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Interview


Flying colors

François Curiel, chairman of Europe and Asia at Christie’s, recalls how diamonds of different hues came to fetch over $1 million a carat.

By Sonia Esther Soltani



Over the course of his career, François Curiel has conducted some of the world’s most important auctions, presenting legendary collections belonging to the Aga Khan, Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor, Ellen Barkin, Maria Felix, the Rothschild family, Lily Safra and others.

As Christie’s was previewing its Magnificent Jewels sale in Geneva, he discussed the rise of natural colored diamonds and the enduring appeal of signed jewelry.

When did the craze for rare colored diamonds start?

Back in 1987, we were called by a banker in Iowa to value a collection of diamonds that had been left by a farmer to his son, who also was a farmer. There were a few boxes of colored diamonds, which was strange because colored diamonds were not that popular at that time. People had one or two sometimes. I didn’t know someone who wasn’t a dealer would have so many. There must have been 10 or 15 colored diamonds. There were pinks, blues, green, all kinds of colors. And among them was a 95-pointer red diamond.

They gave it to us for sale, and I liked that red stone, which was so different. It wasn’t a brownish-red, it wasn’t a reddish-brown. It was red-red. If you showed it to a child and asked him what color it was, the child would say red. With colored diamonds, very often, it’s blue for the seller, grey for the buyer; brown for the buyer, yellow for the seller. Here...there was no argument about the color. I liked it so much, I had a special showcase built for it for our preview. I don’t think so many people would have noticed it had it been in a normal showcase, either in a box or on a ring. And that’s what attracted a lot of attention.

The stone was sold for $880,000, which is $926,316 per carat. At that time, it came at $40 million an ounce, the most expensive material on earth. It was purchased by Theodore Horowitz and called the Red Horowitz [now the Hancock Red]. We never knew who he bought it for. There were rumors it was purchased for the Sultan of Brunei. But you know, if the Sultan of Brunei had half of what he’s credited to have, he would have to have a palace three times the size. This is what, in my opinion, started the passion, the interest in colored diamonds, particularly in small colored diamonds.

What is the current market like for colored diamonds?

Pink and red are very popular in Asia, as well as blue. Middle Eastern clients are very keen on colored diamonds, too. Whether it’s in Europe, America or Asia, grey-blue is very difficult to sell, but a blue-blue is not a problem. What we’ve seen in the market [is that colored diamonds have gone] from $100,000 a carat to $1 million a carat. We are there now. It will continue to rise, but it already went from very little interest to a lot of interest today. It’s their rarity and quality that command the prices. Some colored diamonds are $1 million to $2 million a carat.

I haven’t heard about a lack of supply, although I know there are very few good true colored diamonds in the market. Dealers buy them for private customers, and there are a lot of private customers who collect colored diamonds. Once you have the 10-carat, D-flawless, marquise, pear-shaped, round, and you want more diamonds, what do you buy? D-flawless diamonds are very similar. Colored diamonds are rare because every color is different.

What is the importance of a signature at auction sales?

Signature is very important. Van Cleef & Arpels had a motto for a while: “It is the signature that counts.” And it is true that when an item is signed by a famous firm like Van Cleef, Cartier, Boucheron, JAR, it brings a lot of interest. But 80% of what we sell at auction is not signed. What is important is the quality of the workmanship, the quality of the stone, and the prettiness — or lack of it — of the piece. But it is true, especially in Asia, a signature counts for a lot.

Take, for example, the 20-carat, oval, D, VVS1-clarity [stone that initially sold] in 2006. [At the time,] just the diamond was worth $800,000 — which is how we priced it at the auction — but it was in a ring mounted by JAR, a very simple design, thread diamond ring, ultra-thin with diamonds to give it an accent. With its $800,000 diamond value and its JAR signature, it allowed us to sell it for $1.8 million. It made a $1 million premium. The collector that purchased it in 2006 reoffered it for sale now in April 2018 in New York. The 20-carat stone is today worth $1.5 million. It went for almost double, but not as much as the premium that was paid for the signature and the mounting. It went for $2.7 million. For me, that’s an example of a signature that is unique.

Are people purchasing more online?

What’s very interesting is that every time we have an online sale, we see new clients whom we didn’t know and who are keen to buy online. When they buy an expensive lot online, $40,000 to $50,000, we contact them. Most of them say they’re very happy to deal only online. They don’t want human intervention. What happens is that after a while, these clients convert into traditional auction buyers worldwide, not just jewelry. Of the new clients who came to Christie’s last year, 31% came through online.

We don’t make much money online yet, just 1% of sales. However, the conversion rate has been so great, it’s a very worthwhile exercise. I couldn’t imagine us being in business today without having an online division.

Image: Christie's

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