Culture of the supernatural (Part 4)

Pearls for the ages

Part 4 of 4

By Ron Dupuis

Natural pearl and old-cut diamond ring set in platinum-topped 18-karat white gold, circa 1940s. Photo courtesy Dupuis Fine Jewellery Auctioneers.

Elizabeth I of England and every other royal house in Europe and Asia had a predilection for pearl adornment. Other Elizabeths that love wearing pearls include Elizabeth Taylor and our present Queen. Taylor was widely photographed wearing the magnificent ‘La Peregrina’ drop pendant, circa 1500s, and she also owned an enviable pair of large pearl ear pendants by Bulgari. Just last year, Gina Lollobrigida auctioned a pair of ear pendants for a charity and realized over $2 million, breaking all former records. The Queen owns a sumptuous collection of inherited and gifted pearls and is frequently seen with a matronly multi-strand necklace. Queen Victoria, too, was an avid lover and commissioned from Garrard an appropriate set in black to wear during her period of mourning. Contrast this view with the voluptuous Marilyn Monroe, who in 1954 was gifted a Mikimoto cultured pearl necklace by her then-husband, Joe DiMaggio. It was a short 16-in. piece and theirs was a coincidentally short marriage.

The story of cultured pearls began in 1893 when Mikimoto’s experiments produced a misshapen pearl from an Akoya oyster. The world’s jewellers and buying public had to wait until 1905 for an acceptably spherical form.

So, the world is your oyster and with any luck, there may be pearls in your future. Enjoy the visual beauty and vital bounty of the pearl-bearing bivalve, but just in case, make sure you have your favourite jewellery designer on speed dial.

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Culture of the supernatural (Part 3)

Pearls for the ages

Part 3 of 4

By Ron Dupuis

Multi-strand cultured pearl, diamond, and 18-karat gold bracelet. Photo courtesy Dupuis Fine Jewellery Auctioneers.

Aragonite is a type of calcium carbonate mineral in crystalline form and is generally white in colour. It forms the basis of conchiolin in the nacre, determining the eventual colour of the pearl. Creamy, silvery, or pinkish overtones are dependent on regional characteristics and oyster variety, while the level of lustre is determined by the nacre’s thickness and quality. Price is significantly affected by variables in shape, size, sheen, iridescence, pitting, and blemishes from imperfections. The more perfect spheres are the rarest and most prized.

Especially from the 1400s onward, traditional court artists painted portraits of kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, and yes, royal mistresses, too, each depicted on canvas wearing extravagant finery encrusted with pearl embroidery, draped in multiple long strands of matched round or slightly off-round pearls. Their crowns, tiaras, headdresses, and ears, or in the case of the men, singular ear, dripped with huge drop-shape pearls. And all of these were natural, since it would be a few hundred years before Mr. Mikimoto, who gets the credit or the blame for creating cultured pearls, depending on your point of view.

Occasionally, some of the natural beauties show up at auction, as do breathtaking pre-1920’s designs from renowned houses like Vever, Lalique, Chaumet, Tiffany & Co., and Cartier. Currently, natural pearl necklaces can sell for upward of $200,000. Many natural pearl jewels that come to market had changed hands around the time of the Russian Revolution, as aristocrats escaped the violence and turmoil.

Off-shape, misshapen baroque pearls were popular royal jewels during the Renaissance, as evidenced by portraiture of the period. Baroque pearls were back in vogue in the 19th century in Renaissance Revival figural brooches. Imaginative and fanciful examples of these pearls were used to create animals, mermaids, mermen, and butterflies. Some of the most famous examples, known as the Canning Jewels, were once owned by Britain’s Lord Canning and are on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Semi-baroque and flattened on the bottom bouton types were attractive in some applications, as were tiny split pearls. In the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, small seed pearls commonly came from India and China, comprising elaborate love-knot designs strung on silk or pale-coloured horsehair affixed onto backings of mother-of-pearl. Imagine the time, patience, and dexterity required to drill them using hand tools.

More to come of this story in Part 4.

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Culture of the supernatural (Part 2)

Pearls for the ages

Part 2 of 4

By Ron Dupuis

Double-strand natural pearl necklace with 129 pearls and old-cut diamond clasp in platinum and 18-karat white gold, circa 1930s. Photo courtesy Dupuis Fine Jewellery Auctioneers.

Much lusted-after for millennia, this beloved organic material needed no cutting, faceting, or polishing; apart from possibly a drill hole depending on application, a pearl emerges fully grown from the shell and ready to use, limited only by a designer’s imagination. Since only one oyster out of every 2000 might have contained a pearl, it was this uncommonness and rarity that contributed to the higher values and the lust of desirability.

There’s a widely held popular misconception about how natural pearls are created. The common belief is that it’s a grain of sand or bit of grit that annoys the heck out of the oyster and in self-defence, it begins the time-consuming effort that eventually creates a pearl. Most often, it’s larvae or tapeworms that lodge in the mantle tissue. This magical virtue of adaptation is an intriguing way to turn a negative situation into a positive and elegantly solves a problem, plus the end result is something tangible and pleasing to the eye. Bivalves, such as mussels, have the capability of producing a pearl, but theoretically, any calcium shell-based mollusc can and sometimes does with the best quality natural specimens originating in oysters.

