uni Kim (@uni.fun), jewelry specialist at Sotheby’s Hong Kong play an important role.
Impacting the French market
The changing tastes of the Chinese clientele is having a direct repercussion on the French market for antique jewelry. They love what we have been neglecting and despising for decades: tiaras (mostly transformable into necklaces and made in France), surprising pieces such as 19th century chatelaines (consisting of a large hook and several chains adorned with charms, or a watch, etc.), or pieces that are complicated to sell or highly specialized such as Italian micro-mosaic jewelry with no intrinsic value. To acquire them, one must be above all sensitive to beauty, rarity and expertise. Even average-quality jewelry is now fetching astronomical prices in public sales, boosted by Chinese merchants who resell them in China.
No one can predict how the tastes of these Chinese buyers will evolve, but one thing is certain: change is afoot.