Many people today are unaware of the fact that years ago, a good pearl necklace was more often than not far more valuable than diamonds - or any other gem. (We are talking about the period prior to the early 1900s when Kokichi Mikimoto created the process of successfully culturing pearls.)
Why more valuable? Because only 1 in 10,000 oysters might contain a round natural pearl, and it might take up to ten years to create a perfect strand. During the time of Julius Caesar, pearls were so sought after and expensive that he barred women below a certain rank from wearing them. Of course this had an effect on culture (no pun intended) and a good strand of pearls became de rigueur for any woman of note. Edith Rockefeller McCormick was no exception.
She rarely, if ever was seen without her favorite piece of jewelry; a necklace which consisted of 33 large perfectly matched pearls, three large diamonds and two flexible bards of diamonds containing 100 round and 12 square diamonds. She had many other significant pieces of jewelry - most notably a necklace containing emeralds that once belonged to Catherine the Great - which rarely came out of the vault for use. Her pearl and diamond necklace was her mainstay.
Miss Marjorie Brown is pictured with two necklaces that belonged to Edith Rockefeller McCormick
About three months after Edith's death in August of 1932, the picture shown above appeared in many newspapers across the country. The larger necklace contains stones that once belonged to Empress Catherine of Russia; a hexagonal emerald weighing 110 karats, nine other large emeralds and 1657 diamonds. The value placed on it at the time of inventory was $183,966.13. (In today's dollars it would amount to $3,055,224.32.)
When it came to Edith's favorite necklace the value was entirely different. Yes, it contained a large amount of diamonds which were primarily part of the clasp, but the 33 perfectly matched pearls had their impact. The 1932 appraisal was $406,684.16. In today's dollars that amounts to $6,754,022.26 - well over double the value placed on the Catherine the Great emeralds.
I don't know what became of Edith's beloved pearl necklace. The Catherine the Great necklace, however, languished for over two years without and acceptable offer for purchase from her estate. In 1935 a probate judge signed an order extending the amount of time for Cartier (who handled the original transaction with Edith) to dispose of the piece. It was determined that in order to sell, the gems in the necklace might have to be sold separately even though an $800,000 offer had been made (and refused by the executors) for both of Edith's necklaces in January of 1934.
Barbara Hutton, wearing the emeralds which were reset in a tiara/necklace designed by Lucien Lachassagne and fashioned by Cartier in 1947.
In 1936, the emeralds would end up in the hands of Barbara Hutton who would pay $460,000 in cash. In 1947 the emeralds would be incorporated into a tiara with diamonds designed by Lucien Lachassagne of Cartier, that could also be worn as a necklace. She is reported to have given the piece to her seventh husband (Prince Pierre Raymond Doan) whom she married in 1964. The stones were sold separately by him after their separation and some ended up in the collection of Elizabeth Taylor.
As for pearls today, they can still outpace gems. Desirable natural pearls are extremely rare, and hence remain prohibitively expensive. Natural pearls have always been deemed precious (remember, 1 in 10,000!), and are universally costly. Most of the natural pearls on the market today are vintage pearls, as virtually every pearl producer now relies on cultured pearls. Natural pearls are simply too risky, rare, and expensive to find and sell.