In the western world, pearls have long been the imprimatur of the well-behaved classes. They’re as quintessential a part of the bourgeois wardrobe as the designer jeans, the white shirt, the loafer and the little black dress. They almost never look out of place and can be worn as happily with casual gear as with a ball gown. And if there’s anything that links some of the world’s most famous but very disparate women, from the Duchess of Windsor to Ivana Trump, the Queen, Barbara Bush, Sharon Stone, Michelle Obama, Princess Diana, Jacqueline Onassis, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, it has to be their pearls.
And, while historically pearls were worn sumptuously and brazenly by maharajas, potentates, tsarinas and princes, kings and queens, in more recent times they have been associated with the demure and the well-brought-up, “girls in pearls” being shorthand for well-connected young ladies whose engagement photographs qualified for the frontispiece of Country Life magazine. But there would be one big difference: in the days of the high-living potentates, the pearls would have been real, or natural, which is basically all there was, while the girls in pearls were almost certainly all wearing cultured versions of their natural cousins.
Cultured pearls are, of course, “real”, in the sense that they, too, are formed around a piece of grit within an oyster or a mussel and are made up of nacre (mother-of-pearl). But with natural pearls, the tiny bit of grit enters the mollusc all on its own, whereas in the cultured versions, a tiny bead made of polished shell and a piece of mantle tissue is introduced by man – a technique invented by Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of the Mikimoto pearl empire. The difference sounds so minute that it seems scarcely credible not just that pearl experts can so easily and quickly distinguish between the two, but also that there should exist such a huge disparity in their material value. It’s worth noting that the terms South Sea and Tahitian are only applied to cultured pearls, natural ones being so scarce as to be almost not worth mentioning.
Chrissie Coleman-Douglas, who owns and runs Coleman Douglas Pearls, a specialist company with a shop in London’s Beauchamp Place, could sell you a fine 46cm string of cultured, graduated pearls for about £1,500, but at the same time could track down somebody who has a beautiful natural-black-pearl necklace of about the same length with an asking price of £150,000. At Bonhams, a strand of natural pearls that was given an estimate of £40,000-£50,000 in 2009 sold for £250,000 in 2010. At David Morris, where Jeremy Morris buys vintage and historic natural pearls whenever and wherever he can, there was, at the time of writing, a pair of grey cultured-pearl earrings – very pretty, hugely desirable – that had a price tag of some £3,000; while a pair of black and white natural-pearl earrings was selling for precisely 100 times more at £300,000. Single, natural pearls are often sold as a collector’s item, or set in a specially created one-off piece of jewellery. Indeed, very few matched strands of natural pearls exist, and those that do often sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The thing about natural pearls is that, as Mark Twain famously said of land, they aren’t making any more. The chances of coming across a saltwater pearl in the wild today is reckoned to be as remote as finding one in every 10,000 opened oysters, although a few black natural pearls are still turning up in Baja California. Freshwater pearls from mussels are more readily available and are still being harvested in rivers and lakes in places such as India, the Persian Gulf, Mexico and Scotland – the latter being home to the famous Abernethy pearl, found in the River Tay in 1967. Considered to be the most perfect Scottish specimen ever discovered, it is in the care of Cairncross of Perth, a jeweller that specialises in Scottish freshwater pearls. A string of white, pinky or mauvy freshwater pearls would cost anywhere between £5,000 and £25,000, depending on the quality, but they don’t have the cachet, or the transcendent beauty, of their saltwater cousins. Oil exploration in the Persian Gulf, the over-exploitation of pearl beds and the degradation of the marine environment mean that very few natural saltwater pearls remain and so, when you do come upon one, it will nearly always be from some historic, vintage source.
Thus, these days natural pearls are one of the rarest, most precious of jewels; they’re refined and elegant and could legitimately be called “trophy”, but only for those who don’t need to be showy. Morris says there is “a very narrow vein of highly sophisticated customers who really appreciate them”. Their stratospheric price rise is partly to do with their scarcity and a chilling sense that soon there may not be any more for sale, but it’s also due to this niche but very urbane market that has woken up to their power and beauty.
According to Coleman-Douglas, who can tell a natural pearl from a cultivated one as easily as you and I can tell a tomato from an aubergine, “A natural pearl has many, many layers of nacre and therefore the refraction of light around it gives back what the experts call ‘orient’. It is as if your eye is being invited to the innermost core of the pearl.” Only natural pearls have this extraordinary iridescence. With a cultured pearl, she says, “it is entirely different because it has fewer nacre layers and there comes a moment when the light hits the artificial bead that was inserted and is blocked”. The actual value of a natural pearl is determined in much the same manner as for other precious gems, with size, shape, colour and lustre all coming into play, and, of course, “orient” adds another hugely important ingredient to the equation. All factors being equal, however, the bigger the pearl the more valuable it will be, while large, perfectly round pearls are rare and highly sought-after.
Not that natural pearls have always been so desirable. They pass in and out of fashion just like anything else. In the late 1920s, a combination of the Wall Street Crash and the emergence of the cultured pearl killed the market. As almost every secretary could afford a string of cultured pearls if she saved enough, they lost their cachet. Coco Chanel wore them in abundance, mixing real with faux, and I often think of how her lover, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, who had showered her with glorious authentic Romanov jewellery, including fabulous pearls, must have felt when she announced to the world that it was so much more chic to wear fake versions. In the early 1950s, there was almost no demand for the real thing. Again, in the early 1980s, you could scarcely give pearls away; natural or otherwise, they were too bourgeois, too “uncool”.
