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At Sotheby's "Magnificent Jewels" Geneva Sale, Sale No. GE0805, held on Wednesday, November 19, 2008, Lot No. 433 was referred to as "An Extremely Fine And Very Impressive Pearl And Diamond Necklace." True to its description, this nine-strand natural pearl festoon necklace of unknown provenance is one of the most outstanding natural pearl necklaces to have appeared at an auction, and consisted of nine rows of graduated natural pearls, totaling over 1,500 pearls, perfectly matched in terms of shape, size, color, luster, orient and surface quality, to the extent that one may find it difficult to believe that the pearls incorporated in the necklace were actually natural pearls. Such uniformity in shape, size, color, luster, orient, surface quality etc. are more common among cultured pearls than natural pearls. In natural pearls non-symmetrical shapes, such as the baroque shape is more common than symmetrical shapes, such as spherical, near-spherical, drop-shape etc. Hence, assembling a strand of natural pearls that matches in shape alone is an extremely difficult task, and may require an unlimited supply of pearls, from which one could select. When shape is combined with other characters such as size, color, luster etc, the task becomes progressively more complicated. Thus, one could imagine the enormous difficulties the designer of this natural pearl necklace would have undergone, to put together a graduated pearl necklace, matching for all important characteristics consisting of not just one single strand, but nine different strands!!! In this respect this remarkable natural pearl festoon necklace qualifies to be included in the list of famous pearls and famous pearl jewelry.
Nine strand natural pearl festoon necklace
The length of the pearl strands in the necklace vary from 645 mm to 1060 mm, which represent respectively the lengths of the shortest and longest strands in the necklace. 645 mm is equivalent to 64.5 cm or 25.4 inches. 1060 mm is equivalent to 106 cm or 41.7 inches. According to the modern system of classifying pearl necklaces given in the table below, the shortest strand in the necklace, which is 25.4 inches long falls under "Opera," and the longest strand, which is 41.7 inches is a rope. Thus the combined nine-strand pearl necklace varies between the categories of Opera and Rope.
Another remarkable feature of the nine-strand pearl necklace is that each individual strand of the necklace can be detached from the clasp to be worn on its own. Thus if needed the entire necklace could be dismantled to create nine separate single-strand pearl necklaces. The clasp of each of the strands is made of white gold and mounted with three small diamonds, a round-brilliant cut diamond in the center and two cushion-cut diamonds on either side. When the clasps of all the nine strands are combined together, a composite rectangular-shaped clasp is formed, with 9 brilliant-cut diamonds and 18 cushion-cut diamonds. The fact that white gold has been used on the clasp shows that the design of necklace is of recent origin, probably after the 1920s, as white gold was first employed in jewelry only during this period.
In each of the strands a single large spherical median pearl could be identified, on the loop of the festoon, and the size of the pearls gradually decrease on either side of this median pearl, and the smallest pearls are situates closer to the clasp. The arrangement of the pearls from the inner strand to the outer strand can be shown as below, in which No.1 in the middle represents the median pearl, and the equal numbers on either side, the number of pearls on each half of the strand.
1) Inner strand (first strand) - 66 - 1 - 66 = 133
2) Second strand - 69 - 1 - 69 = 139
3) Third strand - 70 - 1 - 70 = 141
4) Fourth strand - 75 - 1 - 75 = 151
5) Fifth strand - 85 - 1 - 85 = 171
6) Sixth strand - 91 - 1 - 91 = 183
7) Seventh strand - 98 - 1 - 98 = 197
8) Eighth strand - 105 - 1 - 105 = 211
9) Outer strand (ninth strand)- 112 - 1 - 112 = 225
All median pearls in the necklace, roughly lie along a median vertical line, and the largest pearl in the entire necklace, with a diameter of 11.8 mm, is the median pearl in the outermost strand. The total number of pearls in the entire necklace is approximately 1551.
