In dappled light at the entrance of TEFAF Maastricht this summer swayed a resplendent flower installation, akin to a modern-day Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  It transfixed all who entered this, one of the most important art fairs in the world.  Here art of all discipline’s rested side by side, from the oldest of old masters to freshly crafted contemporary jewellery, giving cross-collecting buyers a visual feast of epic proportions.  Master jewellers Hemmerle were showing their own bejewelled blooms in anodised aluminium, bronze and bisque porcelain as part of Infused Jewels, a collection inspired by herbal tea and as I walked to their stand through the hushed isles of the fair my heart rate started to soar.  When jewellery transcends to art, I can feel it in my soul.  It rattles my bones and, in its presence, I experience a physical reaction.  I can’t murmur innocuous words about its beauty because it means more than that. It demands more than that.   As a curator I’m always waiting for that bone-shaking moment when a seemingly simple combination of gemstone and metal rise up to become an expression of our collective humanity.  Then my job is to make sense of if for those who need to know more.

Over the last couple of decades world-class museums, auction houses and art fairs have cautiously welcomed jewellery (at the pinnacle) into their selective embrace. Jewellery, which once languished as a decorative art near the bottom of the unspoken hierarchy of the arts, has now taken flight.  “What greater validation than TEFAF?” asks Christian Hemmerle.  “The gap is closing.  People are not categorizing anymore. There is now great design and not great design.”  Jewellers such as Hemmerle, Taffin, Bhagat and Vamgard have overpowered precious stones, the harbingers of traditional value, with signature styles so compelling that the materials have become immaterial. None of these jewellery artists are easy to buy from and some are reclusive making only a handful of pieces annually.  Wallace Chan for example makes 15-20 unique pieces a year from his base in Hong Kong and if you appear unannounced at JAR’s Paris atelier, his door remains firmly closed.  Specialist dealers and galleries create a relationship between the world’s greatest jewellers and their congregation. “We are frustrated collectors” says Sophie Jackson, Director of Symbolic & Chase, a London based gallery who recently began offering the work of acclaimed sculptor and goldsmith Daniel Brush. “The expansion of the fine art market has had a huge effect on jewellery.”

Now that one can buy Jacqueline Raybun via The Carpenter’s Workshop, wearable sculpture by the likes of Frank Stella and Ai Wei Wei at The Elisabetta Cipriani Gallery and Theodoros at Symbolic & Chase, jewellery is truly merging with the art world.  None of these jewellers are making product to be sold as a unit or commodity.  They create without compromise for themselves.  This isn’t the sole preserve of independent designers either.  Push past the more commercial collections of some of the bigger houses such as Buccellati, Dior and Chanel and an array of art emerges.  Boucheron are a rare example of a heritage brand who consistently combine independent artistic thought with global sales, giving their Creative Director Claire Choisne free rein.  Many others choose to collaborate with fine artists to create that biting point between art and commerce – Piaget worked with Salvator Dali famously in the 1960s, Tiffany more recently with Daniel Arsham but the division separating fine and jewellery artist in terms of respect and desirability, is increasingly less relevant. A more democratic time is upon us so that if you can feel the force, it is art no matter who makes it.

And the market bares that out.  At Sotheby’s, Jewellery as a category now sits in third place behind Contemporary Art and Impressionist & Modern Art and in front of Old Masters and Chinese art in terms of value.  jewellery sales at the auction house grew by a staggering 42% globally to the tune of $440.5M last year.  The most popular global houses for them by volume are Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Bulgari and by value Harry Winston, Cartier and Bulgari.  The top independents by value are Hemmerle, Reza and JAR.  This colossal appetite for bejewelled masterpieces has been fuelled partly by the pandemic driving online sales ever higher but also by younger buyers with 30% of jewellery collectors at Sotheby’s now under forty.  Asian buyers now account for nearly half of all jewellery sales.  An art-jewellery sandwich is now on the menu. “In terms of collectability we talk about rarity, provenance, quality and condition.  All the same value points we use to evaluate art are applied now to jewelry” says Frank Everett, Senior Vice President of Jewelry at Sotheby’s.  He cites the historic 42-lot sale of Shaun Leane’s designs in 2017, originally made for Alexander McQueen as a milestone moment when two aluminium corsets were sold as sculpture for $711,000 – $807,000 respectively.

In the East, where much of this growth is coming from, the stubborn notion of intrinsic value still holds firm.  Stones like The De Beers Blue, a 15.10 carat fancy vivid blue diamond which sold recently in Hong Kong for $57.5M at Sotheby’s still captivates the market but there is a new generation of designers who are changing things.  In India Studio Renn are mixing concrete with diamonds, in Hong Kong Nicholas Lieou has created almost invisible necklaces from rock crystal and the Lebanese designer Dina Kamal with her baguette tipped cuffs in smooth beige gold represents a new type of modernism. Artist jewellers of African descent using twisted gold wire and frosted glass such as Jariet Oloye or minting their own gold coin jewellery in the case of Sewit Sium show us that our appreciation of art itself is finally expanding beyond aged European men from an aristocratic background.  Art after all is about challenging the status quo.  The Hanging Gardens of Babylon did just that in Iraq during the sixth century as one of the rumoured seven wonders of the world.  They represented a gateway to a city known for its culture and learning. That metaphor made me smile as I marvelled at the jewellery treasures of TEFAF.  The best of jewellery has finally come of age and I feel privileged to be a witness to its ascension.  Art is all the richer for it.


Written by Melanie Grant for Country & Townhouse on 7th October 2022.


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