Daniela Mascetti is Senior Director, Senior International Jewellery Specialist and Worldwide Head of Scholarship for Sotheby’s in Geneva, Switzerland. A 36 year veteran in the auction business, she discusses her career and experiences at the oldest auction house in the world. More on Daniela Mascetti.
ENSEMBLE: How did you get to work for Sotheby’s?
Totally by chance! As a graduate in Archaeology from the University of Milan I was working part time at the Milan Archaeological Museum. I loved archaeology but found the bureaucracy that went with the job too overpowering. I therefore decided to take a sabbatical, went to London and searched for an art course that could widen my horizon. I joined Sotheby’s Training Scheme in London and at the end of 10 months of mind-opening, exciting experiences in various departments, I was offered a totally unexpected job in the Jewellery Department….together with the request of gaining a diploma in gemmology. That was September 1980!
ENSEMBLE: Do you miss the world of Archaeology?
No, I have no regrets but I still love archaeology and I am fascinated by antiquities from all corners of the world. Besides, during my “archaeological years” , I developed the analytical skills required for the dating, researching and valuing of historical jewels. That in turn resulted in the publication of several books on the history of jewellery design: Understanding Jewellery and Celebrating Jewellery co-authored with my colleague David Bennett, Worldwide Chairman, International Jewellery Division, and Earrings, from Antiquity to the Present, Necklaces From Antiquity to the Present and Bulgari, co-authored with Amanda Triossi.
ENSEMBLE: Tell me of your typical work day at Sotheby’s.
There isn’t a typical day at Sotheby’s, and this is what makes the job exciting. There is certainly a lot of travelling throughout the world to meet clients, source jewels for the forthcoming sales, supervise the collation of catalogs, promote the next sale on the calendar, whether it is in London, Geneva, Hong Kong or New York. So, one day I may be meeting clients and providing jewellery valuations, the next lecturing on the subject of jewellery. One day I may be on the rostrum in Geneva taking a sale and the next I may be in London researching a fabulously rare jewel or an historic collection.
ENSEMBLE: All this sounds very exciting: fabulously rare jewels, historic collections….which are the most exciting collections you have been working on?
In over thirty years of association with Sotheby’s I have had the privilege of working on some truly amazing jewellery collections. Some built throughout the centuries by members of the same or different families and therefore are extremely diverse in style and design some others put together by a single individual and as a consequence more consistent with the style of life and tastes of that particular person. I name just a few: The collections of the Duchess of Windsor, Helen Beaumont, Ava Garner and Gina Lollobrigida, the Princes Thurn und Taxis.
ENSEMBLE: The most exciting of them all?
Undoubtedly the collection of the Duchess of Windsor. Put together by two individuals passionate about jewels and gifted with the most exquisite taste and a good eye for gemstones, this was arguably the most important jewellery collection of the 20th century. For me it was a moment of great excitement to be asked to go to Geneva in December 1986 and join the team working on the preparation of the catalogue in great secrecy! The Duke (formerly King Edward VIII) and the Duchess of Windsor worked closely with the great jewellers of the time – Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and with Harry Winston to create extraordinary and unique jewels of superb design that often were, stylistically, well ahead of their days. The sale of the collection was an extraordinary success: the total of $50m was six times the expected figure, every single item sold and many items went for up to 10 times their expected price. Twenty-three years later, in 2010 at Sotheby’s London, 20 objects originally purchased by a collector in the 1987 sale, were re-offered at auction. Again I was privileged to take care of the cataloging and the academic and historic research. The highlight of the auction, the superb onyx and diamond panther bracelet created by Cartier for the Duchess in 1952, sold for £4,521,250 three times the pre-sale estimate and set a new record for the highest auction price for a work by Cartier. Another outstanding jewel of this collection, the ruby, emerald, sapphire and diamond flamingo brooch created by Cartier for the Duchess in 1940, perhaps the most iconic jewel of the 20th century, was bought back by Cartier for their collection.
ENSEMBLE: You are the author of several jewellery books and you mentioned one on Bulgari. Why did you choose to write a book on Bulgari. Are they your favorite jewellers?
Well, it really worked the other way round, I did not decide to write a book on Bulgari but rather I was approached by a literary agent and asked, on behalf of Bulgari, to write a monography on their firm. It was a very flattering request and a challenging operation as the firm in those days did not have a properly structured archive. Is Bulgari my favourite jeweller? As a specialist, this is a question I cannot answer. My eyes are trained to detect beauty, quality, originality in jewels from all periods and produced by all sort of makers, famous and not. I can appreciate good jewels by Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, Chaumet, Bulgari but this does not imply that all the production of these famous makers is outstanding. Unquestionably Bulgari started a totally new trend in the 1960s when the firm differentiated itself from the traditional French production with vibrant, polychromatic, three-dimensional creations set with multi-coloured cabochon gemstones in unusual and striking chromatic combinations. This production catapulted the firm onto the international scene. Bulgari’s shop in Rome’s Via Condotti became a landmark for Royalty, millionaires and film stars. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra were regular visitors of Bulgari’s shop. Gina Lollobrigida bought some fabulous pearls and diamonds there.
ENSEMBLE: You mentioned earlier on that Sotheby’s sold the collection of Gina Lollobrigida. Did the collection include Bulgari jewels?
Yes, several. My favorite was a splendid diamond necklace of 1954 designed as a chain of stylized florets. Mrs Lollobrigida loved this jewel and wore it on several occasions not only as a necklace but also as a tiara and as a pair of bracelets as it divided into two segments.
ENSEMBLE: You must have handled thousands and thousands of jewels. If you had to pick one for beauty and rarity, which will it be?
Only one? Really? This is so difficult…. But perhaps I should say the fabulously beautiful pearl and diamond tiara originally commissioned to the Parisian jeweller Lemonnier by Napoleon III for his bride, Eugenie de Guzman, Comtesse de Teba. Sold at public auction in Paris in 1887 together with the rest of the French Crown Jewels. This splendid jewel was acquired by Prince Albert Thurn und Taxis for his bride, the Archduchess Margarete of Austria, and was the highlight of the whole sale which took place in Geneva in 1992. The imposing, regal design, the perfect craftsmanship, the size and quality of the extraordinary collection of perfectly matching pearls and the Imperial provenance make this a truly unique piece…no wonder it was bought by The Friends of the Louvre Museum where it is now on display.
ENSEMBLE: One last question: If you had to give one single piece of advice to someone considering the purchase of a piece of jewellery, what would that be?
Follow your instinct to start with and focus on something you like and that you know you are going to wear. There is no point to buy a jewel and lock it in a safe because you do not feel comfortable with it. Then consider your budget and buy the best quality that your money can afford: if needed, scale down in size but do not compromise on quality. If you are buying for somebody else, make sure you know the taste of the person involved…if in doubt, ask!