Monday 13 May
I get up at 5am and finish packing (something I hate). I have to bring suitable outfits for the various occasions and it is difficult to choose which. The technique I have subconsciously devised is to be in such a rush that I do not have time to deliberate.
The taxi arrives promptly and I say goodbye to my 10-year-old daughter – who has just woken up to go to school – my husband and cat. On arrival at the airport, it is a jungle of humans. I have never, ever seen Rome’s Fiumicino Airport so crowded, and it is only 7.30am. I battle my way though check-in and security, and finally board the plane (a miniature propeller Alitalia vehicle), but we are told that we are delayed. An hour and a half later, we take off.
It is a magnificent day, with perfect visibility. Although I am a fairly frequent flier, looking at the earth from above always fascinates me. On this occasion, however, duty comes first. The flight provides precious time to study the Sotheby’s catalogue, as the auction house is going to be my first destination in Geneva. There are nearly 100 Bulgari jewels for sale, including those from the private collection of Gina Lollobrigida, the famous Italian actress. I am not going to buy them all, but this is a rare opportunity for me to examine them. The question of fakes is always an issue in my business, so being able to see many “real” Bulgari jewels will help me distinguish them. By fakes, I mean real jewels that are erroneously attributed to Bulgari and have, somewhere down the line, acquired a “fake” signature.
When I arrive in Geneva, I find another human zoo: a phenomenal queue for taxis. But finally I reach the city centre – much later than planned, in spite of my efforts, and it is already lunch time.
Work begins with a quick lunch with one of the major manufacturers of fine jewellery in Italy, at one of my favourite restaurants in Geneva, Brasserie Lipp (a subsidiary of the well-known homonymous brasserie in Paris). Geneva at this time is not only important for jewels but also because of the crowd it attracts; anybody who is anybody in jewellery is here, so networking and catching up with colleagues is part of the circus. The Italian manufacturers are key contacts for me, as they are the ones that, in the past, crafted the famous Bulgari serpent bracelet watches encrusted with gems or decorated with colourful enamels. Given the issue about fakes, when I have a concern I turn to them. We often swap information and thoughts, so a lunch in Geneva is an ideal moment to consolidate our relationship.
By 2.30pm I still have not seen any jewels. But finally I reach Sotheby’s at the Hôtel Beau Rivage and am able to sit at a table to view the Bulgari pieces. I do not have much time; the jewels are brought to me, tray after tray, in groups of five. For security reasons, I am required to register beforehand and then sign for every set that I am shown. Interestingly, some pieces look much better in the catalogue, others much better in real life. I study them with a loupe, examining the assay marks, signatures and details that I find interesting. I make notes and assess the estimates. All this takes time because, as I was associated with Sotheby’s for 14 years, I am frequently interrupted by friends and former colleagues.
At 6pm the exhibition is ready to close, but I still have not seen the jewels of Gina Lollobrigida. They will have to wait until tomorrow. I make my way back to the hotel, have a quick nap, call home to check all is OK (my daughter has a sore throat), change and go out again, to end the day with a dinner.
I have been invited to a trendy Lebanese restaurant, frequented by exotic and chic clients, by an equally glamorous American hostess – a well-known jewellery collector. Suzanne travels the world with Colette (her giant coffee-coloured poodle) and has one of the best collections of vintage jewels in the world. She, too, is in Geneva to shop. The dinner is a real reunion for jewellery friends; also there is Lisa, who is chairman of North and South America for Sotheby’s International Jewellery Division, and Catherine, who is Van Cleef & Arpels’ heritage director. The only missing friend is Colette; the Lebanese restaurant does not allow dogs.
At midnight I am back in my room, exhausted but looking forward to another eventful day in Geneva.
Tuesday 14th May
My day begins in the Longemalle, a small but charming hotel at the foot of Geneva’s old town. Breakfast is a tempting choice of delicious Swiss breads and croissants. I resist – at least for today.
