Specialist Focus: Virginia Salem, Head of Jewelry and Watches

Get a specialist's perspective on lots in our upcoming auction.

Learn more about our Jewelry & Watches department with Virginia Salem

05/04/2021     News and Film

How long have you been at Freeman’s, and where you were before?


Virginia Salem

Virginia Salem, VP | Head of Jewelry and Watches


I’ve been at Freeman’s for nearly seven years. Prior to that, I was with Bonhams in New York City. I launched and directed the Bonhams jewelry department.


Why did you become a gemologist? Was there a moment you realized this was your path?

I studied art history and art administration at Simmons University and from there got an internship at Skinner, a small auction house in Boston. I was typing appraisals and didn’t really know what I was typing because I’d studied art history, not jewelry. I was coming across all these interesting terms, like Kashmir sapphire and Burma ruby and I thought, “what is this?” From there, I worked at Neiman Marcus selling jewelry, still not really understanding gemology; soon after, though, I enrolled in the Gemological Institute of America and got my GG. I came back to Skinner and was a cataloguer. Through handling jewelry over many years and having some really good mentors, I was able to identify how to appraise things. Identifying jewelry is one thing—saying what’s a sapphire, diamond, ruby—but being able to price things is completely different. That’s where the expertise comes in, being able to tell if something is a reproduction. Through handling jewelry and really studying it, that’s where the true craft comes in.


What is your personal specialty or passion within the department?


An Art Deco emerald, sapphire, diamond, and ruby jabot

Lot 136 | An Art Deco emerald, sapphire, diamond, and ruby jabot, $15,000-20,000

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Throughout my career, I haven’t strayed from Art Deco jewelry, which was made in the 1920s and 30s. It’s so wearable and so streamlined, it’s almost like a little art form in and of itself. The use of platinum, the handmade artistry—I think that’s a lost art right now. The style is often reproduced in diamond engagement rings, but often you can tell that it’s been made recently. But in genuine Art Deco designs, the use of color is incredible, whether it’s sapphire-and-diamond on a beautiful bracelet, or rubies and diamonds, or Tutti Frutti—a number of different color combinations that became a signature of Cartier designs.


What is it about these older pieces that is so compelling?

Working in the auction world, I see a lot of pieces that have been previously owned. I really concentrate on and gravitate toward the older pieces. We work with a lot of estates, and some of the pieces have been in these estates or collections for over a hundred years. That’s what really fascinates me: hearing stories about people’s relatives and how they amassed their wealth, particularly around the turn of the last century. Americans were accumulating great wealth as a result of the Industrial Revolution and would go out and buy jewels and gemstones from the leading houses of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. It’s interesting to hear stories of what people’s ancestors had done to create this wealth. When a piece accumulates its own history, that’s what gets me really excited.


What’s the most unusual piece of jewelry you’ve handled at Freeman’s?


A rare Belle Époque fancy vivid yellow diamond pendant, J.E. Caldwell and Co.

A rare Belle Époque fancy vivid yellow diamond pendant, J.E. Caldwell and Co, sold for $760,000 (November 1, 2017)


A few years back, I visited a woman in her 70s on the Main Line whose grandfather had traveled the world and amassed this gemstone collection. It was about a ten-carat yellow diamond, but its color was an intense vivid yellow, saturated, almost like an egg yolk. It was also cushion-cut, which was apropos for that time period. It was a soft-looking stone, not harsh; it looked almost like a quail egg. It was such an honor to be able to work with it—that was a really special diamond. I would love to see it again someday.


How does the Jewelry and Watches department handle consignments?

There are so many different facets of consignment-getting. We work with attorneys and do appraisals for them for families’ tax purposes. There are individuals that have anywhere from one to twenty pieces they may have inherited and are no longer wearing; they’ll approach us and find out what the auction value might be. I’ve also done bank safe-deposit box appraisals, where the jewelry has been sitting in the box for many years. Those can be fun—you never know what you’re going to see.


What piece of jewelry would you recommend for someone just starting out with their collection?

It depends on their style. I don’t think one size fits all. One of our auctions, the Luxe sale, offers a more approachable price point and happens three times a year; the next is June 22. Those are quite popular if you’re looking for a diamond or eternity band, a smaller diamond engagement ring, fun earrings…gold charm bracelets have come back with a roar, the bigger the better, and you’ll find those in the Luxe sales.


What are some highlights of the May 19 Jewelry & Watches auction?

The auction on May 19 has some wonderful antique as well as contemporary pieces. There are a lot of diamond solitaires, so it’s a great auction for people who are looking to buy a diamond engagement ring. We have a prominent Philadelphia collection of approximately fifty lots, and even this collection ranges from antique to contemporary. Jewelry is so personal, and we have a wide selection of different materials in our sale. I’m not one to say what’s hot and what’s not, but I think people are not following trends as much; they’re buying what they like, and I think that’s great.


If you were to bid on any lot in the upcoming auction, which would it be?

Hard question! I approach jewelry asking two questions: is this a good investment, and/or do I want to wear this? In this upcoming auction, there are a couple lots that I’m in love with. One of them is Lot 2, a diamond dragonfly brooch set with an old mine-cut diamond in the center. It’s life-size, and if you put it on your shoulder, it just sits there like it’s landed. It’s a conversation piece. I’m not really looking to wear things that are quiet—live out loud!


A diamond rivière necklace

Lot 1 | A diamond rivière necklace, $25,000-35,000

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There’s also a diamond necklace that’s gorgeous, Lot 1, that’s set with old mine-cut diamonds. It’s not old, but it’s in the antique diamond necklace style. It’s a rivière necklace, which just means a river of diamonds. It’s beautiful, and so light that when you put it on you don’t even know you’re wearing it. It looks like the diamonds are floating on your neck.



Browse the upcoming auction and register to bid on the items in this collection, or join us online to watch the auction live on May 19.




Have something similar? Get in touch with our Jewelry and Watches department to request a complimentary auction estimate.