Indians have increasingly been looking at auctions as an avenue to purchase jewellery. One of the most iconic sales last year was Sotheby’s in April, where the Cartier Tutti Frooti bracelet left behind its initial estimate of $800,000 and ended up fetching $1.3 million, setting a new record for the highest priced jewel sold at any auction. Homegrown auction houses AstaGuru and Saffronart both reported favourable sales in 2020, even as the auctions didn’t reflect the market in the pandemic. Overall, Saffronart’s sale volume doubled from 2020 to 2021, while AstaGuru’s sales increased by 248 per cent. AstaGuru had 117 lots up for auction in 2020, while they had 251 lots in 2021.
Minal Vazirani, President and Co-Founder of Saffronart and Jay Sagar, AstaGuru’s Jewellery Specialist, had many interesting insights into the jewellery auction market in the country.
Saffronart, a pioneer in the online auction space in India, has had a digital footprint since its inception in 2000. Hence, the pandemic’s forced digital shift came quite naturally to them; both the internal team and clients were used to the online space. The auction house did adapt to this change by launching ‘Friday Five,’ a no-reserve weekly auction with five unique lots, started in April 2020. The lot items range from antiquity, jewellery, art to collectible books. “The initial response for this property was overwhelming,” said Vazirani. This year, Saffronart’s jewellery auction had a much stronger response, as compared to 2020. Vazirani attributes this change to the timing, uncertainty of the situation in the previous year, versus the double vaccinated world of 2021. AstaGuru adapted to the pandemic by sending jewels to important clients’ homes for them to view and try on. This initiative was started in May 2021.
Saffronart hosts one major jewellery auction per year, in the month of October, apart from weekly sales and private sales distributed throughout the year. AstaGuru until 2021 also did only one auction a year. It was only in the beginning of this year that they expanded to include two auctions a year, in May and October. “We do eventually want jewellery to become a large part of our portfolio, and the only way to scale it up is to have auctions at lesser intervals than in the past,” says Sagar.
AstaGuru, an auction house conceptualised in the year 2008 with the sole purpose of creating a safe and secure platform to conduct online auctions, held its Heirloom Jewellery, Silver, and Timepieces Online Auction from the October 26-27. Exhibiting an extensive collection of 133 lots, out of which 50 were jewellery lots, the auction had vintage jewellery and old-mine gemstones, rare hallmark collectibles from iconic silver manufacturers of the 19th and 20th century. Natural Basra pearls, fancy vivid yellow diamonds, Burmese rubies, Zambian emeralds and rare old-mine Colombian fluted emerald beads were found in the exquisite pieces. These collector’s items represented both traditional Indian and western jewellery. Old gold jadau pieces, temple jewellery, diamond polkis with detailed enamel work rounded up the collection.
Sagar said, “The interest for vintage jewellery among collectors has seen exponential growth in recent times and the upcoming auction has lots dating back to the early 20th century. It is a fantastic opportunity to collect beautiful pieces that are a hallmark of Indian culture and aesthetics.” The lots took Sagar two months to put together, and included pieces from important old Indian families, and even from erstwhile royalty.
The lots are intertwined with stories from the past to which they belong. Sagar finds the vintage Burmese jewellery suite his favourite lot, for the colourful, stately jewels have an interesting story behind them as narrated to him by the owners. During the revolution in Burma in 1962, Indians had to leave the region overnight. The lot’s co-signer’s grand aunt was from Burma and collected everything she could wear when fleeing the country. Decked in 9-10 kg of Burmese rubies and gold, which were put onto her, she left Burma, without even suitcases to carry their possessions. The family then reached Calcutta, where the rubies were mounted and set into these beautiful pieces. The full suite of a necklace, a pair of bangles, and earrings fetched INR 29,43,022.
The most expensive piece in the lot was the graceful three-row pearl necklace. Starting at INR 1,10,00,000 – 1,30,00,00, the necklace fetched 1,26,18,375 at auction. The 1930 necklace is made with 192 Basra natural pearls interspaced with beautiful seed pearls. Basra pearls are a rare variety of natural pearls that originated in the Basra region of the Persian Gulf. It was made with Art Deco terminals set with old-cut diamonds and a platinum clasp set in old cut diamonds and diamond baguettes.
Rare old-mine Colombian fluted emerald beads made up another colourful offering in the jewellery segment. Lot no. 16, as it was termed, was an impressive four-row necklace created with the emeralds. The beads are interspaced with diamond-faceted beads, aka diamond spacers. The necklace is affixed with a gold clasp and detailed enamel work. While the piece is estimated to be from the 1930s, the only thing that was changed was the back clasp. The stones are unheated, untreated, and have only been oiled to maintain them. “I would in fact date it to an even older period. Unfortunately, the documentation we have only dates back to 1935,” said Sagar. It was offered in the auction with an estimate of INR 71,00,000 – 90,00,000.
