Resetting the Romanovs’ jewels, and other stories

Recycling gems from existing pieces is temptingly lucrative
Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna owned the sapphire which is now in a Cartier cuff © Bridgeman Archives

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A gemstone may have more than one life. This summer, Bulgari will unveil a necklace featuring a 53ct emerald as a centrepiece, a new setting for the Colombian stone. Originally 55ct, the emerald was bought on the vintage market in New York and has been recut to enhance its colour and update its style.

“The business of sourcing stones is as complex as it is competitive,” says Lucia Boscaini, director of the heritage department at Bulgari, who adds that the most exceptional stones are often found in pre-owned items. Such repurposing has occurred throughout the history of jewellery — and it has been thriving over the past decade.

According to Russell Shor, senior industry analyst at the Gemological Institute of America, this trend was spurred by the rising price of gold, which encouraged the sale of pieces and let gemstones enter the market while either loose or still set. An ounce of gold rose from under $700 in 2008 to almost $1,900 in 2011; it has hovered between $1,200 and $1,400 for most of the time since 2013.

Jewels sourced on the vintage market can initially seem less expensive than new ones because of damage. Mr Shor notes that “although gemstones are quite durable, they are often abraded [worn away], chipped or even cracked, requiring that they be recut. The cost of recutting, plus loss of weight, can negate the lower purchase prices.”

Scarcity of supply is one reason jewellers pursue second-hand stones. “It is like a treasure hunt,” says Brazilian jeweller Ara Vartanian, who recently at auction bought some petrol-blue indicolite tourmalines now sitting in a white gold bracelet and a double-finger white gold ring. “The mines for indicolite tourmalines are almost dry, so the gems are more easily found through pre-owned pieces,” he says.

Alongside emeralds, jewellery houses and dealers find sapphires from Kashmir and rubies from Mogok in Myanmar through the vintage market because they often yield gems of superior quality, as Ms Boscaini suggests. This is how Van Cleef & Arpels acquired the five Kashmir sapphires totalling 85.9ct, which used to belong to the Maharani of Baroda and are now installed in its Bleu Absolu necklace.

Van Cleef & Arpels’ Bleu Absolu necklace uses formerly royal sapphires

By buying an antique stone, a jewellery house acquires its glamorous provenance too. Cartier first bought the 197.8ct cushion-shaped Romanov Sapphire between 1925 and 1928 during the sale of the Russian imperial jewels by the communist government. The pale-blue gem, with a flash of pink due to a deep inclusion (flaw), was then in a brooch worn by the Empress Maria Feodorovna. Cartier put it into a pendant, which was sold to opera singer Ganna Walska in 1929.

The maison reunited only briefly with this fabled sapphire when it bought it again in 2014 to set it in a contemporary cuff in its Étourdissant high-jewellery collection. It was sold in 2015.

Cartier cuff

Provenance matters, says Pierre Rainero, director of style, image and heritage at Cartier: “In many ways jewellery is comparable with art, as far as important collections are concerned. If a piece belongs to a renowned collection, it is definitely a plus.”

Some women, by contrast, do not want any association with “the tastes, culture or personality of the previous owner”, so provenance “does not always translate into more interest for a piece of jewellery”, he adds.

Repurposing is not without controversy, as the story of the Wittelsbach diamond illustrates. Before they ran dry in the 19th century, the diamond mines in Golconda, India, produced some of the world’s finest and most desirable stones. Esteemed by jewellers and collectors alike, they were renowned for their clarity because they lacked any traces of nitrogen. One such stone, the 35.6ct fancy grey-blue Wittelsbach, successively sparkled in different jewels owned by the king of Bavaria.

In 2008, it came up for auction and Laurence Graff, founder of Graff Diamonds, bought it from Christie’s in London for £16.4m (and promptly renamed it the Wittelsbach-Graff diamond). Graff recut and repolished it to remove wear marks and chips, enhance its colour to fancy deep blue and reduce the size of its culet (the stone’s bottom).

The Wittelsbach-Graff recut diamond

This attracted criticism from the director-general of the German Historical Museum in Berlin, Hans Ottomeyer, who maintained that recutting a gem laden with history had altered its identity irreparably. It “has been turned into a piece of hard candy”, he told Der Spiegel in 2010. “It’s as if someone had painted over a Rembrandt painting.”

Despite the objections, it was a commercially successful decision: revamped into a 31.1ct stone, it was one of the main attractions in an exhibition at the Smithsonian museum in 2010 and was reported to have subsequently sold for four times its purchasing price in 2011, around $2.5m per carat.

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