Filippo Battino | BABA SA

Filippo Battino is a gem dealer and former jewelry specialist who primarily deals in rare, old cut stones and signed jewelry. From starting out in the trade at a young age to ultimately building his own company, Battino has managed and directed his gemstone and jewelry business for five years.

How did you get started in the business?

My family is in the modern art business, so in some ways, my relatives’ work is similar to the jewelry business. I started taking an interest in gemstones when I was fifteen or sixteen, after traveling on a high school field trip to Amsterdam and visiting the GASSAN diamond museum. GASSAN was a big diamond dealer at one time, and the tour demonstrated all of the different steps in the diamond cutting process, from choosing the rough to marking, cutting, and sewing it.

The process absolutely fascinated me, and that trip definitely sparked the initial fire. Because my family was in the art business, I began looking at the art catalogues they had at home. Of course, I was less interested in art and more interested in jewels, so I began receiving the jewelry catalogues and learning more about jewelry as well.

When I was eighteen, I traveled on my first jewelry trip to view the highlights of the Geneva auctions. Due to their connections in the art world, my family knew some individuals associated with the auctions, and a representative showed me around. The sense of pure joy I felt viewing some of those amazing gemstones defined another pivotal moment for me. Learning about gemstones and jewelry made me happy, and if you can do what brings you the utmost joy, you do everything in your power to pursue that passion.

I still wasn’t sure how to go about entering into the industry, so I began asking around and inquiring about what a novice could do to advance himself. Many people gave me the advice to attend a GIA course in order to learn more and assess how much I liked the material, so after graduating from high school, having studied math and engineering, I attended the GIA school in Florence.

The education was fantastic, and the teachers were highly dedicated. Students are typically required to analyze one or two thousand stones before taking the exam, and we evaluated six times that amount, analyzing the whole stock they had. We gained a huge wealth of knowledge compared to average gemologists coming out of school because of our passionate professors, who gave us such helpful trade tips.

After graduating from GIA at age nineteen or twenty, a family friend and jeweler in Milan allowed me to intern for six months, and if I showed my potential and worth, I would be allowed to continue working with the company for longer. After spending three years there, gaining an increasing amount of responsibilities, I began traveling abroad to make purchases for them.

One day a Christie’s specialist from Geneva visited the company where I worked, Cusi, to value evaluate some of our items for auction, but a big client called, and Mr. Cusi had to leave town. I represented our pieces in his stead, and the specialist and I ended up spending three hours together. We talked in-depth about the business and developing a mutual respect for one another.

After one week he offered me an interview for a job at Christie’s, and two months later, I accepted a great custom job offer that entailed six months in London, which is a small sales center for Christie’s; six months in New York; and finally, six months in Geneva, where Christie’s biggest sales are.

Each location taught me a new facet of the industry, as London is more oriented around antique and signed jewelry, New York is more interested in big rocks and colored diamonds, and Geneva is a bit of a mix of the two. After rotating through those locations, I joined the team in Geneva on a permanent basis, where I grew from a junior associate to a specialist over the years.

I loved the Christie’s team in Geneva, but my learning curve began to flatten. The more I thought about the future, the more I felt I needed to prove myself by going out on my own. Subsequently, after almost four years at Christie’s, at the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven, I decided to open my own company in Geneva.

Running a business can be difficult to scale and grow because you cannot create people. It doesn’t matter how big a jewelry business is, most of the time, it’s based on an individual or group of individuals’ ideas, manners, or vision. I’ve now owned the company for five years, and we mostly deal in colored stones and signed jewelry, with a specialization in Bulgari because we are Italians. The business is performing really well, and we have accomplished milestones that I never dreamed I would achieve. 

Can you elaborate on your specialty and describe why specialization is important?

Specialization is key because people might buy from a dealer who doesn’t have a specialty, but they won’t remember that dealer. If you create an identity, your customers remember you for the exact specialty you have. They see a pattern behind your stock, and they understand the taste that you’ve developed. They know to come to you if they are looking for a specific stone or jewel, and they can refer others to you as well.

