IF pearls reached the peak of their popularity in antiquity, when the Roman general Vitellius is said to have financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings, then the market in 2012 does not rest too far behind.
Natural (as distinct from cultured) pearls
are extremely hot right now with some sources estimating they have
doubled price in 12 months.
But what made the earrings sold by
Woolley & Wallis for £1.4m on April 26 worthy
of a sum the like of which is typically reserved for gemstones?
Primarily it's all about size, shape and colour.
While in the diamond world, 10 carats is the
benchmark for a major stone, the equivalent with pearls is 25cts or
100 grains (4 grains = 1ct).
Specialist Jonathan Edwards - who described
the discovery of the earrings as the highlight of his 35-year
career in the jewellery trade - sent them to the Swiss Gemmological
Institute or SSEF (Schweizerische Stiftung für Edelstein-Forschung)
for testing. The report came back glowing.
In addition to confirming that both were
natural saltwater pearls weighing 34.508cts (138.03 grains) and
33.235cts (132.94 grains), it also marked them as the eighth
biggest pair of pearls in the world and particularly beautiful for
both their form and their colour, graded white with rose and blue
The general consensus was that they were
from the Arabian Gulf, the source of so many of the most desirable
natural pearls, with North West Australia another possibility.
Added to this was a European royal
Although kept loose in a drawer by the
vendor for three decades, they had probably been a gift from the
upstart Crown Prince Carol (later King Carol II) of Romania to his
mistress, Elena 'Magda' Lupescu (c.1895-1977).
Having renounced the throne in 1926, Carol
unexpectedly returned to Romania in 1930 to begin a ten-year reign
marked by 25 different governments, a short-lived royal
dictatorship, the loss of territories to foreign rule and
abdication in 1940.
In exile he settled in Portugal, finally
marrying Lupescu, who became Princess Elena von Hohenzollern, in
Elena left her pearls to a British lady upon
her death and they were later inherited by her nephew and his wife
who mentioned them as an afterthought during a valuation. The
Wiltshire couple had been astonished to see them estimated at
In fact with a number of major buyers
registering an interest days before the April 26 sale, it became
apparent that something yet more spectacular would likely
Within a minute, bidding had risen from
£70,000 to £500,000 and then to £1.1m before a more sedate contest
was played out on the telephones between a Swiss dealer and a
private client placing bids through Jonathan Edwards.
Auctioneer Paul Viney (steadfastly refusing
to take an increment of less than £100,000 until charmed by a
bidder who said "please") finally brought the hammer down to
Edwards' phone at £1.4m. Woolley's were not at liberty to disclose
the nationality of their client but a buyer from either India or
the Gulf (where traditionally pearls are most highly prized) is a
A buyer from the People's Republic is
unlikely. Despite the history of perliculture in the Far East (the
art of growing pearls was discovered in Japan in the early 1900s)
Chinese buyers are yet to dip their oar in the deep waters of this
Back to the sale results, a taste of things
to come had been provided by the previous lot from the same source
- a ring comprising two cream and black natural pearls set with
baguette shaped diamonds in a platinum mount. Dating from the late
1930s (the earrings were thought to be early 20th century), it was
signed for Rue de la Paix jeweller Mellerio.
Estimated at £15,000-20,000, bidding had
begun at £8000 but was accelerated by 'shut out' bids of £50,000,
then £100,000 and finally £150,000 by the gentleman on the end of
Jonathan Edwards' telephone. Clearly this was one very determined
individual to go with one delighted vendor and a very happy firm of
The buyer's premium was 22/12%