Motley Meets: Jessica Wyndham, Head of Jewellery Sales at Sotheby’s

10 MIN READ | by Ilana Lever on Jul 3, 2019
10 MIN READ | by Ilana Lever on Jul 3, 2019

Jewellery’s a pretty serious business. And who better to talk about it than a seasoned expert, Jessica Wyndham, who now heads up Jewellery Sales for Europe at the international auction house Sotheby’s? Ilana at Motley sat down with her to find out – how do you value an $70 million dollar diamond?

So, Jessica, how did you get into such a specialist sector?

I studied History of Art at university, which led me to look for jobs at auction houses. I started at Sotheby’s with an internship in Old Master Paintings; I then did another internship in the Jewellery department. When I started, I knew immediately this was a subject I really wanted to get my teeth into, I wanted much more information. I ended up getting a job in the department learning about gemology – that’s the study of the gemstones and the diamonds that we deal with – and about the history of jewellery around the world, but mainly focussing on the US and Europe, starting from the 18th century to the present day. It kept on growing from there.

Now, on a day to day basis, I’ll meet with people to value jewellery they’ve inherited or bought or been gifted and offer them for sale at one of our auction locations around the world, although now I focus mainly on Europe. Then I’ll work with buyers that are looking for specific pieces of jewellery and try and match them with their perfect jewel.

Your background is in art history. How do you see the interaction between jewellery and art, or jewellery as an art form?

You shouldn’t forget that jewellery can be a wearable work of art. Some jewellery, like simple diamond earrings, not much thought will have gone into the design because the main focus is the stone, but if you look at the artist-jewellery that we sometimes sell, the Dali necklaces, Picasso jewels, Alicia Penalba – this is a very clear example of when you’re selling artwork that is jewellery.

Image result for alicia penalba jewelry
Alicia Penalba Gold Cuff Bracelet, late 20th century

But also there is incredible thought and craftsmanship behind each jewel starting from the 18th century. The jewellers were artists in their own rights. Jewellery should never be taken too lightly.

What’s your favourite piece of jewellery you’ve ever sold?

We see so many pieces a year. It depends whether it was a historic stone – I mean, we sold Marie Antoinette’s pearls last November, so that was pretty astonishing – or if it’s a smaller Cartier brooch from the 1940s. But every sale where you have to say goodbye to these pieces, you’ve always got another sale you’re working on; so even if you’re heartbroken about a particular piece, you never suffer for too long.

Image result for marie antoinette sothebys
Pearl & Diamond Necklace owned by Marie Antoinette, late 18th century

You’ve said your background is mid-18th c to the present day – what period of jewellery has most inspired you?

Art Deco is very much in demand right now. I think there are other periods in jewellery history that have been overlooked. But it’s very much a matter of fashion and taste. For me right now, I think the 1970s / 1980s big bold look could very much be worn today, but at the same time, I can also appreciate the delicate little brooches of the 19th century, which had so much versatility. I’m sorry to be so indecisive. But there’s so much out there. 

What’s the most expensive piece of jewellery you’ve ever sold?

We sold the Pink Star for $70 million USD. When it comes to large exceptional stones, the price comes down to the rarity. Coloured diamonds, for example, are extremely rare in their own right, and then if you have exceptional size, exceptional colour, exceptional clarity, paperwork stating essentially it’s a flawless stone, then that can be almost priceless. So auctions can be the best way of putting it to the wider market and letting the market decide.

Image result for pink star diamond
The Pink Star Diamond, formerly known as the Steimetz Pink, mined by DeBeers in 1999

You have multiple qualifications in gemology. What’s your most niche jewellery fact?

The most common one is that rubies and sapphires are the same stones, and a ruby is just a red sapphire. That’s a good one. Emeralds and aquamarines are the same stones – they both come from the beryl family. Opals are made out of water, and you can find fossils which have been opalized. I believe a dinosaur’s poo has been opalized. I’m full of facts.

What are the trends in how people are buying jewellery at auction houses at the moment?

I think people are becoming increasingly aware of buying second-hand jewellery at auction as a really interesting way of putting their money into something they’re going to wear and enjoy. The joy of going to auction is that you’re presented with a huge array of pieces from all periods, styles, gemstones, you name it, and that means that people can really find something in there that’s a little bit different. I think people are bored of going to the shops and finding the same design over and over again. It’s much more interesting to find something that’s unique, that has a little bit of age to it, maybe even has a story behind it. I think that gets people far more excited.

