San Francisco – For years, pearls have been unfairly regarded as the sole preserve of maiden aunts and respectable ladies of a certain vintage. Now, they are becoming increasingly rare and are replacing diamonds as a staple of the fashion set after being championed by singer Rihanna and the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton.
Elegant pearl earrings, as worn by Kate Middleton on her recent royal tour of Australia and New Zealand, have become a wardrobe essential overnight. The Kate Middleton factor – teaming pearls with high-fashion outfits to create a modern, yet classic look – means pearls suddenly have an important new cachet. Her patronage is introducing them to a new generation.
The pearl fan base extends beyond British royalty, from America’s First Lady Michelle Obama, who is often seen wearing her favorite double-strand pearl necklace, to fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker, who has experimented with the classic pearl necklace for a long time. Parker wore a fabulous strand at the launch of her pop-up shop in New York earlier this year and regularly accessorizes her outfits with pearls. Other pearl fans include singer Katy Perry, and actresses Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson.
Trendsetters like these women are transforming the image of pearl wearers and pearls are now appealing to a younger demographic. Classic sets of these gems are being sold for huge sums by Bonhams, one of the world’s leading auction houses that has more dedicated jewelry auctions than any other international auctioneer.
Bonhams’ U.S. head of jewelry, Susan Abeles, commented, “Pearls were once seen as a bit dated – perhaps the preserve of an older generation, but we’ve seen a complete change in how they are now viewed.”
She added, “A younger fashion set is now completely at home wearing classic pearl earrings and you’re as likely to see them at nightclubs and premieres as you are at society events.”
In addition to the influence of celebrity pop culture, Bonhams also believes natural pearls are now hitting record prices because of their rarity. Overfishing and pollution mean the supply of new natural pearls is waning.
Bonhams says investors are increasingly snapping up rare, natural pearls. Really good examples of natural pearl – based on size, uniform shape, luster and blemish-free skins – do not appear on the market as often as they used to.
Susan Abeles said, “They are a rare commodity and it is often very difficult to find good quality examples. Quite simply, the supply of natural pearls is not going to increase. Long-term, they will become more of a rarity and therefore even more highly-prized. As a result, pearls that have some age or were part of a historic collection can be highly appealing to potential buyers and investors.”
She added, “The current market reflects a significant increase in price for fine natural salt water pearls. For instance, the impressive triple-strand natural pearl necklace by Cartier purchased in 1920 by Horace Dodge for his wife sold at Bonhams in 2008 for $600,000. Today, this necklace is worth more than triple that original cost.”
Recent stand-out sales of natural pearls at Bonhams include:
- A pair of natural pearl and diamond earrings which sold for £290,500 (Estimate: £150,000-200,000) on April 30, 2014 in London
- A single natural pearl, measuring 11.5mm, mounted as a ring, which sold for £30,000 (Estimate: £2,000-3,000) on April 30, 2014 in London
- A natural pearl and diamond necklace comprising 71 graduated round white pearls completed by an openwork single-cut diamond clasp, centering an old mine-cut diamond, which sold for $173,000 (Estimate: $30,000-50,000) on April 9, 2014 in New York
- A natural pearl and diamond necklace comprising 80 graduated round to semi-baroque natural pearls, measuring approx. 9.38 to 3.50mm., completed by a single-cut diamond and cultured pearl clasp, which sold for $93,750 (Estimate $25,000-30,000) on December 9, 2013 in New York
- A belle époque natural pearl and diamond necklace by Tiffany & Co., circa 1915, comprising 99 graduated round white pearls, measuring approx. 8.63 to 3.60mm., completed by a oval-cut diamond clasp; signed Tiffany & Co., no. 888; diamond weighing approx. 0.65 carat; mounted in platinum; length: 24in., which sold for $149,000 (Estimate $20,000-30,000) on October 17, 2013 in New York
- A long, single strand of graduated natural pearls, measuring 5.5mm-8.5mm, which sold for £87,650 (Estimate £35,000-55,000) on April 24, 2013 in London
- A natural pearl and diamond necklace, comprising five rows of 104, 109, 114, 118 and 123 graduated round to semi-baroque natural pearls, measuring approx. 8.70 to 1.91mm., completed by a button pearl clasp, measuring 10.2mm., set with a rose-cut diamond collet, within an old-cut diamond cluster surround, which sold for $62,500 (Estimate $30,000-40,000) on April 15, 2013 in New York