10 jewels that made history — and changed the market
To mark 26 consecutive years as market leaders and the record-breaking price for the Winston Pink Legacy diamond in Geneva, we look back at the historic auctions of the Oppenheimer Blue diamond, La Peregrina and other magnificent jewels at Christie’s
A natural pearl jewel with a star-studded provenance
Few jewels have a history dating back 500 years, or one that have seen them passing through the hands of royals, empresses and Hollywood stars. La Peregrina, which was found off the coast of Panama in 1576, is one such jewel.
This perfectly pear-shaped pearl weighing 202.24 grains was bought by Philip II of Spain in 1582 and soon became one of the country’s most important crown jewels. It passed through the hands of eight kings of Spain over a 200-year period before falling into the hands of Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, who became King of Naples and Sicily.
In 1969, Richard Burton paid $37,000 for La Peregrina at auction in New York, before presenting it to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, on her 37th birthday. It was remounted on a necklace created by Cartier, and the actress often wore it to events and during films.
La Peregrina most recently came up for auction in December 2011 at Christie’s New York. It sold for $11,842,500, more than five times its low estimate, making it at the time the most expensive natural pearl jewel ever sold at auction. Elizabeth Taylor’s collection produced the most successful single-owner jewellery auction in history.
A record-breaking wonder of nature
In April 1987 Christie’s offered a very small diamond, weighing 0.95 carats, as its top lot in New York. What made this diamond special was its colour: Fancy Purple-Red.
Only one in 100,000 diamonds qualifies as a ‘Fancy’ colour. These odds lengthen exponentially for red diamonds, which are so rare that experienced diamond dealers would consider themselves extremely lucky to handle more than three in the course of a lifetime.
This 0.95 carat (only 0.19 grams) wonder of nature was part of the collection of Mr Hancock, a farmer from Montana, who was rumoured to have purchased the diamond for $13,500 in 1956.
The Hancock Red was offered for sale in 1987 with an estimate of $100,000-150,000. It sold for a remarkable $880,000, or $926,000 per carat, and broke all records in the process.
Adorned with beads engraved by three Mughal emperors
In October 1997 Christie’s in London produced a special themed sale of Important Indian Jewellery to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence. This landmark sale captured the imagination, putting a focus on these wonderfully luxuriant traditional Indian designs.
The sale featured more than 100 lots of jewellery and gem-set objects from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The Mughal emperors reigned over northern and central India for 332 years — a period that is still a byword for artistic achievement.
Spinels were among the most highly prized gemstones, and the emperors had their names and hieratic titles engraved into them as a way of cementing their immortality. Larger than rubies and with a tone that varied from ruby-red to very light pink, spinels were usually worn as beads rather than as faceted gems.
The Mughal treasury was looted and subsequently dispersed by Persian ruler Nadir Shah in 1739, and very few necklaces survived. The example offered in 1997 was composed of 11 spinel beads, for a total weight of 877.23 carats, and three of the beads were engraved with the names of three of the most famous Mughal emperors: Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan. The necklace sold for £881,500 ($1,428,030).
The most expensive blue diamond in auction history
On 18 May 2016, the Oppenheimer Blue, lot 242 in Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction in Geneva, was bought for CHF 56,837,000 ($57,973,000), making it, at the time, the most expensive jewel in auction history. That season, it was also the most expensive work of art sold at auction.
The diamond was named in honour of its previous owner, the connoisseur Sir Philip Oppenheimer. The Oppenheimers have been leaders in the diamond industry for generations and Sir Philip had the pick of any diamond he wanted. He chose this one for its perfect hue, impeccable proportions and fabulous rectangular shape.
In recent years blue diamonds have gained a wider following, not only because they are stunning, but because there are so few of them available. The Oppenheimer Blue is classified as ‘Fancy Vivid Blue’ by the Gemological Institute of America, the highest colour grade and colour intensity for blue diamonds. At 14.62 carats, it is the largest Fancy Vivid Blue diamond to have ever appeared at auction.
