Meet Robin!
New York, NY

Robin Wright-small2.jpg

It may have been the early memories of rummaging through her mother’s jewelry box that sparked Robin Wright’s lifelong interest in jewelry.  Many happy hours were spent twirling strands of necklaces and trying on her mother’s rings and bracelets.  Though little could she realize then that her early fascination would one day lead to the position as Vice President of Jewelry Sales at Sotheby’s, one of the world’s most prestigious auction houses.

Her education in jewelry began behind a Walmart’s jewelry counter while attending college at Arkansas Tech.  She majored in geology because of her love of rocks, but graduated in the field of petroleum because the school did not offer a hard rock curriculum.

A move to Denver to work for a large oil company followed.  Two years later, she decided to abandon the oil business because she realized sitting behind a computer looking for oil and conducting field studies proved less interesting than her first love.  Having osteogenesis imperfecta was another important factor in her decision. 

Robin was diagnosed with Type I OI in the early 1970s at the age of nine.  She had broken many bones prior to that, but her parents attributed the various breaks to their tomboy being a bit of a ‘klutz.’  When a dog jumped on her, breaking her face, cheek and jaw, and causing a hematoma in her eye, an informed doctor thought differently.

“The doctor noticed that my sclera, the whites in the eyes, were slightly blue, and inquired whether anyone in my family had osteogenesis imperfecta. That was pretty amazing diagnosis considering that a doctor in Arkansas was so knowledgeable about OI in the early 70s.”

Robin is the only member of her family with the disorder.

Since her teens, Robin has broken few bones, but she has suffered hearing loss.  She had two stapedectomy procedures in her late teens, a surgical procedure to remove the innermost ear bone and replace it with a small stainless steel wire in order to improve the movement of sound to the inner ear.  Today she wears hearing aids.

Once she made the decision to switch careers, Robin spent the next 20 years working for several large jewelry chains, including Jan-Bell and Bailey, Banks & Biddle.  Eventually she was promoted to a corporate position and relocated to New York City.  

Only to be laid off four months later.

 “So here I was, just moved to New York, got an apartment, so excited and they laid me off!  But I wanted to stay, so I hit the streets and ended up at Sotheby’s, which was really fortunate because outside hires are very rare. It’s usually a very highly-competitive and by-referral employment process.”

Managing Sotheby’s vault was her first position, where she was in charge of inventory control, storage, and shipping pieces in and out of the auction house.

 No small job, considering the value of the vault’s contents.

“The vault at Sotheby’s is like ‘Fort Knox.’ At any given time there could be upwards of $80 million worth of jewelry for which we have to account.”

While at Sotheby’s, Robin became a graduate gemologist and is now Vice President of Jewelry Sales at Sotheby’s New York location.  She regularly conducts appraisals both in the United States and internationally, and is a frequent lecturer on jewelry topics.  Her travels take her wherever necessary to source the most desirable jewels for a discerning client or meet with a consignor.  Either a seller will come to the office or the specialist will go to a bank vault, home or estate to look at what pieces a seller has that would be appropriate for auction.  

On average, she sees 10,000 pieces of jewelry a year from potential consignors.   And that figure triples when considering the pieces seen by the other two specialists in her department.  However, very few pieces actually make the grade.  Of the 30,000 some pieces seen each year, Sotheby’s ends up selling only approximately 1,500.

“So we say a lot of ‘no,’ but we have to know what our collectors are looking for, because we are the liaison marketer between a seller and a buyer, a very high-end seller and a very high-end buyer.”

“Sotheby’s doesn’t own any of the pieces. It’s all on consignment.  People come to us and say ‘I have this jewelry.  I’d like you to help me sell it.’”  

Sotheby’s Jewelry Department has a minimum value of $10,000 that it will handle, which translates to between $30,000-$40,000 retail, according to Robin.

“So, yes, there’s lots of markup in retail jewelry!”

Once a piece is consigned, she is one of three specialists in her department who determine the value, and give the expertise of what sale it should go into.  Her department will conduct the research to discover the piece’s provenance, if any, and determine whether it has been cited in a book or if it has ever been displayed in a museum.  Photographs are taken, and a full appraisal describing the quality, size, and condition and a complete gemology report follows. 

Occasionally, a story behind the piece is offered, provided the client allows the auction house to share it.     

“So many of our clients, probably 95 percent of our clients, are very discreet; and we don’t disclose who they are.  But if we do have use of names, then sometimes we’ll do a biography on the seller, which always helps lend a bit of a story, and adds a bit more nuance to the piece.” 

There are a million different stories why a collector would decide to part with an exquisite piece of jewelry.  Some good, some bad, she adds. 

“And I have heard some doozies!”

She understands having jewelry and parting with it can be quite a sentimental and emotional experience for many of her clients. 

 “Everyone knows what their jewelry means to them and they love to share those stories.  I couldn’t tell you where I bought my shoes or my furniture or even my last car, but I can tell you every piece of jewelry I have and why I bought it or what occasion I got it for.”

 “It’s very hard when you have to tell a new divorcee that her ring is a fake, or tell somebody, whose grandmother told them ‘keep this because you can retire on it,’ that the large stone that they are hoping to sell is actually a synthetic-colored change sapphire instead of a rare natural alexandrite.  I have to do that all the time.  I have to break a lot of hearts.  Sometimes it’s devastating.”

Then there are times when she can actually help change a life.  Such was one recent transaction when a ‘lovely Southern woman’ explained that she wished to help out her daughter and son-in-law, a special ops soldier who had served several tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He wanted to take early retirement, but understood that his benefits would be diminished as a result.

Two perfectly-matched emeralds, which had been the family for six generations, were offered for consideration.  Robin appraised the two rings at $175,000 each.  They sold at auction for more than $1 million.  

So, what does Sotheby’s consider important or magnificent jewelry?  What qualities do you look for in selecting a piece for an auction?

“It’s the rarity, the value; beauty, history, and iconic design…lots of things go into it.  But most importantly, it’s real jewels, not what you’d see in a mall jewelry store.  True collector jewels.  I’m very fortunate to see the best jewelry in the world every day.” 

Sotheby’s conducts four jewelry auctions a year in New York, and two in both Hong Kong and Geneva.   Sotheby’s auctioned 380 lots worth of $46 million in April in New York.  

Her next jewelry auction will take place later this month and will feature property from the estate of Brooke Astor, New York’s most celebrated philanthropist and socialite who died in 2007 at the age of 105.

“I’m fortunate to do something like this even though I have OI—because it’s not terribly physical.  And that was kind of in the back in my mind all these years. I didn’t want to be out in the oil field where I could break something.  So I’m fortunate that I can do something that I love and that’s safe.”

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