By Maria Doulton in London
When I ask Michael Bruno, founder of 1stdibs, why his is such a great website for finding vintage jewels, the answer is clear: "There is nothing else like it. There are new things on our site every week. It's like the world's best jewellery show taking place every week."
A glance through the jewellery and watch sections confirms this assertion. But be warned: a browse on 1stdibs can turn into hours of glorious jewellery gazing.
What originally launched 14 years ago as a website to help interior decorators source high-end antique furniture for their discerning clients has evolved into a thriving online marketplace covering fine art, fashion, jewellery and watches. "The unifying element is lifestyle," explains Bruno over the phone as he is driven from his country house to Manhattan. "1stdibs is the ultimate luxury lifestyle destination, for home and more personal luxury like vintage fashion and jewellery. These are all things that retain their value and enrich your life."
"I was working in the San Francisco real estate business and watching the dot.com era take off in the late 1990s," explains Bruno. We pause while he asks for the A/C to be adjusted. "I understood the dot.com situation and decided that I could take it anywhere on the planet and apply it. Being in real estate, which is a professionals' market, I had been accessing databases online before the Internet existed."
"At the same time I also learned that international interior designers were buying products from antique stores around the world," he continues, "but they didn't have a database like the professional realtors, so they had to get in a car to go and see things. So I thought that if I set up a system to search for, say, chandeliers in NY then - bam! - they would all come up like a listing of condos in Manhattan."
And so Bruno began his journey in creating the world's largest online market place for rare and desirable objects. From San Francisco he went to Paris where, ambling around the flea markets, he realised that he was looking at the gilt mirrors, Louis XIV chairs and chaise longues that interior decorators in New York were crying out for. So Bruno started photographing his finds and, after convincing sceptical stall dealers, putting them online for interior designers in the USA to see and buy.
"To begin with we experimented and explored," says Bruno. "At the time the franc was weak and the dollar strong. What's more, the French 1940s was a popular style so it was easy to sell online. It's what people were looking for and they liked it. We created the perfect storm."
Then Bruno turned his Midas-like gaze to jewellery. "Previously, it was under-served. There was no market place for high-end jewellery online. It sounded like such a good fit as we are shooting for the same sort of clients as for furniture and art so it was a nice overlap."
Today, some 200 antique jewellery and watch dealers, including Bentley & Skinner, Hancock's and Berganza - all vetted by the 1stdibs team - offer their wares from around the world, and buying really is as simple as a few clicks. Beyond the huge choice and variety of jewels and watches, Bruno is adamant that, even though a website is a far cry from a local jeweller's shop, relationships and trust are key.
"It's harder than you realise to build up an audience," says Bruno. "We have been in business for 14 years and spent many, many millions of dollars developing an audience that believes in us. Over time we have become more 'real'. We are not just a website but something you can trust. We have a pretty spectacular selection from incredible vendors around the world, and that is what brings people back."
"In the first place, I went to meet jewellery dealers to make sure they were the best fit. It is massively important for jewellery that we get it right. I look at the dealers' personalities and consider lots of things because, when building relationships online, people come back for more and need to know that we are working with people who give good customer service."
At any one time some 20,000 jewels are for sale on the site and some 2,000 watches ranging in price from £300 to more than £1 million. I like how the jewels are categorised by era, designer and style, which in itself is an education. And where else can you find an incredible array of jewels by Suzanne Belperron, Verdura and Seaman Schepps for sale all in one place?
1stdibs claims to be the place where collections are born. But having been drawn into the site for a beyond healthy amount of time, I ask Bruno if 1stdibs is not, in fact, the place where collectors are born?
"I do think it is a combination of both," he replies. "It happens at the same moment. Collectors don't realise they are collecting - they are just doing it, continuing to buy things that are beyond need. I am one of those. And jewellery is a great thing to collect as you don't need much space in which to store it and you can wear it. It's much more practical than being a real estate junkie."
So what has Bruno indulged in lately from 1stdibs.com? "I have a 1950s Vacheron Constantin watch that I am wearing right now. Looking at it I see that I need to wind it. And also I see that I have on two different cufflinks - that's what comes from getting dressed in the dark."