"India is a place that has everything to become the jewel centre of the world,” says David Bennett, the former worldwide chairperson of international jewellery at auction house Sotheby’s. Often referred to as the “100-carat” man after having sold seven 100-carat diamonds at record-breaking prices, Bennett is in the business of making people understand that jewellery is not an item, but an art creation—a concept, he believes, Indians understand well. “In India, jewellery is cherished for not just as a product, but something more sentimental. I don’t see that anywhere else.”
Bennett, who retired in 2020 after working with Sotheby’s for four decades, was in Mumbai recently as a chief guest for The Artisan Awards 2022 ceremony, organised by the Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC). When talking about how covid has changed the way people consume jewellery, Milan Chokshi, the convenor, GJEPC, on behalf of Artisan Awards 2022, said: “The pandemic exposed and amplified the underlying impulse of expressing personal bonds with a loved one through jewellery. People started opting for designs that they could cherish and had meaning; it truly became the personal acquisition that it was always meant to be."
In an interview, Bennett talks about how the pandemic has changed the world of auctioning, the importance of live auctions and why jewellery is not a product. Edited excerpts:
What’s keeping you busy these days?
I’m relaxing a bit, working on a book and continuing my quest to make people look at jewellery as treasure again. Jewellery is a design, it’s a creation. We’ve got to get away from this idea of product. Jewellery is something very beautiful, rare. People need to rediscover it, especially in today’s online world.
Online auctions have become more common now. Is that good news when it comes to jewellery?
Funnily enough, before the pandemic, in 2019, major auction houses began concentrating more on online sales internationally. It took 10 years in the making but three years ago, the push became stronger. It’s more convenient; it makes logical sense.
Having said that, the drawback is the individual, particularly the private collector, has to make up their mind without actually seeing the piece. It’s more unlikely now that if you’re in Hong Kong and the sale is in Geneva, London or Paris, you’re going to fly to see the piece you want. Pandemic has changed us. So, I think it’s becoming more important now to have an independent commentary other than the auction house telling you what’s worth what.
A big part about selling during auctions, especially jewellery, is the touch-and-feel aspect and the relationship an auctioneer strikes with a potential buyer. How is all this translated in an online sale?
Well, this is the whole problem. The thing is, the industry considers jewellery as a product rather than a creation. It is sold like an item, a product, when it actually is an art creation. The biggest challenge or problem in online buying is that you’ve got perfect access, you can see all the things on the screen, you know it’s antique jewellery, but you can’t feel it. Just by holding a piece of jewellery, feeling its weight, running fingers over it, you can absorb so much. How will you know how that necklace will look on you? Will it shine more or less?
You won’t buy it to keep it in the cabinet. In online, that’s just not an option. The auctioneer is becoming less and less important with online bidding. We’re probably going to have very limited number of real-life auctions annually because it doesn’t seem necessary. People like the idea of online. I used to sit and sell in rooms filled with lots and lots of people.
But I remember being in a room for an auction in Geneva in 2019 and the room was almost empty. So you’re just sitting there thinking, what is the point of holding a live auction, when people are going to buy online?
Do you miss the auction drama?
Of course. I still remember this 1987 extraordinary sale of jewels bought by King Edward VIII for his American wife, Wallis Simpson (famously called the “Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor”). It was the perfect love story (he renounced his claim to the British throne in 1936 to marry the divorcee), and had some of 20th century’s best jewellery—from a Cartier bracelet with pendant jewelled crosses to diamond-encrusted cufflinks. The atmosphere in the auction room was extraordinary, and it was not created by the market but by the jewellery. The cufflinks were estimated to fetch some 30,000 francs, but they went for half a million. It was crazy, there was so much excitement. People were competing in the room, over the phone… there was drama, tension, excitement. In online sales, you can’t even see anybody else. You don’t know who else is bidding. I’m quite glad I don’t do it anymore.
What was your experiencing while sourcing Indian jewellery?
We couldn’t source them much because of the Indian export rules. So, we would never take anything for sale that hadn’t been correctly exported from the country. We needed export proofs. Majority of Indian jewels that we sold had either been remodelled or changed in some way by Cartier or Van Cleef. India has some stunning pieces of jewellery but very few want to let go of them. In fact, there’s a lot of interest among Indian families to buy back antique jewellery, even if it isn’t from their family.
Any piece of jewellery you wish you could have?
Two. The Beau Sancy. It was bought by Henry IV of France for Marie de Medici. And this gorgeous ruby, The Sunrise Ruby.
Have you ever dropped any of your jewels meant for an auction?
This is a true story. We were in Paris and there was this collection that had seven magnificent stones. I was in the hotel room after all the press and putting one of the stones back in a black velvet pad, and it slipped out of my hand. I was looking at $10 million falling down, in slow motion. So was everyone else. And then it disappeared.
It landed in the cuff of my trousers!