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High on the top of my list as a child (and possibly, many others) was to have a job involving a tiara. Sure that career also came with a white steed that looked like my Barbie’s favourite mode of transport, but the jewellery was definitely compulsory. Aside from marrying into royalty, I recently learnt there’s another way to gawk at antique diamonds the size of eyeballs, daily. It’s called being a Jewellery Specialist at one of the world’s largest and prestigious auction houses, Christie’s. Founded in Britain in the late 18th century, it’s known for notable sales in the last few years including the Oppenheimer Blue, a vivid blue diamond that sold for $57.5 million in Geneva. Then there’s the controversial sale of the bust fragment of Tutankhamun, which was purchased at £4.7 million. If that doesn’t sound like a stellar career with a LinkedIn profile to feel smug about, I don’t know what is. So I spoke to burgeoning auction house talent, known as a ‘cataloguer’, Nicole Chan about her career at Christie’s jewellery so far.
Let’s start from the beginning! What did you study?
I did my Bachelor degree in Jewellery Design at Central Saint Martins [in London], then I did a Masters at Christie’s Education in Art History. This was focused on decorative pieces like furniture, glassware and jewellery more than paintings. I also completed modules at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) – a graduate gemologist course – studying gemstones, diamonds and pearls.
Do you feel you had to do the masters to get this job?
Not necessarily, a lot of my colleagues came straight from their Bachelor’s degree or else have a diverse work experience background – such as luxury marketing, retail, investment banking, law, etc. Art History is a good course to study and UCL and Courtauld Insitute of Art, aside from Oxford and Cambridge, are great schools.
I did my Master’s purely because of my interest in the making/craftsmanship of historical jewellery and works of art. The course at Christie’s allowed me a one week work experience within the auction house itself, which was truly amazing. After this I told myself that I had to be part of this company and I began working towards that goal.
There’s an expectation with creative industries that you’ll need to intern for free, is this the case?
There are different kinds of entry level positions and an internship is the most obvious option. It usually lasts for about three to six months. Shorter periods are allotted for work experience, for those who are usually still studying, and they would either work part-time or for a week or two.
Then there is also the Management Trainee Programme (MTP) which involves four to five rounds of interviews and an eight hour assessment. If successful, you get into a one year rotation around the different departments for the. There are different intake numbers in Hong Kong, New York and London and applicants compete with [hundreds] of other candidates! The good thing about this programme is that even if you don’t ultimately get the role, you will be able to meet a lot of the staff. You’ll know if this is really something you want to pursue.
I can’t really comment on starting salaries for entry-level positions as the pay-scale varies from region to region and from department to department.
With a job like yours, are there lots of opportunities to travel and live abroad?
There are a few different routes to go down within the auction company structure. If you’re on the Specialist route, there will potentially be lots of travelling. Like all other international companies, Christie’s will relocate employees if necessary and they have good judgement on that.
As I am a cataloguer, it doesn’t make sense for me to travel like the specialists/business getters. On the other hand, as the only Chinese speaker in the office, if there are specialist exhibitions or auctions that require my support, it is possible that I will be called upon to travel occasionally.
What can you expect day to day as a cataloguer at Christie’s?
My specific role is to catalogue incoming objects for sales. Specialists will be sourcing potential jewellery items from sellers and I’ll look into the material and stones and then send the pieces off to get certification if we think it will help the sale. Except for cataloguing and writing extracts for the online platforms, I also assist the Sales and Business Coordinators with admin and logistical matters. We’ll have approximately three online sales (or sometimes more, it depends) and two live auctions a year. Around 70-80% of what we offer is wearable jewellery; some pieces are branded or historical. We’re trying to introduce clients to jewellery collecting and understanding more about it through online educational courses and editorial material.
The best part of the job for any department will very possibly be the auction day. If you’re trained in phone bidding and have passed your training and assessment, you’ll be asked to help your/another staff’s client to phone bid on auction day, and it’s a truly amazing experience.
Is it like what you see on TV?
Usually the camera focuses on the auctioneer, but yes, it should be quite similar. We permanent staff/phone bidders are those people who are on the left and right hand side of the auctioneer, holding two phones and constantly saying ‘bidding sir/ madam!’.
With COVID-19, people are increasingly concerned with job security. How stable is this industry?
All luxury and creative industries were affected. Market prices for jewellery and all art categories have fluctuated during the pandemic, so I couldn’t say that we are not affected and there will be some impact on job cuts or restructuring, in common with many other industries. My department in Geneva was fine and we’re a really small team.
Is this industry like personal shopping where you need to manage a client book?
We have a record of customers interested in specific pieces and we let them know when they come available. [As for sales] Geneva and New York average about 300,000 USD as our minimum band but we have taken in jewellery for lower value if they’re part of a larger collection. For online sales in London, the band is slightly lower and we sell things for £2000+ too.
I remember a client that told me she wanted a tiara to display on her fireplace and the price ended at 700,000 USD [at the auction]. Tiaras have a lot of stones on them and they have historical and sentimental value itself. Even if you take them out, the history continues. You can say, “my necklace came from X tiara, X years ago”.
There are stereotypes about a career at Christie’s jewellery that you have to be wealthy, very educated and well-connected, is that at all true?
I do understand that because in the past, most of them are but the mentality has changed. [Our attitude] is to find things that clients love. We are so happy when people come to the showroom to have a look! Our online sales have lower prices to attract younger customers. In London, there are more junior roles so my colleagues range from 22-30 years old.
I think the stereotype that people should have in mind about people who work at Christie’s should be that of a sophisticated workaholic who thinks about works of art 24/7.
What’s the work life balance like?
Because of COVID-19, all the planned dates for our auctions have had to be rescheduled to ensure that we are still able to sell our clients’ pieces well, so it is true to say that our workloads have been a little overwhelming during the pandemic.
I would say that in general, you can choose to arrive at 9 and leave at 6, but during auction seasons or deadlines/big projects the trend is that people are willing to work longer hours. It depends on the culture within each department, all teams are different.
Does social media play a part in the auction industry?
Yes, we are trying really hard to make our company image more approachable also to the younger generations [millennials] and to make them feel part of the art world too; after all, they are the future. Also, when our Specialists and archivists lecture at schools, they always encourage students to visit our auctions and be part of it. A lot of our specialists are also Instagram celebrities!
You’ve just read our first Dream Jobs interview with Nicole Chan, follow her auction house life on Instagram.
Photo courtesy of @nicolannchan