An Alexandre Reza bracelet of three exceptional oval sapphires totaling 48.75 carats, set with more than 38 carats of diamonds.

- Alexandre Reza is the greatest gem merchant in a generation. Although now retired after a career spanning seven decades, his name, revered in elite inner circles of the international jewellery world, still resonates with richness, passion and expertise. David Bennett, chairman of Sotheby’s Jewellery Division, Europe and Middle East, calls him the “father of modern jewellery.” A merchant, collector, connoisseur and creator, Reza was the very epicentre of that international world of gems and jewels from the 1950s to the 1980s, when he supplied gemstones to the great jewellery houses. Then, at an age when most successful businessmen would think of retiring, he embarked on a second career as a master jeweller, dazzling the world with the artistry, audacity and abundance of his timelessly contemporary jewels, set with the magnificent gemstones he had collected over a lifetime.

Now Sotheby’s is set to host a touring exhibition of the Extraordinary Jewellery of Alexandre Reza, a tribute to the lasting legacy left by this larger-than-life character, and particularly fitting, as he was always a huge presence at Sotheby’s auctions, setting and breaking records, making headlines and steering his industry. The retrospective exhibition, which opens in New York on 1 November, and will move on to Doha, London and Beijing, has been curated by Alexandre Reza’s son, Olivier, who carries on the business today, designing jewels that contemporise his father’s inimitable style, always revolving around the finest possible gemstones. The carefully chosen selection of both archival, early jewels by Alexandre Reza, and his son’s new creations, charts the evolution of the Reza style and offers a rare glimpse into one of the most magnificent gem collections – Kashmir and Ceylon sapphires, Burma rubies, Colombian emeralds, natural pearls, D flawless diamonds – to rival any royal treasury.

The Toi et Moi ring by Olivier Reza, with a 5.04 carat fancy pink diamond, internally flawless, and a 4.76 carat emerald, set in 18 karat rose gold.

Of Iranian parentage, Alexandre Reza was born in Moscow in 1922; his father, like his father before him, was a jeweller and an antique dealer. The family fled after the Revolution, escaping in 1925, with just a few jewels with which to start a new life in France. It was difficult, and from these early years of hardship Alexandre Reza embarked on a single-minded, unwavering mission to change his life, to create success and security. At age 18, he took over his father’s business in Nice, and by force of his powerful, charismatic personality and his indefatigable determination, began to build the foundations of his legendary gem empire. After the war, during which time he joined the French resistance, he slowly rebuilt his life and business, buying second-hand pieces, cleverly and courageously re-cutting the gemstones to improve their quality and increase their value.

Reza seized the opportunities thrown up by post-war prosperity to amass a vast treasure chest of immensely valuable gemstones. He travelled extensively, first to Italy, then to Antwerp and New York for diamonds, and to Asia for coloured stones, visiting and negotiating directly with the mines, often, as in the case of Ceylon sapphires, buying the entire output of a single mine. By this time, Reza had moved his business to Paris, always keeping a presence in the Côte d’Azur, where he had a wide circle of friends and clients, including artists, stars and socialites, notably the jewel-adoring Florence Gould. It was during the 1960s that Reza began to design finished jewellery, which was then hand-crafted by the best traditional Paris ateliers. He was already supplying superlative gemstones to the master jewellers of the Place Vendôme and now he began offering them finished jewels. By the 1970s, he was in the perfect position to provide the vast and valuable courtly suites of lusciously gem-rich jewels that appealed to the new wave of Middle Eastern clients.

Finally, by the 1980s, Alexandre Reza decided to join the ranks of the jewellers he had supplied for so long, and, having first created a collection of antique-inspired jewels (to circumvent a clause in the lease), he was able to open a landmark boutique on the corner of Place Vendôme and Rue de la Paix, with his own workshops and design ateliers above. With no commercial constraints, he was able to design the suites he dreamt of, set with the most magnificent, meticulously matched coloured stones and finest white and coloured diamonds that the earth had to offer. In the 1980s and 1990s, Alexandre Reza was the name on the lips of every jewellery lover and connoisseur.

The exhibition at Sotheby’s tells this story through a series of perfectly conceived vignettes, each representing a particular aspect of Alexandre Reza’s repertoire, with a focus on the suites or parures for which he was celebrated, and that, in turn, demonstrate his extraordinary affinity for gemstones. Olivier Reza explains, “This exhibition showcases the seven decades of my father’s work. Our goal was not volume, but focus; we wanted every piece to tell a story, to be exceptional, rich in design, history, material. Each jewel could be the star piece in a private collection.”

Olivier has selected five spectacular suites, each set with awe-inspiring coloured stones and diamonds. Another vitrine shows the historically-inspired jewels that launched Alexandre Reza’s career as a jeweller, another still displays the exquisite “tremblant” jewels, flowers that quiver with each movement of the wearer. There are rare natural pearls, a sensational natural grey pearl, and breath-taking diamond suites, one composed entirely of type IIA diamonds, set in red gold perlé beaded settings, a style pioneered by Reza himself. The soft rose gold blends into the skin, so that the diamonds appear to float on the body. The contemporary jewels, designed by Olivier, he says, to honour his father, include a pair of drop earrings set with streams of Colombian emeralds, inset into rectangular diamond mosaics and three stunning toi et moi rings, the concept so loved by Alexandre Reza, twinning a vivid blue or orangey pink diamond, with D flawless white stones. Olivier Reza has refined and lightened the settings, so that there are no claws, giving the rings a striking but timeless modernity. Altogether Olivier says it is “a perfect collection. The exhibition shows that our passion for connecting high-quality craftsmanship with superb raw material, combined with impeccable design, will forever remain the cornerstone of our house.”

Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian, contributing editor to Financial Times’ How to Spend It magazine and author of the Impossible Collection of Jewellery, published by Assouline.

The Extraordinary Jewelry of Alexandre Reza is a public exhibition at Sotheby’s New York from 1 to 14 November highlighting both the historic and contemporary works of the Paris-based maitre.

Photography by Graeme Montgomery