Symposium: Leaving Legacies
Thirteen years ago, I went to The St. Regis in New York City to meet with a woman of great style, to whom I had been introduced some months earlier. This was not, however, a romantic liaison, but rather a potential business deal. She had a valuable family heirloom that she was considering selling, and as a private jeweler I was naturally interested in discussing the prospect.
After we exchanged some casual conversation, she placed a worn leather box on the table. I opened the box to reveal an Art Deco diamond and platinum bracelet of such stunning beauty that I was pressed to remember an equivalent, despite a long career of dealing in exceptional jewelry and gemstones. The bracelet was a gift from her father to her mother as a token of his love and affection; it also symbolized the success he had achieved in America since emigrating from Europe.
The bracelet, incredibly, was in pristine condition. Precious metals and even diamonds in older pieces often show visible damage or wear, which reduces value. And frequently, estate pieces were made with superb technique but used diamonds not worthy of the craftsmanship. This bracelet was a brilliant exception. The nearly 60 carats of diamonds were of the finest quality. Many were cut in unique shapes, including large bullet shapes and French cuts, which were typical of the era but are not used in modern jewelry because of the difficulty and cost of producing them. The bracelet had every detail, every nuance of a truly great piece of jewelry—a quintessential example of the Art Deco style.
My client had been a proper guardian. But guardianship requires exercising proper care while a valuable object is in one’s possession, as well as making plans for passing it on to future generations. Sadly, many great pieces of jewelry have been lost to history out of ignorance or avarice—antique silver pieces melted down for the value of the metal by uninformed heirs, or exceptional emeralds and opals left to dry out and crack in bank vaults.
“Have you considered your children?” I asked. Her son and daughter-in-law, who were both attorneys, had told her that the bracelet did not fit their lifestyle and that the piece would be relegated to a vault.
By discussing their intentions for the bracelet, she had met one of the most important requisites of guardianship: providing for the future. It is important for heirs to be consulted and informed about valuable heirlooms while the parent is still alive. If pieces are to be sold, plans should be formulated beforehand.
If the owners fail to make provisions for valuable objects, chaos may reign after their deaths. I know of one couple who left millions of dollars’ worth of jewels to their children without first asking them which pieces each preferred. During the settlement of the estate, the three children waged a bitter battle over the jewelry. As a consequence, they have not spoken to each other for more than 20 years. And in cases where the heirs decide to sell the piece in favor of cash, the task often devolves to a family attorney who knows little about the proper sources for accurate appraisals. As a result, heirs often receive a fraction of the true value. If jewelry is to be passed on, the next generation must understand and appreciate its beauty and value—responsibility requires knowledge.
My client did not sell her diamond bracelet that day in New York. In fact, she kept it for the rest of her life. She did instruct her son that if he decided to sell it upon her death, she would like him to offer it to me first. Two years ago, he contacted me and informed me that she had passed away. A few months afterward, I joined the son and his wife for a very emotional lunch to celebrate his adored mother.
Over the 13 years that had passed since my first meeting with that elegant woman, I never once pressured the family to sell the bracelet. In fact, I cultivated a genuine friendship with them and demonstrated my respect for all three generations: the grandfather, mother, and son. As a result, they found me worthy of being the bracelet’s next guardian.
I still own and treasure the bracelet. I often bring it when I give lectures to illustrate the concept of guardianship and to allow people the enjoyment of its exceptional beauty. When the time comes, I will make certain that it once again graces the wrist of a woman of great style.