Auctioneers at Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury, England, were astonished when a single 17.4mm natural South Sea pearl sold on May 1 for $1.37 million, nearly seven times the pre-sale estimate.
Auction officials knew they had something special during the weeks leading up to the sale. Although they announced an official high estimate of $200,000, there were unofficially rumblings that the number could rise to $400,000 or more. Both estimates were widely off base.
The bidding opened at £60,000, but one enthusiastic phone bidder quickly pushed that number to £300,000. Eventually, the spirited bidding led to a hammer price of £680,000 ($1.15 million). With commissions and fees, the final price paid by London jeweler David Morris was £811,600 ($1.37 million). The jeweler reportedly will incorporate the pearl into a necklace as part of a larger collection for a Hong Kong buyer.
Believed to be the largest natural South Sea pearl to ever hit the auction block, the mammoth specimen was discovered largely by chance. The anonymous woman who was gifted the matched pair of drop earrings by her husband, didn’t realize that one of the two was worth more than $1 million. The earrings had fallen out of style, so she had left them in a locker, forgotten for years. One day, while cleaning up the house, she rediscovered them and decided to get an estimate of what they were worth.
She and her husband met with Jonathan Edwards, the head of the Woolley and Wallis jewelry department. After an examination, Edwards suspected that one of the pearls could be natural. Two independent labs confirmed his suspicions.
A grading report described the natural pearl as having an attractive white color with weak rosé and green overtones, often referred to as the “orient of pearls.” It is nearly three-quarters of an inch in diameter, weighs 33.14 carats and took at least 10 years to develop. The mollusk that produced the natural pearl was likely a Pinctada maxima gold-lipped oyster, which can grow up to 12 inches in diameter.
Natural pearls are organic gems, created by a mollusk totally by chance, without human intervention. To find one 17mm in size, completely round and without surface imperfections is hard to believe.
Cultured pearls, by comparison, are grown under controlled conditions, where a bead is implanted in the body of the mollusk to stimulate the secretion of nacre.