or decades, Thomas Faerber and Ronny Totah have been buying antique jewellery, Burmese sapphires, natural pearls, jewels of royal provenance and precious stones. They have exhibited them at fairs and shows, sold them and kept them, experienced regret and satisfaction. They have known each other for 40 years. After one fair too many, one that no longer satisfied them, one that did not meet their needs, they decided to create their own. That was in 2016.
They talked about it to their partners, to other gem dealers, and to their friends, who are among the biggest names in the jewellery world. They followed the advice they received almost blindly. This is how the GemGenève show was born: from the will of two men in the trade who wanted to do things differently. Two dealers who were not content to sell square metres, but who wished to offer a tailor-made showcase for stone cutters, traders, antique jewellery dealers, gemmology laboratories, young designers, and also to schools.
- Thomas Faerber and Ronny Totah, co-founders of GemGenève
The first edition of GemGenève was held in 2018 and it was a great success. The organisers put themselves in the shoes of the visitors and dealers, and held themselves to an extraordinarily high standard. The show brought together 147 exhibitors and welcomed 3,206 visitors. The second edition was held in 2019*, and then Covid put the brakes on.
At the end of August 2021, Ronny Totah, Thomas Faeber, their daughters Nadège Totah and Ida Faerber, both members of the GemGenève Board of Directors, met. Should there be a 2021 edition? Forty exhibitors answered yes.
The third edition of GemGenève duly took place from 4 to 7 November 2021. The show was put together in six weeks – an unprecedented achievement. Attendance was higher than expected and business was good for everyone. “This health crisis makes us realise how important a trade fair like GemGenève is for the entire industry,” says Thomas Faerber. Interview.
Europa Star: What made this third edition special?
Ronny Totah: We knew that this edition would be an emotional success, but it was also a commercial success for almost all the exhibitors. It was a reunion edition. We certainly made mistakes, but no one noticed because everyone was so happy to be there.
Until the end of August you weren’t sure that this edition of GemGenève would see the light of day. How did you end up doing the show?
Ronny Totah: We knew we had to do it at the end of August. But we didn’t know yet whether we would hold it in a hotel, with 30 exhibitors, or at Palexpo, in a smaller space, with 50 exhibitors. When the figure of 65 exhibitors was reached around 20 September, we completely revised our plans for the hall. We were very lucky because Palexpo allowed us to rent the space according to our needs: the hall is up to 200 metres long and we ended up using 125 metres. We were able to keep the dates we had booked. We had also reserved hotels at the same time. We were very well prepared.
Ida Faerber: What surprised me was the fact that some exhibitors came from Hong Kong, knowing that they would have to go into quarantine for three weeks on their return. Others came from Bangkok, from India, when the fair was in the middle of the Diwali holiday. The same goes for visitors from all over the world, including the USA. We all suffered during the pandemic, and there was a real need to get together and work together.
- The collage by artist Célia Martorchio-Fabbri represents Flora, the goddess of spring. The beauty of nature is sublimated by the use of jewels.
In your opening speech, you said that you expected about 2,000 visitors. There were 2,700. Were you surprised?
Ronny Totah: We had 2,700 visitors, of whom 1,065 came back, which is a very interesting figure to note: almost half of the people visited the fair at least twice!
Were the big international dealers there?
Ronny Totah: The big European buyers were there. What surprised us, however, was the presence of buyers from the USA, the Emirates and Singapore. Because of the public health situation, we didn’t expect that. The ratio of buyers to visitors was much higher than in previous years.
Nadège Totah: The exhibitors were impressed by the quality of the visitors. There weren’t that many people, but they were the right buyers.
Given the success of this edition, what can you deduce about the future of high jewellery shows?
Ronny Totah: That the future is not bleak. There will certainly be a change in exhibitors’ attitudes in the future. Previously, as dealers, we organised our sales according to the fair calendar. Over the past two years, we have begun to understand that we can sell without the fairs. Our business will go back to the way it was years ago, with less travel. We’re going to choose the places where we really want to be. Instead of doing eight or twelve fairs a year, we’ll do one in Asia, one in the United States, one in Europe... We’re not worried about the future, but that doesn’t mean that the future will be euphoric either.
“Our business will go back to the way it was years ago, with less travel. Instead of doing eight or twelve fairs a year, we’ll do one in Asia, one in the United States, one in Europe...”
Ida Faerber: Buyers have been thinking along the same lines. Many of them have told me that they are going to select three or four trade fairs where they will do their shopping. They no longer want to fly every two weeks! These events are still essential – you can’t just work by videoconference – but I would find it interesting if there were one that brought together our entire industry.
Could this “one” you mention be GemGenève?
Ronny Totah: It could be... But we might also think about organising a multidisciplinary show elsewhere, if there is not enough space in Geneva. It’s too early to say, but it’s in the pipeline.
