Dominik Biehler is the owner of Ernst Färber in Munich, a gem and jewelry company that dates back to the 17th century. A 10th generation jeweler, Biehler specializes in large diamonds, exquisite gemstones, natural pearls, and period and vintage jewelry.
How did you get started in this industry?
My family has a long history in this business, so being an extension of that history is really what introduced me to the trade. The family business started as a company called Seihau, which was founded in 1692 by my ancestors, who were court jewelers and silversmiths at the time.
The company evolved into Ernst Färber when Mr. Ernst Färber, who was the nephew of my great-grandfather, began learning how to polish stones in the 19th century. Mr. Färber was a pearl merchant who curated jewels and treasures for the king of Bavaria. In the 16th and 17th centuries, mussels were introduced to the Bavarian rivers, which produced natural pearls, and as a pearl merchant, he was responsible for pearl fishing in the Bavarian rivers.
Mr. Färber gained his education in pearls, jewels, and treasures from my great-grandfather, and then he created an entity of his own. After the war, my father joined him and took over the company in 1962. When I was 19, I joined my father by entering into the family business, and I found a passion for it, so ever since, I’ve remained in the business as well.
I’ve found that having a passion for this business and a real enjoyment of the work can give one a real advantage because you are motivated to succeed. That passion is the reason why I’ve been doing this for 33 years and have ultimately ascended to ownership of the company, which I took over in 2012.
How did you gain your education in the trade?
I started by learning how to cut diamonds when I was 19. I cut big stones and melee, and I cut colored stones in Paris for about three months. I’m not a cutter, but having that exposure was really important to my education because it granted me a better feel for the material and a natural connection to it. Oftentimes when you do something yourself, it’s as if the process and the knowledge enters your bloodstream. Rather than memorizing facts or information, you’re learning and understanding by doing.
I also apprenticed with Paul Fisher in New York for nine months. He took me in when I was 21, and he exposed me to a new, bigger market and what was really a new world to me at the time. Through that experience, I met a lot of people with whom I am still working today.
Of course, my father was also an experienced man, and he followed a long tradition of jewelers before him. He had a wealth of knowledge, but some of the lessons I learned from him were also unspoken. By observing the way my father handled items, I learned to adapt to that system and incorporate his knowledge into my own way of working. Once you achieve a level of proficiency with the knowledge you have, you then take that education further or in a different direction when you expose yourself to the world, and you follow your own path.
The way I see it, you have two choices in this trade: You can either service clients and buy what they like because you want to deal with these clients or you can develop a taste of your own and find clients who share your taste.
What’s your company’s specialty?
We deal in melees and diamonds of all types and shapes. Early on, I started becoming interested in antique diamonds and jewels, and I realized that there is a specific beauty in older cuts and historic jewels. They are, in and of themselves, art, and they are treasures of a highly unique nature. My passion for natural pearls, old stones, and rare gems has developed into a specialty, and those special pieces are what Ernst Färber deals in today.
What do you look for in a gem?
Much of knowing what to look for comes from experience, but there’s also an indescribable feature to look for, which is beauty. You develop an eye for beauty by learning to see and discover which stones have unique qualities that others don’t. Constant, high-level discernment is what makes the work so interesting and rewarding and also what old cut colored stones and diamonds have to offer that other stones don’t.
Cutters during the 19th century and earlier were artists of their time. Diamond and colored stone cutting took a long time and a lot of effort to learn and be able to perform well, and stones were cut for beauty rather than for perfection. The cutter was reading the natural rough that came out of the ground rather than trying to fulfill extrinsic market specifications. The goals was to make a beautiful stone rather than to try and create a stone of a certain size. In today’s market, diamonds are purely cut for perfection, and it is most important for the stones to maintain a certain size.
In the old days, the rough told you what to do, and you would always go after the beauty offered by the specific rough. I always find that fascinating about this industry - it’s like a hunt. There is always something new coming around the corner, and that’s what we look for. We don’t look for the everyday or a repeat of items we’ve seen before.
In terms of what makes something beautiful, there are several different intersecting qualities that contribute to a stone or jewel’s beauty, such as rarity and character. Describing one’s personal taste in stones can be like trying to explain a color. You learn its nature over time, and you learn to know it when you see it, but some of the beauty of a stone or jewel is that it’s outside of our explanatory or linguistic abilities.
What types of tools and skills do you need in this trade?