Richard Burton famously bought La Peregrina, a large and perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pearl once owned by Mary I of England and later by the Bonapartes, for about $37,000 in 1969, at a time when the fortunes of natural pearls were low. When it was offered by Christie’s in 2011 in the sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery, by now set by Cartier into a magnificent necklace (pictured above, centre), it fetched nearly $12m. But, of course, wrapped up in this single (though undoubtedly stunning and rare) pearl was history, romance, provenance – all of which makes it clear that valuing a pearl is a hazardous business. (Christie’s had given an estimate of up to $3m.)
In 2007, the Baroda pearls, a double strand of 68 natural pearls once owned by the Gaekwar of Baroda were sold, also by Christie’s, along with matching brooch, earrings and ring, for about $7m. While the pearls were stunning, their history and glamorous associations added to their value. Even Jacqueline Onassis’s cultured string, reportedly bought originally for about $35 (hard to believe the wife of the most powerful man in the world at the time wore a chain-store necklace), sold in 1996 for $211,000 at Sotheby’s in New York.
But if you check the history of the famous double row of pearls that, in 1917, Pierre Cartier exchanged (along with $100 in cash) for the Fifth Avenue mansion that is still Cartier’s store, it soon becomes clear that, as financial advisers are always fond of reminding us, values can go down as well as up. At the time, the pearls were valued at about $1m, around the same sum as the building, so it was considered to be a fair exchange. Today, the Cartier mansion would be worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, while the pearls were sold by Parke-Bernet (now Sotheby’s) for a mere $170,000 ($830,000 less than their 1917 value) when they were last heard of in 1957. Then there are the famous Dodge pearls, bought in 1920 by Horace Dodge, the motorcar tycoon, for his wife, Anna Thomson Dodge, for $825,000 (a spectacular amount of money at the time), which were sold in 2008 by Bonhams for $600,000.
Yet things have changed again. Jean Ghika, director of the jewellery department at Bonhams, tells me that in the past four or five years the natural-pearl market has really begun to take off, with the past two years showing dramatic rises in prices as buyers from the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia particularly seek them out. David Bennett, chairman of Sotheby’s jewellery department for Europe and the Middle East, says that competition for them today is fierce. In November 2011, a five-row natural-pearl necklace by Cartier, admittedly with a romantic and aristocratic history, that was estimated to sell for between £550,000 and £750,000, made just over £2m.
So if you’re after a wondrous string of natural pearls, where do you start? If you have a favourite jeweller, whom you know to be well-connected, that is as good a place as any, whether they are designers and makers such as David Morris, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, dealers in vintage pieces such as SJ Phillips and Bentley & Skinner, or even auction houses. Morris, for instance, usually has a cache of them tucked away, waiting for inspiration – or a buyer. The big auction houses – Bonhams, Sotheby’s, Christie’s – invariably have a few in their fine-jewellery sales. At Sotheby’s sale of Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels, taking place in Geneva on May 14-15, there is to be a wonderful pearl and diamond necklace from the collection of the Kinsky princes that dates from about 1880 and has an estimated value of $300,000-$500,000. But there are also likely to be two- or three-row necklaces expected to go for $200,000-$300,000. Also at Sotheby’s Geneva, on May 14, in a sale of jewels from the personal collection of the great Suzanne Belperron, there will be an extraordinary ring she designed, made from natural pearls mounted in platinum and white gold and adorned with old-mine and baguette diamonds, which is estimated to sell for between $30,000 and $40,000.
Coleman-Douglas finds that whitish/pinkish pearls are the most sought-after and a good string – remember, quality varies enormously – costs anything between £100,000 and £1m. A pendant with just one beautiful pearl might cost from about £1,000 to over half a million. And then there are always buttons – small pearls look wonderful on a fine jacket or coat – that range roughly from £350 to £800 each, while a solitary pearl on a ring starts at £450. But also back in fashion are natural black pearls from Baja. Although it takes Coleman-Douglas time to track them down, she recently sold a string for a sum equal to 100 times that of its cultured-pearl counterpart.
When buying natural saltwater pearls, always ask for an authorised certificate, such as the one from the Swiss Foundation for the Research of Gemstones (SSEF), to confirm they are genuine and, if they are coloured, you need a certificate to state the colour is natural.
Natural pearls are stunning reminders of a long-gone world. They are evidence, as if we needed it, of the powerful drive of a species to survive, for the nacre is, as Sumiko Mikimoto, the wife of Kokichi Mikimoto’s grandson and successor, explains, “a pure and perfect solution to the oyster’s need to protect its delicate body from harm”. They have almost vanished from the earth, and even the cultured pearl is threatened by the ongoing destruction of marine resources. So if you hanker after pearls – any pearls, but natural ones most of all – buy them now if you have the means. They are not only things of great beauty but, unlike fancy parures or glittering confections of stones and diamonds, they can be worn every day without looking ostentatious. As Erin Morris, wife of Jeremy Morris, once said, “You may be mugged for your Rolex but you’re unlikely to be clobbered for your pearls.” And yet they are an enduring source of great private pleasure.