Phillips has opened a Southampton outpost to bring its extraordinary curation Out East. The famed auction house will celebrate its debut with an exhibition of 70 works, anchored by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting “Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King”—expected to fetch between $10–$15 million when it goes on sale in November. And speaking of sought-after gems, jewelry by Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and more will be highlighted, too. Susan Abeles, Head of Jewelry, Americas, tells The Daily Summer what to expect from Southampton’s new treasure chest.
Why did you first decide to get into the jewelry industry?
My first job was with an auction house as an assistant bookkeeper. I learned different skills while moving from bookkeeping and appraisal work to consignments and contracts, and then ultimately to jewelry. My boss was an amazing mentor and had great confidence in me, which helped too. He literally came into my office one day and said, “I trust you, please take over the jewelry department.” I learned about jewelry the old-fashioned way—by touching, seeing, and asking questions. Plus, I grew up in a family where art was appreciated. My parents collected, and my mother was an art historian.
How did you help Phillips relaunch its American jewelry department?
Phillips hired a team of knowledgeable specialists—my American colleagues Eva Violante, Alexis Vourvoulis, and Anne Mock. We all have different backgrounds and bring something different to the table. Between our extended jewelry department internationally, we speak more than 10 languages and have more than 255 years of experience. Boy, do we sound old! As specialists, you must have a broad sense of knowledge of jewelry—gemstones, estate property, manufacture, diamonds, history, time periods, provenance, designers, and design.
What’s unique about Phillips as a purveyor of luxury jewelry?
Our initial launch in the U.S. was with a private selling exhibition of Lauren Adriana’s work. She’s an amazing and talented contemporary designer. Phillips is unique in that we strongly feel that we have a responsibility to provide our community with emerging designers and artists. It’s not always about selling a work of art, but rather about engaging in a conversation. For example, some of the works of art from Lauren Adriana were sketches and others were jewels that had been sold, so one could understand and see the progression of design. Additionally, we offered our clients the opportunity to join in a conversation with Lauren. Discourse is important and part of the learning process.
What does your day-to-day role as Head of Jewelry look like at this time?
We are international. My day starts off speaking with my colleagues in London, Geneva, and Hong Kong. Then, there are inquiries to answer. Usually the next stop is to work on a listing. Phillips’ jewelry department provides complimentary listings of jewelry for clients. I might meet a client in their bank, at their home, or in the office. It’s our job to advise clients; in order to do so, we need to know about their collection, understand the market, and be able to relay this information. Later, I might have a call with our marketing team to work on ads and review our latest sales results. Usually, we have a U.S. team meeting biweekly; communication is important. We check in and share what we’re seeing, discuss the market swings, and plan our sales strategy. Lastly, my day ends most often with a call from my boss in Hong Kong.
What makes your job exciting?
We’re a people-facing department. Meeting people, hearing their stories, and examining the property is always different. Nothing is ever the same, except for the auction cycle and what’s involved in putting a sale together. We have the opportunity to learn about new designers and read about new industry finds, too. For example, I read in a trade publication about the new largest colored diamond rough that was discovered in Russia—235 carats! This information is exciting—how will it be cut and polished, what color grade will it be, and will there be more large rough from the same source.
Tell us about the amazing new Southampton location.
We’re so excited to open our Southampton outpost, located in the building that was formerly the Town Hall. At Phillips, we’re such a community-facing auction house, and we crave conversation and engagement. This location will provide the perfect opportunity to meet new people, as well as touch base with some of our existing collectors who have recently moved.
Are there any exciting auctions coming up that people should have on their radar?
We have a lot of great sales slated for fall, starting with our online-only jewels sale in September and October. Then we’ll have the Hong Kong live auction in November and the New York sale in December. Pieces from each of these are scheduled to be on view in Southampton, so collectors can come look at them in person. And in between the auction previews, we expect to have works by different designers available for private sale as well.
What’s one particularly memorable piece of jewelry that took your breath away and why?
That’s a good question! One of my absolute favorites would have to be Doris Duke’s diamond and natural pearl Cartier bandeau, which is in Cartier’s permanent collection. I first saw it while I was working at another auction house, then sold it years later in my career to its current owner. I loved having the opportunity to play a role in the history of such a beautiful object.
You frequently promote new voices in the market. Why is this important to you?
At Phillips, we really think of it as our responsibility to introduce our community of collectors to some of these young and emerging artists. This actually holds true across all our categories—in jewels and fine art alike. We acknowledge that not everyone can afford all the higher-priced works that come up at auction, but they can still cultivate a love and appreciation for these incredible objects.
Who or what are your “ones to watch”?
Right now, I would say that Fabio Salini, Otto Jakob, and Wilfredo Rosado are my top three to watch.
What type of jewelry do you always gravitate toward?
I have fairly broad taste in jewelry and tend to be drawn toward things that span a wide spectrum of value, medium, age, and provenance. The one thing that unifies them, however, is quality and design.
What jewelry pieces do you believe will never go out of style?
I think it’s less about the type of jewels here, but rather the quality. High-quality pieces are tried-and-true and will always have a place in the market and in fashion.
How did you find yourself working with screen legends like Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson?
It was such a privilege to work with property from these great collections and the wonderful thing about working with well-known collectors is learning all the fascinating stories behind the jewels.
Speaking of icons, whose style—and jewels!—do you admire?
Elizabeth Taylor will always be the ultimate arbiter of jewelry collecting.
If you won the lottery tomorrow, what piece of jewelry would you track down?
I don’t think I would spend my winnings on only a few high-value pieces. Rather, I would go on a collecting spree trying to track down and acquire jewelry that speaks to me, from emerging artists to vintage pieces—anything that strikes my fancy!
Lastly, what are your fail-safe tips for people who are looking to invest in a piece of jewelry?
You must love what you buy. Never purchase something for the sole purpose of investment. Always gravitate toward works of high quality and design. Unique, signed pieces are always in demand.