Posts tagged christie's

A necklace auctioned by Christie’s in May 2019, set with a 75.63 carat pear cut emerald once owned by the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia.

One of the things I love the most is tracing the journeys of important gems.  Having previously written about the famed emeralds owned by the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia, I was fascinated to hear that a single one of these stones had made an auction appearance earlier this year. The stone attracted attention not only because of its Imperial provenance, but also because it was arguably the finest emerald in the Grand Duchess’ collection.

The Grand Duchess Vladimir wearing her emeralds for the great Court ball of 1903. Note the emerald diadem; the large square on her chest is the 107 carat gem recently auctioned.

The emerald necklace in its original form: nine large emeralds set in diamonds, suspending important cabochon briolette stones.

A rare photograph of a young Grand Duchess Vladimir wearing the necklace, the brooch clearly pinned to the front.

Originally, the emerald was part of a parure, a wedding present from the Romanovs to Princess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, to celebrate her marriage to the uncle of Tsar Nicholas II, upon which she became Her Imperial Highness The Grand Duchess Vladimir Pavlovna.  These stones, in my opinion, were probably the finest collection of emeralds ever owned by an individual, unrivalled in size, quality and colour match.  The fullest extent of the Grand Duchess’ emerald collection can be seen in the famous photograph of her in historical Russian costume for a ball in 1903.  The centre stone of the parure’s necklace (more of which later) was a hexagonal specimen weighing over 100 carats, and can clearly be seen on the headdress.  The stone recently sold at auction was originally an emerald cut weighing 107.67 carats, set in diamonds and suspending an important drop emerald; this can also clearly be identified pinned at the front.  The rest of her emerald jewellery, all containing stones of considerable size, is sewn all over her dress.

Upon her death in 1920, the emeralds were inherited by the Grand Duchess’ son, the Grand Duke Boris, the rest of the jewellery divided into colours and bequeathed thus to her other children.  The first break up of the emeralds was effected by the Grand Duke, who sold the emerald necklace in about 1922 to Cartier; they were subsequently reset into a sleek Art Deco sautoir, bought by Edith McCormack Rockefeller.  However, some of the stones must have been held back by the Grand Duke, who clearly only sold out of sheer necessity.  The emerald set in the brooch sold by Christie’s was only acquired from the Grand Duke by Cartier in 1927; on expert gemmological advice the stone was recut from a 107.67 cut to an unrecognizable 75.63 pear shape.  The pear shape was then sold to John D. Rockefeller Jr., brother of Edith and owner of the other stones.  John D. Jr. must have known the Imperial provenance of the emerald he had bought and must have wanted to reunite it with the Imperial stones in his sister’s sautoir.

The emeralds as set by Cartier into the Art Deco sautoir bought by Edith McCormack Rockefeller.

The emeralds as set by Cartier into her Indian style tiara. Note there are now only seven stones.

The reunion was to be short lived; Edith McCormick died in 1932 and the necklace was sold and bought by the heiress Barbara Hutton, the transaction brokered once more by Cartier.  At this point, the more of the stones must have been dispersed: the McCormick sautoir clearly contained nine stones; when Barbara Hutton had Cartier reset the emeralds into a tiara convertible into a necklace, there are only seven.  There is speculation that she used the other stones in a ring and earrings, but on close inspection of photographs of these items it is impossible that the stones in these were recut octagon emeralds from the Vladimir necklace.

The Art Deco necklace unveiled by Van Cleef and Arpels in 1929; I find the similarity of these emeralds to the drops in the original Vladimir necklace remarkable.

If we go back to the emeralds as they were given to the Grand Duchess, we can also see that suspended from the necklace are nine important cabochon drop shape stones.  These stones do not feature in any of the McCormick/Hutton versions of the necklace- nor do they feature in any jewels created by Cartier in either the 20s or 30s.  I have a hunch: in 1929, Van Cleef unveiled a spectacular diamond necklace in the Art Deco style suspending 9 cabochon briolette emeralds, remarkably similar in shape and size to the 9 in the original Vladimir necklace.  I suspect that the Grand Duke had retained these stones, disposing of them only in 1927, the same time at which he sold the 100 carat emerald brooch.  Should my hunch be correct, I have no idea why the stones would have ended up in the hands of rival jewellery houses. Speculatively, it would make it the second time Van Cleef handled emeralds from the same Romanov source, as they acquired Barbara Hutton’s tiara in the mid 1960s and sold the stones off piecemeal. The Art Deco necklace was bought in 1947 by Princess Faiza of Egypt and is now owned by a private collector.

