This piece on the Christie’s Jewelry Auction is based off of a text conversation held over Facebook Messenger with two of my classmates, Tsering Lhamo and Ashwini Tallur, who were also in attendance that evening.
It was the post-work rush hour. I stood on a packed tram headed towards Gare Cornavin. To the right of me, stood Professor Calvão immersed in conversation with Ryan, one of my colleagues. My phone was abuzz - two of my classmates, Tsering and Ashwini, were already at the lobby of the Hotel des Bergues awaiting the upcoming jewelry auction. ‘It’s about to start. You’re going to be late,’ they messaged. I told them I was sardined in a tram but on my way.
I contemplated interrupting the in-person tram chat unfolding in front of me to discuss the auction, but it was too crowded, and they were so engrossed that I dared not intervene. But before I could hear their conversation come to a lull, I was soon whisked off the tram into one of the many evening waves of working/middle class folks exiting and spilling out onto the pavement to head back to their homes and other engagements. Leaving public transport and walking down the streets of Paquis served as a strange contrast to the world that I was about to enter for a couple of hours – a world that I had only previously fleetingly tasted a handful of times. Is it weird to admit that I felt mild tinge of privilege, knowing about this opulent auction that doesn’t necessarily get widely publicized, at least to my knowledge, around Geneva despite the fact that it’s open to the public and free to visit?
I checked my phone again.
Tsering: A photo of the Indian queen just got sold for 1200CHF.
Me: A photo of her? Not even a painting? Why couldn't they just use Google Images?
A minute later,
Ashwini: 28,000 francs. For a brooch. My master’s degree is cheaper than a brooch, she lamented.
No, there was no way I was going to be whisked away into a cushy and privileged space with rose-tinted glasses on my nose. The privileged tinge was gone. I wasn’t even there yet, but the tone was already set; I had two friends essentially live tweeting the night away in proper snark and sarcasm as the rightful bystanders (and anthropologists) that they were, and I was 100% here for this ride.
We were there to silently represent the middle-class.
Upon entering the room, I was immediately taken aback by its size. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect to be honest, perhaps more of a minimalist aesthetic with plain white walls and lower chandeliers if anything, and definitely with less people as well. More of a New York Fashion Week meets, well, posh Swiss jewelry auction vibe.
It was hard to spot my friends seated in the crowd, which I guess in some ways was a good thing. For one, they blended in.
I slowly made my way along the side, scouring through the diverse backs of heads (both age and ethnicity-wise) while taking in the sights before sitting. Positioned in three separated seats in adjacent rows, our text conversation continued with a mix of astute observations and banter.
Do you think his job is just that? Do you think he gets thirsty? The amount of coffee this man must need to drink, we looked on in amazement at the well-articulated auctioneer seamlessly switching between English and French with little break for over 3 hours straight.
Me: Do you think there's going to be an intermission so he can hydrate?
I am worried about his human rights.
This seems like unfair labor.
Ashwini: I'm sure he's paid a lot
She clearly did not get my sarcasm or the irony.
Me: Note the gender ratio in the room. Men 60-40? Or is it about even
Tsering: I was thinking that too. It seems pretty equal, yeah?
Me: I wonder if it was this way 50 years ago
Ashwini: Janine, is my hair looking like I'm homeless?
Me: No, just middle class.
Ashwini: I just needed a cleaning cloth for my glasses. So I can see my poverty a bit more clearly
Me: The lady next to me has some very large jewels on her
Me: To my left is a teenager who looks like she’s learning the tricks of the trade.
…Teenage girl just asked to an older guy sitting next to her, “Will you teach me”
I wonder if she's an heiress.
Or an apprentice.
She certainly wasn’t dressed like an heiress to any kind of fortune, if she was one.
Everyone seemed to have a catalogue in front of them, including my two immediate neighbors, the apprentice and the large jewels lady. Whenever an item was sold, each of them scribbled down the item’s price next to its corresponding glossy photo. I clearly had missed out on this memo. I wondered if my neighbors thought I was strange for sitting there with no catalogue, silently typing away on my phone for most of my evening. But at the same time, the banter was just too good.
