While natural white pearls have continued to curry favor at auction for several years now, it is the natural pearl’s more mysterious sort that has stolen the spotlight on the auction block this year. Natural gray pearls are the ‘it’ gem at auction this year. For collectors hankering for the rarest of the rare when it comes to natural pearls, Sotheby’s Hong Kong will be offering The Cowdray Pearls at its Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite sale in October.
The legendary single strand of natural gray pearls, strung and mounted by Cartier, comprises 42 exceptionally rare natural gray saltwater pearls well-matched in lustre, shape and size. Their color subtly varies in different shades of grey and brown, partly combined with highly attractive rosé, purple and green overtones. A testimony to the unparalleled nature of this natural wonder from a 1937 Sotheby’s London auction catalogue states, “There is probably no finer collection of such pearls in existence.”
Purchased by Viscountess Cowdray, Lady Pearson (1860-1932) in 1937, the necklace was shortened to 38 pearls, its new owner enlisting Cartier to make a pair of matching earrings using two of the removed pearls. Recently, the two pearls from the earrings along with two more from another antique jewel have been restrung to return the necklace to its original number of 42 pearls.
Of all the pearls, natural gray pearls are the most rare. To assemble 42 specimens of superb quality and complimentary nuances of gray color and desirable overtones is next to impossible. Only a handful of fine examples – usually in a brooch or pair of earrings – have been seen at auction in recent years, and those precious few became headlining jewels fetching phenomenal prices. Seldom has a strand of exemplary natural gray pearls come up for sale, making The Cowdray Pearls a rarefied event.
For centuries, royalty, connoisseurs and tastemakers alike have adored the pearl of both white, gray and black varieties. The darker shades became fashionable after 1845 when pearls found in the Tuamotu Archipelago, other South Sea islands, and areas around Mexico came to market. These sources produced a higher ratio of black and gray pearls than anywhere else at the time. The most famous, and earliest, champion of the gray pearl was Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. She, too, owned a necklace of large dark gray pearls that “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,” according to an article from the New York Times dated January 1872. The necklace sold for £4,000 at Christie’s, an unprecedented sum at the time.
Astronomical prices for superior natural pearls continue to be the norm these days. 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. Fine natural grays routinely achieve prices far above their estimates, and The Cowdray Pearls have already proven their might as they most recently sold in 2012 at Christie’s for an impressive sum of $3.3 million – more than six times their high estimate. Will The Cowdray Pearls be able to do it again and exceed their new estimate of $4.5 to 7 million in October? Only time will tell…