As the style icon, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis once said, “Pearls are always appropriate.” Cultured pearls, the most common on the market are grown by oyster farmers using a mother-of-pearl seed. The process was first patented by Mikimoto in 1916, and since then the pearl market has been dominated by cultured pearls. While beautiful, their value on the secondary market is usually quite low in sizes under 10mm. On the other hand, natural pearls are grown entirely without human intervention and currently bring exceptional prices at auction.
Natural pearls are rare, especially in larger sizes. In December of 2015, we sold an extraordinary strand of natural pearls for over $2,000,000. This strand was remarkable not only for the size of the pearls, the largest was over 12mm, but also for the rose and green overtones which is sometimes poetically referred to as the “orient of pearls.” Necklaces of this size and quality are quite rare on the market.
Smaller sizes of natural pearls also bring strong prices. A beautiful necklace of natural pearls with its original Art Deco diamond clasp sold for over $140,000 and a necklace of cream pearls, the largest at just over 8mm, sold for over $70,000. It is not only necklaces that are sought after by natural pearl collectors, but also single pearls set in earrings and brooches. We sold an antique pair of natural pearl earrings, each set with a pearl slightly over 15mm, for $315,000. The exceptional size and color drove extremely competitive bidding and it was an added bonus that we were able to trace their ownership to the mid-nineteenth century.
These auction results for pearls are inspiring people to take their pearls out of their jewelry boxes – we’ve seen christening pearls, first communion pearls, and wedding pearls. Are they natural? The only way to find out for sure is to have them tested in a lab. Natural pearls also need to be examined for how well matched they are in size, color, and roundness. Your typical baby-sized strand of natural pearls could be valued as little as $300 or as high as $1,500.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2013 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.