NEW YORK - Gold may be twisted and tamed into sculpture for the wrist and platinum may be dappled with gemstones to yield a precious pointillism for the neck. The makers of such pieces are often unknown, assuming the mantle of the venerable firms that employ them. In some cases, an individual artist has taken credit – Templier, Schlumberger, Dunand – finding discrete locations on which to engrave a name or punch a mark. And then there was Suzanne Belperron, who maintained, “My style is my signature.”

Signed pieces, whether actually signed or not, have always held additional appeal for jewelry connoisseurs. Each name signals a certain level of craftsmanship and an identifiable style, just as a Picasso might elicit confidence and passion from a paintings collector. The hugely popular Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2011, followed by last year’s blockbuster JAR at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cartier at the Grand Palais, represent a turning point in the history of jewelry. An increasingly broad audience appreciates that “high materials” doesn’t necessarily translate into “low concept.” This shift in thinking has driven record numbers of collectors to Sotheby’s in pursuit of the finest and rarest in wearable art, making 2014 a remarkably successful year for signed and period jewels at auction.

While large gemstones make headlines, it is often the exquisite brooch from the 1920s or the masterfully constructed necklace from the ‘40s that generates the most excitement within our walls. “They aren’t making Art Deco jewelry anymore,” is the common refrain, and with these finite quantities comes value. A gold and lapis lazuli bracelet by Cartier sold by Sotheby’s New York is one such example where rarity, great design and an esteemed name met to create auction block magic. The bracelet provoked some of the most visceral reactions ever seen on York Avenue, extending to collectors of modern art and beyond. Its weighty gold links are classically retro, but the oversized lapis bead, so powerful in its simplicity, presents an almost tribal aesthetic. Only a firm such as Cartier could have conceived of and taken such an artistic risk, and only a similarly bold woman – Marlene Dietrich – can carry such a look. On December 9th, there were many bold aspirants competing for the bracelet, from Madrid to Singapore, driving the price to USD 179,000. On the same day, we offered an iconic piece of Cartier tutti frutti, the holy grail of jewelry, from the Collection of Evelyn H. Lauder. Sold to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the bracelet brought a record-breaking USD 2,165,000, dwarfing the USD 465,000 achieved for it in 1999.

Not all jewels bring 500% returns in fifteen years, but signed jewels do tend to retain their value better than their unsigned cousins. The Collection of Madame Picha-Eisenstein, comprised almost entirely of jewels by Suzanne Belperron from the 1930s and ‘40s, brought several times its pre-sale estimate. Her necklace with removable clips would have been just as at home on the neck of a 1980s Grace Jones as it is for the style-setter today. The talon-like bamboo leaf terminals are one part modernist, two parts punk, and irrepressibly chic. The same auction saw a one-of-a-kind necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels, its collar designed as a diamond-set jet trail leading to a Mystère IV fighter plane, soar to ten-times its low estimate. 

Today’s collectors compete fiercely to acquire pieces that have been gathering dust in drawers for years, untouched and unworn. The global audience for jewelry is expanding rapidly with buyers in developing markets becoming increasingly sophisticated in their aesthetic sensibilities, leading to unprecedented prices for wearable works of art at auction.

Take advantage of a strong market and consign now. We are currently accepting consignments for Sotheby's international jewelry sales in 2015.

Catharine Becket is Vice President and Specialist in the Jewelry department at Sotheby’s New York.

Tags:New York, Auction Results, Jewellery