CAPTURING THE IMAGE OF ANTIQUE JEWELRY

[Editor’s note: Robert Weldon has been photographing gems and jewelry for over a decade, initially at the Gemological Institute of America as a staff photographer, slide custodian and research librarian. Since then, his work has been published in more than a dozen publications worldwide.]

Keeping a photographic record of a beautiful or unique piece of jewelry is the next best thing to owning it. Through photos, you can regularly increase your “jewelry” collection without taking out a second mortgage. While you might say this is a somewhat barren approach to owning jewelry (as my wife frequently does), having a photographic record of jewelry offers many benefits.

If you are in the business of buying and selling estate jewelry, you quickly realize you can’t own or buy all of the pieces you are trying to sell. Sometimes a photo will have to suffice. Jewelry appraisers need to document everything about the jewelry itself, including the condition, gems, markings, style and quality. If you’re a lecturer or author, you know how challenging it can be to gather a collection of pictures to illustrate your lecture, book or article.

I’ll try to put an end (or perhaps establish a beginning) to your frustrations regarding taking decent jewelry photographs. Remember from the outset that no one book or article will provide all of the answers. Much of what you learn will be by experience – by pressing that shutter release, viewing the results and making the appropriate modifications. I readily admit fine jewelry photography can be trying at times, but one good shot is worth all of the aggravation and rolls of spent film.

Tools for the job

We’ll concentrate on 35mm photography, using a single-lens-reflex camera that is manual – or has a manual override – with a built-in light meter. The type of lenses and close-up systems you use are crucial too. I always seek as much versatility in lenses as possible. Consequently, I own a few macro lenses (such as Nikon’s 105mm or 60mm macro lens). Often I combine these with a bellows attachment to provide added versatility and enhanced close-up performance. A less-expensive method is to buy close-up filters or extension rings.

The type of film you use is quite important. I use slide film (tungsten) because slides are just about the best medium for documenting, labeling (you can scribble on the sides) and storing (they can be easily sorted, stacked and boxed). In addition, most publishers prefer slide or transparency film. And if you’re giving a lecture, voilá, your presentation art is ready. Most significantly, slide film tends to give you more consistent results than negative (or print) film. The standards of consistency at most print processing labs is questionable; you often will see color variations in printing from lab to lab, even from day to day in the same lab.

Of course, if your print lab knows your standards and provides beauty and uniformity in printing – and if you are still married to the notion that negative film is better for you – then stick with it. But let me point out you can have a print made from a slide if you insist on having a print. Polaroid Corp. makes a machine that makes “instant” prints from slides; though there can be a rather dramatic fall-off in photo quality. Any good processing studio, even a photocopy store such as Kinko’s, can make acceptable to excellent prints for you quickly. And you’ll still have the slides in case you are asked to speak at “Jewelry Camp” in Maine.

Light and the ways you use it are valuable photographer’s tools. I use incandescent lights – not a flash or strobe lighting system— because it gives me more control with constant light than I get with strobe light, which lasts only 1/20,000 of a second. Of course, good strobe lighting systems have modeling lights, which are constant, and a few photographers have mastered the art of photographing this way. This, too, is a matter of choice. One good thing about shooting this way: you can use daylight-balanced print or slide film. You must use the appropriate film for the available light temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin (see chart on page 213).

Other considerations

Your working space is important too. It must be large enough to house the camera and tripod, a larger table “stage,” light fixtures, extension

cables, shelves and you. Ideally, it can be sealed off from other light sources, leaving no possibility of mixing or contaminating your incandescent lights with daylight or fluorescent light.

The environment should be clean – dust is one of the greatest evils in gem and jewelry photography. As you enlarge your jewelry subject on film, dust can look as large as snowflakes. Every jewel must be thoroughly cleaned before it’s put on the stage.

Your stage is where all of the action takes place. Mine is not very large, only about 16 by 22 inches. It can be a table or a commercial stage, bought at a photographic supply store, or one you make yourself. It should be a framework that allows you to add or subtract glass, cardboard, wood or metallic backgrounds, and you should be able to disassemble it easily in case you want to take it to another location. It should not wobble; if you knock it accidentally (which I assure you will happen frequently), it should give you just enough time to curse slightly and then get back to work.

The cursed wobbles brings up another point: you must have a tripod, the sturdiest you can afford. This kind of close-up photography often requires small lens iris diaphragms

(or f-stops) combined with long exposures. It does so for a good reason: the manipulation of depth of field. This refers to you and the camera’s ability to make the subject matter appear in sharp focus from one end to the other. When I photograph two or more jewels, for example, I want all of them to appear in sharp focus. The smaller the aperture, the sharper your depth of field. Often, I chose f-stops of 22, 32 and above.

Using small apertures and limited lighting calls for prolonged exposures. As your may know, most photographers use a tripod for shutter speeds slower than 1/60 of a second. With jewelry photography, some of my exposures can last up to a minute! (Don’t panic; most are between half of a second to 4 seconds.)

