Pearls and diamonds, in their white or colourless forms, universally represent purity and perfection - the pearl in its softness of colour and lustre and in its roundness is unquestionably the Queen of all jewels, whereas the 'unconquerable' diamond in its hardness, transparency, its chemical and physical stability is the pearl's consort and King of all gemstones. Just like moon and sun, the female and the male principle, they could not be any more different from each other, yet both have always commanded the highest regard of mankind and ownership was often strictly reserved to royalty - for both man has given their lives in extracting them from sea and earth, for both man has fallen in love, has betrayed, has married, has been held captive, has conquered and has murdered in the never-ending quest of possessing jewels of such extraordinary beauty, perfection and power. The exceptional and truly magnificent natural pearl and diamond parure by Harry Winston is without doubt one of those jewels to die for - indeed, it is a jewel so unique and valuable in material and of such high quality manufacture that its offer for sale is a rare opportunity to acquire a modern jewellery parure of this excellence. It comprises 193 natural pearls, of which twenty-eight pearls alone weigh almost 1,300 grains (325 carats) as well as 166 diamonds of the highest quality weighing almost 200 carats.
The Pearl: a very special gem
Pearls - small white beads of purity and perfection. From time immemorial pearls have been one of the most coveted materials in almost all cultures. Their perfection, requiring no further treatment to enhance their natural beauty, has always fascinated mankind - symbolising power and love to kings, queens, maharadjahs, sheiks and noblemen: all been subject to the tantalizing allure of pearls, and many a story is told about them.
Legend and Myth
'Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below.'
John Dryden (1631-1700), Prologue, All for Love
The Middle East is where pearls were most treasured: in the Orient, men paid the most for pearls, had the best pearls and used them more lavishly than in Europe. Consequently, pearls have always been reserved for the very rich, if not exclusively for the king or the Court and aristocracy.
The ancient belief, originally from India, was that oysters would rise up from the seabed in the season of spring and open their shells to receive drops of heavenly dew, which will turn into pearls over the years. The time of the day as well as the weather, foggy or clear, and the sun will influence the beauty of the pearl - an indication that pearls were regarded as being closer related to the divine heavens than to the sea.
According to Indian legend, the elements each gave a gift to a god: the air gave the rainbow, fire gave a meteor, the earth gave a ruby and the sea gave a pearl. The rainbow formed a halo about the god, the meteor served as a lamp, the ruby decorated the forehead but the pearl was worn upon the heart. To this day, a pearl is regarded as a gift from the god Vishnu. Another Hindu legend attributes the discovery of the first pearl to Lord Krishna who offered it to his daughter as a wedding gift. To this day, in India and elsewhere, brides traditionally wear pearls on their wedding days. Another legend tells the story of the daughter of the Great Mogul of Delhi who refused to marry the husband chosen for her as she loved a young prince. She was banished to a far-away place near the seaside. When her prince died in battle she wept bitterly in her loneliness. Upon her death, the God of Love and Passion transformed her tears into pearls. Thus pearls in India have been linked to love and tears.
In China, pearls along with jade enjoyed a higher value relative to other property. Although China had access to native freshwater and later also saltwater pearls, the Emperors preferred the higher quality pearls from the Gulf of Mannar and the Persian Gulf. The pearl stands for purity and preciousness, is considered as the 'Queen of gems' and figurative for feminine beauty and purity. The Chinese say that the Tibetan monks have a 'seduction pearl' which gives them magic properties for sixty years, and any woman caught in its rays becomes desperate for love. Other magic powers of pearls are exploited when they are ground up and used internally and externally as potions and medicine. They were also worn as amulets against fire and other disasters.
Pearl Origin and Fishing
'Are there not, dear Michael,
Two points in the adventure of the diver:
One - when, a beggar, he prepares to plunge?
One - when, a prince, he rises with his pearl?'
Robert Browning, Paracelcus (1835)
Most pearls, from antiquity through to the 1920s, were fished in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea or the Gulf of Mannar (off the Sri Lankan coast). These areas did not only yield most of the pearls on the market but their inhabitants traditionally were also more interested in pearls and therefore paid the highest prices for them. Other areas of pearl fishing include Australia, Tahiti, Borneo, Venezuela and Mexico.
Deep pearl diving in the Persian Gulf began probably in the third millennium B.C. and its technique remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years until the 1890s when the advent of scuba diving gear brought pearl diving to a new level.
Traditional pearl diving in the Gulf of Mannar was undertaken generally in March and April when the sea is calm. A fleet of sixty boats is sent out and along with the rowers and divers are several shark charmers, whose duty it is to keep the sharks away by means of incantations. The divers abstain from food and drink, rub their bodies with oil, seal their ears with oil-soaked cotton, compress their nostrils with an instrument made of horn and bind over their mouths a sponge soaked in oil, which serves as temporary protection against the water.
