Catharine Becket, a specialist at Sotheby’s in charge of its “magnificent jewels” sale in New York, had been working on obtaining a specific 1930s diamond and enamel bracelet by Cartier for five years. “We’d always hoped it might come to auction,” she says, “and it was just this winter that I spoke to the client, and she decided it was time to sell.” The bracelet, known as a “Tutti Frutti” for its multicolored, Mughal-cut stones, is one of the most recognizable designs Cartier ever made, and several bracelets of the same style and from the same period have sold for millions of dollars.

Becket’s client had inherited the bracelet years ago, and she’d worn it “I think once,” Becket says. After some discussion, the client agreed to put the piece of jewelry up for auction at the major spring sale at Sotheby’s New York, which was supposed to be held in late April.

And then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Live auctions were called off, and Sotheby’s pivoted to online sales. With global economies faltering, U.S. equity markets whipsawing, and people stuck at home indefinitely, the success of online jewelry sales was far from certain. Becket called the bracelet’s owner “and told her that we would evaluate if it should be put in an online sale or deferred to a live auction at a later date.”

But to Becket’s astonishment, collectible jewelry sales started to do well—very well. Speaking to her wealthy clients, she discovered they were buying jewels as a sort of pick-me-up. “Clients are sequestering at home and, generally speaking, leading relatively dreary lives,” she says. Some, Becket adds, told her “they’re wearing their big diamonds inside their homes because it brings joy.”

Everyone, she says, “is waiting for this to be over, and I suppose knowing that a million-dollar piece of jewelry is waiting for you is a fulfillment of when things return to the new normal.”

The results speak for themselves. Since the beginning of March, Sotheby’s has run four online sales. Of them, 92% of every lot sold, and 61% of the lots exceeded their high estimates. In total, the sales brought in $6.1 million, above the high estimate of $5.7 million.

“What we’re finding is that anything of good quality is performing well,” Becket says, “and actually better than it would have just a couple of months ago.” A 1930s-era diamond ring that carried a high estimate of £90,000 ($110,000) sold for £162,000; a yellow-diamond ring that carried a high estimate of HK$1.6 million ($206,000) sold for HK$2 million; a pair of emerald and diamond earrings from Graff sold for £50,000, above a high estimate of £32,000.

Given the strength of these sales, Becket decided that “I could call the client with complete confidence and say to her that I thought we’d do a great job [selling the Tutti Frutti bracelet] online.” The bracelet will be offered in a standalone sale, with online bidding open from April 24 to April 28. The estimate is $600,000 to $800,000.

Investment Potential
The rise in online collectible jewelry sales comes at a time when the price of raw diamonds has sunk precipitously. Prices at industry auctions for rough diamonds have sunk from 15% to 25%, according to an April 7 release from the Rapaport Research Report, and demand for polished diamonds has also plummeted.

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