‘The Oppenheimer Blue can only be described as one of the rarest gems in the world,’ said Francois Curiel, who has experienced many superlative jewels being offered during his long service at Christie’s. 'It is the gem of gems.’
One of the largest blue sapphires in history
Although sapphires of more than 100 carats are very rare, records of them do exist in important gem collections around the world. The list of sapphires weighing more than 350 carats, however, is a very short one indeed.
The Blue Belle of Asia, weighing 392.52 carats, is the fourth-largest recorded blue sapphire in history. Only the Blue Giant of the Orient (486.52 carats), the Queen of Romania sapphire (478.68 carats) and the Logan sapphire (422.99 carats) are bigger.
This legendary stone was discovered in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), known as the ‘Island of Gems’, in 1926. It was recorded as weighing ‘approximately 400 carats, and valued at £50,000’ before being acquired by the famous gem and jewellery dealer Macan Markar in Colombo. In 1937, the sapphire was purchased by British motor magnate Lord Nuffield, the founder of Morris Motors Limited.
It was reported that the sapphire was to be presented to Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, on her coronation day in May 1937. Instead, the Blue Belle of Asia ‘disappeared’ into private hands, its location remaining a mystery for decades.
On 1 November 2014, the Blue Belle of Asia reappeared, presented for the first time at auction by Christie’s in Geneva as ‘The Property of a Private Collector’. It was bought for CHF 16,965,000 — around $17,300,000 — becoming the most expensive sapphire and the most expensive coloured stone sold at auction.
A landmark moment for coloured gemstones
In late 2005, Senior International Jewellery Specialist Jean-Marc Lunel received a phone call from the Christie’s office in Monaco. He was told about a client who wanted a valuation of some jewels that were being held in a bank safe.
The collection comprised nine jewels — signed jewellery by Faraone, Van Cleef & Arpels, and three magnificent rings by Bulgari. The first ring was mounted with a sapphire from Burma, the second with a D-colour diamond, and the third with a Burmese ruby weighing 8.62 carats that showed no indications of treatment.
Burmese rubies of this size, and that have not been treated, are incredibly rare. Encountering one with a crystal of incredible purity, showing hardly any inclusions, and with a beautiful red hue, is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
The nine pieces were offered by Christie’s in February 2006 in Saint Moritz, and the ruby was the talk of the town well before the auction viewing opened. Originally purchased at Bulgari in Italy in the 1960s, the ruby was estimated at $400,000-600,000.
In the saleroom it sparked a 20-minute bidding battle before finally being purchased for $3,637,480, at the time the highest price per carat ($421,981) ever achieved for a ruby. After the sale, the buyer’s identity was revealed and the ruby was renamed ‘The Graff Ruby’. The auction proved to be a landmark for coloured stones, underlining their value, importance and rarity.
Size, provenance, rarity and desirability
From the age of Cleopatra — who is said to have commissioned an emerald carved with her image as a gift for Julius Caesar — through to the Romanov tsars, the Mughals and British royalty, no jewellery collection has been considered to be complete without a selection of impressive emeralds.
In June 2017, Christie’s offered a gem-quality emerald of 18.04 carats that belonged to the Rockefeller family. Gifted to David Rockefeller by his father upon the death of his mother, the stone was set in a beautiful diamond ring designed by Raymond C. Yard in 1948.
Described by the American Gemological Laboratory as ‘exceptional’ and possessing an ‘unusual combination of size, provenance, absence of treatment and quality factors that contribute favourably to its rarity and desirability’, the Rockefeller Emerald was purchased for $5,511,500. At $305,516 per carat, it broke the price-per-carat world record previously held by a Bulgari emerald brooch from The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor.
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The day after the auction, a representative for Harry Winston announced that the firm was ‘immensely proud to own the finest emerald in the world, which once belonged to one of America’s most important dynasties’.