The divers descended feet-first, weighted by a 20 kilo granite stone tied to a long rope that is attached to the boat for later retrieval, with another rope attached round their waists. The diver takes a deep breath and descends to approximately 18 to 30 meter, although Red Sea divers had been known to reach 45m. Pearl diving required stamina and speed. Most divers could stay under water for approximately one minute and a few for as long as four minutes. Wearing leather gloves to protect their hands, each diver could gather as many as ten to fifteen oysters at most, but often only two or three oysters in one dive, depositing them in a net attached to a separate rope. When the diver runs out of air he tugs the rope around his waist and his diving partner pulls him quickly to the surface. The oyster net was then pulled to the boat. Each diver made between forty to fifty descents daily, and in a normal season the fleet could collect as many as 45 million oysters.
The process of pearling was extremely similar in the Persian Gulf: only the boat would be at sea for several weeks so that the oysters were opened and the pearls extracted straight away on the boat.
The Persian Gulf was producing 1 million pearls per year by the late 17th century and even as late as 1900 employed 3,500 fishing boats. However, by the early 1920s this had fallen dramatically to around 600 boats. Today pearl fishing in the Gulf has virtually stopped due to over-fishing with more efficient boats, pollution (from the oil fields) and the advent of the cultured pearl in the early 1920s with its subsequent rise in popularity. Significantly, the possession of a cultured pearl was considered unlawful in the Persian Gulf.
The Importance of Pearls throughout the Ages
In Persia, the kings decorated not only their robes and boots but even their beards were embellished with pearls as well as their horses, and coins show Persian kings with a three-row pearl tiara.
In India extravagancies were similarly lavish, rulers did not only cover themselves in pearls but also furnished their elephants with the costly gems and created entire carpets of pearls (such as the famous 19th century Baroda Pearl Carpet). According to the Roman writer Arrianus, pearls in India had a value three times that of gold.
Pearls reached the West with Alexander the Great whose conquests led him as far east as India. However, they were a rarity until Pompey the Great returned victorious over Mithridates, king of the Parthians in 63 B.C. The Greek word for pearl, margarite, has its origin in the Orient. The Latin version margarita was, not unsignificantly, also a girl's name. The Latin unio was first used to describe exceptionally large pearls, but was soon used for pearls in general. Pliny explains the choice of word with the fact that no two pearls are the same, each unio is unique. The beauty and origin of pearls closely associate them with Aphrodite (or Venus), the goddess of love and beauty, who was born at sea and carried to the shore in a shell and to whom, by implication, pearls were compared.
Pearls quickly became a much coveted commodity and Roman writers report at length the opulence in which Roman ladies as well as Emperors indulged themselves. Pearls were regarded as equal in value to or more valuable than gold, and valued for their whiteness, size, roundness, smoothness and weight - exactly as they are still today. They were used by Indian merchants as principal goods of exchange. Later Roman Emperors would draw inspiration from the semi-divine character of royal investiture and from the absolute power that they wielded and they adopted pearls as symbols of imperial court costume, echoing the opulence of Oriental rulers. The most famous pearls of antiquity must have been owned by Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Cleopatra owned a pair of pearl earrings of legendary size which were regarded the most fabulous jewels of antiquity and were valued at 60 million sesterces (approximately US$ 6,5 million today). Pliny tells the story of her bet with the Roman general Marc Antony that she was to serve him the most expensive banquet in history. After several sumptuous courses of incredible cost, Marc Antony still failed to be impressed and asked dryly for the bill. Cleopatra, however, remarked that everything so far served only as the starter for what is to come. Having said this, she ordered a glass of vinegar, took off one of her earrings and let the pearl dissolve in the vinegar upon which she drank it. (Although academics have traditionally denied the ability of vinegar to dissolve a pearl not to mention of this size, and declared the anecdote a mere legend, it has recently been proven that ordinary vinegar may indeed do the job.) Lucius Plancus, adjudicator of the bet, saved the pearl of the second earring from suffering the same end. When Egypt was conquered, however, the pearl was allegedly divided into two and used to adorn the ear lobes of the colossal statue of Venus in the Pantheon in Rome.
During the Middle Ages the pearl became a symbol of chastity, of the word of God and even of Christ himself. It is, however, the Renaissance which is most famed for its lustrous extravagancies.
On his third voyage to the New World from 1498 to 1500, Christopher Columbus was surprised to find naked divers wearing only pearls when he arrived at the Island of Cubagua off the coast of Venezuela. He captured them and forced them dive much deeper, longer and more often. Many of the divers died under the unreasonable demands of Columbus. They rebelled against him and refused to dive, only to be placed in cages almost totally submerged under water as a punishment.
