How diamonds, pearls and coloured gems became global commodities

Posted on by Beyond Bespoke

From 100-carat diamonds to multi-million-pound rubies, the competition for the most desirable jewellery has become a global phenomenon, says jewellery expert John Benjamin 

“I wish I still owned that” or “I sold that 20 years ago” are well-known (and well-worn) phrases often heard in the wonderful world of jewellery dealing. Any well-established Bond Street jeweller will wax lyrical about a Cartier diamond clip or plump pearl necklace they sold decades ago at a fraction of their current retail value. It’s all about availability, of course, and these days the greatest difficulty challenging dealers and shops is finding the “right” merchandise in the first place. The growing problem they all face is that there are, quite simply, too many dealers and private buyers competing for too few goods.

5.18 carat vivid pink diamond ring
5.18 carat vivid pink diamond ring sold for $10,709,442 by Christie’s


Auction houses represent the traditional source for fresh goods coming to market; where international jewellery sales are concerned they squeeze every last drop out of the potential value of their consignments by showing their best lots to a range of buyers in several diverse locations. Once upon a time, a diamond ring would be consigned, exhibited and sold in London, Paris or New York. Now it is sent on a world tour where it may be inspected by affluent and well-informed buyers in all the established locations as well as Geneva, Zurich, Beijing, Hong Kong, Dubai, Doha and Mumbai. The very best lots are even hand carried directly to important buyers in their homes and offices for private inspection – the ultimate in personal shopping.

As a result of all this sophisticated marketing, the price of “commercial” (i.e, desirable) jewellery has shot up and the competition for the best goods has become a truly global phenomenon. For example, the dynamic appeal of coloured gems – Burmese rubies, Kashmir and Burmese sapphires and Colombian emeralds – has surprised even the most seasoned and experienced of dealers while the prices paid for the best natural pearls has become positively explosive.

 The dynamic appeal of coloured gems has surprised even seasoned dealers 

In April, Bonhams in London held an auction of fine diamonds, gems and antique jewellery where a 4.54 Burmese ruby ring estimated at £25,000-35,000 sold for £134,500. Another ruby ring modestly guided at £8,000-12,000 fetched seven times its estimate with a final hammer price of £76,900. A 21-carat sugarloaf (cabochon) cut Kashmir sapphire fetched £290,500 against an estimate of £50,000-80,000 and a fancy light pinkish-brown pear-shape diamond ring weighing 7.10 carats made £117,700 against an estimate of £15,000-20,000.

Sotheby’s April auction in New York boasted the ultimate “must-have” diamond – a 100.20 carat D colour internally flawless type IIa emerald-cut stone. An anonymous buyer paid $22,090,000 or $220,459 per carat for what turned out to be the first 100 carat plus diamond ever sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York as well as the highest “per carat” price of any colourless diamond sold at a New York auction.

“Sunrise Ruby”, a 25.59 carat cushion-shape gem mounted in platinum by Cartier


Together with a hammer price of over $1 million per carat for an intense purplish-pink diamond ring at Christie’s everything was set up nicely for the next round of spectacular stones held in Geneva in May. As if the pink in New York wasn’t enough, Christie’s sold a wonderful 5.18 carat vivid pink diamond ring for $10,709,442 or a staggering $2,067,459 per carat, while a 35 carat Kashmir sapphire achieved $209,689 per carat – a world record for this rare and beautiful gem.

Sunrise Ruby soared away to achieve a world record price of $30.3 million 

At Sotheby’s in Geneva what was arguably the finest ruby ever to appear at auction was offered for sale. Known as the “Sunrise Ruby” this magnificent 25.59 carat cushion-shape gem mounted in platinum by Cartier had achieved the rare accolade of “pigeon’s blood” reserved for only the finest of gems exhibiting a richly saturated colour from the Mogok mine in Burma. Estimated at $12 million to $18 million it simply soared away to achieve a world record price of $30.3 million.

Needless to say, these top lots grab all the media attention and justifiably so. Nevertheless, I am always intrigued to see how some of the smaller, provincial UK auction rooms perform simply because they tend to offer the sort of jewellery which is still owned, and indeed worn, by the private clients who I visit on a near daily basis. Woolley & Wallis, an excellent auction house located in Salisbury, also held their own jewellery sale on April 30. The last lot in the sale, a pair of natural saltwater pearl and diamond earrings guided at £80,000-120,000, sold for exactly three times their estimate at a whopping £240,000.

Natural saltwater pearl and diamond earrings sold for £240,000 at Woolley & Wallis


A splendid result for the vendor and evidence, if it were needed, that sophisticated and proper exposure mean that the “right” goods fetch the “right” prices no matter where they are offered. Top jewels, pearls and coloured gems have truly become global commodities.

John C. Benjamin is an independent jewellery valuer, historian, lecturer and author offering advice to private clients wishing to buy or sell jewellery and gems.                  

01296 615522/07931 325212

Main image: Woolley & Wallis


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