All of this camera nomenclature will quickly become routine. There are countless books and magazines available to help teach you the jargon. Your real focus (pardon the expression) will be to bring to life that sudden spectacular diamond and colored diamond Victorian pin that you have available for an hour. You must always ask yourself, “how can I make this jewel sing?”

Choosing the piece

You may not always have a choice about what to photograph. But if you do, shoot the loveliest piece first – the one that makes your heart thump. Here’s why, and it is a dirty little secret. Even if your photograph is not a technical achievement, the sheer beauty of the subject matter will conquer most of your camera’s shortcomings.

I also believe that if you have true love for a particular jewel, that love will shine forth from the resulting photograph. To understand how true it is, consider the opposite: a great photo of a lousy piece. You got it; it’s anticlimactic.

Choosing the background

Background can make or break your photograph. Always keep your main subject matter in mind. If it is jewelry or gems, consider minimizing the “weight” of the background to lessen the chance it will compete with the jewelry. Or use a wildly contrasting background to help the jewel leap up from the photograph.

Backgrounds can be made of anything. Colorful, white, black, shiny, matte, metallic or textured papers from art-supply stores, metal, wood and glass – with and without texture – should be part of your repertoire. A photographer should always be on the lookout for interesting or complementary materials, substances to help define a theme for the photograph.

Some years ago, I wrote a story about East African gemstones. While in Tanzania, I gathered some porous volcanic rock near Mt. Kilimanjaro, as well as some of the spectacular African grasses that grew wild. I stored them carefully in my camera bag like precious relics. The idea for the photograph was already brewing in my brain.

Once in the U.S., I shot a piece of tanzanite jewelry in a leopard pattern mokumé gané by designer Steven Kretchmer. All of the components I gathered in Africa and spirited brazenly through U.S. customs ended up in a photograph with a truly African feel. Some photographers like to stick with one type of background and make it their signature. For appraisers, this might be the most expeditious and consistent way. I look for backgrounds or create backgrounds that I feel celebrate the particular piece.

Lighting

We touched on lighting as a part of the tool bag, but there’s no end to stressing how utterly essential the “right kind” of light is in recording a desirable image on film. Ask yourself this question: “Does this piece require harsh (or direct) lighting or soft and diffused lighting?” Most jewelry requires soft, even light that reflects and refracts through gemstones evenly. This is the way you would look at jewelry if given a chance.

But what if the jewelry possesses a gemstone with phenomena? How will you look at that? More often than not, you will choose direct lighting to accentuate the phenomena, such as play of color in opal or cat’s eye in chrysoberyl. The same basic rules hold true for photography. I sometimes use flashlights or fiber optics to accentuate the gem’s character on such occasions. My basic set-up consists of three to four lights: one on each side of the camera, sometimes one from above (diffused or not) and one as backlighting to create “soft spots” or reflections in the image and to give the jewel a shadow on my background. Some people hate the shadows. To me, however, the shadows help to define that the jewelry is on something and not floating in space. If you like the flying-in-air approach, photograph your jewelry on glass and simply eliminate your backlighting.

For diffusion, you can use panels of ground glass, translucent material or milky plexiglas (plastic, available through plastic distributors). All is well as long as the light transmitted through your diffuser does not change in basic color temperature.

MATCHING FILM TO LIGHT
TYPICAL LIGHTING AND ITS TEMPERATURE (in degrees Kelvin)

Day Flash Fluorescent* Incandescent Blue Lamp
5,000°-5,400° 3,800°-4,200° Uneven spectrum 2,900°-3,400° 5,000°
Daylight color print (Kodacolor, Fujicolor) 5,500° OK OK Green Yellow OK
Daylight color slide (Ektachrome, Fujichrome) 5,500° OK OK Green Yellow OK
Tungsten slide (Ektachrome 160 or 64) 3,200° Blue Blue Blue/green OK Blue
Black and white OK OK OK OK OK

Some photographers use metallic, undercoated umbrellas to diffuse and bounce light onto their subject. This too is a matter of choice and experimentation. Diffusers, whatever form, also help in the photography of shiny jewelry, where the photographer’s leering countenance is often captured in a reflected “self-portrait.”

Photographing shiny metal

Photographing jewels with mirror-like surfaces is perhaps the biggest challenge. Here is the trick. If you

are an appraiser and are looking for defects or scratches in the surface of jewelry, you most always angle the jewelry to be parallel to your light source. The same theory applies in photography, but you must always diffuse your light. In short, the larger, shiny surface that you wish to show must remain parallel to a diffused light source. It is a similar approach for the photography of hallmarks or other markings in metal. The shiny side must reflect an image of your diffuser.

Some people use diffusion tents that scatter light evenly inside. These are available at photographic supply houses. Make sure the opening to your stage (which allows your camera’s lens to peek through) is not seen or is minimized in the reflections. Do this by angling the largest, shiniest side toward your diffuser and the smallest side toward the camera.

Photographing gems

Some photographers devote a whole lifetime to get the image of a certain gem just right. I’m one of them. Unmounted gems pose certain challenges. Here, again, the beauty factor chimes in. The better cut a gem has, the better its color and the better its size, the better it will photograph.