When he returned to the Spanish Court, he delivered 1,5 kilograms of pearls, some of which were large and of fine quality. In around the year of 1500, 320 kilograms of pearls were imported to Seville, the Spanish harbour town, in just one year. By 1520, the once rich oyster beds of Venezuela had been fished to extinction. Spain was at the height of its power. However, under Elizabeth I (1558-1603), Britain became a world power equal to that of Spain. A well-known pearl fanatic, a shrewd politician and, of course, a woman, Elizabeth I used pearls as the outward expression of the newly gained power while also satisfying her desire for the beautiful. Her dresses were embroidered with thousands of pearls and on certain occasions she would wear up to seven pearl necklaces, some of which reached down to her knees. The wearing of pearls and of rich pearl embroidery of costumes were, however, by no means restricted to the ladies alone - gentlemen equally indulged themselves, proudly donning their symbols of power and wealth. Not in vain was the Renaissance later dubbed the Pearl Age! It is even thought that the excessive use of pearls during the 'Pearl Age' literally ruined a number of smaller courts in Europe, as their lack in (sufficient amounts) of pearls stripped them of their power and prestige.
However, during the 17th and 18th centuries it was Russia where pearls were used more lavishly than anywhere else in Europe. Purple velvet boots were opulently embroidered for the tsarinas, their large, traditional kokoshnik tiaras were decorated with pearls, enamel and lace from which hung curtains of pearls onto their shoulders.
The 18th Century
In 1717, the scientific truth of the pearl's creation was discovered and all legends and myths regarding the pearl's origin were relegated to poetical works as literature on gems took on a more intellectual approach. This did not, nevertheless, prevent a continued adoration of the gem. Pearls were still the favoured gem for ladies of the court until, ten years later, the Brazilian diamond deposits were discovered and diamonds rose in popularity over pearls towards the end of the 18th century.
The 19th Century
During the first half of the 19th century, pearls were still a privilege of the aristocracy, although the bourgeoisie slowly gained increasing wealth and power and therefore the means to afford pearls. However, in the beginning the middle classes favoured the use of many small pearls in their modest jewellery as opposed to the large pearls conveying aristocratic splendour. Only in the latter part of the century did middle class women strive to imitate the jewellery styles of the aristocracy. Pearls, however, slowly replaced diamonds in everyday jewellery and became more and more available. The extensive use of seed pearls for delicate wedding parures reflect the prevailing notion that the pearl still remained a symbol of purity.
Queen Josephine of Sweden, granddaughter of Empress Josephine, inherited not only a wonderful pearl and cameo tiara but also a magnificent pearl parure. More of Empress Josephine's pearls reappeared, mostly reset, some forty years later on Empress Eugenie (1826-1920), wife of Emperor Napoleon III. Empress Eugenie was considered one of the most beautiful and elegant women of the age. Here she is shown wearing a magnificent necklace of at least nine large pear-shaped pearls suspended from a single row of round pearls with matching earrings. They were of such immense value that they and the trim of hermelin is all that marks her imperial status. The simple design is similar to the Harry Winston necklace, whose pearl-drop size is equal to if not greater than those of Empress Eugenie.
Russia's renowned splendour remained unsurpassed and continued to be the wonder of Europe. The four daughters of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his beloved wife Tsarina Alexandra (whose favourite gem was the pearl), were each given two perfectly spherical pearls of about 8 mm diameter every birthday so that on their sixteenth birthday they each had a collar of thirty-two pearls. This would have continued until they were married, had it not been for the Russian Revolution during which the whole family was captured and executed. The loving gesture of the imperial parents, in essence by no means singular across Europe and America, reflects other associations of pearls: those of youth and innocence.
Far away in India, the Rana of Dholpur was appropriately referred to as 'The King of Pearls'. In a photograph taken around 1890, he wears thirteen rows of pearls. Those of the shortest row are of enormous size and extreme rarity, the central pearl being approximately 18 mm in diameter. He also wears a pearl scarf and hat decorated with pearls.
The 20th Century: The Arrival of the Cultured Pearl
Before the arrival of cultured pearls in the 1920s, pearls were still reserved for the rich and royal. However, once the culturing of pearls was established and standardised so that jewellery firms could guarantee the availability of uniform pearls they were available to a much broader public. The Jazz Age favoured long ropes of pearls on stage - Josephine Baker's costumes (or the lack thereof) were legendary. An all-time-classic portrait of the single long pearl rope is that of Louise Brooks in the 1928 film A Girl in Every Port. Pearls gained more and more ground as jewellery for the day when the revolutionary fashion designer Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel promoted a new casual approach to pearls: 'A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls,' said Coco Chanel - and the world obeyed. She was mixing real with imitation pearls, thus blurring the measure of wealth, and advocated wearing pearls with sweaters and skirts. Her style was accessible to every woman, everywhere. Her 'little black dress' became an essential in every woman's wardrobe, to be worn almost anywhere as so charmingly demonstrated by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Pearls have become the first choice of the modern woman, be it single or several rows, long or short - they are always a safe bet as they have been and forever will be seen as a sign of elegance and taste, worn by women of all ages and almost all backgrounds they are the most versatile gems, embracing traditionalists as well as the daring and the modern, the innocent and the mature, the stylish as well as the modest.
