Who pays $700k for a diamond necklace? Or $70k for a watch? Kim Knight from the NZ Herald reports on the sparkling excesses of a booming luxury jewels market.
On the roof of the Auckland Museum, two security guards open two clear plastic cases.
A fashion editor verifies the contents. A model poses in a red dress. Dusk falls, cameras click and it is not just the city below that sparkles.
The magazine cover shot is gorgeous, but it’s the fine print that takes your breath away: Bvlgari Serpenti necklace – $703,386.
When did New Zealand join the market for jewels that cost more than a house in Hamilton?
“Some people get very caught up in being perceived as being fabulous because of their jewellery,” one anonymous rich lister told the Weekend Herald.
“We don’t have a class system and most people stay under the radar, but they go mad when they want a nice piece of jewellery . . . If you’re wearing a $200,000 ring, of course you look more fabulous. I mean, who’s kidding who?”
Still, she says, she wouldn’t buy that necklace.
“That’s f***ing outrageous. To me, that’s obscene. I couldn’t live with myself if I bought a piece of jewellery for that amount of money. I couldn’t actually stomach it and I don’t think a lot of my friends who have jewellery would go and spend that amount of money.”
And then she pauses. “Or they wouldn’t wear it here.”
Los Angeles, yes. Also, New York. “Which is what all those girls do,” she says. “But in our neck of the woods? It’s a statement – and this is a village.”
Parnell is, literally, a village. That’s how British colonisers marketed it in 1841 when Aotearoa’s first suburb was established and that’s what developer Les Harvey envisaged when he bought up large in the 1970s, converting dilapidated homes and shops into boutiques and cafes. For a while, Parnell Village was bohemian. Now, it’s just rich.
“What did I sell just recently?” muses Graeme Thomson. “Oh, it was a bracelet by Van Cleef & Arpels and they paid $26,000 for it.”
He had it valued at $58k, “but I bought it well, so I could sell it well”.
Graeme Thomson Antique Jewellery was established in 1988. His first store was in Queen’s Arcade, filled with the treasures he’d saved from his early days at the Cook Street markets. He moved to Parnell in 2009. Press him hard enough, and he’ll name drop. Blondie singer Debbie Harry bought a strand of pearls. Penny Lancaster – married to musician Rod Stewart – bought an amethyst ring. Talk queen Oprah Winfrey once popped in for a browse. “She wanted to meet an All Black.”
He’s more circumspect about locals.
“I sold something to a client to give to his potential wife. It never got to a marriage and so she sold the ring back to me, and you’d never believe it, her new boyfriend came in and saw it in the window and said ‘oh, I love that ring, I’m going to buy it’.”
Thomson refused him. But that’s not the punchline. “That’s happened twice! New Zealand is too small.”
And Parnell, he says, is fabulous.
“It’s real money. Whereas over the other side, over Herne Bay, people have got beautiful homes, but they’re younger people. They probably don’t have the interest in [antique] jewellery to be honest. The older people appreciate it, and they understand it, because they’ve grown up with it.”
The $32,000 pink sapphire-and-diamond-encrusted flamingo brooch in his window will not, he concedes, be to everybody’s taste. He suspects it might be some time before he sells a $10,000 bejewelled green frog ring. He absolutely doesn’t care.
“I loved it and I had to buy it. It’s beautiful. The people I sell to are interested in aesthetics. They’re not really conscious of the price. They don’t care if it’s Prada or Gucci or whatever it is. They like it because of its aesthetic.”
The doorbell rings and a woman enters looking for a chain to thread through an antique locket. Thomson lays metres of gold on the counter. Once, these heavy ropes of precious metal were connected to muffs – the soft, fur-lined tubes fashionable 18th-century types used as a purse and hand warmer. How much for the chains? “That one’s $4000,” says Thompson and the customer doesn’t blink.
You can’t judge wealth on appearance alone. Sometimes, that adage works in reverse.
