In the spotlight: David and Daniela

Daniela and David, Geneva, November 2018; pictured with the diamond tiara by Hübner, 1912, soon after the hammer came down on the final lot in the record-breaking auction of Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family

Do you recall your first encounter with jewellery?

Daniela Mascetti: Every Christmas, my father, who loved jewels, would stage a treasure hunt for my mother. The first occasion I can remember was when she discovered a sapphire and diamond brooch, suitably hidden in a blue and white Delft jar. I have always loved that piece and I am grateful to my mother for giving it to me.

 David Bennett: When I was about seven I had a board game called ‘Buccaneer’ which used to fascinate me. In it each player had to fill a galleon with ‘jewels’ by collecting them from an island. I became absorbed by finding these richly-coloured, entrancing ‘gemstones’ – a little like my career.

Did your study at university inspire you to work with jewellery?

DB: I studied philosophy, so jewellery was not an obvious next move. However at university I also began my life-long, intense fascination with astrology and alchemy, and I have been continuing my studies ever since. Gemstones are central to this, as they have a direct correspondence with the planets and embody certain spiritual essences in us.

DM: I studied archaeology and although in my dreams I was hoping to discover some beautiful gold artefact, I never came across in my excavations anything more than broken pottery. However, it was a photograph of the pioneer archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s wife covered in gold jewels – thought at the time to be those of Helen of Troy – that prompted me, when I was a teenager, to study classics and archaeology…so perhaps jewellery inspired me to study archaeology.

How did you start at Sotheby’s?

DB: I graduated in 1973 and intended to go to film school, until a family friend at Sotheby’s suggested trying their training scheme. Towards the end of the year’s course a job came up in the jewellery department. Although this had little appeal at the time, the economic situation in Europe had deteriorated drastically by 1974 and so I decided, somewhat reluctantly, to accept the job and started as a trainee cataloguer. I quickly became immersed in the field and took a qualification at the Gemmological Association in London. Looking back it all now makes perfect sense.

DM: I went to London in 1979 to improve my English and joined what Sotheby’s Institute by then called the ‘Works of Art’ course. Coming from the academic world where everything was behind glass, I loved the fact that everything at the auction house could be handled. On almost the last day of the coursee, one of the lecturers mentioned that Sotheby’s were expanding in Italy and were interviewing possible new recruits. My interview lasted all of five minutes, and ended with the offer of a position in the Milan office. I was so excited that I accepted before asking about the nature of the job. When I found out that it consisted in the starting up of a jewellery department, I was overcome by shock and surprise as I was lacking any experience in the field. The learning process had to start right away.

Describe your memories of the sale of the Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, one of the many historic sales you worked on.

DB: There were three of us responsible for it, of whom I was the most junior, and sadly the only survivor. I was put in charge of the catalogue. It was just before Christmas in 1986 that we were invited to go to value the collection in Paris. I’ll never forget it – from the vaults of the Banque de France came a succession of large red Morocco leather jewel cases, each with the Duchess’ cipher stamped in gold. I was passed the first jewel box. It was clearly Cartier and inside was a magnificent ruby and diamond bracelet. I suddenly noticed an unknown inscription in facsimile of the Duke’s handwriting – ‘March 1936’ and the message ‘Hold Tight’. In fact many of the jewels bore these intimate inscriptions which we had to decipher for the catalogue.

It was the ultimate jewellery collection. We had ferocious interest from all around the world and, for the first time, we set up simultaneous auction rooms in New York, London and Geneva. The collection had the greatest jewels by the greatest makers of the 20th century, and the greatest romantic story – the man who gave up the throne of England for the love of a woman.

DM: I came in a little later, having been drafted in to help catalogue the pieces. It was at the same time eerie and mesmerising to be one of the first people to handle the jewels that the Duchess had locked away years before, and to have the privilege to read the intimate inscriptions engraved on so many of them. What hit me about the collection on the whole was that it was so homogeneous. The Duchess of Windsor never collected from any previous era and almost everything was commissioned for her. It was a time capsule of jewels that were miles ahead of their time.

How did the collaboration on the book Understanding Jewellery come about?

DB: In 1986 a publisher commissioned me to write the book and even proposed the title, but after about six months of putting it off, I realised I was never going to find the time and energy to get it done on my own. So I asked Daniela if she fancied writing it with me as co-author. We have always been a great team and enjoy working closely together.

DM: I felt flattered by the offer and enjoyed the process enormously. It was really a joint effort, although I ended up doing all the typing, cross referencing and organising of the illustration material. Some 25 years later we decided to repeat the experience and co-wrote Celebrating Jewellery – a very personal selection of pieces we have handled and love.

Is there a piece from your time at Sotheby’s that has a personal appeal?

DM: It is very difficult to single out only one jewel, but the first that comes to my mind is the fabulous Panther bracelet, made by Cartier for the Duchess of Windsor. A masterpiece of craftsmanship, it is so well articulated that it truly comes to life, with all the sensuality of the wild animal. In 200 years it will still be viewed as a superb creation.

DB: About five years ago, I sold an eight carat ruby for what was then a world record. I received a phone call a week after from a lady who said “I’ve got a better one”. I visited her and she revealed the best ruby I had ever seen – it weighed 25.59 carats and was mesmerising, magical. So magical in fact that for the sale I named it The Sunrise Ruby after one of my favourite poems by Rumi. It really caught people’s imagination and ultimately sold for $30.42 million, some four times the previous world record price.