Last week I visited the gallery at Sotheby’s Auction House here in New York; if you read no further, please at least remember to add this to your list of “Cool Stuff To Do In The City.” Sotheby’s New York has six floors of exhibition space, is free, open to the public and houses an ever tumbling collection of some of the most magnificent jewellery, watches, art and Tyrannosaurus rex skulls on the planet. If you do visit, you may even be lucky enough to bump into Sotheby’s Senior Vice President and Luxury Sales Director Frank Everett.
If you just thought to yourself, “now here is a man who has successfully steered himself into a job he truly loves,” gold star for you; that is an astute and correct observation. I think it is wonderful—and perhaps a bit too uncommon—for someone to enjoy their role as much as Frank does, so I sat down with him to find out a bit more about his world and how he found himself in it.
A curious alien is visiting Earth and wants you to explain what you do. How do you answer?
Frank Everett: We are matchmakers. We bring the best jewels to market and find new homes for them. The finding is just as difficult as the selling, if not more so.
When I worked in the retail world—at Tiffany & Co., Bulgari, Harry Winston—the drawers were always getting refilled. After a sale at Sotheby’s, the drawers are empty. The vaults are empty. So now we pitch for collections, we sweep around the country, our colleagues in Europe do some digging. Maybe we did an appraisal for a collector five years ago and it’s time to reappraise, and maybe they’ll want to sell some of their pieces.
We don’t take everything we come across; we work hard to balance the sale. To bring the right things to the market at the right time, you have to have a sense of what people have an appetite for. Then we market the collection beautifully, sell it, then do it all again.
“Handling jewellery is what excites me.”
What part of that process makes you feel like, “oh baby, I was born for this?”
FE: I think when we finally get to exhibition setup day. I participate in four major sales every year of magnificent jewels—two in New York, two in Geneva—plus some smaller ones throughout the year. For me, there’s a turning point the day we set up. I start installing jewellery in a display case, I group them so everything’s maximally attractive and I just love it. In my heart, I am a shopkeep. That’s how I started my jewellery career, and when I’m an old man that’s how I’ll end it: standing behind a counter selling rings.
Then that same evening is a preview/reception for top clients and press. So you’re rushing around all day getting everything looking beautiful, then you put on a suit and tie and greet guests, and that kicks off the actual sale. It’s a lot of fun.
So that’s the moment. But there are times when I’m sitting up in this office dealing with the not-as-fun parts, and if ever I’m feeling bogged down, I absolutely take myself down to the vaults, pull out a tray, and just sit with the shiny things. Handling jewellery is what excites me.
You draw your power from the stones.
FE: I draw my power from the stones. And the clients! I really do love the clients. I love to help people find the right thing because… there are so many things! It’s overwhelming. Say you don’t know or care much about jewellery but you want to get your wife something special. You know how many options there are? I don’t care if your budget is five hundred, five thousand, fifty thousand; just tell me what it is, let’s talk about what she’s already got, give me a sense of her style and we can start narrowing it down. I love helping clients make that match.
What’s luxury to you?
FE: Luxury is… well, time is the greatest luxury. But a bunch of people have already said that. I do have my own definition: Luxury is something, anything, that is special, that is unique, that is for yourself and that you have to reach for a little bit. You have to aspire to it, you have to put at least a little something aside to be able to get it.
When I was living in San Francisco and I’d eat my dinner alone in my apartment. I used a set of sterling silver flatware that I bought at an antique store for a hundred bucks. It wasn’t for entertaining, it wasn’t for anyone else, it was just for me and I used that single setting of sterling silver flatware every time I ate at home.
It can be fresh flowers from the deli—even if you can’t quite make your rent payment, you can scrape together eight bucks for some fresh flowers, put them in a nice vase and have a beautiful thing in your space that you put there just for you.
Because I’m worth it.
FE: Goddammit, you deserve it!
Have you always been in the jewellery business?
FE: I had a very glamorous aunt from Pittsburgh who, once a year, would come visit our little farm in rural Pennsylvania. She had a ten carat emerald cut diamond, and my family said from the time I was three or four, I would hold her hand and stare into the diamond. I was obsessed with it. I do think certain people have an eye for sparkle, like some brains just really get turned on by shiny things.
But no, I worked in restaurants for about fifteen years, and I had my own restaurant for a couple years in San Francisco. But that is not an easy life; you’re always up late, it’s hard to socialize, it’s hard on your body. And when I turned forty I decided that was it; I had to make a change. Which wasn’t easy! I knew where I wanted to be, and I thought “oh, my restaurant skills are so applicable,” but no one cared about that. They said, “But you’ve never worked retail.” I was lucky that Bulgari took a chance on me as a salesperson, given that I had no experience. But I knew the histories of the great houses, I was good with clients and I read and read and read until I wasn’t “faking it” anymore on the gemology front.
What’s an embarrassing thing to not know?
FE: You have to be able to fold a diamond paper the right way, and you better be able to do it quickly without even looking. When you can do that, that’s a sign that you really know your stuff. And then I just had to learn what’s a D-coloured diamond, an H, flawless versus VS or VVS, unheated versus heated sapphires…
…Natural versus lab grown diamonds…
FE: I am only interested in natural diamonds. For me, a huge part of the appeal is that these are naturally created stones.
They happened, inside our planet, like a billion years ago.
