Quig Bruning, most recently a Vice President and Senior Jewelry Specialist at Sotheby’s in Los Angeles, will soon be the head of the Jewelry Department and Senior Vice President at Sotheby’s in New York. With over ten years of both international and stateside experience, Bruning takes on pieces for auction, selling and purchasing on behalf of clients in Sotheby’s salesrooms across the globe.
Tell me about your background, and how did you enter the trade?
With a background in art history, I earned my undergraduate degree from Dartmouth in romance languages, kicking off my career as a French language instructor for American study abroad programs. After a year of teaching, upon reflection, I felt I wasn’t particularly well-suited to lecturing, so I enrolled in an Art Business master’s program at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. While I’d previously always thought that I would work in a museum, I quickly realized I wanted to pursue a career in a more fast-paced environment.
In the midst of the abysmal job market of 2009, I applied to virtually every auction house in New York and eventually received a job offer from Sotheby’s as a “Floater,” starting in the Jewelry Department. It was a rotational position, part of a Sotheby’s program that placed young people in different departments, depending on need.
I remember asking the HR representative if I could start in any other department. Up to that point, I had no background or interest in jewelry. She gave me a look that said, “That’s not how this works.” That was almost eleven years ago, and I’ve never left the Jewelry Department, graduating from the Floater role to an Administrator for the Jewelry Department. There really is no better position at an auction house because while the duties are administrative, the job provides the opportunity to learn how a sale is actually put together.
After the administrative role, I began training as a specialist, first in New York, then in Paris and London, spending about a year in each location. The job responsibilities in each city are ostensibly the same, but in Europe, a person in my position works principally with sales that are based in London and in Geneva (and now Milan and Paris as well), as opposed to sales principally based in New York. That being said, we all work on a global level supporting all of the sales around the world.
Varying contextual factors, however, did come into play with each place I worked. In France, there’s Paris, and then there’s the rest of France. One-fifth of France’s population lives in Paris, and my principal responsibility was expanding and forming business connections around the rest of France. London, on the other hand, is a major consignment center, so I was working with a sales team in an exciting hub for jewelry.
After returning to New York, I thought I would be settled, but a year after that, I moved again, this time to Los Angeles, where I lived for about three years. Now I’m planning to move back to New York permanently, though the current pandemic has altered plans a bit.
How does working in different parts of the world change your work?
The most prominent consideration for working in different locations, especially in different countries, is understanding the interpersonal nuances and norms of varying cultures. People are different in various parts of the world and even in different regions of the United States, and what’s important is figuring out how to best work accommodate and work harmoniously with the individuals who identify with those different cultural contexts.
William James once said, “A man has as many selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” Whenever I’m working with clients, that sentiment is particularly relevant. I constantly interact with people who come from different backgrounds, and identifying commonalities is a necessary part of forming connections with them. For example, I’m from Kansas City, and not everybody comes from the same types of experiences as someone like myself, who grew up in the Midwest of the United States. It’s an essential skill to adapt accordingly, and in a sincere manner that genuinely respects all backgrounds.
In terms of jewelry-specific differences between geographic places, one does acquire a certain knowledge of pieces that aren’t necessarily commonly seen in other parts of the world. In England, for example, many of the pieces are inherited jewels, so acquiring a certain level of confidence with antique jewels becomes an important part of being successful.
With regard to my experience in France, it’s one thing to understand that Paris is the center of jewelry manufacturing, but it’s another step altogether to understand the robust Parisian culture of jewelry manufacturing. In France, I was working with big name jewelry houses as much I was dealing with French makers and artisans who are really exceptional jewelers in their own right.
Do you have any specialties?
Specialists at Sotheby’s don’t really have the luxury of specializing in any one style or type of jewel, as diamond dealers or estate jewelers might. We have to combine a variety of jewelry skills and know a little bit about everything. Personally, I like to know a little bit about as many topics as I can, as opposed to having really in-depth knowledge about one subject. I initially gravitated towards diamonds and colored stones, as opposed to jewelry, but I don’t necessarily have any one area of specific expertise. Perhaps breadth of knowledge, in and of itself, is a specialty or unique offering to the industry.
How did you gain your industry knowledge?
I’ve taken GIA courses, but there is no substitute for on-the-job work. As an example, in my colored stone lab class, our instructor mentioned that most sapphires in the market are Thai. He told us that, on the bigger rings, we might see Ceylon stones, and on rare occasions, we might encounter a Burmese stone, but the most expensive sapphires come from Kashmir, and odds are, never in our careers would we see a stone from Kashmir. At Sotheby’s, we’ve been lucky to sell some of the world’s greatest Kashmirs, so while the academic background is very important, on-the-job training teaches you what something is worth.
Work experience also trains your eye to know what differences to look for between types of sapphires - between a Madagascar and a Ceylon, for example. Nuanced distinctions exist between a Kashmir and a Madagascar that you can’t learn in the classroom.
What are some memorable or historically significant jewels you’ve worked with?
