A collecting guide to natural and cultured pearls

What to consider when seeking out the gems that have captivated collectors for centuries — from colour and condition to cultivation and storage. Illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

In the video above, Max Fawcett, head of Jewellery in Geneva, reveals the history of pearls, the historic jewels sold at Christie’s and highlights from the upcoming Magnificent Jewels auction on 15 May 2024

The price of pearls

Coveted by both Eastern and Western collectors for centuries, pearls have been a mark of extravagance for monarchs and society figures throughout history. Famous wearers of pearl jewellery include royals from King Henry VIII to Princess Diana, and style icons such as Coco Chanel, who wore cultured pearls, and Elizabeth Taylor — whose 16th-century natural pearl La Peregrina set two world auction records when it sold for $11,842,500 at Christie’s in 2011.

Two extraordinary natural pearl sautoirs. Longest comprising a total of 171 round to oval and button-shaped natural pearls, ranging approximately from 12.55 to 4.45 mm; shortest comprising a total of 182 round to roundish and button-shaped natural pearls, ranging approximately from 10.75 to 4.10 mm. Inner circumference 119 cm (longest); 112 cm (shortest). Sold for CHF 2,404,500 on 15 May 2024 at Christie’s in Geneva

Pearls are even cited for their beauty and value in scripture: in the Bible, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a ‘pearl of great price’, while the Qu’ran says that dwellers in paradise will be adorned with pearls. According to Marco Polo, a necklace of 104 rubies and pearls was worn by the Hindu kings of Malabar and passed from one generation to the next.

Yet, despite their distinguished history and elevated status, pearls don’t have to cost a king’s ransom: it is possible to find beautiful natural and cultured pearls at prices below $10,000.

For weddings or weekdays

Pearl jewellery is eminently wearable: the same piece can be dressed up for a formal occasion, or worn effortlessly to the office.

Pearls come in such a range of colours and shapes that they sit beautifully in a vast range of different settings and types of jewellery — and they hold the unique distinction of being naturally beautiful, without the use of cutting, faceting or treatment.

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6481249

Art Deco natural pearl and diamond earrings, circa 1925. Drop-shaped natural pearls, baguette, single-cut, square-shaped and round diamonds, platinum and 18k yellow gold. 5.2 cm high. Sold for CHF 207,900 on 15 May 2024 at Christie’s in Geneva

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6481172

Natural pearl and diamond necklace. Two strands of graduated natural pearls, baguette-cut diamonds. 46.5 cm (shortest strand). Sold for CHF 182,700 on 15 May 2024 at Christie’s in Geneva

Both natural and cultured pearls feature prominently in pieces by the world’s most renowned jewellers, including Tiffany & Co., Van Cleef & Arpels, Buccellati and Mikimoto — all of which feature in Christie’s auctions. And the variety of designs means there’s a piece to fit everyone’s personal style.

Black, green or pink pearls? Consider colour

A pearl’s colour is essentially determined by the type of oyster in which it is produced. Cultured Tahitian pearls, for example, are formed from the Pinctada margaritifera, a black-lipped oyster that gives them the dark charcoal colours that many collectors have grown to know and love.

Natural coloured pearl and diamond necklace. Variously-shaped natural pearls and seed pearls of different hues, faceted beads, single-cut and round diamonds, platinum and gold. 41 cm long. Sold for CHF 252,000 on 15 May 2024 at Christie’s in Geneva

Other types of oyster produce pearls of different shades. Both the white version and the warmer golden South Sea pearl are created in the Pinctada maxima, which is the largest type of oyster capable of producing cultured pearls. Akoya pearls are formed by the Pinctada fucata, a smaller type of oyster that most often produces white pearls with wonderful rose and green overtones.

But steer clear of artificial shades

Collectors are advised to avoid artificially coloured pearls, and instead enjoy the wide range of naturally occurring colours that are found in jewellery from top makers included in Christie’s jewellery auctions.

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Wear, and store, with care

Experts advise that daily wear should be approached with caution. Some skin types are high in acidity, which can degrade pearls over time. The same is true of certain cosmetic products, such as hairspray, so care should be taken.

However, treated correctly, pearl jewels can last a lifetime, making them both timeless additions to any wardrobe and perfect heirlooms for future generations. To ensure their longevity, proper storage is of paramount importance.

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6481248

Coloured natural pearl and diamond ring. Brown natural pearl, pear-shaped diamonds, 18k yellow gold. Sold for CHF 56,700 on 15 May 2024 at Christie’s in Geneva

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6481191

Natural pearl and diamond earrings. Drop-shaped natural pearls, round, old and rose-cut diamonds, platinum, silver and yellow gold partially blackened, pendants detachable with and without the pearls, composite. 5.3 cm high. Sold for CHF 201,600 on 15 May 2024 at Christie’s in Geneva

The most vital piece of advice for collectors is never to store your pearls in cotton wool. Pearls contain moisture, and if they are stored in cotton, it draws the moisture out and they can crack. Pearl dealers often cover their wares in a silk cloth — follow suit, and wrap your pearls in a silk handkerchief.

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