FE: Yeah, they just happened—and if you can recreate that somehow, I feel like it just makes the natural ones even more valuable. Because there’s a differentiation. It’s the same for natural versus cultured pearls. A cultured pearl is a pearl. But if something happens, you can easily replace it with another. You can’t do that with natural pearls.
Anyway, I worked at Bulgari, Tiffany & Co. and Harry Winston. And I’ve been with Sotheby’s since 2013. And it is a rare thing to be able to say that you love your work or that you really feel like you found your calling, but I do think that doing something with jewellery is what I was meant to do to make myself happy. Is it saving lives or changing the world? No, but…
Maybe it is…
FE: We have seen lives change in the auction room. Once there were three sisters who were having an estate sale after their mother died, and they had this blue ring they thought was an aquamarine. They brought it to a colleague of mine to see what it was worth. It turned out to be a blue diamond and the ring sold for over a million dollars. And this was life changing money for them. When those stories happen—“discovery stories”—that’s really exciting.
For my first consignment here, a guy and his wife had bought a shoebox of junk jewellery at a yard sale or flea market for fifteen bucks. They found my name on the Sotheby’s website, dumped the box out on my desk and inside among the junk was one real thing: a Schlumberger for Tiffany emerald gold and diamond brooch that sold for over $20,000.
How does that happen?
FE: It happens. Someone dumped out that lady’s jewellery box and didn’t know what they were looking at and it made its way out into the world.
Maybe it was from a secret lover.
FE: Maybe. Maybe it was something she bought for herself and didn’t tell anyone else about. But these discoveries are almost always with jewellery. In the world of art that we sell—paintings, sculptures, silver, decorative arts—I think jewellery is the most personal. It’s worn on the body. It’s bought to mark special occasions, birthdays, engagements, wedding gifts. Jewellery is passed down from generation to generation; it’s meaningful, it’s durable. It has intrinsic value. By that I mean, at the very least, the stones are worth something. Bronze, canvas, paint, wood: these aren’t materials with high, durable intrinsic value. Just like, in their own elemental state I mean. But with jewellery, we have materials that hold their value in that way. At the very least, you can throw something on a scale and get its weight in gold, count the diamonds… it’s not just stuff. And I love that.
I know thou shalt not covet. But what’s passed through here that you really wish you could have kept?
FE: I worked closely on the estate of Bunny Mellon. Most of her jewellery was Schlumberger for Tiffany, which she donated to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art (That’s why I can tell you this; usually the parties involved in selling and buying are kept secret). But before it went there it lived here for two years.
As a hostess gift, like when her friends would come to visit, she would give them a solid gold and lapis box. They were the most beautiful objects made for her by Schlumberger in the ‘50s or ‘60s. At the time of her death, she still had eight or nine stacked up. If I could have one of those boxes, I would be so happy. I would put it on the coffee table and look at it for the rest of my life. I think about those boxes. All. The. Time.
When the stuff is here, it’s yours.
FE: It’s MINE! We had a very famous piece: a Van Cleef and Arpels diamond necklace from 1939 that was made for the Egyptian queen Nazli to wear to her daughter’s wedding. It was just a plate of diamonds around the neck. We had that in house for about a year. And some days, for one reason or another, it would just need to be resting on a necklace form here on my desk. When that went, it hurt a bit.
Did it at least go to a deserving home?
FE: It absolutely did. I can tell you this one because it went back to the archives of Van Cleef & Arpels; they bought it for their own museum collection. It’s always a pleasure to see something really special go back to the house that made it. I love when the big houses invest in their own patrimony.
And what luxury are you aspiring to?
FE: OK. There is one thing that I will own one day. Cartier has this series of really small art deco pins that are perfect for a man’s lapel. They’re called temple brooches. They’re almost always made entirely out of diamonds and they’re these miniature architectural representations of different temples—Roman, Greek, Buddhist, Indian—of all different styles.
If I could afford a little piece of Cartier, it would be one of these. When we have them here, I always wear them to events. Just to try it on, you know. And they’re not millions of dollars. But they usually end up selling for over $100,000. So I won’t be getting one soon.
But Frank, it’s an investment!
FE: You’re not wrong. Cartier art deco is money in the bank.
You just had an auction, right? Was it good? Was it fun? Got anything cool a buyer hasn’t picked up yet that I can see?
FE: They’re always fun. This auction was great. Look, if you want to go shopping, you can go to 5th Avenue; this is completely different. We have the best-of-the-best in the world come through here. And anyone can come look at our exhibitions! I wish more people knew that. It’s open, it’s free and it’s magnificent. And for the people who are bidding, it’s a real rush. It’s intense. You don’t buy a lot, you win it. I tell people all the time that it’s like a sport.
If it’s a sport, what does that make you?
FE: Ooh. I don’t know! Am I a coach? A spectator?
Oh come on, you’re definitely on the field.
FE: I think so. You’re right. I’m active.
Maybe you’re the pitcher.
Do I have to run a lot? No, the pitcher just stands there, right?
Not a lot of running, just a lot of finely tuned kinetics and form and leverage and whatnot.
FE: I like that. Yeah, I’m the pitcher. Or wait, maybe the auctioneer is the pitcher.
At this point Frank and I realized we had stumbled into an imperfect analogy. We gave up after a few minutes and then Frank took me down to the vaults and showed me a few unbelievable pieces of diamond jewellery. I did not buy any of them.