Drop-shaped natural pearls once owned by Empress Eugenie of France crushed an auction record Monday when they sold at Doyle New York for $3.3 million. The ultra-rare, perfectly matched pair was purchased by an anonymous telephone bidder.
The extraordinary pearls boast a compelling history that stretches back to the French royal family of the late 19th century, as well as the industrialists of America’s Gilded Age.
The natural pearls measure approximately 13mm x 24mm and weigh approximately 6.5 grams apiece. They have a superior luster and a warm brownish-grey tone. They were originally mounted with antique silver and diamond caps. Later, they were set onto a circa-1920 platinum-and-diamond pendant.
Monday’s winning bid exceeded by more than $900,000 the $2.37 million paid at Sotheby’s Geneva in May 2013 for the previous record holder — a matched pair of natural pearl drop earrings from the collection of Italian starlet Gina Lollobrigida.
The price achieved for Lollobrigida’s earrings had topped the late Elizabeth Taylor’s natural pearl earrings, which were sold at a Christie’s auction in 2011 for $1.99 million.
On Thursday of this week, an incredibly rare 17.4mm round natural South Sea pearl is expected to sell for $400,000 or more when it goes under the hammer at Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury, England.
Doyle New York’s record-breaking natural pearls were once part of the French Crown Jewels. Following the fall of Napoleon III and his wife, Empress Eugenie, in 1887, the empress’ pearls were sold during an historic 12-day auction of the French Crown Jewels that took place in the Louvre.
The natural pearls then descended in the family of two prominent industrialists of America’s Gilded Age. They were first purchased by George Crocker (1856-1909), the son of Charles Crocker, who founded the Central Pacific Railroad.
The pearls were later owned by the descendants of Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840-1909), an American industrialist who made a fortune as a partner with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil and a founder of the Virginia Railroad.
The Swiss Gemmological Institute confirmed that the pearls were natural saltwater pearls with no indications of artificial color modification. The Institute remarked that “assembling a matching pair of natural pearls of this size and quality is very rare and exceptional, and thus this pair of pearls can be considered a very exceptional treasure of nature.”
Natural pearls are extremely rare because they form in mollusks without any human intervention. Typically, a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a mollusk, and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, being irritated by the intruder, secretes a crystalline substance called nacre to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated over and over, creating the iridescent visual effect seen in fine pearls.