More to come of this story in Part 3.

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Culture of the supernatural (Part 1)

Pearls for the ages

Part 1 of 4

By Ron Dupuis

Mid-19th century seed pearl brooch, with elaborate knot motif by Tiffany & Co. Photo courtesy Photo courtesy Dupuis Fine Jewellery Auctioneers.

Organics are cropping up everywhere—in your local big box supermarket, at the neighbourhood farmer’s market, on the menu of your favourite bistro. For centuries, luxury organics—namely pearls—have been popular personal adornments for the fingers, necks, ears, and wrists of the powerful and the wealthy. It’s a fascination that continues today. Renowned museums, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, hold lavish exhibitions and informative lectures on these magnificent treasures with a view to their historical significance, provenance, and dollar values, too.

Pearls are a cosmopolitan commodity having origins in the waters of the Middle East, South and East Asia, the Philippine islands, South America, Mexico, off the western coast of Australia, and in the river deltas of Mississippi. Commercial pearl diving has been an international endeavour. There’s a theory the Romans invaded Britain lured by freshwater pearls from Scotland’s mussels.

More to come of this story in Part 2.

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What’s in a name? (Part 5)

Provenance as a value element

Part 5 of 5

By Mark T. Cartwright

The latitude and longitude co-ordinates indicated by this design element directly correlated to the Ptarmigan Mines and were an essential element in the attribution of the vase to Paulding Farnham. Photo courtesy Mark T. Cartwright

Armed with this information, I located the Ptarmigan Mine’s production records and found it primarily produced copper and silver, with very minor recovery of gold. When I estimated the percentages of those three metals in the vessel, it appeared to match the ratio of copper, silver, and gold during the mine’s peak output in 1902. This correlation was later confirmed by documents that surfaced several years after my appraisal was delivered. At that point in the research, I had circumstantial evidence that linked Paulding Farnham, the map co-ordinates, the bird on the rim, the provincial seal, and possibly the composition of the vase, but was there more?

Again, I contacted the Sally James Farnham Catalogue Raisonné Project and after a diligent search, the curator located two documents. One was a handwritten inventory by Sally Farnham prepared when she moved to a new apartment in New York that listed among the studio contents an item simply described as “Ptarmigan vase– silver, gold, copper.” This established ownership. The second document was key; it was Sally’s list of personal items and how they were to be distributed to the children. It provided a description and name of the artist for numerous pieces and included the entry “Ptarmigan Vase (Paul Farnham).”

Based on my now ‘considered’ opinion of attribution, I was able to conduct market analysis to arrive at the requested valuation for my client, after which, I assisted him in placing it in the right auction environment. As a magnificent, if quirky, turn-of-the-century Mokume-gane vessel, the piece might have brought $20,000 to $30,000 US in an active auction. Based on attribution to Paulding Farnham and the historical importance of the piece, it was sold at auction for more than $650,000 US.

I hope this example provides readers with an idea of the depth of research that can become part of the scope of work when it is warranted by the potential difference in value. Anytime it becomes clear that providing credible results will involve significant research, it’s important to consult with the client and obtain their permission to expand the process and add billable hours. Any readers wishing to see the Ptarmigan Vase in person may do so at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

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What’s in a name? (Part 4)

Provenance as a value element

Part 4 of 5

By Mark T. Cartwright

The use of engraved imagery representing indigenous peoples’ mythology was one of Farnham’s design concepts at the time. In essence, the entire vessel was intended to present a complete history of a specific place from multiple perspectives. Photo courtesy Mark T. Cartwright

In my previous study of Paulding Farnham’s life, I recalled that during the late 1890s and extending into the early part of the 20th century, he was enthralled with mining in the western United States and Canada. During my previous assignment involving Farnham, I’d come across the Sally James Farnham Catalogue Raisonné Project, so I contacted the curator. He most graciously sent some family photos of Sally on horseback at the couple’s ranch in British Columbia. I began pouring through local newspaper archives, along with census, business, and mine records from the turn of the century. After many hours and many dead ends, I finally struck pay dirt!

I found occasional references to the Ptarmigan Mine and mining records indicating partial ownership by “a Mr. P. Farnham of New York.” Aha! The bird was a ptarmigan and the map co-ordinates for the mine matched those on the vessel. I also located an article in the Oct. 30, 1902 edition of the Victoria Daily Colonist archives announcing the naming of several peaks in the Selkirk range, including one Mount Farnham. The article states “… known by several names among the prospectors, is now to be known as Mount Farnham in honour of Paulding Farnham of New York, promoter of the Ptarmigan Mines of the Selkirks… Mr. Farnham’s property lies at the base of this mountain, and it is indeed well-named, for Mr. Farnham has greatly contributed to the development of the mines in this district.” Interestingly, his ‘contributions’ ended up costing him his fortune and his marriage, but that’s another story.

More to come of this story in Part 5.

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