What do you mean by “multidisciplinary fair”?
Ronny Totah: A show that would not necessarily welcome more dealers, but would include other sectors: manufacturers, independent watchmakers, case makers, etc. A bit like what was done in Basel 35 years ago.
“We might also think of organising a multidisciplinary show. A bit like what was done in Basel 35 years ago.”
Will GemGenève be held in Geneva in 2022?
Ronny Totah: Yes, it will take place in Geneva from 5 to 8 May. Applications are already coming in: in less than a week, 40 registrations have been confirmed. And we already have a waiting list. We may be close to 140 dealers next year. It’s up to us to decide how far we want to go.
The GemGenève show is not like any other. How do you explain this?
Ida Faerber: Only we can make a show like this happen. We are dealers and we understand the needs of other dealers. We love our stones, our jewellery: we want to exhibit them in good conditions and in a beautiful setting. We also want the exhibitors to be happy and successful. Professional fair organisers sell space and advertising, but they don’t understand our specific needs. I have a little anecdote that sums it up. An exhibitor told me that when Ronny calls him, they might talk for 40 minutes about the lighting at the exhibition booth. This may seem anecdotal, but it’s the nuts and bolts of our trade: if the jewellery and stones are not well lit, the result will be disappointing.
“We are dealers and we understand the needs of other dealers. Professional fair organisers sell space and advertising, but they don’t understand our specific needs.”
Nadège Totah: Above all, we know how to listen and advise. I know the merchandise of each merchant, which means I can advise him or her on which colour lights to use, depending on the colour of the stones. I have been known to respond to a New York exhibitor at midnight because of the time difference, sketch out his entire booth and send the drawing back via WhatsApp for approval. I do this because the bond we all have goes far beyond that of exhibition organiser to exhibitor.
I know you don’t like to mention figures, but as an exhibitor, were you satisfied with the sales?
Ronny Totah and Ida Faerber: Yes, yes, very, very happy (laughs).
Looking at the pieces that were sold, can you point to any post-Covid trends? What kind of pieces are customers willing to invest in today?
Ronny Totah: We specialise in Kashmir sapphires, coloured diamonds and pearls, and we haven’t noticed any difference from before, although I haven’t had time to look at all the results.
Ida Faerber: We have a very wide range of pieces and we have felt the trends coming through. Customers flocked to beautifully made, branded jewellery. Which is a pity, because there are so many beautiful unsigned pieces out there!
“Customers flocked to beautifully made, branded jewellery. Which is a pity, because there are so many beautiful unsigned pieces out there!”
What are the most popular brands?
Ida Faerber: Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier are still the most sought-after. But also Tiffany & Co, Chaumet and Boucheron. As long as the pieces were beautiful, wearable and signed, they found buyers. Lacloche is also very fashionable, but the production was much smaller than that of Van Cleef & Arpels or Cartier and the items are rarer. If you had a piece by Ostertag too, it was immediately snapped up. As for jewels signed Bulgari – perhaps this is related to the exhibition that took place this summer in Seoul – they are selling like hot cakes. There is great demand for jewellery from the 1970s: everything we had from those years is gone. They are very wearable, they are not fragile and they are very fashionable. Buyers want to invest, but they also want to enjoy and wear their jewellery.
What about antique jewellery?
Ida Faerber: We have also had a lot of requests for 19th century jewellery. An old cut diamond set in that period is less flashy than a diamond of today, and people are less afraid to wear it. We have also had strong demand for headbands or hair jewellery to wear at weddings: this is probably linked to the influence of Instagram, where you see all the royal families wearing tiaras.
“Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier are still the most sought-after. But also Tiffany & Co, Chaumet and Boucheron. As long as the pieces were beautiful, wearable and signed, they found buyers.”
What are you most proud of?
Nadège Totah: That we managed to design and build 120 booths in just six weeks! And I was very touched by the recognition of each of the exhibitors.
Ida Faerber: The human side of this fair. There was mutual support among the exhibitors, designers exchanged addresses of setters, manufacturers, etc. You could feel a real cohesion.
Ronny Totah: My greatest pride is the presence of young students at the show. This year, for the first time, schools such as ISG Luxury Management, students studying for the Certificat Fédéral de Capacité (CFC) and CREA, were able to present their programme alongside HEAD. The students were so proud to show what they have achieved! And the fact that they were rubbing shoulders with great dealers and designers reinforced their sense of vocation.
“There is great demand for jewellery from the 1970s: everything we had from those years is gone.”
*GemGenève visitor numbers:
- 2018: 147 exhibitors and 3,206 visitors, corresponding to 4,300 admissions (the latter figure includes people who came more than once)
- 2019: 210 exhibitors, 3,474 visitors, corresponding to 4,800 entries
- 2021: 120 exhibitors, 2,757 visitors, corresponding to more than 3,800 entries