A careful examination of a photograph of the necklace, shows that most of the pearls are spherical or near-spherical in shape. However, there are also pearls that are button shaped and oval shaped among these pearls. This is quite understandable, as putting together a natural pearl necklace with so many strands, in which all pearls are perfectly spherical is a near impossibility.
Close-up view of the nine strand natural pearl festoon necklace
The size of the pearls vary from 3.4 mm to 11.8 mm, the diameter of the smallest and largest pearl in the necklace. This shows that all the pearls in the necklace are well above the size of seed pearls, whose diameter is less than 2 mm and weight less than 0.25 grains. The range in size of the pearls correspond with the range in size of pearls produced by the saltwater oyster species Pinctada radiata, that was commonly found in the ancient pearl banks of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar. The largest pearls in the necklace are the median pearls in each strand, making nine pearls, and the pearls situated closer to these median pearls, making a total of around 50 pearls, whose diameter varies from around 10 mm to 11.8 mm. Thus most of the pearls in the necklace vary from 3.4 mm to around 8 mm, which is the average size range of pearls produced by Pinctada radiata, apart from seed pearls.
The total weight of the pearls in the necklace is not known, but the range of weight of the pearls can be found using the range in size of the pearls, which is 3.4 mm to 11.8 mm. A size of 3.4 mm is approximately equal to 1.0 grain, and a size of 11.8 mm is approximately equal to 45 grains, according to the table relating weight of pearls in grains to diameter in millimeters and inches from the "Book of the Pearl" by Kunz & Stevenson, given below.
Thus the weight of the pearls in the necklace has a range of weight of 1 grain to 45 grains. An approximate estimate of the total weight of the pearls in the necklace can be made using this table, given that there are around 50 pearls with a size range of 10-11.8 mm and out of the remaining 1500 pearls, at least two-thirds (1,000) are within the range of 3.4-5mm. Out of the remaining 500 pearls, majority (approx. 400) are within a size range of 6-7 mm, and only about 100 pearls are in the size range of 8-9 mm.
1) Average size of 50 pearls with size range 10-11.8 mm = 10 + 11.8/2 = 21.8/2 = 10.9 mm
10.9 mm size pearls have an approximate weight of 35 grains
Therefore approximate weight of 50 pearls with average size of 10.9 mm = 35 x 50 = 1,750 grains.
2) Average size of 1000 pearls with size range 3.4-5.0 = 3.4 + 5/2 = 8.4/2 = 4.2 mm
4.2 mm size pearls have an approximate weight of 2 grains.
Therefore approximate weight of 1000 pearls with average size of 4.2 mm = 2 x 1,000 = 2,000 grains.
3) Average size of 400 pearls with size range 6-7 mm = 6+7/2 = 13/2 = 6.5 mm
6.5 mm size pearls have an approximate weight of 7 grains.
Therefore approximate weight of 400 pearls with average size of 6.5 mm = 7 x 400 = 2800 grains.
4) Average size of 100 pearls with size range 8-9 mm = 8+9/2 = 17/2 = 8.5 mm.
8.5 mm size pearls have an approximate weight of = 17 grains
Therefore approximate weight of 250 pearls with average size of 8.5 mm = 17 x 100 = 1,700 grains.
Total weight = 1,750 + 2,000 + 2,800 + 1,700
= 8,650 grains
= 8250/4 carats
= 2062.5 carats = 2062.5/5 grams
= 412.5 grams
Thus the total weight of the pearls in the necklace is approximately around 400 to 500 grams.
The color of the pearls in the necklace is white, with a slightly yellowish overtone visible in some photographs. This was characteristic of pearls originating from the Persian Gulf variety of the saltwater oyster species Pinctada radiata, the most prolific pearl producer since ancient times. Color and overtone of pearls are dependant on the thickness of the nacre, which in natural pearls is optimum, as they are made entirely of nacre.
Luster and orient are optical properties caused respectively by reflection and refraction of light. Luster is caused by the reflection of light from the surface and just below the surface of the pearl. Orient is caused by the refraction of light as it passes through alternating layers of conchiolin and aragonite in the deeper layers of nacre. Both luster and orient are dependant on the thickness of nacre, and natural pearls have the maximum luster and orient, being made entirely of nacre.
