Behind the Gavel: Meet Jill Burgum of Heritage Auctions

The executive director of fine jewelry talks about her professional journey, her role models, and her love affair with Art Deco.

April 2, 2024  |  Sonia Esther Soltani

Can you tell us more about your current role at Heritage?

I am fortunate to say that 18 years ago, Heritage presented me with an opportunity I couldn’t refuse: to launch a new department. It was the challenge of a lifetime for a woman, let alone one who didn’t grow up in the jewelry industry. I currently oversee a department of 15 and lead the department’s marketing strategy.

How did you start in the jewelry auction business?

Going old-school here! I saw an ad in the newspaper citing a need for preview workers at an auction house. All the gears in my head clicked when I walked through the doors. I had art history, jewelry manufacturing and gemology degrees and struggled to figure out how to connect them. The question was, what was I going to do with it all?

In hindsight, I had no idea how to combine the elements of my education. Auctions provided that magical opportunity to connect the dots. Here, I belonged.

Which piece or collection that you’ve handled has the most special memory for you?

There have been several special pieces, whether it was the rarity of a red diamond or that of cave pearls, the excitement of a jewel [with] provenance, or the deal that got away. There are too many to mention, although the one that got away sticks! It was a special sapphire ring with a Hollywood silver-screen pedigree.

In truth, those imprinted in my mind and meaning the most are the ones that changed someone’s life.

Who have been your professional role models?

I owe so much of my career to Carol Elkins of Sotheby’s. She inspired me to achieve, pursue my dreams and work hard to learn my craft. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the late, great gentleman Michael Kazanjian [of estate jeweler Kazanjian & Fogarty]. He taught me the class approach of old-school business. And finally, [estate dealer] Kurt Rothner, who taught me buying finesse.

Without a doubt, I am an Art Deco enthusiast. But I must admit, researching Victorian jewelry, with its mysteries [and] hidden meanings…is very satisfying.

Do you have any favorite eras when it comes to researching jewelry?

Without a doubt, I am an Art Deco enthusiast. But I must admit, researching Victorian jewelry, with its mysteries, hidden meanings, messages and symbolism, is very satisfying. I enjoy going down the rabbit hole in time.

How do you see the auction world evolving in terms of collectors and opportunities?

From the auction house perspective, chasing changing technology is epic. [The auction business] is an old-world industry facing radical changes, many driven by the pandemic, artificial intelligence (AI), TikTok, and [other] social media opportunities. Capturing the interest of a growing youth-based consumer market is a top priority.

Victorian Archeological Revival Cave Pearl gold necklace by Carlo Giuliano, which sold in April 2014.
(Heritage Auctions/

What advice would you give someone interested in a jewelry-auction career?

Invest in yourself, have an inquiring mind, and be ready to work hard. Study, read books, attend lectures, seminars and previews. Handle the jewelry, as one needs to feel it to understand it. Pay your dues.

You might know jewelry or gemology, but do you know people or the psychology of the deal? Be a student of life and history. Jewelry, fashion, entertainment and world events overlap and influence one another. A strong foundation and relatability lead to success.

Is there a piece coming up at auction we should look out for?

From a purely comical standpoint, the one that makes me the happiest is the Gypsy Monkey brooch. David Webb’s Animal Kingdom comes alive with wildly innovative creatures that inspire conversation. We have a cache of critters offered in our upcoming May 6 Signature Fine Jewelry auction. They do not disappoint!

David Webb brooch with diamonds, rubies, enamel, platinum and gold, featured in the May 6 sale.
(Heritage Auctions/

Main image: Jill Burgum. (Heritage Auctions/

This article is from the March-April 2024 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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Behind the Gavel: Meet Jill Burgum of Heritage Auctions

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