At a recent auction, Hoda Esphahani, Sotheby’s newly appointed chairman of international jewelry, was conferring with her client on the phone while bidding for a rare Piaget watch when the line suddenly went dead. “I had to make an instant decision to go well beyond the price that we had agreed would be her top offer,” says Esphahani. She successfully bid seven times more than the estimated value of the watch, and her client was still thrilled.
Such steely nerves are a prerequisite in the fine jewelry auction market, a high-stakes playing field where millions of dollars’ worth of gems and jewelry changes hands within a few frenzied hours. This feverish atmosphere is Esphahani’s home turf. “I love the excitement of an auction, and I love to win,” she says, adding that the key to success at an auction is to act quickly, which often means taking calculated risks.
In addition to procuring some of the world’s most important gemstones for her private clients, Esphahani is also responsible for assembling the jewelry and gems for Sotheby’s worldwide auctions. She frequently travels the world visiting her network of dealers and an eclectic group of patrons in search of great trea-sures to bring to auction. She even designs jewelry for customers, providing a level of personal service that distinguishes her in a competitive field.
One client recently challenged her to find a rare emerald-cut fancy blue diamond ring. After a two-year worldwide search, Esphahani finally found the perfect stone and flew to London to obtain her client’s approval. Then, she designed a setting and delivered the ring just in time for him to present it to his beloved for a special occasion.
“She’s a real charmer,” says Fred Leighton, the celebrated antique jewelry dealer who travels in the same circles as Esphahani. “It’s about time there is a woman in that job,” he adds. “Hoda is very chic, and she has an incredible eye for beautiful jewelry.”
Esphahani’s well-trained eye comes from years of experience. Prior to joining Sotheby’s, she was vice president and a senior jewelry specialist at Christie’s, and before that she was a senior sales associate at Harry Winston. But her love of precious jewelry is rooted in her childhood. Esphahani was born in Lebanon, but grew up in prerevolution Iran, where she was exposed to the lavish jewels worn by wealthy Middle Eastern women. Her exotic upbringing and her mastery of Arabic, Farsi, and French have proven valuable assets in the elite market for exceptional jewelry.
Esphahani notes, however, that the famously high-flying auction market has not been insulated from the recent economic downturn. One of the most noticeable changes is the more cautious approach to selling oversize gems. “We don’t want to bring exceptionally large diamonds to auction that might not command their estimated value, because that can hurt the psychology of the entire auction,” she says, noting that the auction market for large diamonds of 50 carats or more is currently soft. “Our private clients prefer to acquire their extravagant pieces more discreetly these days.”