From the excellent prices achieved for natural pearls in Geneva’s Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale in June, to the V&A offering a crash course on the pearl in the same month, it's clear that pearls are having their moment. The upcoming auction Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family, one of the most important royal jewelry collections ever to come to auction, includes a number of exceptional natural pearl jewels, some of which belonged to the most famous Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette.
For decades these luminescent gems have drifted in and out of favour. Often associated with tradition and faded romanticism, pearls have varied in degrees of status for years. So why has the popularity of pearls been rekindled? For one, increasing rarity. But also a new found appreciation for one of the oldest and perhaps most mysterious of nature’s creations.
The oldest reference to a natural pearl dates back to 2200 BC China, when a historian recorded them as the most prized natural wonder. In the Classical Era, pearls symbolised Venus, the Goddess of Love. Julius Caesar generously gifted strings of them to his mistresses, while Cleopatra famously bet Marc Antony she could throw the most lavish dinner party in history; to impress Antony, she crushed a pearl from a pair of earrings and dissolved it in a cocktail of vinegar before gulping it down to show off her power and wealth. Pearl hysteria reached its peak at the height of the Roman Empire when a historian noted that a Roman general financed an entire military campaign by selling only one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
In 1498 Christopher Columbus sailed along the eastern coast of Venezuela, discovering the so-called “Pearl Islands”. The natives were adorned in strings of exquisite natural pearls, and revealed a new means to sustain European royalty's frenzy for natural pearls.
This newly found treasure trove of natural pearls ushered in the “Age of the Pearl”. Barrels of natural pearls were shipped back to Europe, becoming the most sought after gem of European royals who augmented their jewelry collections with these priceless gems. Many of the most famous natural pearls are of South American origin, such as the Mary Tudor Pearl.
400 years later in the early 1900s, natural pearls were the height of fashion thanks to the titans of industry, who purchased them to demonstrate their wealth and power.
In 1917, Pierre Cartier famously purchased Cartier’s future New York headquarters on Fifth Avenue for $100 and a strand of 128 natural pearls. Art Deco jewels were designed of long strings and tassels of pearls that famously adorned the women of the roaring twenties.
Suddenly pearls all but fell out of favour. From the Great Depression of1929, to Mikimoto’s successful cultivation of cultured pearls which would flood the market, pearls became passé.
However, today increasing rarity is the catalyst for natural pearls' sky-high prices. As time wears on, the sources for natural pearls are nearly depleted; 90 percent of the genuine natural saltwater pearls on the market today were harvested more than 90 years ago.
As newly-sourced natural pearls are few and far between, pearls not already in private collections will continue to be push the value of natural pearls ever higher. Take this opportunity to browse Sotheby's current and upcoming jewelry sales for natural pearls.