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June 23, 2024

In Video: Collecting jewellery in 21st Century India – Minal Vazirani and Usha Balakrishnan in conversation with LuxeBook

Emerald and diamond ring, Saffronart
Emerald and diamond ring, Saffronart


Riddhi Doshi
On October 28, Saffronart will host an online auction of fine jewels, putting on offer 167 lots to bid for without any reserve price.
The auction house, based in India, has been auctioning jewellery for 12 years now and over the years witnessed an evolved pattern in collecting jewellery from seasoned and young buyers.
Minal Vazirani, Co-founder of Saffronart and Dr Usha Balakrishnan, Jewellery Historian and Curator for the last 25 years, talk about Collecting Jewellery in the 21st Century, dos and don’ts and the appreciating value of jewellery as wearable collectibles.
Minal Vazirani, Saffronart President and Co-Founder
Minal Vazirani, Saffronart President and Co-Founder
Dr Usha Balakrishnan, Jewellery Historian and Curator
Dr Usha Balakrishnan, Jewellery Historian and Curator
Some excerpts below
Why is jewellery so important for us Indians?
Usha –
Jewellery for us is as much a part of the body as clothing is. If you look at ancient Indian sculptures and paintings, jewellery, sometimes, takes precedence even over clothing. They are always bejwelled. Jewellery is a multi-faceted personality and takes a light of its own in the Indian cultural context. It is a form of saving. All about adornment, beauty, seducement, and, of course, it goes beyond. Every piece of jewellery has a meaning, every gemstone has a meaning. They are amulates. They draw good luck to the wearer, repulse badluck from the wearer. They are symbols of fertility, and importantly, a jewellery is worn in certain parts of the body, which keeps the body in perfect equilibrium. Which is why, people pierce their nose, ears. Once you get married, you wear toe rings. We have jewellery inscribed with verses, worn around neck and upper arm. And its about great design, aesthetic, brilliant craftsmanship spanning over 5,000 years ago.
Who were the collectors back in the day?
Minal – Historically, jewellery has been as much about collecting for a treasury for a kingdom and for adornment, not just beauty, but for festivals, to exhibit power. Jewellery moved from that kind of collecting to more patronage based, certainly over the last 200 years. And then we have evolved, modern, 20th, 21st Century collector. The modern collector is a different type of collector. Collecting for them has been about style and significance. They will collect for rarity and historical value of the product, for a superstition, as Usha mentioned that jewellery is worn as amulets.
When I say style, I use it loosely. Its about design. In India, we have 5,000 years of incredible aesthetic and what goes with it is incredible craftsmanship and technical skills that has been exported to other countries.
What are modern collectors looking for when they bid for jewellery?
Usha –
In the past, people hoarded jewellery. Today, we have become discerning collectors. If there is something that is old being offered at auction, people are looking for provenance. Is the piece really from the period to which it is assigned? Does it have history a story? That immediately establish the antiquity of the piece and then they start looking at the quality of gems, what is it set into and who has made it and whom they are buying for.
The very discerning collectors are very careful. They don’t want to take the risk because there are many stories about cheating. So, they rather come to an auction house because all the checks and credibility issues are verified by an auction house and taken care of. Collectors have that comfort level there. Not that they don’t buy from dealers, but, sometimes, they turn to auction house’s experts to research and authenticate a peace for them.
Minal – Early on, Indians hoarded jewellery and the collector today is more discerning. Its such an important point in our history. The fact that we are a young nation. In the mid-40s the idea of buying gold as a store house of wealth, that might come to the rescue in the time of need is very ingrained within the 21st century collector as well.
Let’s look at the world today. Whenever there is uncertainty, there is always a fight for quality assets. People consider buying jewels, precious metal. We see the prices of gold increasing so dramatically. So, the idea of investing money into jewellery as a store for long-term wealth led to a great deal of hoarding and we moved on from there.
How do you source your jewellery?
Minal – Our sourcing comes from families, dealers, designers, manufacturers. And we put together a catalogue, we emphasis on style and significance that we discussed earlier.
Sourcing is tricky. There is no easy answer. When people are wanting to liquidate assets, clearly, it’s the time of need or its time when wealth must be dispersed to the next generation. It is a pretty significant event that leads to this. Unfortunately, it may be some form of distress – death or divorce. Those are the times when people come to us.
Usha – In the recent past, 30 to 40 years ago, when people wanted to liquidate their assets, they would usually go to their family jeweler, who would asses it only in terms of the amount or purity of gold and some kind of valuation of the gemstones.
There was nothing that was allocated to design, antiquity, craftsmanship, sentiment – has it been published somewhere, was it in a museum, etc. People have become more discerning and they are now turning to experts and auction houses as they take these abstract areas in valuation as well.
Minal – The idea of bringing transparency into this area is why we started auctioning jewellery almost 12 years ago. We have had this time and again when people come to us and tell us that my jeweller is quoting the price of diamond, gold and ruby and that’s just not enough. And it would turn out to be an exquisite piece, a collectible. The whole is much greater than the sum of the part.
What kind of research are new collectors doing to ensure that they buy the right piece?
Usha –
It starts with the person who owns the piece provides. With 25 years of experience and as a historian, I can go through the story and know how much of it is real. Every jewellery can be assigned to a period of manufacture, not exactly, but to 18th Century or 19th Centure and then to first quarter or second quarter. You see the design, technique and see if it belongs to that era. You start slotting them into clear compartments.
One must do a lot of research. Read about and see pieces that are in museums, has been catalogued, in family heirlooms.
How can one start building a jewellery collection?
Minal –
This applies to collecting in general. Whether you are looking at art or jewellery or anything else, the most important is to train your eye. When you see a lot, things filter in your head and you know what you like. But that build-up takes time is like how you build your ability to listen and appreciate music.
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