“I’ve got a really wealthy client – I can’t say who – she went to a fabulous birthday party in England, and she wore paste earrings. She could wear anything! They don’t care if it’s paste, so long as it’s beautiful. They’ve got diamonds coming out of their ears, they don’t have to prove they’ve got bloody big diamond earrings.
“I’ve got other clients who really would be billionaires . . . she was so excited, she went to the Avondale markets and she bought a crystal necklace for $55 and she was wearing it to a black-tie dinner.”
How much is too much? At Bvlgari, a doorman lets me inside and nothing in the glass cabinets carries a visible price tag. My sneakers are cheap but the staff don’t judge. I hold out my wrist, and a sales assistant wraps $100,000 worth of diamonds around it. Half an hour earlier, I was eating deep-fried cod wings with that hand.
I drop into Tiffany & Co. where a family of four are trying on watches and the discerning can buy everything from a diamond and platinum circlet necklace ($180,000) to a small bone-china dog bowl ($150) or table tennis paddles ($700) in that famous duck-egg blue. Across town, Westfield Newmarket is reportedly preparing for tenancies from Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, Emporio Armani, Ferragamo and more. There is a global pandemic, but the rich are still rich.
Sarah Hutchings, director and designer at Parnell’s Orsini Fine Jewellery (Gucci, Pomellato, Marco Bicego, et al) says Covid-19 has not changed the buying scene.
“If anything I am busier, as the wealthy spend locally. I have just recently had a member of a royal family contact me from overseas to send a special shipment to her – now that is a luxury purchase!”
And no, she won’t be naming names: “One thing that is certain is that this level of purchase is confidential and discreet. True luxury is not shouted from the rafters.”
Our anonymous richlister agrees. Diamonds are fun, she says, but unless you’ve got broad shoulders, don’t wear the big ones. I ask why anyone would spend $40,000 on a piece of jewellery when most of us wouldn’t know if it cost $4000 – or even $400?
“Because it’s all about ego, dear.”
But, also: A connoisseur really can tell the difference between 18- and nine-carat gold (“and we don’t like nine”). Only an idiot would spend big on a pre-made item (“most people source their own diamonds and get a shop to set them”). And she really can’t remember how much this necklace or that necklace cost (“$35,000? $45,000?”) because ultimately, all that matters is the emotional quotient.
“Does it make you happy? I’m a great believer in the EQ value of jewellery – whether there is an empathy attached to that particular piece.”
Sarah Hutchings says different brands resonate for different reasons.
“Gucci to a younger demographic. The classic contemporary jewellery is an older demographic and men buying for their wives. Women who are confident and like to buy jewellery for themselves resonate towards Pomellato jewellery – iconic and distinctive pieces.”
Hutchings says some people buy luxury brands because “they have the money to splurge” but status also comes into play.
“It can show you’ve worked hard and achieved success . . . For some of my clients, it’s more understated style and class, and it’s not as obvious to the unobservant.”
Marco Bicego jewellery, for example, “is all painstakingly hand-engraved using a bulino technique . . . there is a certain way the gold sits and the colour of the patina. It is called class and style and this cannot be achieved with faux jewels, no matter how much one tries.”
True luxury clients “flitter under the radar,” Hutchings says.
“They purchase year after year and if you add up this value you may find it well exceeds the Bvlgari necklace, especially if they are buying big one-off custom-made pieces with larger, rare diamonds.”
Recent big-ticket sales at Orsini include an $80,000 custom-designed diamond ring and, to a separate client, a Pomellato pink tango bracelet celebrating the birth of a daughter (a necklace from the same collection was recently in-store with a $400,000 price tag – reflective, says Hutchings, of the two-weeks of non-stop work it takes to set so many diamonds).
According to Hutchings, the priciest purchases are for special birthdays – 40ths and 50ths – and anniversaries. Women sometimes spend to celebrate a work bonus or the final stages of a divorce – “which can sometimes be a celebration.”
