In the first of our expert career series, A FINE JEWELLERY CONSULTANT tells us how she turned interest into expertise and FORGED A CAREER that she loves …
Claire-Laurence Mestrallet used to play with diamonds on the table in the living room of her childhood home on the south of France. “It’s not really how it sounds – my father was a diamond dealer, that’s how we had diamonds in the house.” Mestrallet is now Head of Jewellery at Adam’s auction house on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, to which every day, when she’s not travelling abroad for work, she walks with Isys, her miniature dachshund. Isys seems to be a very well-behaved dog and utterly at ease in the world of fine jewellery, art and antiques, sitting patiently on Mestrallet’s chair or under her desk as she goes about her business. She’s an international dog, at home everywhere.
“I was born in Grenoble but soon after we moved to Namibia, where my father was working, and then back to live in the south of France.” Mestrallet’s father died when she was eight and at 13 she went to boarding school in England, then to university in Paris for two years, then two years in New York, studying art history and public relations. During her time in New York, she interned at Christie’s. If gems were in her genes, a strong interest would emerge only after she got her first job, as PA to the Head of Jewellery at Christie’s in Geneva. “Being a PA is only interesting if you are interested in the business you work for – otherwise it is purely administration and can be boring. Although I’m very grateful I learned all those skills too. My boss was fascinating and knowledgeable and I was inspired to begin studying by correspondence. I was too fond of earning money to give up my job and go back to college full time.” When the department at Christie’s in Geneva closed, and now armed with her degree in gemmology, Mestrallet began working for a family business in Geneva, sourcing and selling diamonds, meeting clients and working with designers and workshops to create engagement rings for clients. “For one ring, I had a budget of over €200,000, for another, €5,000. I was very proud of both.”
Joining Bonhams in London, after a year, Mestrallet went to Bonhams in Geneva, where she flew all over Europe, from Germany to Austria to Monaco, appraising jewellery for clients. “We had a sort of jewellery clinic, like that of a doctor – 30-minute appointments.” Clients would attend with their collections which they were intending to consign to an auction. “In some cases, for clients who had important collections, I would fly in for the day and visit them at home.” These visits did not always yield treasures. “Sometimes you find surprises where you don’t expect them. In other situations, you have to find a way to diplomatically tell a client that his or her jewellery is not what they thought it was. In some cases, clients would have effectively lost hundreds of thousands of euros, buying jewellery worth a fraction of what they had thought.” Diplomacy is one key skill of the jewellery expert, discretion is another. “Of course this applies in every instance. For instance, when working in diamonds, a client might one day select something for his wife; another day for his mistress.” If Mestrallet raised a perfectly arched eyebrow, a client would not have noticed. “I was there to provide a service.” Mestrallet says her education continues all the time. “I learn by reading, by looking. Over time an instinct develops. Now, when curating sales, I select pieces that I know are well-designed, with good quality gemstones, but also now, with more confidence in my own taste, pieces that move me, that have a charm.”
This month, Mestrallet will conduct a jewellery sale for Adam’s, her third since she arrived in early summer. It’s a mix of consigned pieces, accepted for sale from clients and the general public and pieces Mestrallet has sourced from all over Europe, including jewellery by designers who sell abroad but not in Ireland, Italian designer Margherita Burgener, for instance. “I worked with her in Geneva, and we have kept in touch. I’m delighted to introduce her to our Irish clients.” Mestrallet also takes a fresh approach to her catalogue, which looks modern and fun. “I do want to make my sales relevant and inviting.”
The sale on December 6 will be a mixture of contemporary and antique. Mestrallet, who wears very understated jewellery, and often just one piece at a time, has a preference for pieces of the 1940s and 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. “Particularly French jewellery of the 1940s and 1950s. You might say I’m biased but anything with a French assay mark from that period is usually beautifully made and will hold its value.” There are diamond rings, antique brooches and pins, watches and earrings. There is a pair of aquamarine, sapphire and diamond earrings by Seaman Schepps, a flamboyant designer of the 1930s and 1940s, favoured by Wallis Simpson, Coco Chanel, Katharine Hepburn, heiress Doris Duke, Fidel Castro, who bought a bracelet for his sister, and Andy Warhol. There are semi-precious pieces and cultured pearls, which Mestrallet says, are very popular with Irish women.
Mestrallet is already tapped into the Irish scene and for her autumn sale in October invited designer Louise Kennedy to select her favourites from the sale. For this sale, designer Peter O’Brien has chosen some of his. “Peter loves antique pieces and chose an oxidised ring with diamonds by Suzanne Belperron, a very famous Parisian designer, a favourite of the Duchess of Windsor.” It’s one of a kind and the estimate is €1,400. O’Brien also chose some Victorian turquoise earrings. Also in the sale, a glittering 11ct Graff diamond bracelet with an estimate of €45,000. “At a Graff boutique it would cost €200,000.” But not everything has a huge price tag, with prices starting at €200 for a pair of diamond earrings. And what about investment value? “This jewellery will hold its value but as estimates in the auction world are very close to real value, these really are pieces to be worn and loved.”
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our January issue, out Thursday, January 5.
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