At the beginning, I was dealing in a little bit of everything because I needed to make the business work, so any stone or jewel that had the right price caught my attention. You can’t spend your mental focus, time, and energy on everything for an extended period of time, however, so as I grew more confident, I began focusing on rare colored stones. 

I’m proud to also specialize in pieces from my own country because they feel like home, and the authenticity and specialness of the pieces are more credible when pulled by someone who was born in the country of origin, who has touched the items, and who is from the place where the pieces were created.

Colored stones - rubies, sapphires, and emeralds - are my first love, so we specialize in extinguished mines, meaning mines that are not producing anymore or are producing very little. We don’t sell in large quantities of these stones because they don’t exist, but they’re extremely special items that our customers can come to us specifically because they are difficult to find.

When you go to a show, you can find thousands of new Colombian emeralds, but you will not find old Colombian emeralds. You can find plenty of Mozambique rubies, but it’s much more difficult to find old Burmese rubies. We specialize in that niche of old, rare colored stones, whether it’s private or business. Even if privates don’t understand what they’re looking at, they know and trust that we do.

When we’re thinking of buying a Bulgari piece, for example, we're evaluating it for its rarity, researching to determine whether it was published in a book or owned by someone who is well-known. We’ll know if the piece was made during the exact year that Bulgari first used their iconic combination of turquoise and amethyst, to give an example.

Anyone can tell customers what they already know, which is that the piece is Bulgari and that it’s colorful and beautiful, but buyers want to know more than that; they want to know why it’s special. The same sentiment applies for colored stones. If a customer wants to know why they should buy a 3-carat emerald for $100,000 when there’s another emerald for twice the size and half the price, we can explain in detail because we know exactly what is going on in that market at any given moment.

I want my clients to understand these concepts in depth. I call it the “new trade” approach. Thirty years ago, certificates weren’t necessary, and all credibility was based on a person’s word. Now the trade is much more scientific, and when you grow up in the new trade, you need to be knowledgeable, serious, specific, and willing to educate your customers.

One way that I encourage an educational mindset is by traveling around and giving seminars and lectures to banks, notaries, and lawyers about how they should approach their customers. I teach them how to identify which players and stones are serious and real and which are not. They learn what to request when they’re making a purchase, such as proper verification and certification.

What are some of the tools and skills needed in the trade?

Books are essential resources because a dealer needs to be a constant student. For example, Bulgari is currently holding a series of worldwide exhibitions, and every time they either publish a catalogue or smaller books, I obtain and read all of them. I study all of the notes (not just the pictures), and with each book, a change occurs, such as a style or new concept being introduced. As a jewelry scholar, one begins to understand why a certain stone or color combination was introduced during its time period.

 

It’s also essential to draw on the knowledge of one’s peers, speak with other experts, and communicate with archival offices because many of the big jewelry houses have open archives. Traders can call, ask for an opinion, and request to show them the jewelry you’re handling. Where gemstones are concerned, people who re-cut and improve upon stones can be the most informative because those industry players are highly knowledgeable.

For example, what you think is a top-notch stone is actually an upper-tier (but not the best) stone according to the person who has seen ten times more stones than you have. A particular ruby might be the best you’ve ever seen, but because you haven’t seen everything, you don’t know how it compares to all other stones. 

It’s so important to not be shy about asking questions and to be clever about picking the right friends in the business. You can be smart, but if you don’t have the right people around you, your learning curve flattens, and you can’t properly adapt to changes in the market. The conversations you have with others are invaluable in terms of keeping up with the current trends and ensuring we are working at the highest level we can.

My colleagues and I call each other regularly, usually once a week, and we talk about what we have seen or sold recently. For example, a friend will tell me about a ruby he showed me in Hong Kong recently. My friend decided to re-cut the stone into a square shape. Even these conversations are huge contributors to a dealer’s knowledge, stone memory, and skills. Maybe the stone used to be a cushion, and I would’ve never gone for a square. I would’ve thought that decision would be far too risky due to a crack in the corner, but my colleague made an alternative choice, and the outcome is beautiful.