The surface quality of the pearls are also exceptional, and most of the pearls appear to be smooth and apparently blemish-free.
The combination of a smooth surface, brilliant luster, desirable color and shape of the pearls, makes this unique necklace a truly remarkable piece of jewelry, reminiscent of the best pearl necklaces put together in the past for the royal families of Europe and Asia.
The characteristics of the pearls such as its range of size, the color and overtones if any, the luster and brilliance and shape of the pearls can give useful information of their source. The extraordinary luster and brilliance of the pearls point to their natural and saltwater origins. Only natural pearls can have that extra brilliance which most cultured pearls lack, a direct consequence of their composition, which is 100% nacre. That extra brilliance also distinguishes between pearls of saltwater origin and freshwater origin, the former always having that extra sheen which is absent in the latter. Given the fact that most of the pearls in the necklace have a regular symmetrical shape, also confirm their saltwater origins, because in natural freshwater pearls the commonest shape is baroque and putting together such a necklace consisting of nine strands and around 1,500 pearls of regular shape, using natural freshwater pearls is a near impossibility. Even among natural saltwater pearls regular shapes are not so common, yet, from an unlimited supply of such pearls one may still succeed to put together such a necklace albeit with difficulty.
The range in size of the pearls and their color and overtones give an indication of the species of saltwater pearl oyster from which the pearls probably originated, from which we can deduce the possible source of the pearls. The range of size of pearls in the necklace is given as 3.4 - 11.8 mm, and the color of the pearls is white with a slightly yellowish overtone. These properties conform with pearls produced by the saltwater oyster species Pinctada radiata, the most prolific pearl producing oyster on which the natural pearl industry of the world had been based since very ancient times in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar in Sri Lanka. Pinctada radiata is well known for producing large quantities of seed pearls. However, they also produce significant quantities of medium sized pearls ranging in size from 3 mm to 8 mm or in terms of weight from 0.75 grains to 14 grains. Pearls greater than 8 mm in size or 14 grains in weight are also sometimes produced but are very rare. There are only around 50 pearls in the entire necklace of over 1,500 pearls, whose diameter exceeds 10 mm.
White and yellow are common colors of pearls produced by Pinctada radiata, with overtone colors of silver, cream and pink. Ceylon pearls from the Gulf of Mannar were renowned for their white pearls with silver overtones. Pearls with yellowish hue were rare among Ceylon pearls. Persian Gulf pearls originating in Bahrain and other Gulf countries also had the desirable silvery-white colors, but pearls of yellowish hue were more common. Thus, the pearls in this necklace, with a slightly yellowish overtone, are in all probability pearls that originated in the pearl banks of the Persian Gulf. It is difficult to pin point a period of origin for these pearls, unless other sources of evidence are available. However, pearling activities in the Gulf continued until the mid-20th century, when the production of cultured pearls by the Japanese gave the final death blow to the industry.
Unfortunately, nothing is known about the provenance of this remarkable necklace or the identity of its owner. A fact that might have had an impact on the relatively low price fetched by the necklace at the auctions, in spite of its perfect credentials in other respects. Provenance plays a major role in determining the final value realized by natural pearl necklaces at public auctions. In November 1999, the Barbara Hutton/Marie Antoinette Pearl Necklace, whose origins date back to the 17th-century, set a world record price of $1.47 million for a natural pearl necklace, at a Christie's auction in Geneva. The double-strand reconstituted Baroda Pearl Necklace that originated in the period 1856 to 1870 during the reign of Maharajah Khande Rao Gaekwad of Baroda, fetched a record-breaking price of $7.1 million, at a Christie's auction held in New York, in April 2007. In December, 2007 a single-strand pearl necklace once owned by Queen Mary and the Duchess of Windsor, sold for a staggering price of $3.6 million, at a Sotheby's auction in New York. In April, 2008, the nine-strand Umm Kulthum's pearl necklace was sold for a staggering $1.39 million at a Christie's auction in Dubai. In all these sales a major component of the enhanced value realized at the auctions was provenance. If the Nine-Strand Natural Pearl Festoon Necklace had a historic provenance associated with it, the price realized by it at the auctions would have been double or treble the value of $947,000 realized.