Then it’s back to Sotheby’s to look at Gina Lollobrigida’s jewels, the ones I did not have time to see yesterday. I examine a magnificent diamond necklace made by Bulgari in 1954, set with over 100 carats. Interestingly, it may be worn in different ways: as a necklace, as two bracelets or as a tiara. “La Lollo”, as Lollobrigida’s fans often refer to her, has worn this piece extensively, and there are countless glamorous photos of her sparkling in it. I also take a close look at some emerald and diamond pendant earrings, a diamond and emerald brooch and a turquoise and diamond demi-parure (a pair of earrings and a matching brooch) – all by Bulgari. The pieces are very representative of the company’s designs of the early 1960s, and I would like to be able to buy them all for the Bulgari Heritage Collection, but this time I have to curtail my wish list. Bulgari’s CEO was very clear before I left Rome: “No overspending. All purchases have to be within budget.”
While I am turning over and looking at these pieces through my loupe (for these occasions I use my 18ct gold one), I try to think which is the one piece the Bulgari Heritage Collection cannot do without. It is a very difficult choice. Time passes quickly while I am absorbed with gems, and soon it is time for lunch. I meet Lucia, the chief buyer at Bulgari, who is entrusted to buy the rarest and best gems for the Bulgari High Jewellery collection. Having lunch with her is the ideal opportunity to voice my thoughts and try to narrow down the choice for the sale in the evening.
In the early afternoon we go to view the Christie’s exhibition, and here we are joined by Bulgari chairman Paolo Bulgari. Sitting and viewing jewellery with Mr Bulgari in person is a rare privilege. We look at some gemstones, as well as some Bulgari jewels: a fine sapphire and diamond necklace dated 1961 and some magnificent diamond chandelier earrings from the late 1920s. The latter are presented in their original fitted green leather case with gold detailing. We all fall in love with this case (and, of course, its precious contents). Such original cases are to jewellery what an original frame is to an old master painting. The Christie’s estimate for this lot is SFr60,000-SFr80,000 (about £41,000-£54,000), but these diamond earrings are so beautiful, wearable and desirable that they could easily fetch SFr200,000 (about £136,000). We will have to wait until tomorrow to find out.
After tea with Mr Bulgari at the Four Seasons bar (the “it” place during the jewellery sales in Geneva), it is time to collect my thoughts and prepare for the Sotheby’s evening sale. It begins at 8pm, and the room is already crowded and charged with excitement. As it progresses and the Lollobrigida jewels come closer, my heart begins to beat faster. I will not be bidding in person, however; I will do it secretly via a Sotheby’s employee so as not to disclose that Bulgari is bidding. Prior to the sale I have arranged to be called on my mobile just before the designated lot. The phone rings. My heart beats faster still. To my surprise, it is not Sotheby’s but my daughter complaining about her sore throat. I briskly hang up. Finally I receive the call I am waiting for. The bidding is furious; we are in the hundreds of thousands and the increments are in tens of thousands. There are bidders in the room, bidders on the phone and even ones online.
When the bidding slows down, I instruct the Sotheby’s person to bid on my behalf. It is a bit like a battle, but finally only one other bidder is left. They keep raising their bid, but as the amount increases the speed in response gets slower – that is when I realise I have a good chance of securing the piece. To my great relief, the hammer finally comes down and the auctioneer calls “Sold on the phone”. What a relief. I can go back to Rome knowing that I have managed to buy a wonderful piece from the Gina Lollobrigida collection within budget. I am not sure I can disclose what I bought for Bulgari during this expedition, but if I am allowed, I will gladly report before the end of the week.
Wednesday 15th May
I can’t resist breakfast this morning and have two small fruit yoghurts, two kiwis and a small, plain croissant – plus a not-great cappuccino. Unlike most Italians, I hate espresso, but I love froth and the fluff on a cappuccino – although unfortunately this particular one had none. But I do not have much time to think about cappuccinos; I am off to a meeting. It takes much longer than expected, and although I race back at 12pm to the hotel, hoping to fire off some emails and my How To Spend It diary, I receive an SOS call from Lucia, the most trusted buyer of Bulgari’s finest gems. The Bulgari family would like to bid for some items in the Christie’s sale, and I am the designated person to attend to this business.
