Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

Pearl Perfection

Highly desired, natural pearls are a rarity today.

By Mark Lepage

Natural pearl and diamond corsage ornament, circa 1910, from the collection of
Mrs. Charles Wrightsman. Sold at Sotheby’s New York December 2012 for $2,042,500.
Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.
The pearl has long been prized for its beauty but when it comes to natural pearls, the gemstone’s appeal and value are significantly enhanced by its rarity. “You do see them, but not a bucket’s worth,” says André Asher, president and owner of A. Asher Pearl Company, a New York City–based pearl specialist and importer.
   Lisa Hubbard, chairperson of North and South America for Sotheby’s International Jewelry Division, says, “Oyster beds have been overused and polluted, so natural pearls are a thing of the past. When you think about the Arabian Sea, it was just overfarmed.” Rahul Kadakia, head of jewelry for Christie’s Americas and Switzerland, adds that “There are hardly any natural pearls being produced in the Gulf.”

Growing the Pearl
   Why not? Given the pearl develops within a living creature, there are many factors that can enhance or harm what is an exceedingly unlikely process in the first place. A foreign object, like a bit of shell or grit, becomes stuck inside the oyster’s tissue. Irritated, the oyster begins to coat the invader with nacre, layer after layer of it. “It’s like getting a fly up your nose — it’s not every day it happens, there’s a low probability,” says Asher. “It’s like encapsulating a virus in the body.”
   That encapsulating process is a fragile one, affected not just by pollution, but even rising ocean temperatures and salinity. Kadakia blames “oil drilling, overfishing and the culturing process, which took away a lot of the oysters.” True indeed, because every oyster used for culturing is one fewer available for the natural process.
   Market forces colluded in all of this. In the mid-1990s, rarity meant rising prices, which sent pearl farming into overdrive. “Necklaces that originally cost $10,000 to $15,000 went for $100,000 at auction,” says Hubbard. And those weren’t even the most valuable or prized pieces. “We sold a tiara in Geneva in 2012, the Murat Pearl and Diamond Tiara,” she continues. “Our estimate was about $600,000 and it hammered down for more than $3.3 million.”
   Referring to “a necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette and sold at Christie’s Geneva in 1999 for $1.5 million,” Kadakia estimates that necklace today would bring $6 million to $7 million. Proof of the current strength of the natural pearl market was undeniable at Christie’s November 2013 Magnificent Jewels auction in Geneva. Kadakia cites “lot 252, a seven-strand natural pearl necklace that Christie’s estimated would sell for $3 million to $4.5 million.” Final price: more than $9 million.

Pearl Provenance
   Their rarity dictates that the most valuable natural pearls, singly or set in necklaces or pendants, are sold at auction and come, in most cases, from estates with long histories of their own. And “estate” usually implies exotic provenance and back stories that read like film scripts.
   The Baroda necklace, for example, originally seven strands, then reduced to two strands of 68 pearls, once belonged to the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda, India. In 2007, it was auctioned off by Christie’s New York in three minutes for $7.1 million. And given this is jewelry we’re talking about, Elizabeth Taylor’s name cannot be far away. La Peregrina is one of the most expensive necklaces of all time, and boasts a long history as well. Philip II of Spain presented it to his betrothed, Mary I of England, in the sixteenth century. It passed through the hands of royalty and aristocracy in Spain and France for centuries until Richard Burton bought it from New York City’s Parke-Bernet Galleries for $37,000 in 1969. It was reconfigured by Cartier into a necklace with additional pearls, as well as rubies and diamonds, before being auctioned after Taylor’s death at Christie’s New York in 2011 for a staggering $11 million.

Not Just Price
   The exoticism of the pearl is not confined to price. Betty Sue King, the self-styled Pearl Goddess and owner of King’s Ransom Pearls, a wholesaler, supplier and importer in Sausalito, California, discusses the special allure of the gem. “Some of my clientele are very interesting,” she says. “Take the Ayurvedic community. They deal with healing, are connected to naturopathy and are definitely astrologically inclined. They want untreated gemstones and natural pearls to lay on the skin” of clients, for healing purposes.
   How do you gauge a pearl’s value or quality? As with diamonds and colored gemstones, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) will issue reports on pearls. Two are available. The Pearl Identification Report rates quantity, weight, size, shape, color, origin, mollusk, environment and detectable treatments for loose, mounted or strung pearls. The Pearl Classification Report adds grading of the luster and surface of nacreous pearls.
   “Diamonds and colored gemstones are very structured, there are different numbers you look at” in evaluating them, says Asher. “With pearls, the criteria are looser. But basically, the closer it is to a perfect bead — the surface, skin quality, the luster — through habit, you learn to judge, the more valuable it is.” Asher notes that the orient — luster or sheen — “is also important for the value of a pearl, the reflection of the light. The more coating, the better.
   “At one point, freshwater pearls were easy to spot,” continues Asher, “because the skin had very few layers. The cultured ones have more density. But the freshwaters, they’re getting better at it. I can get the same weight and size of freshwater and cultured South Sea pearls now. The freshwaters are still a little weak, less dense. But they are closer to cultured than they were.”
   King concurs. “A 22-millimeter perfectly round pinkish white Australian South Sea pearl can be worth $25,000. It has to be clean, blemish-free with no lines or striations. I’ve seen Tahitian pearls that were quite glorious — also, they carried a $25,000 asking price.”
   No matter how closely cultured pearls come to resemble natural, they are unlikely to displace or lower the value and cachet of a natural. “Two pearls, relatively identical, one natural, one cultured — I think the natural would be close to double in price,” concludes Asher. 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2014. To subscribe click here.

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Tags: Mark LePage