Abbi Gilbourne, former senior buyer at Brown Thomas, shares her passion for jewellery auctions and the romance and nostalgia they evoke …
Daydreaming is one of my bad habits, but daydreaming about buying jewellery is my very favourite bad habit. Steadfast in my own priority for reverie, I click on an email alerting me to a jewellery auction. I succumb to the joy of voyeurism as my appetite for window shopping knows no bounds. An online jewellery auction catalogue is a rabbit hole I will happily curl up in for hours; emeralds, rubies, sapphires, supercharged black south sea pearls the size of strawberries; these gemstones radiate an irresistible fantasy.
The implicit “life cycles” and “life stories” of jewellery at auctions are fascinating. The circular journey of each piece can mean that a certain melancholy surrounds them; the romance of the love story that once was wrapped up in every piece has expired. There’s nostalgia and mystery attached to inheriting a part of an anonymous owner’s legacy. Each piece at auction is waiting to continue its narrative, a sanguine next chapter to begin with a new owner. The hidden meanings and symbolism that have been intrinsically attached to stones by individuals gets an opportunity to live on through the next wearer.
I recently “stole” my father’s rose gold signet ring (he didn’t mind, I promise). It’s engraved with his initials, and I had it resized to fit me. A selfish act, maybe, but it has become a daily reminder to ring him and check in. This little ring is imbued with timeless heroism. The metal holds its value, holds dear memories and, with very little care, will stand up to the passage of time.
James Fenton writes that “if a ring is dropped or lost, or if it is deliberately buried with the dead, its chance of survival increases. This is the paradox of the valuable object”. The jewellery stands a chance to survive intact for longer and is not always at the mercy of the whims or needs of its next owner. But according to Fenton, my dad’s ring has a better chance of survival if I dropped it in a peat bog, and it was lost for a hundred years!
I feel that in jewellery, just like clothes, memories are bound within their very fibre. When I was six years old, I went trick-or-treating with my older brother. It was a short but sweet experience. Where we lived, there was only one house to call to, and even at that, you were not guaranteed that anyone would actually answer the doorbell. This particular year, we got lucky, and the door opened slowly. I stared up at the lady of the house through my plastic Halloween mask. I remember as though it was yesterday her long, pleated, wool burgundy skirt and a cream silk blouse. However, what struck me even more was her jewellery. She wore long strands of gold chains around her neck. Her rubies and emeralds shone out from her fingers. As she spoke kindly to us on that cold night, I watched the lustre of her gemstones glistening in the moonlight and was mesmerised. This lady, standing there in the half-dark, to me was an exotic sight. My brother and I stole off that night, back down the road home with a few chocolate Roses and a mandarin each. We thought we were made! Alas, my glamorous neighbour has long passed, but the legacy of her jewels lives on, alive and well in my memory.
I feel that in jewellery, just like clothes, memories are bound within their very fibre.
Years later in my professional life, while working in an office – wall to wall with even more glamorous ladies – one of my colleagues sat beside me at the adjoining desk for just shy of 20 years. A lot happens in one office over two decades. Said workplace was a cacophony of highs and lows with daily side dishes of melodrama thrown in. But this particular colleague wore the same heavy, silver Hermès “Chaine D’Ancre” link bracelet every day for those 20 years. As she typed on each of her successive laptops, year in and year out, the same bracelet would hit the keyboard over and over again. The constancy and familiarity of the clicking of the links became a sound of comfort to me, shielding me somewhat from the anxiety that my surroundings, on occasion, induced. In ancient times, jewellery was often a form of protection to ward off perceived evils and danger – in our hive of an office, my beloved colleague’s jewels played out the role of talisman for me.
The first piece of jewellery I ever bought at an auction was a cameo ring. I didn’t pay a huge amount for it as one of the claws is broken, yet to me, its imperfection is perfection, indicative of its former life story. As a cameo ring, it has an oval, ivory profile of an elegant lady’s head and shoulder image, inset against a background of black enamel and set in a band of rose gold. Around 100 years old, its provenance is undetermined. The band of the ring is thin and misshapen as if it holds the twists and turns of the life of the lady who once wore the ring. I feel privileged to be the keeper of a ring that was once perhaps so precious to her, and sometimes I believe the spirit of her lives on as I wear it.
Jewellery can have the power to signify love and loyalty, to bring both joy and comfort to the wearer. In that context, it affirms your life’s “markers”, affecting luck or protection on its wearer. Often, jewellery becomes the legacy that will be left behind. Embedded in well-worn pieces is the soul of the wearer. CJ Guest once said, “Style is about surviving, about having been through a lot and making it look easy”. Over time, my emotional connection to my jewellery has become deeply entwined. The jewellery we wear lives through our trials with us. It is my wingman in good times and bad. Where will my modest few pieces find themselves in a hundred years? If, amidst all my daydreaming, I don’t end up losing them in a bog in the west of Ireland, they might just find themselves up for sale at auction, lucky enough to live on for their next act.
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