Engagement rings. How do you recommend people navigate that minefield?

It’s a really tough one. There are specifics when it comes to diamonds –  the Four Cs, which are the colour, the cut, the clarity, the carat weight – and I think that can really put a lot of people off.

Some people just prefer going to a store and being told what to buy, but if you’re looking to be savvier with your money, auction’s are the best way to do it. There you can look at all the diamonds available, you’ll find out how they’re differently priced, how many different cuts you can get and the slight variations you can have within a cut. For example, you could have five old cushion shaped stones that weigh three carats and the cut can be unrecognisably different between each one.

And your engagement ring?

My husband went to one of my colleagues! He worked with her for a couple of months, searching for this specific stone. It’s an old cushion-shaped diamond, which I love. But I don’t think the setting quite works, so we’re planning on changing it together.

If an engagement ring is bought for someone and it’s not their style, it’s totally legitimate to change the setting. I have clients that will redesign their engagement ring over the course of several years; they’ll have it set as a single stone for the first year, then changed into a three stone ring, but all the time, using the first stone that was purchased.

Do you think a lab-grown diamond will ever be sold at auction?

Lab-grown diamonds are definitely a subject we’re talking more and more about, but it’s not something that we would have much interest in selling. Most of the stones produced are very small and are being used as melee in fashion jewellery.

But the allure of buying a polished diamond is for its own individual beauty and its rarity. If you were told that this was identical to another stone that’s also been made the same way, then it won’t be as interesting; but if you have something that’s purely formed by nature, no man has interacted with its creation…surely that’s got a lot more allure. Take coloured gemstones – if you look at rubies, emeralds, sapphires – these are all natural crystals which are grown in the earth. The rarity of finding them, the hardship of getting them out of the ground…A copycat material will never be as interesting as the genuine product.

On the theme of hardship, many consumers are well-versed with blood diamonds and conflict stones. What do you have to do to ensure the provenance of stones you sell?

We are of course compliant with any laws in place, such as the Kimberley Process. With any new stones that come to auction, we only accept stones that have the correct paperwork and go through the proper channels. But when it comes to an older stone, there’s no way of knowing the origin. Unlike with rubies, emeralds and sapphires, where you can look at the internal characteristics of each stone and identify its origin, you can’t do that with diamonds. So you’ll never have any way of knowing where a diamond has come from and what its seen along the way to get to the jewellery store.

Why have diamonds so long been considered a girl’s best friend?

There’s something so special about the way diamonds capture the light. What people often forget is the craftsmanship behind every faceted diamond. Each crystal is looked at as a stand-alone stone; the diamond cutter will choose the best way to bring the best characteristics of that diamond. They shouldn’t be dismissed as something mass made and interesting; they should each be appreciated for their own beauty.

And now to a different end of the jewellery market – what are your favourite Motley pieces?

The Fan Earrings are my favourite earrings by far. But I love Scott Wilson’s bold geometric shapes. They’re simple and yet make a statement because of their size and linear outlines. From what I see, bolder and chunkier designs are becoming increasingly popular. It’s not about being dainty, it’s about being unapologetic for the noise you make.

Motley x Scott Wilson, Swoop Earrings

And a little more about you – what book do you normally recommend to others?

Whenever I finish a good book, I always give it away. The last book I read was Tin Man, by Sarah Winman. That was a beautiful read, a very emotional book.

How do you feel about the Spice Girls reunion?

When everyone was texting me, telling me they’d got tickets, I came across the original tickets I had in 1998. So I didn’t feel I was missing out much. It brought back some good memories. But I wouldn’t want to see them now without Victoria.

Who or what inspires you?

It’s going to be super corny, but it’s probably my Dad. I think there’s a work ethic you can get from your parents, and I want to achieve the same results, I’ll need to work just as hard.

But I think in general – the jewellery industry, on the whole, is run by men. And there are a lot of men in this industry, from trade to auction, so I’m always fascinated by the women who are at the top and how they’ve made it there. Because it’s a tough job. And you’re dealing with some tough characters.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

That’s a tough one. I’ve really shoe-horned myself into the jewellery industry and fallen head over heels for it. I can’t imagine wanting to work in another industry. Whether that’s at auction, and I hope it would be, but if not, it’d have to be jewellery-related, whether working with a designer or antique jewellery trader, I can imagine I’ll never move too far from this.

If you could be remembered for one thing, what would it be?

For being successful whilst bringing other people up to be successful alongside me.

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