I cross the lake in haste; the weather is cold and wet, completely different from the glorious sunshine of the previous day. I meet Lucia in the Four Seasons – where Christie’s holds its auctions – to receive the instructions, but I have to sort out all admin aspects before the sale begins. There is a bit of confusion; Christie’s has conflicting accounts for the same person, plus obsolete addresses, etc. Finally, with only a few minutes to go, we are set; Lucia and I are sitting side by side in the sale room with our paddles. A few lots are sold and then I spring into action. It is not a high-value lot, but as it is an attractive set of Bulgari jewels from the 1990s, unfortunately there is a lot of interest. Although Lucia has carte blanche to continue bidding, we decide to stop; the piece is sold to another bidder.
The next lot sees me involved again, and this time I succeed. I would have liked to pay less for it, but if Mr Bulgari wants it, I have fulfilled my duty. There is another lot I am interested in, but there are 100 lots until we reach it; this means I have about an hour’s break. I leave the saleroom and go downstairs to the Four Season’s lobby. Here I perch myself at a table where I intend to finish my How To Spend It diary. It is difficult to concentrate, as there are countless people milling around. Emanuela, a jewellery designer, comes up to me to chat. I try to be friendly but I really want to finish my diary. It is late. I am nearly done when I notice that my auction catalogue and my Bulgari paddles are no longer there. I desperately search for it, but it is nowhere to be found. There are only a few minutes before I am supposed to bid again. I race upstairs to the Christie’s registration desk. I explain my predicament and sheepishly obtain another set of paddles. There are only two lots to go. I reach my seat next to Lucia just in time. What a relief that I manage to purchase this one.
This is the end of my afternoon’s duty, except I have not yet sent my diary. Back in the hotel, I add the final sentences to the piece and press send. Unfortunately, the WiFi connection is not working. As always is the case when one is in haste, technology seems to rebel. Finally the piece is sent, but it is also time to be back in the saleroom for the really big, important pieces. With no time to change or freshen up, I arrive back, panting, at Christie’s, where I meet Mr Bulgari. He tells me he will personally be doing the bidding (something that has never happened before). I can relax – well, sort of, as everyone is usually very nervous and on best behaviour around him.
We all wait with great anticipation for the Bulgari diamond chandelier earrings. Now they appear, simultaneously on the screen and worn by an attractive model in evening attire. The auction starts, and in seconds the top estimate of SFr80,000 (about £54,000) is surpassed. The bidding reaches SFr250,000, and Mr Bulgari enters the fray. A few seconds later it hits SFr500,000, then SFr520,000… then SFr540,000. We all wait to see who is going to make the next move. Mr Bulgari pauses, looks at us and then at the auctioneer, but shakes his head. They are sold to another buyer for SFr560,000 (about £380,000). What a great result for a great piece of Bulgari history; it’s a pity, however, that the piece has not come home.
Later, another lot is bought by Mr Bulgari. There is not as much drama, but nevertheless a new acquisition for the Bulgari Heritage Collection is always a reason to rejoice. I end this spring auction stint in Geneva celebrating with Mr Bulgari – for the first time ever – over dinner.
By the way, at around 11.30pm, I find the missing catalogue and precious paddles; Emanuela, the jewellery designer, had erroneously picked them up. What a relief. I can rest in peace that nobody has gone shopping with the Bulgari paddles.
Thursday May 16th
My day starts again with breakfast at the Longemalle. No cappuccino today, but a safer café au lait. The excitement and frenzy of the auctions is over, so in theory it should be a calmer day.
A short meeting at 9.30am in the vicinity of the hotel to collect some documents, then at 10am I am back in my room reading through the questions I will be asked in a phone interview from London with the Telegraph. Luckily, they are not daunting. I think I can manage them fairly easily, as they are mostly about Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari jewels, a subject I am fairly familiar with. The phone suddenly rings, but it is too early for the interview; Paolo’s at the reception. He is a well-known jewellery dealer who wants me to see his latest purchases. With only a few minutes to spare, I go to the lobby to look at his attractive Bulgari snake watch. I tend to be shown most Bulgari vintage serpents on the market, to the point that I am known as the “Queen of snakes”. I take this as a compliment.