According to the New York fashion consultant Marilise Flusser, 'pearls are the ultimate power accessory.'
In their love for pearls many different personalities are united: Wallis Simpson, Queen Elizabeth II and The Queen Mother, Barbara Hutton, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, Marylin Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor as well as almost all American first ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Patricia Nixon, Barbara Bush, and Hillary Clinton.
Pearls sold by Christie's
Christie's is proud to have handled and sold some of the most important and finest pearls and pearl necklaces in history such as La Régente (or La Perle Napoléon), La Pelegrina, The Winans Pearl Drop, The Pearl of Kuwait, The Akbar Pearl, Nina Dyer's Black Pearl Necklace, the pearl necklace of Barbara Hutton, formerly in the possession of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, as well as the currently most expensive natural pearl necklace sold at auction.
For many centuries, pearls had been considered the most valuable of all gemstones. By the 2nd century diamonds were occasionally used in ornamentation, but mostly they were thought of as a lapidary's tool to pierce pearls and cut jade.
When the diamond mines of Brazil were discovered in 1725 there was great excitement, as this created the first consistent supply of diamonds enabling a whole new industry to flourish. The interest in diamonds took some of the focus off pearls. However, as spiralling prices at recent auctions show, the slumbering interest has been awakened and we again appreciate the pearl as a most wonderful gift of nature, every pearl in itself being unique.
Pearls simply project an aura of elegance and self-possession as well as a sensuousness that is unknown in other gemstones.
HARRY WINSTON (1896-1978)
Born in New York, Harry Winston learned his art from his father, a modest jeweller. Already at the age of 12, he demonstrated a strange ability to judge fine gemstones: passing by a pawnshop, his eyes were caught by a particular ring amongst a tray of junk jewellery in the window. He paid his 25 cent on the spot, and, two days later, he sold this two-carat emerald for $800, achieving a 3200 times profit. In 1920, he founded a one-man firm with his $2,000 savings, The Premier Diamond Company. After initial difficulties, Winston, looking beyond conventional sources, discovers a market for estate jewellery. The by now unfashionable stomachers, ornate tiaras, brooches and pendants of the Belle Epoque were sold by the inheritants for a fraction of their value. Harry Winston's idea was to unmount the mostly old-cut diamonds, have them recut for greater sparkle and brilliancy and then mount them in more contemporary fashionable settings in order to appeal to the modern generation.
Pouring over the Social Register and the Who's Who and acquainting himself with top judges and attorneys, he placed himself in the mainstream of the estate jewellery business. His first business was the Stoddard inheritance in 1925, and soon he was entrusted with the estate of the late Mrs Arabella Huntington. One of Mrs. Huntington's necklaces was a string of 160 pearls which measured almost one meter and a half and which had cost Mrs. Huntington almost one million dollars to assemble. The careful matching up of the pearls took so long that Mrs Huntington, ironically, had gone blind by the time it was completed. Winston split the necklace into various parts upon his acquisition, and was later fond of saying that at least two dozen women around the world now wore the Huntington pearls.
By 1932, he had achieved financial independence and incorporated his business under the name Harry Winston, Inc. At the same time he started manufacturing his own jewellery. The estate of Mrs. Emma T. Gary comprised seventy-nine pieces included an exceptional diamond necklace of almost two metres length. He calculated its price and made his bid for the whole collection within three hours unlike his competitors who took three days to establish its value.
Harry Winston's gift to judge the quality and potential of gemstones was astonishing: he saw opportunities where others saw difficulties, and it has been estimated that, at one time or another, about one third of the world's most famous diamonds were handled by Harry Winston. Some already had illustrious pasts, others were newly discovered crystals, cut to bring out their full beauty and glory by Harry Winston's master cutters.
Dissatisfied with the heavy settings of post-Art Deco jewellery, he sought to develop new mountings that would show the stones to their best advantage. The result was hand-made flexible wire settings of platinum and gold which added dimensionality to the jewel and allowed the stones to sparkle from every angle and move with the person wearing her jewellery. This method of mounting became a cornerstone of modern jewellery design and is quintessentially the style of Harry Winston.
The name of Harry Winston will always be remembered in connection with the most wonderful gems in the world, and the magnificent 'Gulf Pearl Parure' with its extraordinary range of pearls is a Classic example of Winston at their very best.