Natural Pearls

By Olivier Wagner

GENEVA - Natural pearls are a true miracle of nature and are the only gems that show off their natural beauty without further enhancement. Symbols of love, beauty and power, they have been adored and admired by Emperors, Kings and Queens alike, throughout history and across continents and cultures.

Today natural pearls are increasingly rare as their original source is nearly depleted. Pollution in the oceans has affected the pearl fishing industry and they are now mainly found in auction house salesrooms, as the majority of saltwater pearls were harvested 100 years ago. Classic and timeless, worn during the day or at night, natural pearls are always in fashion and are an essential highlight to every jewellery collection.

Despite current economic turmoil, the demand for natural pearls is ever increasing. Due to their rarity and desirability, they make an excellent wearable form of alternative investment. Record-breaking prices at auction have become the norm and in 2014 we saw several natural pearl pieces outperforming their high estimates at Sotheby’s. Necklaces of one row or more have always commanded legendary prices as it can take decades to compose a well-matched strand of the best quality. Increasingly hard to find, fine drop-shaped pearls and buttons, especially pairs, are also very much in demand.

Size and shape are two key factors for realising spectacular prices. A ten-millimetre diameter is a benchmark, as five carats is for a white diamond. The smoothness and lustre of the skin follow in establishing value. In May 2014, an important natural pearl and diamond necklace combining all these rare qualities sold for USD 2,963,829, more than eight times the pre-sale high estimate. Colour is also a feature of key importance. A white-cream colour with light pink overtones is the most desirable, but like fancy coloured diamonds, natural coloured pearls are increasingly sought after. Multi-coloured hues of grey, green, pink and purple are especially popular at the moment.

Natural pearls with distinguished historical provenance are highly sought-after by discerning collectors. A recent example is the natural pearl and diamond necklace (estimated USD 800,000–1,400,000) sold in Geneva last November for USD 3,426,669. Formerly in the collection of Joséphine de Beauharnais, Queen of Sweden and Norway (1807-1876) it was likely once the property of Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Empress of France. The opportunity to buy a jewel of such importance comes up one or twice in a lifetime and people are willing to pay the price, as there is no other like it. This result illustrates once again the extraordinary appeal and magnetic attraction of natural pearls. 

At present the market is buoyant and it is an excellent time to sell with prices going through the roof, and the number of fine pieces remains very scarce. Sotheby’s as a world market leader in the selling of exceptional jewels, has achieved phenomenal prices for natural pearls in recent years, demonstrating the extraordinary appeal of this rarity, a trend that is likely to continue in the future.

Take advantage of a strong market and consign now. We are currently accepting consignments for Sotheby's international jewellery sales in 2015.

Olivier Wagner is Director and Specialist in the Jewellery department at Sotheby’s Geneva

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