Collecting guide Cultured and natural pearls

Collecting guide: Cultured and natural pearls

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.

A natural pearl, diamond, ruby and cultured pearl necklace, by Cartier. Two-strand necklace with report 59572 dated 19 May 2011 from the SSEF Swiss Gemmological Institute stating that the analysed properties confirm the authenticity of these 57 saltwater natural pearls and the identity of these four beaded saltwater cultured pearls. Sold for $11,842,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in

A natural pearl, diamond, ruby and cultured pearl necklace, by Cartier. Two-strand necklace with report 59572 dated 19 May 2011 from the SSEF Swiss Gemmological Institute stating that the analysed properties confirm the authenticity of these 57 saltwater natural pearls and the identity of these four beaded saltwater cultured pearls. Sold for $11,842,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

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.

A natural pearl necklace, accompanied by report No. 59814 dated 21 June 2011 from the SSEF (Swiss Gemmological Institute) stating that the 1446 pearls are natural saltwater pearls . Accompanied by report  No. 59814 dated 21 June 2011 from the SSEF (Swiss Gemmological Institute) stating that the 1446 pearls are natural saltwater pearls. Sold for CHF 1,083,000 on 16 November 2011 at Christie’s in

A natural pearl necklace, accompanied by report No. 59814 dated 21 June 2011 from the SSEF (Swiss Gemmological Institute) stating that the 1446 pearls are natural saltwater pearls . Accompanied by report No. 59814 dated 21 June 2011 from the SSEF (Swiss Gemmological Institute) stating that the 1446 pearls are natural saltwater pearls. Sold for CHF 1,083,000 on 16 November 2011 at Christie’s in Geneva

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 & ArpelsBuccellati and Mikimoto — all of which feature in our online auctions.’

A single-strand natural pearl necklace, with report No. 2185643407 dated 11 August 2017 from the GIA (Gemological Institute of America) stating that the 208 pearls are natural, confirming that 206 pearls are saltwater and 2 pearls are freshwater. Accompanied by report No 95818 dated 2 October 2017 from the SSEF Swiss Gemmological Institute stating that the analysed properties confirm the

A single-strand natural pearl necklace, with report No. 2185643407 dated 11 August 2017 from the GIA (Gemological Institute of America) stating that the 208 pearls are natural, confirming that 206 pearls are saltwater and 2 pearls are freshwater. Accompanied by report No 95818 dated 2 October 2017 from the SSEF Swiss Gemmological Institute stating that the analysed properties confirm the authenticity of these 206 saltwater natural pearls and these 2 freshwater natural pearls. Sold for $175,000 on 6 December 2017 at Christie’s in New York

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.

A suite of Tahitian Grey cultured pearl, diamond and coloured diamond jewellery. Sold for CHF 19,975 on 17 May 2001 at Christie’s in Geneva

A suite of Tahitian Grey cultured pearl, diamond and coloured diamond jewellery. Sold for CHF 19,975 on 17 May 2001 at Christie’s in Geneva

A group of South Sea golden cultured pearl jewellery. Including a necklace, of 31 golden cultured pearls measuring approximately 10.35 to 13.71 x 15.37 mm. Sold for HK$141,000 on 31 October 2000 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A group of South Sea golden cultured pearl jewellery. Including a necklace, of 31 golden cultured pearls measuring approximately 10.35 to 13.71 x 15.37 mm. Sold for HK$141,000 on 31 October 2000 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.’

A magnificent and rare natural coloured pearl and diamond necklace, with report 6127963527 dated 18 February 2011 from the Gemological Institute of America stating that the diamond is D Colour, internally flawless clarity. With report 78724 dated 3 March 2015 from the SSEF (Swiss Gemmological Institute) stating the analysed properties confirm the authenticity of these saltwater natural  pearls.

A magnificent and rare natural coloured pearl and diamond necklace, with report 6127963527 dated 18 February 2011 from the Gemological Institute of America stating that the diamond is D Colour, internally flawless clarity. With report 78724 dated 3 March 2015 from the SSEF (Swiss Gemmological Institute) stating the analysed properties confirm the authenticity of these saltwater natural pearls. Sold for $5,093,000 on 14 April 2015 at Christie’s in New York

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.’