Every sale we have, I learn something new, and we’ve had the great fortune of learning from some of the most exceptional jewels and collectors. In my mind, two of the most significant jewels we’ve worked with ate the Beau Sancy Diamond and Marie Antoinette’s pearl pendant.
The Beau Sancy is an almost 35-carat pear double rose-cut diamond. While it is indeed a beautiful stone, its history is unparalleled, as it was a wedding gift from the future Henry IV to Marie de Médicis. That union united France, both politically and religiously. We estimated the stone at $2 million, and it subsequently sold for almost $10 million.
Marie Antoinette needs no introduction, and her pearl pendant was one of her prized jewels. The natural pearl is enormous, yet by no means is it perfect. I remember discussing the piece with my colleagues in advance of the sale, and I predicted it would sell for $3.2 million. I was only off by one decimal point. It sold for $32 million as by far the most expensive pearl ever sold.
Jewels are powerful in that they reflect the people and the cultures from whence they come, so it’s certainly worthwhile to look at the history of pieces in order to learn more about the trends being reflected at the time of their creation. They also have historically been really intimate possessions, and they offer personal narratives relevant to their ownership as well.
What types of tools or skills might you need or use on a daily basis?
All kinds of third-party resources are useful, but the two most important tools at your disposal are your eye and your gut. Friends ask for help with engagement rings all the time, but ultimately, when a stone or a jewel says something to you, you have to trust that feeling or that message. There is always an element of emotion in purchasing jewels and fine pieces, and it’s really important that people trust those initial reactions.
We are working with the whole gamut of jewelry, and the process is similar to learning a language. You don’t learn it all at once. You acquire skills that aggregate over time, constantly learning new vocabulary and conjugations, obtaining these building blocks in order to gain fluency.
What are some significant lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Trust in oneself and one’s team. Everyone I work with is in the top echelon of their field. Not only do you have to have enough self-confidence to make decisions, but it’s also essential that you have a team that you trust.
I like that members of my team have different opinions on specific items. They might love something that I hate and vice versa. I love being wrong because it means that I’m learning something, and the minute you think you can’t learn something, everything breaks down. The constant education is what ensures that we’re continuing to seek the best opportunities.
Being curious is also really crucial. Someone who is curious enough to take chances but self-aware enough to know that they don’t know everything makes for a great player in this job. The minute you think you know everything, you know nothing. If you’re not curious, not only about different jewelry and different stones, but also about what’s going on in the world, this job probably wouldn’t be the best fit. Keeping up with the art market, the economic market, and macro trends is fundamental to being a competent team player in the trade.
Another important element of working in our trade is dealing with the unexpected. It’s important to remember that every transaction is individual, and you have to adapt and shift for every transaction, which can be difficult for some people. A significant portion of our work requires gemological and jewelry knowledge, but an equally as important component is knowing how to deal with a client, and in my line of work, you have to adapt how you act and how you react to each individual client situation because gemstones and jewelry can be highly emotional for most people.
How has the trade changed, and where do you think it’s going?
If you had asked me that question in 2019, my answer would be very different, but speaking from today, the industry is becoming much more digitally-focused. For example, in the current pandemic, we’ve had to shift tens of millions of dollars of sales online, solely using photographs to showcase the pieces.
Prior to this year, we’ve had relatively muted online sales. This year, as of mid-May, we’d already closed over $100 million in online sales alone. Clients are increasingly comfortable buying and selling online, so that’s a really significant shift.
Sales is not the only area where we’ve seen an increased digital influence. We’re formulating different marketing strategies geared toward the online sphere, including apps like Instagram, and we're changing how we look at business, including how we attract clients, conduct sales, and increase our interactions with clients.
Jewelry is a luxury good that virtually everybody owns, so we’re also searching for new ways to find more and more consumers of our goods at varying price points. Having a new generation of buyers is a big challenge, mainly in terms of finding new buyers from a generation that doesn’t necessarily share the same relationship with gemstones and jewelry that previous ones have had.
In terms of where the industry is going, people often say millennials don’t buy gemstones and that they’re not interested in that type of investment. That may well be true right now, but that also may change in the future, especially with the economic aftermath of the pandemic.
With regard to the history of jewels, the biggest tastemaker for art has traditionally been museums. If you look at American museums, there are very few that have any jewelry of consequence. While there are plenty of jewelry collections that fall under the category of decorative arts, there is only one endowed jewelry curatorship in the entire country. Jewelry has not been historically recognized as “museum-quality,” and that is fundamentally wrong.
Part of the reasoning for that is that other countries have hundreds of years of history that our country doesn’t have. The British and French have and display their historically significant collections of royal jewels, for example, which simply don’t exist for the United States.
Museums also haven’t historically collected jewelry because they think it’s too expensive; they’re not equipped, from a curatorial standpoint, to do it; or they don’t know how to display it. All of these are legitimate reasons, but if museums start recognizing that jewelry is every bit as much of an art as paintings or sculptures are, I think you’ll see a much broader base of people who will actually buy jewelry as art.
When you look at how to create a collection of jewelry, as opposed to creating a collection of art, the cost is significantly lower. Museums are endowed with great collections, and they’ve been gifted wonderful collections of art, but it also requires a huge amount of money to acquire important works of art, whereas curating an amazing collection of jewelry, even a small one, is much more affordable.