Your eye and your experience are your most important tools, combined with knowledge and passion. Your instinct and your gut help you as well. What makes something beautiful or special is not so measurable. You could probably make a study of it, but the beauty is to not make a study of it and let yourself get sucked into the material and love it for the beauty that you see rather than analyze why it’s good. It’s not an obvious science, and it takes time to understand. Mankind loves to categorize the world in order to understand what different items are worth, but this is a different approach. You’re looking at something that, out of your experience, tells you it’s rare. You don’t tell the stone why it’s beautiful; the stone tells you why it’s beautiful.
How does differing geography change your work?
When I was working in Paris, I worked with a commissaire. Paris has a different system than other auction houses do in various parts of the world. Paris has auction houses, and they have experts. When working with an expert, you work with many different auction houses, see all of the merchandise they’re putting up for sale, and you list prices for those items. You’re analyzing and describing the pieces, similar to what an expert does for a single auction house, but in this instance, you’re exposed to many different auction houses rather than just one.
When you expose yourself to the world, you meet people who have different passions and different approaches to the trade, and you’re exposed to their various fascinations. You have the tendency to explore the different styles and stones that you fancy. In that way, much of what you learn is by doing and by being involved with the trade, learning the passions and knowledge areas of others around the world.
Who are some of the people in the industry who have influenced you or inspire(d) you?
One of the first people who inspired me was Goldberg. He was a true diamond merchant, and the way he looked at stones was different from anyone else. He oozed his fascination with diamonds, so when I first met him, I adopted that fascination as well, and from then on, I met many people in the diamond and colored stone industry, most of whom I continued to learn from and deal with over the years.
Designers can also have that effect of incorporating you into their intellectual and artistic interests with their passion as well. There are so many talented designers out there, but some include JAR, Hemmerle, Taffin, and Sabba. These type of designers look at the material the same way that 19th century cutters did, and they let themselves be guided by the way nature built the stones they work with.
They don’t simply look for stones and design something from them, but they instead shape a beautiful piece out of the materials offered from the earth. It’s similar to how, in architecture, you should look at the landscape you’re building the house on in order to determine what your options are in reality and not what you want them to be.
What are some significant lessons you’ve learned throughout the years?
The historic element of gemstones and jewels is what has always fascinated me about the trade, and I’m guided by the motivation to learn more about history. The process of researching the history of jewels is similar to how you would conduct research academically.
I obtain information by reading and discovering what was commonly made during which periods and how a piece relates to its time. Perhaps it was right on the zeitgeist of its period. Learning how to date the importance of a piece teaches you a lot about gems and jewels. It isn’t enough to hold something in your hands and say that it is nice or pretty. You have to understand how an item relates to its period of creation.
How has the trade changed over the years?
Business alway changes, yet the basics of it stay the same. The moods, passions, interests, and trends constantly develop and evolve, and a lot of knowledge gets lost but eventually it gets re- discovered.
There are periods of history when Cameos were considered the highest art in gem cutting, such as during the Roman Empire, a period in the Middle Ages, and a period in the 19th century. If you were a cultural, education person who read Plato, the Greek philosophers, and mythology, in order to completely understand the material and expose your knowledge, you would’ve owned a Cameo collection. You would hold intellectual discussions while smoking cigars and drinking whiskey in front of the fireplace with friends. Because that social trend has died out, Cameos went out of style for a while.
Even though Cameos have gone out of fashion in the past twenty years, just recently they have come back into style. People have become excited about them again, they’re trying to understand them better, and people are involving themselves in the learning process much more than they were ten years ago, so trends come and go.
What are some of the major issues the trade faces today?
The antique diamond business and “regular” diamond business, so to speak, are very separate entities and trades. You can’t compare the two, yet they are dealt by the same people. You realize that every time a commercial diamond merchant gets in contact with you and has never been involved in the antique diamond world, and he looks at an old cut stone and says it needs to be re-cut.
This type of merchant does not understand the aesthetic and the philosophy behind an old cut stone because he sees it only as a product to market at a certain price, size, and quality. He understands how to value the stone under his criteria, which are if he can re-cut it to fit his market, but he doesn’t understand that an old cut has a different, sometimes much higher price that is not comparable to a modern, commercial diamond.
The beauty and the desirability of an antique diamond or old cut stone is more relevant to its price than its size, color, and cut. The factors that determine the value of an old cut stone extend beyond the Four Cs. The fifth C, character, is really the most important quality for an antique stone.