When a gem is mounted in jewelry, sometimes a compromise must be struck. You must make the gems look good while making the jewelry look its best. Lighting techniques that are good for one may not apply for the other. If you’ve ever looked at a piece of jewelry at an auction preview and then been disappointed by its picture in the catalog, it’s because the photographer had to make a choice: the jewel or the gem? If you study auction catalogs, you often will see phenomenal gems in jewelry that never look as good as you remember, when you saw them in person at the preview.

Documenting the piece

For a simple record of a piece, a basic head-on shot is fine. But if you are an appraiser wishing to record all of a jewel’s characteristics and nuances, do what you normally do, but take shots of the process. Turn it over. Record any markings or hallmarks. Search for any visible repairs. View it from the side and capture the gallery work. If it has a special clasp, show it closed and then open. If it’s broken, show where. If the base metal is showing under a plated gold layer, make that your “exhibit A.” All of this will serve you well in court when your own tongue ties itself in helpless knots and fails you miserably. Remember the adage about what a picture is worth. It’s absolutely true.

But you must first generate those pictures, and the time is now to start shooting.antiquorum sells most lotsin march watch sale Antiquorum Auctioneers’ liquidation sale of Important Contemporary Collector’s Wristwatches brought $2.5 million in March.

Private buyers from all over the world were the top bidders at the sale, a liquidation of the stock of jewelry company UVB Distribution Ltd. The catalog portion of the auction was 97% sold, and 289 lots were sold through a silent auction. Lots were sold on average at 70% over starting prices.

The top lot of the sale was a set of two “Souscription” watches by Breguet, which sold to an American private collector for $233,217. A Breguet “Tourbillon Squelette” wrist watch sold to a New Zealand private collector for $153,217. Two Audemars Piguet watches: a “Grande et petite sonnerie au passage et répétition des quarts” limited-edition wrist watch and a “John Shaeffer” No. 8 limited-edition wrist watch each sold for $71,678.

Antiquorum Auctioneers, 2 Rue du Mont-Blanc, CH-1201, Geneva, Switzerland; (41-22) 909-2850, fax (41-22) 909-2860, e-mail antiquor@iprolink.ch.

Sotheby’s launches season in St. Moritz

Sotheby’s began 1997 in St. Moritz, Switzerland, with a $12.6 million sale over two evenings. The auction house sold 78.41% of the lots offered.

Among the top lots were a blue diamond ring by Friedrich, selling for $669,551; a ring that previously belonged to Queen Marie-Josée of Italy for $609,240; and a sapphire and diamond ring that sold for $527,122. Sotheby’s said a high percentage of the lots purchased were by private buyers.

Sotheby’s, 1334 York Ave., New York, NY 10021; (212) 606 7392, fax (212) 606-7014.

Shristie’s signs Lease

At Rockefeller Center

Christie’s signed a 30-year lease for a space in Rockefeller Center in New York City in March and plans to consolidate its Park Avenue gallery and two warehouses into the space by fall 1998, according to The New York Times.

The 300,000-square-foot gallery at 20 Rockefeller Plaza will provide more space for the auction house’s growing business, the Times said. Christie’s will maintain its Christie’s East house on E. 67th St.

The auction house plans to spend $40 million to renovate the space, which is now a garage, into a gallery with a main salesroom to hold 1,000 people, a smaller second salesroom, a bookstore and exhibit space.

Christie’s expects to save money on transportation and to operate more efficiently with its operations under one roof, a spokesperson told the Times.

Christie’s Feb.19-20 Important Jewels Sale in St. Moritz, Switzerland, brought a total $11.1 million, with 80% of the lots selling. That’s represents a 40% increase in dollar value over the first sale of 1996.

The top lot was a ring featuring a 15.04-ct. cushion-shaped ruby. A private German collector paid $439,428 for the ring. Diamonds took their places among the top-sellers also: a ring with a 23.12-ct. cushion-shaped diamond sold for $394,218, an unmounted 18.23-ct. heart-shaped diamond sold for $273,658 and a ring with an 8.55-ct. rectangular-cut diamond sold for $235,983.

François Curiel, Christie’s international jewelry director, said the buyers were primarily private, many of them Asian.

Exhibits

Centennial Arts and Crafts Exhibit

The Centennial Metals Exhibition of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston, Mass., highlights jewelry, hollowware and ironwork. This exhibition, open through June 29, is curated by Michael Monroe, former curator of the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution and now executive director of the American Craft Council.

The Society of Arts and Crafts, 175 Newbury Street, Boston, MA 02116; (617) 266-1810.

London Museum Opens Exhibit

The Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London, is staging the first major exhibition of the work of Placido Zuloaga through Jan. 11, 1998.

Zuloaga (1834-1910) was a master of damascening, the ancient art of embellishing metal objects with gold and silver inlay designs.

Victoria and Albert Museum,South Kensington, London, SW7 2RL; (44-171) 938-8607, fax (44-171) 938-8341.