What’s one area of the antique jewelry industry you wish the public knew more about?
It’s pretty simple, and this concept is perfectly illustrated by an Instagram post I once saw. A former Sotheby’s colleague posted a picture of the back of a piece of jewelry, and someone commented, asking why she was looking at the back of the item.
The first thing I do is flip a piece of jewelry over. That’s how you see how something is made and how you learn about quality and craftsmanship. The overarching goal is to educate consumers to see beyond the face of something, to look more deeply at a piece, and that oftentimes includes looking at pieces that don’t have the name brand attached.
Yes, the Kashmir sapphire is the most valuable, expensive sapphire, but that’s in large part due to its rarity. That doesn’t mean that every single Kashmir is going to possess the best quality in the world, so it’s important to see beyond a label and actually examine an item’s beauty, quality, and craftsmanship.
What are the different stages in bringing a project from start to finish?
Our role is very different from that of a diamond cutter or estate jeweler, so we are looking for jewels that above all, possess appeal, as we have a wide audience. Age, quality, and provenance all count toward what makes a purchase worthwhile. We make sure to find pieces that are interesting and that our vast audience will fall in love with.
Our biggest project is putting a sale together, and it usually takes several months to do so. We see thousands of pieces of jewelry every year, and of all the pieces we see in a given year, approximately 20% of them are items that we pursue and discuss with clients about the possibility of putting them to sale. Of that 20%, about half (so 10% of the original figure) end up in one of our auctions.
As an addendum point, historically, it’s been a two-and-a-half to three-month process to put together an individual sale. That model is shifting. We just put together a sale that, from the genesis of the idea of the sale to the close of bidding, took about three weeks.
The reasoning for that shift goes hand-in-hand with the trend of increasing digitalization. Nowadays, you don’t need to give everyone a printed catalogue, which takes about four to six weeks to produce. Auctions around the world have also traditionally been on a regimented calendar. For example, in New York, the Magnificent Jewels sale would take place in April and December. In Geneva, those sales are in November and May.
That calendar has been blown up, and not just because of COVID-19, but also because online sales offer more efficiency and simplicity, and you don’t necessarily need to be beholden to that original calendar. You can input sales as they come to you, and you don’t have to wait three months to do so.
In terms of other aspects of the sale, photographing different pieces and creating a catalogue for the website are other stages. Right now we’re selling jewelry every week on an auction. Finding clients for each particular auction is a challenge. Every piece is sold individually, and we go piece by piece. Deals don’t happen overnight, and putting a sale together involves a lot of moving parts. Within our company, specialists, cataloguing staff, photographers, client specialists, and all other roles have to work in harmony in order to bring a sale from start to finish.
What makes gems and jewels so valuable to you?
Beauty and art. There is something about the art of jewelry that is objectively beautiful. While I may not personally wear the earrings and the tiaras that I handle, I have to respect the design, the art, and the engineering of these pieces. Beautiful things do not necessarily cost millions of dollars, and what is interesting for us is the appeal and unique artistry of each item.
How often does taking chances or risk come into play?
The risk we undertake is a little bit less intense than in other parts of the industry, but every day we’re talking about what risks we’re willing to take. Our sales are public, so we can’t just move past an event that doesn’t go according to our projection. We’re really focused on risk tolerance more than anything because most often, we’re selling on clients’ behalf. We work in partnership with people, so through that shared endeavor, we disperse the risk.
What are some factors that determine a maximum return on investment?
I tend to err on the side of caution because value as a statement is what buyers are willing to pay for an item. The jewelry and gemstone trade is not transparent or set in its price points like the stock market is. There is an extrinsic cost of ownership, and one has to consider the benefit of that. If you’re talking about an end user, maybe your return on investment comes down to the enjoyment of the item you’re investing in.
Who are some of the more renowned artists and designers, and what distinguishes them?
Ultimately, people who cause the industry to change are the rare and distinguished talents. In terms of designers who are doing really wonderful, innovative work, JAR, Hemmerle, Bhagat, Alessandro Sabbatini, Cindy Chao, and Edmond Chin are doing a lot of the more well-known, interesting work in the jewelry department.
Is there anything else that you would really like for people to know about this industry?
Jewelry is very intimidating because an engagement ring, for example, is oftentimes the most expensive thing one buys at that point in one’s life. Jewelry is perceived to be this very expensive, unattainable luxury good. While that’s true at the high end of the spectrum, it doesn’t have to be that way.
So much striking, interesting, and beautiful jewelry is out there that is appreciably less expensive than what people perceive jewelry to be. You can buy fantastic pieces in the $500 to $2,000 price range. A price point is just a price point. That doesn’t necessarily denote quality. Just because some pieces of art are worth a million dollars, for instance, doesn’t mean all pieces of art are each worth a million dollars. The same concept applies to jewelry.
Jewelry should be an expression of oneself and something that makes people happy. People shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions and wondering where they fit into this trade because there’s a niche, style, and price point for every consumer.