Christie’s: How Digital Is Driving Sales of Big-Ticket Items

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This article first appeared in the special edition of The State of Fashion: Watches and Jewellery, co-published by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company. To learn more and download a copy of the report, click here.

When Christie’s launched its first online jewellery sale in 2011 with a collection of Elizabeth Taylor’s costume jewellery, online was meant to be a secondary channel to live sales. Less than a decade later, the pandemic has shifted the auction house’s priorities considerably. In 2020, the number of online jewellery auctions increased 143 percent year-on-year for the British firm and the overall value of online sales in the category has more than doubled.

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According to Christie’s global managing director of luxury, Aline Sylla-Walbaum, who oversees the jewellery, watch, handbag and wine categories, 75 percent of Christie’s luxury auctions will be held online by 2022. Having kept a close eye on the development of digital technologies, from virtual try-ons and blockchain to the possibility of selling on China’s social platforms like WeChat and Xiaohongshu, Sylla-Walbaum now believes that digital channels will be responsible for attracting even more jewellery buyers to auction. If a centuries-old auction house like Christie’s can deploy the digital transformation needed for the future, she suggests, so too can reluctant jewellery brands.

BoF: Large price tags no longer represent the same barrier to selling fine jewellery online as they once did, but customers still expect a high-end experience. How have you managed shifting big-ticket item sales to the online environment?

Aline Sylla-Walbaum: Auctions have been working well since 1744 when Sotheby’s started them, and since 1766 when Christie’s started theirs. But if you take that competing historical [offline] sales channel out of the equation and ask yourself if there’s a rational reason why higher value lots shouldn’t be performing well [online] today — and you find out that there’s not — well then you try it. In purely online sales last year [in 2020], 28 jewellery lots sold for over £100,000 ($140,000). We just need to be bolder and the greater success we see online, the more comfortable consigners will be.

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Over the next five years, how will the online jewellery space be affected by the evolution of marketplaces like 1stDibs and Farfetch?

I think platforms like 1stDibs and Farfetch will grow, and the key element for those platforms — as it is for us, to be fair — is the expertise. You must be on top of it and that’s not easy because the moment anything is worth anything, there’s a counterfeit. So having expertise and credibility in the market is key.

If big jewellery brands move into selling second-hand jewellery online alongside their new collections, how might that impact Christie’s?

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If brands wanted to start developing their own secondary market, offering clients to buy back their previous pieces, that would be a different space [from us] but I don’t see them going there except for some exceptional pieces. Their business and margin are selling what they produce today and they also have a legacy duty to project the brand into the future.

Smaller brands appear to be at a disadvantage to larger players that create a lot of noise online. What strategies could smaller brands adopt to stand out?

If smaller brands play it right in terms of SEO, search, influencers etc., then awareness will be amazing. But they will need endorsement. People will still want to know if somebody famous is wearing it and what the key market leaders are saying. Online is a huge boost and accelerator for smaller brands because it saves them investment in the physical footprint — though at some point, they will still need [physical] interaction with their client base.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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