Me: This looks like something I'd make at summer camp in 3rd grade
Ashwini: I wouldn't pay 3 francs for it
Some idiot’s wasting 30,000
Ashwini: Oh look a Super Bowl ring!
Tsering: Only 90,000 francs for the ring
Me: Looks like something Paris Hilton would buy for her pet hermit crab because she has nothing better to do with her time.
#MTVCRIBS. Hermit crab edition.
Ashwini: Oh look another ugly clock
But maybe I was missing out on something? At the very least, I was losing out on the ability to follow along with what was coming up next in the auction as well as any item’s context and description. So, instead of getting up out of my seat to find a giant and non-recyclable catalogue, I scoured online and found an e-version. I knew very well that if I took a hard copy, I would never again open up the catalogue after the evening was over. It seemed rather wasteful – or as some may say, overindulgent.
Then again though, the whole evening was.
Me: Guy next to me just said, "the diamonds are only 20,000."
It's all relative here.
Tsering: In my mind, I’m saying they are cents because I can’t fathom these amounts!
I scrolled through my new e-catalogue, reading through the prices and descriptions of all the items in an effort to catch up. At this point, I was looking at my phone an awful lot and wondered if I was missing out on anything in front of me as a result. But although I wasn’t looking up at the projected screen and the auctioneer continuously, I was carefully listening. It became almost a rhythm, the sound of the auctioneer’s voice, the lulls as they waited for certain buyers on the phone to respond back or someone to pick up their paddle and lob another amount into the air to hang over the crowd, the collective murmured hum rising and dropping after the strike of the gavel with the sale of yet another item.
Me: It's almost like a teasing game
A game of chicken
Me: I wonder if there are other people placed in the audience who work for Christie's.
And strategically place bids to bump things up.
And if not, Christie's just buys it back and sells it next time.
Ashwini: Might be laws against that, said the lawyer in our group.
One thing I struggled to find while catalogue scrolling was the locational sources of these items, which I found a bit strange. They didn’t seem to be listed next to the item photos anywhere, besides perhaps the mention of Colombia (“minor oil”) on some of the emeralds. The only thing that occasionally was revealed was a short biography on the jewelry maker or which royal/celebrity had worn the item in the past.
Me: Note: none of the origins of these things are named.
Completely removed from the process like so many things we buy.
You'd think though sourcing would be important. Kind of like how bougie food products are named in source, i.e. when you go to a restaurant - "this is organic wild-caught salmon roe fresh from Alaska"
I eventually reached the end of the catalogue and found a table listing where some of the items were sourced from, namely colored jewels. Diamonds didn’t seem to have sources, as far as I could tell though. Additionally, the tables oddly listed mostly colonial names for places e.g. Ceylon and Burma. I also found the clauses at the end particularly interesting – regarding transporting lots made from protected species with materials such as ivory, whalebone, coral, tortoise shell, and crocodile skin. The statement, “this lot incorporates material from endangered species which could result in export restrictions,” as well as many of the other general clauses seemed to have this note of nonchalance and impartiality to the items that they were selling.
Just like the vague mention of place and hidden human stories, so too, were the animal sacrifices that contributed to the creation of each item.
I wonder what histories will to emerge from that particular evening. Which famous and important people would wear these items next, their names and legacies binding themselves more closely to these precious stones than their original locations and extraction stories perhaps ever could?
At some point I finished going through the catalogue and got hungry, so I headed home- back to my middle-class life. Not that I ever really left, though. Walking from the shimmering glitz of the top-tier hotels au bord du lac and into the dimmed glimmer of the Red-Light District in Paquis, I contemplated in our chat:
Me: I wonder what the cutoff for how poor you’d have to be to participate in this auction is
After all, there is no upper limit to wealth and the access it affords, but there is a lower one.
By: Janine Furtado