The oldest item in the jewellery auction was the Louis XV Gold Snuff box. Maker’s mark says the box dates back to Paris, 1769/1770. According to Sagar, the bigger mystery is how this lot came to India. While no one knows the answer to this question, as the piece is over a hundred years old, it cannot be transported out of the country, as per the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972. The oval box is fetched INR 6,26,175 at auction.
Lot no. 7 is a unique, vintage gold ‘nath’ set with Burmese juicy ruby beads, shimmering rose-cut diamonds, natural pearls, and emeralds. Considering the quality of stones, Sagar surmised that it probably had been originally made for a very important or noble family. It was offered for an estimated INR 12,50,000 – 15,00,000.
Lot no. 30, a vintage Jadau Aadiya necklace is typical of Rajasthan. it is set with table-cut diamonds, natural pearls, turquoise bead detailing, and inlaid with green, white, red and blue enamel meenakari work. It is said to belong to circa 1900, and estimated at INR 55,00,000-75,00,000.
Another traditional piece auctioned is the Jadau Gutta Pusal Gold necklace. This piece is set with diamond polkis, rubies and emeralds. Adorned with different symbols of Shiva, it’s a gorgeous piece of temple jewellery. Symbols of the Damru, Om, Trishul, which signify the three Gunas-Sattva, Rajas, Shivalinga and Tamas are all incorporated in this neckpiece.
Touted as the next big gem, spinel tumble beads have been a royal favourite since ages. Maharajas of India believed in a spinel’s healing properties and wanted to have the stones touching their skin. These three rows of graduating spinel tumble beads, strung together on a gold wire went on auction for INR 25,00,000-27,00,000.
Saffronart’s Fine Jewels, Silver and Watches auction took place on October 27-28. The curation was a good mix of old traditional Indian jewellery, investment grade stones, statement, modern jewellery, and consisted of around 100 lots. A colourful mix of dark red Burmese rubies, Colombian emeralds, pale pink padparadscha sapphires, light aqua paraiba tourmalines, and yellow diamonds are part of the lots. “Overall, collectors have been really happy with the collection because each kind of collector has something different to look forward to,” says Aditi Parab, Manager, Jewellery & Collectibles at Saffronart.
This awe-inspiring diamond and pearl Sarpech, aka, turban ornament is by legendary Munnu Kasliwal. He was the owner of the Gem Palace in Jaipur, and from the family of ninth‒generation atelier of jewellers to the royals of Jaipur. This particular piece of jewellery is extraordinary in the multiple ways it can be worn. The bottom panel can be removed and worn as a necklace or a bajuband, while the aigrette (connecting the top and bottom of the piece) can function separately as a pendant. Set with three foliate cluster panels, polki diamonds, and asuspended fringe of seventeen pearls, the sarpech is estimated to go for INR 60,00,000 ‒ 80,00,000. The lot sold for a whopping Rs 90,90,750.
Another auction highlight is this four-row necklace of well‒matched, gently graduated emerald beads, accompanied by a silk cord. The estimate price of Rs 45,00,000 ‒ 65,00,000 is considered by Aditi Parab, “to be a steal,” for its actual value.
Lot number 70 is a rare find, due to the uniformity of the large natural pearl drops, and are priced between INR 1,20,00,000 ‒ 1,50,00,000. The natural saltwater pearl earrings are attached to a flowerhead surmount centring on a circular button pearl with pear‒shaped rose‒cut diamonds as stylised petals. The lot went under the hammer for 1,28,57,000, the highest value lot sold. Saffronart’s auction value was a total of 6.06 crore.
AstaGuru’s May jewellery auction raised INR 18 crore, while the recent October auction raised 12.5 crores, including jewellery, silver and watches. “In my opinion it was a little less than we were expecting, but the higher value lots were all auctioned off,” says Sagar. The most expensive lot, the Basra pearl three-strand necklace, two-row 1100 carat Zambian emerald neckpiece sold as well.
According to Sagar the difference between the May and October auctions is because things have opened up in India now, during the May auction there was peak lockdown. “People were sitting at home, there was more focus towards our auction, but now, people are out and about, even travelling. However, we see an increased focus on high value unique lots,” says Sagar.
According to Vazirani, “If there is an element of rarity or uniqueness of exceptional value in a piece of jewellery, then I think it fares better in an auction.” The art expert also sees a growing interest and an increasing about of patience amongst Indians when it comes to vintage jewellery. This type of jewellery requires an in-depth look at history, quality, and provenance. Vazirani says that limited number of weddings and other social functions are making people consider collecting jewellery that is unique. “I think people are buying jewellery to collect and as a result they are keen to buy things that are kind of irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind,” says Vazirani.