Jean Ghika, Head of Jewellery, Europe, is the Bonhams rock star, says Lucinda Bredin
Tension was rising in the room an hour before the sale. A huge blue diamond ring was the last lot on offer in April's Fine Jewellery sale at Bonhams. During the past ten years, fewer than 30 blue diamonds of more than five carats have been auctioned, and there was a crackle of expectation that records would be broken. With standing-room only, the voices of the 25 staff manning the telephones increased in volume. As the price climbed, only two bidders remained. When Matthew Girling, chief executive of Bonhams Europe, brought down the hammer, a new world record has been set. The 5.3-carat diamond had gone to one of the most famous jewellers in the world, Laurence Graff, who spent £6,201,250, setting a record of £1.18m per carat.
It was, says Jean Ghika, Bonhams Head of Jewellery, who took Graff's winning bid, the most thrilling sale of her career. "But the price wasn't a surprise. You have to hold a diamond to your eye to appreciate the subtleties of colour, to understand its beauty – and this is the most beautiful stone I have ever handled."
Ghika fell in love with jewellery looking at photos of her great-grandmother, a Romanian aristocrat and writer. "She was rather a rather grand figure who lived in Paris in the Belle Époque. She had some fabulous jewels – emeralds the size of fists. Sadly most of it had to be sold to support the family after everything in Romania was confiscated by the Communists. All that remains are wonderful photographs that provide a glimpse of a past era."
When Ghika joined Bonhams as a porter straight from Manchester University in 1992, her ambition was to specialise in portrait miniatures. But soon jewellery exerted its allure. As she says, "In those days, we had a sale a month at the old Lots Road salerooms. I was on my own putting together a sale of about 300 lots. All the cataloguing was in longhand on carbonated paper – woe betide you if you made a mistake as you had to correct it on 11 bits of paper. However, seeing so much jewellery meant that I learned very quickly. It was sink or swim."
With all her experience, Ghika knows how attached people become to jewels. "We are dealing with something that involves an emotional attachment and we try to understand the motivation for selling. Sometimes people fall out of love with the person who gave them the ring." But when clients buy jewellery, it usually heralds a celebration. "Couples love the whole process of an auction, of seeing something and trying to get it."
After 20 years in the department, Ghika has been part of a team that has seen Bonhams become market leader in the UK. "This year, we are on course to keep our crowning position." I ask if there is one sort of jewel that seems to be in vogue? "Jewellery from the 1960s and 1970s is extremely desirable at the moment. There is also a real thirst for signed deco jewellery. Collectors view these items as miniature works of art."
Lucinda Bredin is the editor of Bonhams Magazine