She notes one significant difference between the New Zealand and European jewellery markets: “I don’t believe men here buy for women as readily as the men in Europe, where it is very much part of the culture to buy beautiful luxurious jewellery as a token of love and appreciation … men in New Zealand buy jet skis. Certainly not as romantic and long-lasting as diamonds.”
The world’s most expensive diamond is, literally, priceless. The Koh-I-Noor weighs in at 105.6 carats. According to diamond-lore, it was cut down from its original 186 carats when England’s Prince Albert wanted more sparkle. Its British ownership is controversial. Believed to have been mined in India (possibly in the 1300s) the diamond was acquired in 1850, and is now part of the Crown Jewels collection.
New Zealand has no such collection. A call to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet confirms that although there is ceremonial jewellery that sits with titles, rather than individuals (think collars, plus rods and maces), none of it – not even the two “sovereign’s badges” that the Queen keeps in the UK – contains precious gems.
Somewhere in Christchurch, however, there is a $1m diamond. The so-called “Star of New Zealand” is a 19.5-carat brilliant-cut gem that hit the headlines in 2006 when it went on display at Auckland’s The Diamond Shop. Allegedly “snapped up over the phone” by a mystery buyer, rumours swirled as to his identity. Back then, the most likely suspect refused to comment. This week, he finally came clean – albeit, anonymously.
“I bought it to give to my wife,” says the businessman. “She’s worn it a couple of times . . . it looks too big. You’d think it was a fake!”
What does it feel like to wear $1m worth of jewellery?
Dan Ahwa, Viva magazine fashion director, says Bvlgari pieces that sparked this story were “quite hefty”.
“I went into the store two days before the shoot to practise how to clasp and unclasp the necklace. It wasn’t too fiddly, but the weight of it was just insane.”
The biggest jewels in the “she’s electric” cover of the latest Viva gloss magazine were two pear-shaped stones with a combined weight of 1.06-carat. A further 67.72cts of diamonds were set “pave” (aka pavement) style. Model Holly Rose Emery wore them with a bracelet ($537,309) and earrings ($48,000) all from the Bvlgari Serpenti collection – first released in the 1940s and made most famous via the one-off watch Elizabeth Taylor wore while filming Cleopatra.
Ahwa says New Zealand’s attitude to luxury shopping has changed.
“There is a growing interest and an increase in spending and it’s everywhere from Gen Z to Millennials . . . I think they are less intimidated by luxury. They don’t feel self-conscious in these stores. For the younger customer, buying luxury is a chance to show they’re ‘in the know’.”
On the night of the Auckland Museum shoot, the Viva team had just 90 minutes with the jewellery (which is currently still in New Zealand). “Combine sunset and diamonds for an intoxicating proposition,” said the magazine caption and Ahwa confirms there was a definite nervous energy on set.
Around the world, “you’re still getting a lot of magazines doing shoots from a distance, being creative, photographing from rooftops looking down on models. To be able to be up close, doing this one, was quite amazing . . . it felt like being in a movie, which is part of the thrill of jewels of that level.”
Ahwa says he would be surprised if there was a local buyer at this end of what the industry calls “High Jewellery” but “I also know there is a level of wealth here that most of us aren’t really privy to”.
The same week the interviews for this story were conducted, property experts OneRoof trawled the Auckland auction results looking for sales equivalent to the price of the necklace. They turned up two-bedroom units in Otahuhu ($699,000) and Panmure ($715,000). You can’t live in a necklace – but it is, arguably, prettier. Why wear so much money?
“All those feelings of desire come into play, wanting to feel accepted,” Ahwa says. “I guess that’s what all luxury is. It’s just signalling to everyone that you have the smarts and the whatever it is – whatever it takes – to acquire something like that.