This business is 50% knowledge and 50% updated knowledge, meaning a person can have worked in the trade for over forty years and be at the top of their game, but if they leave the business for one year, then they are no longer relevant. The business isn’t destroyed, per se, but a business can be damaged if the owner does not constantly update themselves by reading books, attending auctions, traveling to shows, talking to one’s group of colleagues and friends. This industry changes so rapidly that one must closely monitor the market.

What are you looking for in a gem?

I look for the ‘wow’ effect, which is more and more difficult to find as I am more exposed to fantastic jewels and gemstones. Every day, I go to an evaluation, exhibition, show, or auction, and my ultimate desire as a dealer is to find something that’s moves me deeply.

That emotional quality, that special moment where you know why you continue to live and breathe this industry, is what produces the ‘wow’ effect. The gemstone or jewel doesn’t need to be very expensive to elicit that effect. More often, the most satisfying challenge lies in finding amazing gems and jewelry that are not very expensive.

Of course, it’s easier to find something spectacular if you have a million-dollar budget, but those sweet little items - an all-cushion diamond, a gorgeous color combination in a pair of earrings, or even a box sometimes - are spectacular to me. To see a beautiful Cartier green box from the '20s alone is enough to move me. That feeling is similar to falling in love, and it’s what keeps us in the game. The chase is really the beauty of the industry.

Is there a stone or jewel of particular significance that has influenced you or taught you something about the trade?

My first jewel as a Christie’s expert to appear on the front cover of the Geneva catalogue is a vivid memory and milestone of mine. The front cover jewel is not necessarily the most expensive or valuable piece, but it needs to dazzle with its design, color, and sex appeal.

I had received a call from a friend who requested that I evaluate an amazing necklace in Switzerland. When someone describes a jewel as “amazing,” it could mean anything because everyone has a different idea of what is spectacular, and most of the time, “amazing” means the seller wants a great deal of money for the piece.

I decided to pursue the lead, and when I arrived, the box alone, brown with an F in the middle and a crown on top, looked old, genuine, and promising. While the box was oversized for a necklace, I opened the lid, and an amazing Van Cleef Art Deco emerald and diamond necklace shined back at me. It looked as if it were crafted by a god. The necklace had everything - design styles from the ‘30s, the hallowed Van Cleef name, and stunning Colombian emeralds.

The front side of the necklace featured a fairly normal necklace design, but where a normal necklace encloses around the back of the neck, this jewel brandished a waterfall feature cascading down the back. An emerald descended twenty centimeters down the back, so if someone were to wear a backless dress, a smaller version of the necklace could be seen from behind. Designs like this didn’t exist at the time, and I was absolutely taken by the jewel.

Upon further discussion and research, I learned that Van Cleef made the necklace for the King of Egypt in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. The king gifted the necklace to his daughter, and when Egypt began to erupt in turmoil at the end of ‘40s, the royal family migrated to Milan, where they sold the necklace to a wealthy Italian in the early ‘60s. The family who bought the necklace had kept it in a safe for fifty-five years until I arrived to evaluate the piece.

Van Cleef ultimately bought back their necklace at the auction, and now the necklace is on the cover of their new catalogue, so I had the pleasure of working with a piece that was so beautiful and unique that not only Christie’s featured it on their front cover, but that Van Cleef also gave it a spotlight. 

How does dealing in different parts of the world change your work?

The biggest variables are cultural differences. In the United States, especially in New York, the manner of trading is a bit more aggressive, straight to the point, and less polite, a style that offers both pros and cons. In Europe, especially in London where I got along really well with people, trading is much more of a social activity. Conducting a professional lunch with someone for three hours and talking about business for twenty minutes is a standard practice.