I am back in the room just in time for the call from Ellie at the Telegraph. She had planned to ask me about my favourite Bulgari vintage jewel – a question I frequently encounter and that I find impossible to answer, given that I love all the jewels I buy back for the Bulgari Heritage Collection. I feel it is like asking a mother which child she prefers. Fortunately, Ellie is quickly immersed in the Elizabeth Taylor Bulgari story, so the question is narrowed down to “Which is your favourite Elizabeth Taylor Bulgari jewel?” This is an easy one; my absolute favourite is the platinum sautoir (very long necklace) set with diamonds and a magnificent Burmese sugarloaf cabochon sapphire of nearly 60ct. It was made in 1969, then purchased by Richard Burton in 1972 as a 40th birthday gift for her. I love it because it is bold yet extremely elegant, and its design is very representative of Bulgari’s style at the time. It is also a trend-setting piece, as many similar, although possibly not as magnificent, examples were created during the 1970s. Despite not being a tough interview, I am always surprised how drained I feel once it is over. I suppose it is the concentration and the fear of being caught off guard that tires one out.
It is now noon and I have to check out immediately, so I pack in haste and free up the room. I still have to write my How to Spend It diary, and attend to all the emails I have ignored until now. I am allowed to use the table in the minuscule cubicle referred to as the Longemalle’s business centre. Here I work non-stop until 3.30pm. I then try to find a bite to eat and I end up alone with a bowl of udon noodles in a very basic Asian takeaway restaurant – a very different ambience from the previous days. Before departing for the airport, I make it to the Co-op supermarket to buy Swiss chocolate for the family, plus Twinings’ Lapsang Souchong teabags and wasabi-coated peanuts – the latter two items, as far as I am aware, are unavailable in Rome.
At Geneva airport I face the usual crowds and queues. Surprisingly, I am upgraded to what Alitalia calls a “comfort seat”. It is a little perk, as I am allowed to carry on board my bag, handbag, umbrella and computer, and I am served a light meal. I land, get ferried by a bus to the terminal, which seems to take ages, and then rush to the taxi rank. I am finally on my way home to the centre of Rome. As I arrive at 9.30pm, my daughter, cat and husband come to greet me outside the front door, a kind of receiving line. It makes me feel very important. They have prepared a surprise: homemade profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce, which are excellent but not exactly what I need after days of eating out in Geneva.
On Sunday I am heading first to London and then to Malta, and I have a lot of work to do before then. I usually don’t travel so intensively, but as a freelance consultant it sometimes happens that business engagements come in clusters.
I am going to London for Bulgari, where I will be taking part in a discussion at the V&A Museum relating to Masterpieces, an exhibition showing iconic pieces of jewellery from the 1970s to the 1990s, which takes place in Bulgari’s flagship New Bond Street boutique. I will be having a public conversation with Carol Woolton, jewellery editor of British Vogue, preceded by a short talk, entitled “Why is Bulgari jewellery art?”.
In Malta I will be giving a lecture on one of my favourite jewellery designers: Andrew Grima. The talk coincides with an exhibition at Palazzo Falson, showcasing jewels in Maltese private collections. The material on display is quite eclectic, spanning from antiquity up until today and features a fair number of Grima jewels – not surprising given that Grima, although British by upbringing, had a Maltese father. For those not familiar with Grima (1921-2007), one could describe him as a master of abstract, textured gold jewels coupled with unusual (and at times rough) gemstones. He began in the 1960s and his innovative jewels were greatly acclaimed, but in the 1980s his style fell out of favour. Now, however, with the 1960s back in vogue, his work is highly regarded and sought-after once again.
As a result, my weekend in Rome, where I have been since my return from the auction jaunt in Geneva, is spent largely in front of my computer preparing for my lectures. For me, it is a lengthy process, as I write out every word of my speeches – even if ultimately I do not tend to read them. This allows me to improve the structure and the content. At the end of this process, I select the images to illustrate my words and place them in the correct sequence.
My only break from this activity is to take my daughter Astrea to school on Friday morning. I love walking her to school, as it is an opportunity to chat and exchange stories, and also to walk by the spot where Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf at the foot of the Palatine, alongside the Arch of Janus and past the temples of Vesta and Hercules and Portunus. My school run is more of an archaeological promenade, which reminds me just how lucky I am to live in the centre of Rome!