As record-breaking jewellery sales go, Spring 2014 is shaping up to be notable season. An auction world record price for natural pearls was set at Doyle New York, where a pair sold for $3.3 million. The sale follows the acquisition of Cartier's $27 million jadeite necklace in Hong Kong at the beginning of the month.
But before you start to think that this marks an exciting time in the life of these rare beauties, this monetary activity will seem all in a day's work for the historic pearls, who's origin is shrouded in mystery. The drop-shaped pearls were accompanied by an anonymous handwritten note, claiming that they first belonged to Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, the last Emperor of France. After the French Monarchy was overthrown in 1870, Eugenie fled to London, given asylum by Queen Victoria. As well as herself and her son, the Empress successfully smuggled much of her jewellery across the English Channel including, it is possible, the grey pearls.
Skip to 1887, and the Salles des Etats, the historic auction at the Louvre where the world's most decadent of [fallen] aristocratic families were selling their salvaged crown jewels and possessions. It is here that the grey pearls resurfaced and were sold to Tiffanys, who bought nearly a third of the French crown jewels.
The pearls were then purchased by an American businessman, George Crocker, whose family had founded the Central Pacific Railroad in the mid-nineteenth century. According to the note, it was Crocker who took the pearls across the Atlantic, giving them as a present to his new wife, Emma Hanchette Rutherford. They settled in New York, and built an imposing Beaux-Arts Mansion on the Upper East Side.
The pearls, which measure nearly an inch in height and are a warm grey colour, are mounted with antique silver and diamond caps, which are set onto a 1920s platinum and diamond pendant. It was likely that they were crafted this way for another prominent Railroad family, the Rogers', who fortune had been built on the foundation of the great Virginia Railroad, and to who the pearls were next passed. Henry Rogers' granddaughter Dorothy Rennard, is noted as wearing the pearls on Christmas Day 1925, and her daughter, Anne Rogers Benjamin, wore the pearls at her debut in 1941 at a ball hosted in her honour by her aunt, Beatrice Benjamin Cartwright, in the ballroom of New York's St. Regis Hotel.
Empress Eugenie's pearls were then unaccounted for for much of the latter part of the twentieth century, only resurfacing this month to be sold by a descendant of the Rogers family who kept them safe for more than fifty years.
And what of the future? The new owner at Doyles was an anonymous telephone bidder...