In terms of varying tastes around the world, from a cultural standpoint, we can never completely detach from who we’ve been in the past. Our tastes in jewelry and art are as connected to our cultural identities as the history of our geography. For example, Europe emphasizes the history of jewelry, including medieval and renaissance jewelry, much more than other parts of the world because you can’t find that history anywhere else. Therefore people in Europe tend to pay more attention to the story behind the piece, why the item is made the way it is, and the thought process behind the design.

Asian countries don’t have the same type of background and history with jewels, so many people from those countries are seeking the allure and magic associated with older jewels. They will often collect Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Edwardian pieces to create a sense of history in their collections.

Not only are there geographic and cultural differences between collector communities, but there is also a divide between people who are interested in the history and narrative behind a piece and people who want what’s most on trend and in fashion at the present moment.

Old world customers were all looking for a bit of history in their jewelry, but a separate section of customers has branched away from the old world sentiment and is more interested in the commercial viability of gemstones and jewels. This is where taste, culture, and art knowledge intersect, and your niche within the industry is derived from those factors.

What are some significant lessons you’ve learned along the way?

One lesson that applies to both life and business is to chase what brings you joy. That advice sounds cliché, but it’s only cliché if you haven’t lived that experience. Pursuing what I really love allowed me to become a talented expert at a young age and ultimately start my own business.

Without passion, you cannot do this job. If what you’re doing now doesn’t make you dream anymore, then you should ask yourself why and alter some aspects of your life. If you don’t have passion, then you will not transfer that feeling of excitement to those around you. If you’re a bored jewelry specialist, you become a mediocre jewelry specialist because you don’t have the curiosity, spark, or motivation to continue educating and advancing yourself in the field.

What distinguishes someone who is excellent from someone who is subpar?

If you don’t remember colors, dates, and numbers and if you’re not quick with math, if you don’t have a sixth sense for beauty, you can work in this business for your whole life and not find success. What constitutes success from my perspective is creating something from nothing, so you have to be sharp, motivated, and passionate.

I also want to underline how important choosing the right people is. You can have other great qualities but be surrounded by the wrong people and therefore find navigating this trade to be a difficult task. For example, if your colleague brought something great to the partnership last year, then this year you want to work hard and return the favor.

Good colleagues will also stop you from doing something wrong. Many times, I’ve nearly bought a stone or a piece of jewelry out of excitement, but I received great advice from the people with whom I surround myself, who have recommended that I sleep on a decision before rushing into it.

What are some areas you want to educate the public about?

We need to find a way to disseminate basic knowledge about the industry to the public. Consumers have lost a little bit of trust in the gem trade because dealers in the past took advantage of the lack of knowledge possessed by their customers. It’s a very closed-off business compared to an industry like real estate. If you want to buy or sell or an apartment, it’s not difficult to determine the value of a piece of property as a buyer.

This business is also much more serious than it used to be. We now have archives and labs to document and prove the provenance and chemistry of stones and signed jewelry. As a consumer, it doesn’t mean you will always know the exact value of a gemstone or jewel, but it’s a good starting point to understand that a stone I’m selling for a specific price needs to come with a certificate from one of the top-notch laboratories.

How has the trade changed over the years, and where is it going?

In terms of where the trade is going, the trends are mirroring those of all other industries, which indicate that technological advances are taking over and the industry is going to fewer, larger entities.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to say how the trade has changed because I haven’t been in it for very long compared to those who have been in it for thirty or forty years, but what I can tell you is that I find it really encouraging to see new people entering the trade, wanting to learn more. I love to teach others and show them that it’s a tough game but that it’s doable with passion.

What I like about this business is actually what doesn’t change. The feeling of dealing in something you can touch attracts people to this trade because it’s the opposite of something that’s more modern and conceptual, like the stock market. Holding a small stone and putting it in your pocket is a special and specific feeling, and it’s what attracts people who are craving that feeling of authenticity.

The charm of looking at a ruby with a customer is what is not changing, and that’s what is really beautiful about this business.

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