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Nicholas Forrest looks at the success of pearls at auction this year and why collectors should pay attention to them.

Valuable pearls

Sothebys Pearl and Diamond Brooch. Source: Sotheby's

Sothebys Pearl and Diamond Brooch

The period of economic uncertainty that is currently gripping world markets has seen the market for gems and fine jewellery, which is seen as a safe haven by investors and collectors, go from strength to strength.  Although diamonds tend to steal the spotlight when it comes to major auctions of fine jewellery, recent sales have revealed a particularly strong trend towards top quality natural pearls.  As with other gems, size, shape, colour and lustre are the major factors that determine the value of a natural pearl.  The larger and more round a pearl is, generally the more valuable it is.  Even though cultured pearls are widely available and very affordable, the rarity and exclusivity of natural pearls has ensured that the market for these precious gems remains intact. The fact that every single lot mentioned in this article included a report from a gem and pearl laboratory stating that the pearls were natural pearls and not cultured pearls shows that although they may appear visually similar, the market perceives the two categories of pearls very differently.

Sotheby’s Fine Jewels

Sotheby’s Fine Jewels sale held in London on the 13th of July 2011 included a number of spectacular pieces of jewellery featuring fine pearls that revealed just how much demand there is for top quality natural pearls.  One such item was a 1920’s pearl and diamond brooch centring on a large and particularly beautiful drop-shaped natural saltwater pearl within a diamond-set octagonal frame marked with French assay marks for platinum.  This brooch, which included an all important Gem & Pearl Laboratory report stating that the drop pearl was found to be a natural saltwater pearl measuring approximately 12.1 – 13.1mm in width and 21mm in length, blitzed the 15,000 – 20,000 GBP estimate with a final price of 56,450 GBP.

Another brooch featuring a freshwater pearl surrounded by diamonds again surpassed the top estimate of 5,000 GBP with a final price of 7,750 GBP.  Also fairing well for Sotheby’s was a necklace composed of three gently graduated rows of natural saltwater pearls and an open work clasp of geometric design set with brilliant-cut diamonds which sold for 20,000 GBP against an estimate of 12,000 – 15,000 GBP.

Philips de Pury sale

Phillips de Pury pair of art deco natural pearl and diamond ear pendants. Source: Phillips de Pury

Phillips de Pury pair of art deco natural pearl and diamond ear pendants

A particularly fine and varied array of pearl focused jewels were offered by Phillips de Pury during their 7 June 2011 Jewels sale. The most desirable pearl centred item was a pair of art deco natural pearl and diamond ear pendants that were designed as natural pearl drops “suspended from an articulated geometric line set with baguette- and brilliant-cut diamonds to a similarly cut diamond single stone surmount”.  Accompanied by a report from The Precious Stone Laboratory, London, stating that the pearls measured 9.0 – 9.12 × 13.40 mm and 9.49 × 8.30 ×13.57 mm, these spectacular ear pendants sold for a solid £34,850 against an estimate of £28,000-38,000.

Adding a more modern twist to the mix was a natural pearl and diamond ring by Dinh Van for Cartier c. 1965 that featured a natural pearl measuring 12.8-12.7mm set in the centre of a concave circular polished disc.  Valuable both as a piece of beautiful modern design, and a piece of jewellery incorporating a gorgeous pearl, this piece netted £12,500 for Phillips.  Another spectacular ring offered by Phillips, this time of art deco origin and consisting of a central natural button pearl measuring 11.51-11.71 × 9.08 mm, set within a calibre cut sapphire double cluster to a circular-cut diamond bezel and shoulders, made £9,375 against an estimate of £8,000-10,000.

Affordable investments

Natural pearl jewellery at the lower end of the scale is also achieving strong prices.   A natural pearl and diamond ring offered for sale by Christie’s at their 20 July 2011 London, South Kensington Jewellery with a relatively low estimate of £800 – £1,200 managed to fetch £4,000.  Salisbury based auction house Woolley and Wallis offered a particularly interesting  pendant featuring a large 39.96ct natural freshwater pearl set in white gold with a border of rose cut diamonds during their 21 July, 2011 which made £5,000 against an estimate of £5,000-6,000. Bonhams 10 August 2011 Knightsbridge Jewellery sale achieved a price of £4,200 for a rather interesting pearl and diamond dress ring, circa 1910, that included both a saltwater and freshwater pearl.

The range of items featured in this article proves that that the pearl is a highly versatile and timeless gem that has an allure and exclusivity similar to that of the diamond.  As top diamonds continue to increase in value and move further beyond the reach of most people, the pearl may prove the new gem of choice for safe haven investors and collectors.

Nicholas Forrest


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