In Conversation with Brett O’Connor

Sotheby's Gem and Jewellery

Brett O’Connor is a Senior Vice President, Senior International Jewellery specialist and auctioneer for Sotheby’s based in Switzerland. A 22 year veteran of the auction business, he discusses what it is like to work for the world’s oldest auction house.

ENSEMBLE: How did you come to work in auction?

My path to auction was fairly unconventional. I studied criminal law at the university and then found myself operating two restaurants. After several years of 100-hour weeks in the restaurants, I needed a break and enrolled at the GIA (Gemmological Institute of America) in California. I always had a passion for gemstones and the GIA opened the door to the fascinating and multicultural world of gems and jewellery. They also helped me obtain my first position as a jewellery auction cataloguer and the rest is history.


ENSEMBLE: How long have you been based in Switzerland?

I started my career in 1994 in New York as a cataloguer overseeing 11 sales a year. I spent a few years in Los Angeles and then in 1999, Sotheby’s asked me to move to Hong Kong. I transferred to Switzerland in 2002 and have been here for nearly 14 years.

ENSEMBLE: What is it about the Auction business that you find the most fascinating?

It is the hunt for the finest Burmese ruby, Kashmir sapphire or Cartier jewel for example that I truly enjoy. I travel the world meeting interesting people in exotic locales in an effort to secure these wonders of Mother Nature for our auctions. I find interacting with such a culturally diverse group of clients is very stimulating and is the icing on the cake.


ENSEMBLE: What are some of the most valuable or interesting jewels that have passed through your hands?

Most recently, it was the Blue Moon of Josephine diamond. A sublime 12.03 carat fancy vivid blue diamond that we sold this past November which achieved a world auction record price of USD $48.5 million. In May of last year, we sold the 25.59 carat Sunrise ruby for USD$ 30.3 million. One of my personal favourites was the Beau Sancy diamond which we sold in 2012. This 34.98 cts diamond, steeped in history with over 400 years of unbroken Noble provenance, had me mesmerized. To think that it graced the coronation crown of Marie de Medici in 1610 upon her ascension to Queen of France. It was a privilege to be able to have that stone in my hands during the course of the time it was with us and am thrilled to now be a part of its history.


ENSEMBLE: What are the characteristics of a high quality jewel?

Most people think that in order for a piece of jewellery to be considered fine, it has to be signed by one of the top jewellery houses. The signature can certainly add value but it is not the main characteristic. The 3 main components of a fine jewels are; 1.are the gemstones used of superior quality 2. Is the manufacture to a very high standard and 3. Is the jewel aesthetically pleasing. Although not a main component, I should mention provenance. This can add huge value depending on who may have owned it. It is difficult to place a value on provenance because it has different levels of importance to each potential buyer.

Sotheby's Gem and Jewellery

ENSEMBLE: You must have met some interesting people, can you tell us about any of them?

Yes indeed, some real characters. Over the years, I have worked with actors, musicians, politicians, Royal families and billionaires. As you can appreciate, most demand complete confidentiality. Sotheby’s has earned a highly regarded and long standing reputation for providing discreet and confidential valuations and sales for our clients, so I cannot divulge client information. However, on occasion, a client will sell their jewels with us and they do so publicly. One recent memorable sale was that of the jewels of Gina Lollobrigida, a sultry silver screen star of the 50’s – 60’s. Leading up to the sale, my office held a dinner for her. With great flair, she arrived in an Italian supercar (Pagani) and emerged wearing a beautiful evening gown. What a wonderful woman; gracious and funny, it was a great evening. It is interesting to note that many people only know her as a screen actress but she is also a prolific photojournalist, sculptor and humanitarian.


ENSEMBLE: Do you have any suggestions for someone who is just starting to collect jewels?

First I think you need to identify which period most catches your eye. Is it the striking geometric designs in white gold or platinum from the 20’s or are the bold yellow gold jewels with flowing lines and floral motifs from the 30’s more your style. Once you have decided, then educate yourself about that period. Familiarize yourself with great designers of that period and learn what their hallmarks look like. There are many books available which can help you in your quest. The best all around jewellery book is written by 2 authors I’m lucky enough to call my colleagues; Mr. David Bennett and Mrs. Daniela Mascetti. It is titled “Understanding Jewellery” and has been in print for over 30 years in multiple languages. If you are serious about collecting you need it in your personal library. Next, start attending auction previews and jewellery shows. It’s a great unstressful way to see and handle the jewellery first hand. After a few visits, you will start to see the different qualities each jewel has. Then you can feel more confident when you decide to make your first purchase… be careful because searching for beautiful jewels can become addictive!

Magnificent emerald and diamond necklace, Harry Winston, 1959

ENSEMBLE: What do you like to do in your spare time?

Switzerland is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. They have a wonderfully organized hiking trail network throughout the country. It is well marked and well served by public transport so you can drive to the beginning point and then take a train or bus back when you have reached the end of the trail. My wife and I really enjoy exploring new parts of the Swiss countryside. There is always a beautiful vista around the corner. Believe it or not, even though I am surrounded by antiques and jewels day in and day out, we also enjoy searching for antiques at fairs and small shops and attending sales at small local auction houses. It is in my blood, I guess!! I also have a penchant for antique automobiles. In the summer you can find me zipping up and down the small mountain roads in my little British roadster… a 1967 Triumph TR4A. There is something about the sound of the exhaust and wind in your hair that just does it for me.


ENSEMBLE: Is it difficult to be an auctioneer?

Although it demands your full attention while on the rostrum, it is a very satisfying endeavour. It is a little bit like live theatre. You must keep clients attention, watch the room, online and phone banks for bidders, draw bids out of shy clients, dismiss the client who is waving at his friend and all the while be mindful of your pace (how many lots your selling per hour) and keep it interesting and engaging for the attendees and people watching on the internet. My first sale, I must say that I was a bit nervous but once I got up on the rostrum and hammered the first few lots down, my fear disappeared and it went smoothly. I have had clients give me secret bidding signals before the sale which can be tricky. Once a client said that when he took his glasses off, that meant he wanted to bid. His lot was later in the session and when I opened the bidding his glasses were off so I continued to bid for him. The bidding continued to double the high estimate and when I looked at him he never looked up… I thought he was looking at the catalogue. When the bidding finally stopped at 3 times the high estimate, I hammered it down to him. After the session was over he came to me and asked who the lot had sold to as he had fallen asleep and he wanted to make an offer. Much to my great relief he was very pleased to learn that he in fact was the winner of the lot. It’s the first and hopefully the last time I sell to a sleeping bidder.


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Brett O'Connor
About Brett O'Connor 5 Articles
Brett O’Connor joined Sotheby’s in 1999 and has been based in Geneva since 2002, sourcing gems for Sotheby’s worldwide Jewellery auctions. He has over 22 years of auction experience on three continents and has been involved with many of the important jewellery collections, including the collections of Baroness Eugene de Rothchild, Luisa Fanti Melloni, Maria Callas, Madame Claude Arpels, Lily Marinho, Count Guido Henkle von Donnermarck and Gina Lollobrigida. Mr O’Connor earned a Graduate Gemologist diploma from the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, California, in 1994.

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