Christie’s specialists Angelina Chen and David Warren on the gems that have captivated both Eastern and Western collectors for centuries
1. Pearls don’t have to be pricey
Coveted by both Eastern and Western collectors for centuries, pearls have historically adorned some of the world’s most extravagant monarchs and society figures. Famous wearers of pearl jewellery include King Henry VIII, Coco Chanel, who wore cultured pearls, Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor — whose natural 16th-century pearl La Peregrina (below) set two world auction records when it sold for $11,842,500 at Christie’s in 2011.
Pearls are even cited for their beauty in scripture — in the bible, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a ‘pearl of great price’, while the Qu’ran says that dwellers of paradise will be adorned with pearls. According to Marco Polo, the Hindu kings of Malabar wore a necklace of 104 rubies and pearls, given from one generation of monarchs to the next.
Yet, despite their formidable history, pearls can be for everyone: ‘It is possible to find beautiful natural and cultured pearls below $10,000,’ comments Christie’s specialist Angelina Chen.
2. For weddings or weekdays
‘One of the things I love about pearl jewellery,’ says Angelina, ‘is its wearability. The same piece can be dressed up for a formal occasion, or worn effortlessly with a t-shirt’.
The variety of designs by some of the world’s most famous jewellery brands means there’s a piece to fit everyone’s personal style: ‘Pearls come in such a range of colours and shapes that they sit beautifully in different settings and jewellery — and hold the unique distinction of being a naturally-beautiful material, without the use of cutting, faceting or treatment,’ comments Chen.
‘Today, both natural and cultured pearls feature prominently in jewellery by all of the world’s most renowned makers, including Tiffany & Co., Van Cleef & Arpels, Buccellati and Mikimoto — all of which feature in our online auctions.’
3. Black, green or pink? 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 the dark charcoal colours that many collectors have grown to know and love,’ Chen says.
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,’ explains Chen. ‘Akoya pearls are formed by the Pinctada Fucata oyster, a smaller type of oyster than those that produce the South Sea varieties of cultured pearl, which most often results in a white body colour with wonderful rosé and green overtones.’
The necklace shown above, which comprises of four strands of 81, 76, 69 and 63 natural grey and brown pearls, set a world record auction price of $5.1 million dollars in April 2015 at Christie’s in New York.
4. …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 and are included in Christie’s Jewels online auctions,’ advises Chen.
5. Wear with care
The variety of pearl jewellery means there’s a piece to suit every occasion — though experts advise that daily wear should be approached with caution.
‘It really depends on your skin, and its acidity,’ explains Christie’s resident pearl expert David Warren. ‘With some people’s skin, daily use may be fine. Other factors, like using a lot of hair spray, can result in their degradation, however.’
6. Store carefully
Treated correctly, pearl jewellery can last a lifetime — making a timeless addition to a wardrobe, or perfect heirlooms for future generations. To ensure their longevity, proper storage is vital.
‘Never store your pearls in cotton wool,’ advises Warren, ‘this is the most vital piece of information pearl collectors should be aware of. Each pearl contains moisture, and if you put them in cotton, it draws that out and they crack. Pearl dealers in the Middle East wrap them in a silk cloth — follow suit, and wrap them in a silk handkerchief, or granny’s old silk petticoat.’