“Luxury has become a lot more casual and accessible, so you’re getting a different type of customer. Status shopping is still a thing, but they’ll take an internationally labelled handbag or watch or piece of jewellery and wear it with something by a local, New Zealand designer.”
On Sundays, the wealthy worship at the Church of Competitive Commerce. The wine is prosecco and the snacks are potato chips. Pop-Crunch-Bid! Webb’s auction house is full of Ralph Lauren jumpers, Gucci handbags, and – I am almost certain – a sleeveless polar fleece vest from The Warehouse.
The man wearing the latter buys a $10,000 diamond tennis bracelet for a woman with very good skin. Someone breaks a wine glass on the concrete floor. Well-behaved children play on their iPads (one each) and the crazy rich money ignores the plastic chairs and stands at the back of the room.
Young men – ripped jeans, backwards baseball caps – are jousting for watches. They could be playing darts or shooting pool or pushing weights. Jocular masculinity, but make it Rolex-rich. Auctioneer Charles Ninnow introduces Lot 334. A Piguet wristwatch purchased in Switzerland for $3000 in 1972. Just one owner, and only 1000 of these ever made.
“I’m going to start things off at $35,000 . . .”
Three-and-a-half minutes later, he brings the hammer down on a $65k sale that, with GST and the buyer’s premium, will equate to $76,375.
“Some real watch guys in the room today,” observes the auctioneer.
Forty-two watches are up for sale. Ten minutes in and two Rolexs have tipped $20,000 and another has surpassed $50,000. There is a brief respite when bidding moves to luxury handbags and luggage. An Hermes Kelly Sellier bag tops $11,000; a vintage Louis Vuitton suitcase fetches $6400. There is less interest in a squash bag from the same label. Bidding sits at just a few hundred, when Ninnow reads the room: “At that price, you could send your kid to school with their lunch in it . . . ” The room laughs.
Just after 12.30pm, and Lot 372 is the first of the fine jewellery pieces. A sterling silver Hermes bracelet attracts a top bid of $1400. It’s well over the low estimate ($600), but up at the podium, it’s slow going. The auction house website shows less than half of the jewellery lots as sold – an Edwardian 11-panelled diamond bracelet makes almost $25,000 with the buyer’s premium; two more bracelets top $10,000 – but those published results don’t always reflect what happened next.
Lot 531 is an “important” diamond ring. A single 4.17 carat stone with “VVS1” clarity (no faults visible to the human eye) its estimated value is $210,000-$240,000. Bidding fizzles at $185,000. Later the Weekend Herald learns it went for “more than $200,000” to a private buyer who wants to remain anonymous.
“He wanted to do something special for his other half,” says Kassidy Hsieh, Webb’s head of fine jewels and watches.
She says when people buy luxury jewellery, “be it international, or from our local jewellers here, you’re buying into heritage, history, knowledge and craftsmanship. It’s not just the material worth”.
There is, she says, a growing cohort of younger clients who perceive the secondary auction market for jewellery as environmentally friendly and sustainable.
“They like the idea that they’re choosing an engagement ring from us that has had a previous life.”
(Trawl international auction sites and discover some surprising previous lives – back in September, East Sussex-based Gorringe’s listed “an impressive Art Deco-styled pierced platinum and millegrain-set, diamond-encrusted bracelet . . . inscribed Dame Kiri Te Kanawa 1982”. It sold for 20,000 pounds – around NZ$40k).
Meanwhile, Webb’s watch specialist Samuel Shaw says “the local market is booming” and that high prices for brands like Rolex simply reflect supply and demand.
“But if you look at the reasons why people buy them, quite often it’s emotional. A watch is a traditional gift for a special anniversary. I used to work in watch retail, and we started to see more and more people buying watches for wedding day gifts. For a 21st, it’s a very traditional 21st present. I don’t think the money normally comes into it . . . it’s more about the why and whose buying it, rather than the price.”
Published in the New Zealand Herald 3 July 2021