Less flashy than diamonds yet with an inherent beauty and glamour, pearls have risen faster in value than any other form of jewellery over the past decade. Zoe Dare Hall considers the investment potential of one of nature’s most precious gifts.
Pearls have long been seen as the preserve of ladies of a certain vintage – think Margaret Thatcher and the Queen – or from a bygone era in which the likes of Coco Chanel would never leave the house without them.
Their desirability and value plummeted in the mid-20th century, but the jewel has seen a change in fortune in recent years with the Duchess of Cambridge and a succession of Hollywood actresses and pop stars now regularly parading pearls on the red carpet. This year’s high jewellery collections, including those of Boucheron and Chaumet, have been awash with pearls – and cool young jewellers such as Delfina Delettrez and Anissa Kermiche are introducing them to a new generation.
“Pearls are still regarded as old-fashioned and classic in people’s minds, and it is exactly that aspect that makes them a fascinating and challenging material to try to rework in a contemporary way,” comments jewellery designer Melanie Georgacopoulos, who is launching a new collection entirely made using mother of pearl, “a largely unexplored by-product of the pearl industry,” she adds.
Pearls are less flashy than diamonds yet have inherent beauty and glamour. They aren’t mined, nor can they be cut and shaped, like other gems. But the scarcity of natural pearls – as opposed to cultured pearls, which grow when an irritant such as sand is manually inserted into the oyster – makes them incredibly precious.
Today, 95 per cent of pearls found in jewellery are cultured – although to the naked eye, it is almost impossible to tell the difference. Their value is a fraction of that of natural pearls, “but there are many levels of qualities of cultured pearls. Each has its own value and is unique like a fingerprint. We only accept the top five per cent of a pearl harvest,” says Emma Clarke of Mikimoto, the brand started by the creator of the world’s first cultured pearls, Kokichi Mikimoto.
It is natural pearls, however, that have been garnering record prices at auction in recent years, leading some experts to declare pearls as the new diamonds. “They are a rare commodity and it is often very difficult to find good-quality examples. Quite simply, the supply of natural pearls is not going to increase,” says Jean Ghika, head of jewellery in the UK and Europe for Bonhams, who sold a single natural pearl ring in 2014 for £30,000, ten times the upper estimate.
Necklaces with multiple rows command similarly ground-breaking prices because they can take many years to make. Fine drop-shaped pearls and buttons are also in high demand, according to Sotheby’s, who say a pearl’s size and shape are the key factors in setting new price levels. Where five carats is the benchmark for white diamonds, a 10mm diameter is the equivalent for pearls.
Add an illustrious provenance and the price shoots up further. A natural pearl and diamond necklace sold in Geneva in 2014 for $3.426m – nearly four times the estimate – because it formerly belonged to Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife.
As an investment, jewellery – including pearls – overtook classic cars for price growth in the past year, according to the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index. Over the past decade, pearls have risen in value by 282 per cent – the best performer of all jewellery. But with something so beautiful and rare, the joy goes beyond mere figures. “Jewellery captures the imagination of wealthy investors,” says Knight Frank’s Andrew Shirley. “It is a genuine investment of passion.”
KEEP IT COVERED
“With jewellery, I can’t think of a case where a client has been over insured, but it could happen if something has truly fallen out of favour,” says Amanda Harman of Aon. “Usually, underinsurance is an issue because the component parts of the item, for example platinum and precious stones, will still be valuable even if the item as a whole is less popular than it once was.
“We recommend that revaluations are done at least every three years on a ‘desktop’ basis – being revalued by the person who performed the original valuation or sold the item in the first place – because of the nature of jewellery value.
“Clasps and setting clauses demand that any clasps and settings be checked by an accredited goldsmith (a member of the National Association of Goldsmiths) once every five years. Always keep the original receipt and any receipts for work or checks that are done on the jewellery.
“Most policies will allow a percentage increase in cover for any new items that you buy, giving you 60 days to notify your insurer of the purchase. Importantly, the calculation refers to the current value of the collection, so if the new piece is worth more than the total value of what you already own, you need to notify your insurer immediately.