Long hailed as New York’s ‘King of Jewely’, Siegelson will debut a pair of earrings fit for a modern day queen at this year’s Masterpiece London. The magnificent ear pendants aptly feature The Empress Eugénie Pearls, two spectacular natural grey pearls once belonging to the last empress of France and wife of Napoleon III.
After the fall of the Second Empire and Napoléon’s subsequent abdication, the empress smuggled a number of her jewels when she fled to England with her family. The sale of these precious possessions is believed to have supported their family while in exile. The unprecedented auction was conducted by Messrs. Christie, Manson & Co. in 1887 and realized a total of £50,000, or close to $9 million today.
Recently, a number of the empress’s exquisite jewels have come up for auction, such as a “Feuilles de Groseillier” brooch from a larger parure that sold at Christie’s last fall. These historic pieces are a testament to not only her refined taste but impeccable eye for jewelry, for which her collection widely remembered. Like all her European royal contemporaries, the empress was particularly fond of pearls, which were favored for their lustrous beauty and extreme rarity. She collected them in many colors including white, pink and gray (often referred to as ‘black’). Like her trendsetting fashions, the empress’s predilection for gray pearls increased not only their appeal but the demand for them as well.
In an article from the New York Times dated January 1872, a number of the sovereign’s jewels were for sale at Mr. Harry Emanuel’s in London, including a necklace of black pearls of large size. According to the article, the pearls “took years to collect, for the pearls match each other perfectly, and those versed in the subject know how great is the difficulty of procuring a sufficient number of these for a large ornament to be composed of them exclusively.” In another article reporting on the auction of Empress Eugénie’s jewels at the end of June the same year, several other lots featuring black pearls are documented: “a large black pearl, with brilliant [diamond] top and a heart-shaped brilliant [diamond] locket” and “a handsome pendant of brilliants [diamonds] and pearls, with a fine large black pearl centre and drop”.
Though neither article mentions a pair of matching ‘black’ pearl earrings, Siegelson notes that a 1854 portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicts the empress in profile view wearing a gray pearl drop earring.
Of all the pearls, natural gray pearls are perhaps the most rare and, thus, most expensive. Earlier this year at Christie’s, a four-strand natural gray and brown colored pearl necklace sold for nearly $5.1 million, setting a world auction record for a natural colored pearl necklace. In December 2012 at Sotheby’s, Jayne Wrightsman’s natural gray pearl and diamond brooch sold for nearly $1.9 million – more than three times its high estimate. These gray pearls at Siegelson are not only stunningly beautiful in luster, color and smooth surface but are highly impressive for their large size and perfect drop shape. Siegelson has reportedly priced the pearl earrings in the realm of $10 million.