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Appreciating The Past

Interest in great period jewelry is alive and well and on the rise in Asia today.

By Phyllis Schiller

Diamond, ruby, emerald and black enamel Japanese panel screen cherry blossom bracelet, circa 1930. Courtesy J. & S.S. DeYoung Inc.

With an increasing population of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) with $1 million or more at their disposal for investing and a penchant for purchasing watches and jewelry, Asia is a prime market when it comes to selling antique and vintage jewelry. But many of the established estate dealers who market to this part of the globe don’t need the stats to convince them of the area’s potential. They’ve watched it grow over many years.

A Change for the Better
   “It all started to change 30 or 40 years ago, maybe longer, in Taiwan and Hong Kong,” recalls Michael Kazanjian, chairman, Kazanjian Beverly Hills, “and then Singapore and then Thailand and the periphery around China. Now the Chinese themselves who have made money are starting to shop and tour the world and are recognizing that they can find wonderful jewelry in other places. And that is all pulling on the market and stimulating the market, which helps dealers worldwide.”
   For Simon Teakle, Simon Teakle Fine Jewelry, Greenwich, Connecticut, “there’s such an interest and love of jewelry in Asia, whether it’s gemstones or gold or design. It’s certainly a tremendous part of Chinese culture. The fact that it is now spilling over into Western jewelry may be more recent, but their understanding of gemstones has been going on for a long, long time. They really understand gemstones and jewelry.”

What’s in a Name?
   According to Alan Levy, principal, J. & S.S. DeYoung Inc., New York City, there were certain hurdles to overcome. “When I started going to Asia in 1984, it was very hard to sell estate things. People had superstitions about jewelry belonging to dead people and they were very apprehensive about buying it. We stopped calling it estate, which evoked the concept of belonging to someone who was deceased, and began calling it period jewelry, and in a very short time, we did fantastic business. It was something new and unusual with a quality of workmanship that they hadn’t had access to.”
   Teakle also noted the hesitation about antique and estate jewelry that was prevalent “for a long time. But you only have to look at the Hong Kong jewelry show and how the estate hall has expanded over the course of even the past two or three years to see that the market is growing and growing.”
   Helping Asians overcome their reservations, says Kazanjian, is the use of the terms “antique” or “historical” rather than “estate” or “secondhand.” Today, he says, they might overlook the fact that the jewelry was owned by someone else “if it has a fine ruby, emerald, sapphire or diamond.”
   Ultimately, though, it comes down to a matter of trust, says Levy. “Once they trust you, the business continues to flow and there is no limit to it.”
   “I think you do have to prove yourself,” agrees Teakle. “The jewelry business has always been relationship driven. And Asia is no different. I was at the Fine Art Asia show for the first time this past fall and I’m sure some of the people who came to my booth and looked at things might want to see me there two or three times and see that consistency established before they buy.”

What’s in Demand
   Art Deco is a popular category with Asians. One reason, Levy believes, is because it has a lot of Asian themes. “They love Art Nouveau because they appreciate the artistry in it. They love 1950s jewelry…they love it all. We have a lot of customers in Taiwan, and Hong Kong as well, who buy silver-topped, gold-backed Victorian jewelry. And they love French jewelry — Cartier pieces made in Paris or Harry Winston from Paris. They’ll like a piece from America, but they’ll appreciate something made in France, with that high-end French sense of style, much more.”
   Levy says he sells almost all signed jewelry. Signatures, explains Kazanjian, gives Asian buyers a sense of the piece’s identity, an indication where it was made and the firm that made it. “As these consumers reach a certain status and wealth, they look at becoming more international in their taste. Things that are signed and classical and have a lot of documentation and have any kind of historical importance, these types of pieces have great appeal for them.”
   For the most part, Kazanjian notes, there is a great interest in stone-oriented jewelry in Asia.“They like a style that shows off the stones. There are exceptions and collectors of Deco and Nouveau, but I think for the most part, they’re looking for classical jewelry that is well made with high-quality stones. Quality is the thing that really dictates the market appeal more than anything.”
   Diamonds are popular, says Levy, in platinum. “We sell very little gold jewelry in Asia. We can sell silver-topped, gold-backed jewelry but very little gold jewelry.”
   It’s the workmanship that counts, says Kazanjian, whether it’s platinum or gold. “It all started with jade and gold, and De Beers did a magnificent job of promoting diamonds in China and elsewhere in Asia. Today, a very strong percentage of the Chinese population looks to buy a diamond as part of a wedding ensemble.” But the stones have to be top quality and backed by certificates. In fact, says Kazanjian, “they very often will ask for more than one certificate on a stone, just as an added protection — a third-party endorsement of a laboratory is very meaningful for them. The documentation is almost as important as the piece of jewelry itself.”

Savvy Consumers
   Moreover, says Teakle, “Asians understand that there is value to Art Deco Cartier or invisibly set Van Cleef & Arpels, not just the number of carats of the stones in the piece or the ounces of gold. They certainly have a broad understanding of the different areas where value lies.”
   “They have refined their taste to a level where they are looking at jewelry not so much as adornments but for value added to their portfolios and as things they’d love to own.” says Kazanjian.
   “Asia is the new wealth of this century,” sums up Levy. “It compares to America in the 1950s, after World War II. And that’s the key — new money buys jewelry; old money has jewelry.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - February 2014. To subscribe click here.

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