The jewel that fomented a frenzy
In November 2014, lot 305 in the Geneva Magnificent Jewels auction — a ‘Parrot Tulip’ bangle created by JAR in 1994 — carried a relatively conservative estimate of CHF 190,000-290,000. The bangle had been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the previous year, but few were prepared for the auction contest that followed between two telephone bidders.
Mainly made of gold with some diamond and garnet accents, the jewel was finally hammered down for an astonishing CHF 3,525,000, its value determined by the sheer artistry of master jeweller Joel Arthur Rosenthal.
Rosenthal first made his reputation in Paris in the 1960s, partnering with Pierre Jeannet in a tiny boutique that created needlepoint art with wool threads of unexpected colours. He went on to apply the same artisanal spirit to jewellery, opening a salon with Jeannet in Place Vendôme. He named it JAR after his initials.
JAR produces only 70 to 80 pieces a year for the most exclusive clientele. He is is acclaimed for the sculptural splendour of his designs, his ingenious pavé work, and for juxtaposing stones with a sense of colour that is his alone.
Rosenthal has been the subject of three solo exhibitions: in 1987 at the National Academy of Design in New York; at Somerset House in London in 2002; and in November 2013 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — the first time the museum had accorded a dedicated retrospective to a living jewellery designer.
The beginning of the boom in the jade market
The value of jadeite is based on three important criteria: colour, translucency and texture. Colour is by far the most important factor, and takes into account saturation, brilliance, evenness and purity. Jadeite can be found in lavender, yellow, russet-brown and black, but it is the green stone containing chromium that is the most coveted by serious collectors.
The nature of how jadeite forms in thin seams makes it highly difficult to cut and polish matching sets of beads. As a result, fine-quality jadeite bead necklaces have always been highly sought after.
On 1 June 2010, Christie’s in Hong Kong offered a magnificent jadeite jade bead and star ruby necklace as its top lot. It comprised 51 jadeite beads of homogeneous vivid emerald green colour, measuring from 11.18 to 9.80 mm each. All the beads were evenly and strongly saturated, free from flaws, internally luminous and clear.
The necklace was purchased by a prominent Asian collector for HK$56,660,000 (around $7,275,000) — the first time a necklace with small beads had fetched over HK$50 million at auction.
An extraordinary 18.96-carat Fancy Vivid Pink diamond
‘To find a diamond of this size with this colour is pretty much unreal,’ said Rahul Kadakia, International Head of Jewellery at Christie’s, before the sale of the Pink Legacy in Geneva in November 2018. ‘You may see this colour in a pink diamond of less than one carat. But this is almost 19 carats and it’s as pink as can be. It’s unbelievable.’
Scientists classify diamonds into two main ‘types’ — Type I and Type II. In the latter, the diamond has a particularly rare, almost homogenous colour. ‘Pink diamonds fall under the rare Type IIa category,’ explains the specialist. ‘These are stones that have little if any trace of nitrogen, and make up less than two per cent of all gem diamonds. Type IIa stones are some of the most chemically pure diamonds, often with exceptional transparency and brilliance.’
Its even colour distribution, combined with a balanced saturation, tone and straight pink hue, qualify the 18.96 carat diamond for the coveted ‘Fancy Vivid’ colour grading from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Only one in 100,000 diamonds possesses a colour deep enough to qualify as ‘Fancy Vivid’.
Bidding for The Pink Legacy, which had descended from the Oppenheimer family, was fierce. Fancy Vivid Pink diamonds over 10 carats are virtually unheard of in the saleroom — in more than 250 years of auction history at Christie’s, only four such stones have ever appeared for sale. Such scarcity was reflected in the final price, CHF 50,375,000 — a new world auction record per carat for a pink diamond. After the sale the diamond’s new owners, Harry Winston, promptly renamed the stone The Winston Pink Legacy.