What aspects of a stone determine a maximum return on investment?
History. If I encounter a stone and reflect upon what I’ve seen in the industry, I am usually able to understand its rarity or uniqueness. Evaluating an old cut stone isn’t just about verifying its certification; it’s about knowing that if the piece can’t be replicated, it possesses value and rarity. On investment terms, rare stones and jewels are always going to be rare, and they’re not going to become less rare because we have more people.
In fact, rare items only become rarer, in relation to humankind, with an increased population and demand. Therefore they will always be desired and increasingly in demand in relation to other items that can be replicated and mass produced according to demand. Old cut stones are better investments for that reason, and beauty will always determine their pricing.
Discuss some designers whose work you admire.
There are many designers who have produced very interesting work, such as Paul Iribe, Lalique, and Diaz. These are jewelers who started to take a different approach to jewelry. In terms of influential periods in the history of jewelry, many designers and artists in the 19th century were influencing each other, and every one took the trade a bit further. Art is what it is today because of the work built by these people.
I once bought a piece from Poland, and because we realized how advanced it was for its time, we discovered it was a Paul Iribe. He was an all-around wonderful designer, one of the earliest for carpentry and dress designs. I bought the egret he had made for his wife in 1919, and it already looked like a Cartier piece from the 1920s. The piece held a large Mogul emerald, and it was such an interesting jewel.
There’s a German word for jewelry, Geschmeide. But Geschmeide is more than jewelry. The term describes a fabric or embroidery, a flexible material that adorns the body. Having Geschmeide is like having gilded embroidery on your costume. During the 18th century and earlier, jewelry was produced to be an ornamental feature for dresses and attire, the clothing encrusted with the jewels that embodied your power. You wore and represented what you were able to own, and therefore the jewels conveyed not only your power, but your aura.
In the middle of the 19th century, Louis Aucoc was one of the first jewelers who started to make ornamental pieces again. Jewelers began to make ornaments of symbols, innovating a style and an idea of Renaissance and Byzantine revival. In this revival period, the art of the Byzantine era was not the art itself, and neither was the copy of the art. The artistic element arose from the incorporation of the historic era into modern trends and understanding the hundreds of years of art that had been created between the Renaissance and Byzantine eras and the present. The interpretation of art history, and incorporating that interpretation into the zeitgeist, became the art.
19th century artists were also the first artists who began signing jewels and designing jewels look like or represent something else, and that tradition of symbolism has continued basically up until today. We borrow a style, and we incorporate it into a new form, giving the style a new meaning.
When artists were copying Byzantine jewels, they were setting Byzantine revival as the current fashion. It wasn’t the art of its era. Then after they discovered the tombs of Ramses II, jewelers copied Egyptian art. After that period, artists have gone further into other historical periods and copied these styles bit by bit until they ended up in the Art Nouveau period, where they copied nature. After that, the Edwardian period took over, which emulated the garnish of the empirical decoration of furnitures and candelabras and objects of that nature. The Art Deco period following the Edwardian period is nothing other than copying Chinese and Asian art and incorporating into those style into modern art. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it just redefines itself over time, capturing and connecting to the zeitgeist as it evolves.
Throughout history, amazing designers have created astounding pieces of art, but they weren’t so popular during their time because they were ahead of their time. Some of the art left behind behind by these artists is still impressive today and has never lost its power. Once you actually handle these jewels in your hands and feel the energy these pieces have, you understand why they are so important and distinguished.
What distinguishes real diamonds from fake diamonds?
The question answers itself. The difference is that it’s very difficult to create a fascination for the fake version of art or gemstones or jewels or anything else. The fake versions are for people who don’t understand the art behind what they’re buying, who just want to have the item, but don’t understand why they want it. It’s good that there are fakes because there are a lot of people who aren’t really interested in the field and don’t necessarily need the real version of something to have their desires satisfied.
In that way, the difference between real and fake diamonds can be exemplified by the differences between types of customers. Some types of customers, for instance, buy a poster because in their minds, why should you buy the real Picasso painting when you can just get the poster? If, for you, it’s not about the fascination with what someone has created or the art nature has created, you should be buying a fake. If you believe in the value that real gemstones, art, or jewelry possess, then you buy what you know is real, rare, and one-of-a-kind.