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January 2019

Issue: January 2019

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Travel to Dubai


Beyond diamonds

1 January 2019

A taste for rare gemstones and royal provenance encapsulates the palate of Dubai’s collectors. But in a market where physical auctions haven’t taken off, how can the UAE establish itself as a jewellery hub?

A pair of fossils lie on an intricately decorated table. Peering closely, one could fancy that they could see back through time itself, rough grooves and indents hinting at the mysteries of evolution. But once affixed to Reem El Mutwalli’s ears, they become something else entirely, their pale pink diamond overlay glancing off the light.

Mutwalli cradles each piece almost maternally as she talks through her collection, housed in an ornate villa in a sleepy Dubai suburb. She found said fossils in Canada, enlisting a UAE-based designer and a fistful of diamonds to turn them into earrings. Or there are the miniatures, painted with one single camel hair in India and set on bone with Brazilian emeralds – or a mismatched pair of earrings from a Turkish designer, which combine both crescent and cross in a magnificent nod to the country’s religions.

These pieces are not your run-of-the-mill items from Tiffany’s, or Cartier – and that is exactly what Mutwalli intends.

“My mother was a collector and a lover of jewellery, and we actually compete between us as to who can find the most unusual or unexpected piece,” Mutwalli jokes. “My daughter also enjoys collecting, so it’s become this love that spans the generations. We tend to purchase pieces that are unique and have a story, and get to know the person that creates them – so I think they almost start to have a spirit of their own.”

Mutwalli and her extended family encapsulate the tastes of the Middle Eastern collector. It is not about the highest price, the most famous brand or potential as an investment. Rather, it is about the unique piece, the piece with royal provenance, the rare gemstone.

The Middle East has a longstanding love affair with jewellery – from dramatic silver sets studded with amber and agate and worn by the Bedouins to the pearls wrested from the Gulf’s seabed, an industry that lasted thousands of years.

One of the world’s largest collections of pearls and estimated to total over 50,000 carats is owned by local family, the al-Fardans. Mutwalli describes Hasan al-Fardan, a friend, as having “a pouch that he keeps his favorite ones in… his hand is always dipped in it, playing with them.”

Nowadays, the jewellery market in the country can be split into thirds. The most historic part are the gold and diamond souks on Dubai’s creek, where Indian brides commission yellow gold sets so big they resemble breastplates, and tourists throng the narrow alleyways. The international houses have their own spaces in the malls, where buyers from all over the world come to purchase Cartier love bracelets or Bulgari serpent rings. The last third of the pie – and perhaps the most discreet – are the private collectors, who disregard shop fronts to hunt down the choicest pieces.

It is these buyers, as small a group as they might be, who are the most interesting to auction houses. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have a presence in Dubai, and have earmarked the emirate – and the wider Middle Eastern region – as areas that require significant attention.

“Last year we saw a 19 per cent increase in jewellery sales from the Mena region,” comments Sophie Stevens, a jewellery consultant for Sotheby’s Middle East.

We have plans to go further into this market, to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and develop more relationships with more collectors.” Sotheby’s held its first auction in Dubai last year for watches, bringing in US$2.6 million with 121 lots. As for plans to introduce a jewellery auction in the emirate, “hopefully one day,” says Stevens. “There’s definitely a huge demand for luxury here, which is why we started off with watches.”

One house that has attempted to crack the market is Christie’s, which opened its representative office in the Middle East in 2005, holding its first auction in early 2006 at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel. Jewellery auctions in the emirate ran for five years before stopping operations. Says David Warren, Christie’s International Director of Jewellery: “We had very good results during our time here; the highest single sale was US$20m and interest was really growing in terms of local participation.”

Yet ultimately, he admits, the way that Middle Eastern buyers liked to purchase was at odds with the public setting of a physical auction.

“We analysed a lot of vendors and buyers coming from outside the region, and I think they like to buy in a different way. It just doesn’t really work in a public setting. “

Deciding instead to hold private sales in the city, he attests to the success of this strategy – with over 3 per cent of all Christie’s private jewellery sales coming from the Middle East, and the region accounting for 6 per cent of total jewellery sales worldwide.

Buyers in the region are looking for rare gemstones, say commentators, as well as sets (or parures) with royal provenance. Though not auctioned off in the UAE, these types of jewels are brought through the region so potential buyers can see the pieces in the flesh. Case in point was the vivid blue and intense pink diamond mismatched earring set, christened “Apollo and Artemis.” Dubai was the last stop on their worldwide roadshow, and they sold in Geneva just a month later for a record-breaking US$57.4 million.

The privateness of major collectors is especially prevalent in the Middle East, where buyers are perhaps more likely to wear their jewels in public, but less likely to purchase them with an audience.

“Discretion is absolutely key to building our long-term relationships with collectors, in places like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other GCC countries,” says David Bennett, the Worldwide Chairman of Sotheby’s International Jewellery Division.

“Very often these days, we are asked by the younger generation for advice after they inherit pieces from their parents’ collections. This means that we sometimes do find big – and very pleasant – surprises in terms of the value of the jewels.”

Contrary to popular myth, Middle Eastern collectors are not focused on price, says Mutwalli. Nor can they kid themsleves that the pieces they buy are an investment, she comments wryly.

“I think the investment aspect is something we try and convince ourselves with, so psychologically we feel more comfortable for spending the money. I’m sure there are many people that can afford ten times as much as [me], but I enjoy the uniqueness these pieces, and the special style that comes from putting them together.”

Jewellery as investment, particularly in the UAE, is not a solid enough argument for many. Demand for gold in the country fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2017, save for a slight uptick at year-end due to a scramble to purchase before VAT was brought in.

Not that this slowdown will affect the private collectors, dedicated as they are to rare gemstones, sets with royal provenance and contemporary designers, who can bring something fresh to the table. International brand and auction houses remain committed to the market, particularly for the rarer jewels which, they say, still have an important place in the Middle Eastern markets.

“From my experience the Middle Eastern buyer looks for vibrancy, colour, allure, the pleasure they take from displaying it,” concludes Mutwalli. “We all have different types of lives, but through it all, the East continues its great tradition of a life lived with stones.”

Words: Georgina Lavers