On a sticky June night in London, Wallace Chan, a Chinese jewellery designer, gave a talk about his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The event felt less like a lecture than a rock concert. Chan sat centre stage in a mandarin collar, beaming at an auditorium packed with exquisitely turned-out, sharp-elbowed women. When he stopped talking, they surged forward with the determination of collectors who know that a large number of very rich people want a limited number of exquisite pieces.
Chinese money has propelled Chan to the highest echelons of jewellery design, but his popularity has spread far beyond Hong Kong, where he grew up and now lives and works. He’s a modern illustration of an ancient trend in the jewellery world: shifts in taste reflect shifts in economic power.
Ancient empires used their financial surplus to commission beautiful things, and rulers deployed jewellery as a visible manifestation of their power. While the British were painting themselves with woad, Narmer, Egypt’s first Pharaoh, was encrusting himself with gold amulets and semi-precious stones. China’s Han dynasty spawned a glorious era of art and decoration: women wore hair ornaments made entirely of electric-blue kingfisher feathers and rope-like necklaces of coral beads twisted with turquoise. The influence of China’s artists and craftsmen spread around the globe: Chinese-style figurines of frogs and turtles have been found as far away as the Amazon.
The rise of the Mughal empire in the 16th century saw its rulers set new standards of extravagance. Shah Jahan commissioned a throne with solid gold legs, covered by a canopy supported by 12 emerald pillars decorated with gem-encrusted peacocks. As trade enriched Europe, it was the French court in the 17th century that became the arbiter of jewellery taste for the world. Louis XIV prioritised the production of luxury goods over all other parts of the economy, inviting craftsmen from Italy and Flanders (now Belgium) and banning skilled domestic workers from emigrating.
Europe’s middle class prospered, and merchants began to enjoy the jewels once reserved for the aristocracy. Pearls from the Persian Gulf were popular, worn as chokers around the neck and draped on the body. Flawless Golconda diamonds were imported from India and worn at night so they came alive by candlelight. Fiery rubies and forest-green emeralds set in the Baroque style competed for attention, and were worn as often by men as by women. So intertwined were jewellery and power that after the French revolution, the new government auctioned off many of the crown jewels – not just because they wanted the cash, but also because they feared that royalists would use the collection as an inspiration for the revival of monarchical power.
These days, the rise of spending power in emerging markets is once more shaping the way jewellery is designed. According to Bain & Co, in 2015 Chinese consumers accounted for 31% of luxury purchases, while Americans accounted for 24% and Europeans 18%. Asians are not just richer – they’re also more global in their tastes. Viren Bhagat, an Indian designer, says that young, educated Indian women are buying bracelets from global retailers instead of traditional Indian bangles – almost unthinkable until recently.
Much of the appeal of fine jewellery is universal. “Take a motif like a butterfly,” says Nicolas Bos, the gravel-voiced CEO of French jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels. “It is an expression of beauty in pretty much all cultures.” It isn’t only nature that provides the company with universal motifs: Van Cleef & Arpels’ witty take on the zip (above) renders a ubiquitous piece of low tech as haut joaillerie. Botanical themes, similarly, speak to all cultures, though these days they may be spiky rather than flowery – as with Cartier’s new cactus collection.
The way these motifs are rendered, though, is often culturally specific. Bos explains that when Van Cleef & Arpels interprets a nature theme, it does so within the European tradition of high jewellery. “Japanese and Chinese customers will be interested in the creation as an expression of French tradition, which is a symbol of high luxury, and also as something which resonates with their own culture.”
But while the European tradition continues to dominate, jewellers in Europe and America are adjusting their products to take into account the shift in the customer base. Michael Wainwright, managing director of the normally restrained British jeweller Boodles, decided to widen the company’s appeal a couple of years ago. It made an ornate emerald and diamond necklace called Greenfire, and these days uses a lot of the big – often coloured – diamonds that appeal to the lucrative Middle Eastern market. Fabergé says that the most important buyers of its imperial-class eggs are Qatari. Sean Gilbertson, the company’s chief executive, is itching to make a 10kg platinum egg – which he reckons will probably sell to a Middle Eastern buyer.
Turmoil in France helped catapult Charles Lewis Tiffany, a New York entrepreneur who had moved from stationery into jewellery, into the big time: in 1848 Louis-Philippe, the “citizen king” of France, was forced to abdicate, leaving a trail of destitute hangers-on who promptly sold Tiffany their prize jewels. Overnight he possessed some of the world’s best stones at a time when the new American rich – the Astors, Vanderbilts and the banking mogul J.P. Morgan – were keen to spend their vast fortunes on the finest rocks. America adopted and adapted the elaborate French style, stripping it down and imbuing it with a simplicity that sat more comfortably with the puritan streak of the New World. The Tiffany setting for engagement rings, for instance, placed a single diamond in a raised claw.
The tastes of emerging-market consumers are having a growing influence on the jewellery sold in the rest of the world. Jean-Christophe Babin, the CEO of Bulgari, says that the firm originally used jade in collections meant just for China but that the firm is now selling these pieces globally. Viren Bhagat’s style is a synthesis of traditional Mughal motifs and art deco, rendered in pearls and precious stones. Twenty years ago almost all his customers were Indian; now only about a third are. Bhagat, who offers a bold alternative to the more traditional design of the big European and American brands, does well not only in the West, but also in China, Brazil and the Middle East.
Pierre Rainero, director of style, image and heritage at Cartier, points out that, when it comes to jewellery, China is going back to its roots. Prosperity and travel are reviving the Chinese taste for extravagant precious objects, and the grand, maximalist style of old is back in vogue. Pieces are getting larger and more daring: the elaborate kingfisher-feather hair decorations of imperial China have been replaced by Wallace Chan’s astonishing creations, such as his scorpion necklace (below) made of diamonds, rubies, yellow sapphires, garnets and the largest premium-quality cat’s eye alexandrite on record. Chan keeps prices close to his chest, but he is known to have sold a necklace at the 2012 Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris for £56m (€73.5m).
Stellar prices have not dampened demand; nor has Chan boosted his output to satisfy it. He creates only 20 to 30 pieces a year and has no plans to make more than that. He remains resolutely serene in the face of the frenzy he inspires. “I only worry about not having enough time or materials to create,” he says.