Even though the historic provenance and origin of the Nine-Strand Natural Pearl Festoon Necklace is not known, the materials used in the necklace might give an indication as to probable period of its origin. The use of white gold in the clasp and the cuts employed in the diamonds mounted on it - cushion-cut and brilliant-cut - can give a clue to the period of origin of the necklace. White gold a cheaper alternative to platinum was first introduced as a material for jewelry crafting in the 1920s, during the Art Deco period. Thus, the pearl necklace was designed most probably in the Art Deco period between the 1920s and 1940s. The design features of the clasp also point to the Art Deco as the possible period of origin. The use of modern brilliant-cut diamonds on the clasp seem to confirm the Art Deco origins of the necklace, as the cut was first introduced by Marcel Tolkowsky in 1919. Thus, the use of brilliant-cut diamonds on the clasp shows that the necklace was designed only after 1919, and confirms the origin of the necklace as the Art Deco period extending from the 1920s to 1940s. Though the necklace was designed during the Art Deco period, the pearls incorporated in the necklace are undoubtedly much earlier in origin, probably in the early 20th-century or the 19th-century, when the lucrative pearl banks of the Persian Gulf was still in active production. It is also quite possible that the pearls used in the necklace came from much older pieces of jewelry, which were dismantled to create the Nine-Strand Art Deco Natural Pearl Festoon Necklace.
The nine-strand natural pearl festoon necklace of unknown provenance, came up for auctions, at the Sotheby's Magnificent Jewels Sale, No.GE0805 held in Geneva, on Wednesday, November 19, 2008. The item, which was assigned Lot No.433 at the auctions, was characterized as an "Extremely fine and very impressive pearl and diamond necklace." A pre-sale estimate of 1,010,000 - 1,450,000 CHF was placed on the necklace, which was equivalent to US$ 837,000 - 1,201,900. The multi-strand necklace was accompanied by nine SSEF reports, one for each strand, bearing numbers 43159 to 43167, dated July 2004, stating that the pearls incorporated in the necklace are all natural.
The Sotheby's Geneva, Magnificent Jewels sale was held at the height of the global economic recession in 2008, which was reflected in the relatively low total sales of only US$ 14.8 million, with only 225 out of 371 lots sold. The 61% sell through rate achieved in spite of the global economic recession reflected the strength of the sale in jewelry, in which collectors pursued rare items, despite the economic uncertainty. The highest price realized at the auction was for the 42.28-carat extremely rare Kashmir sapphire, which sold for nearly $3.5 million, an auction record for blue sapphires. A ring set with a rare fancy pink diamond weighing 8.02 carats, was sold for a sum of $1.3 million. Another ring mounted with an extremely rare, 11.7-carat, Golconda diamond, sold for $996,000. Apart from the lots containing Kashmir sapphire and diamonds, other lots that recorded high prices were the pieces containing natural pearls. A single-strand natural pearl necklace consisting of 41 pearls, and an emerald and diamond clasp, sold for $1.3 million. The other pearl lot that recorded a significant price, in spite of the recession, was the Nine-Strand Natural Pearl Festoon Necklace, the subject of this webpage, which was sold for 1,142,500 CHF equivalent to $947,000, the fourth highest price recorded at this sale. The price realized by the festoon necklace, was within the pre-sale estimated range of US $837,000 to $1,201,900.
2) Art Market Review - Magnificent Jewels Geneva, November 19, 2008. - www.sothebys.com
3) The Book of the Pearl - Kunz & Stevenson. Chapter 4 : Structure & Forms of Pearls.
Dr Shihaan Larif
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