 The drop shape emerald had been bought from the Rockefellers by the Esmerian family, the same gemmologists who had advised on recutting the gem.  The pear is set in an unremarkable contemporary diamond setting which I suspect will not survive, achieving an auction price of CHF4,335,000.  Imagine if the stones had survived as a set.


Ring set with a 3.15 carat bluish green diamond by Tiffany in their inimitably elegant style.

The biggest, most famous green diamond in the world: the Dresden Green, weighing 41 carats.

Gemmologists and collectors alike are fascinated by green diamonds not only because the hues and tones in this gem vary so greatly, but because it is not yet fully understood why they occur. 

Of the coloured diamonds in the spectrum, red and green are the rarest.  Chromacity is usually determined in other diamonds due to the trace presence of elements; in green the result is thought to come about after the stone has been exposed to radiation over a period of thousands of years.  The source of radiation is usually uranium near the Earth’s surface.  As these unlikely conditions have to be absolutely perfect for this to happen, the appearance of a green diamond is a genuinely rare natural occurrence.  The effect can be replicated in a laboratory, achieving the same effect, making the differentiation between the natural and the artificial extremely difficult.

Green diamonds are always submitted to a gem laboratory to establish the origin of colour, but even with today’s advanced technology it is not always possible for the lab to produce a satisfactory assessment.  Most of them are not green all the way through; many have green radiation blotches or stains on the surface which get polished away during the cutting process, which means the colour is lost.  Cutters have to work their way around this in order to present the highest colour saturation in the best way.  It is highly unusual for a stone to be evenly coloured all the way through, but they do occur. 

Generally, the longer the exposure to radiation, the deeper in to the gem the colour will have penetrated.  How deep the colour has gone will also determine the hue.  Coloured diamonds, apart from their primary colour will also have a secondary colour; green diamonds have two, blue and yellow, making their classification difficult.  Hues, therefore, range from the palest mint green, through to vivid parrot and intense olive green.  More often than not green stones will be named yellowish green, greenish blue, blueish green and so forth.

A yellowish green diamond surrounded by pink and white diamonds.  A perfect example of how much the greens can vary from stone to stone.

The most famous green diamond in world is also the largest: the Dresden Green, weighing in at 41 carats.  It was acquired by Augustus, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony in 1742 and it remains on view in the Green Vaults in Dresden today.  It sets the benchmark for all stones of its kind because its colour is natural and homogenous all the way through, experiments with radiated diamonds not beginning until 1904.  Gemmologists were allowed to study it in detail and their results were inconclusive- they determined that additional research is required to establish the definite cause of green in diamonds.  I rather like the fact that some precious stones still retain some genuine mystery.

A notable example of an exceptional green is the Ocean Dream diamond which possesses a truly unique bluish green hue that gives it its name.  It weighs 5.5 carats and was recently exhibited at the Smythsonian’s ‘Splendor of Gems’ exhibit.  Another gem worthy of a mention is the Aurora Green, a spectacular fancy vivid green weighing 5.03 sold in Hong Kong by Christie’s last year; the sale fetched $16.8 million, or $3.3 million a carat, a record for a stone of its kind.  Enough to wake the green eyed monster in any of us.

The Aurora Green, weighing in at 5.03 carats.  It was sold by Christie's for $16.8 million, setting a record for a diamond of its class.


Boehmer et Bassenge's new Jardin d'Isabelle diamond necklace, composed entirely of pink and D flawless diamonds.  The estimate for their upcoming auction at Christie's is $8-12 million.

Two of the most astonishing pieces of jewellery to be created since the French Revolution are to be auctioned at Christie’s Geneva on the 15th November.  They consist of a necklace called Le Jardin d’Isabelle and earclips named Miroir d’Amour- appropriate Rococo nomenclature given the name of the creator: Boehmer et Bassenge.

The original Boehmer et Bassenge were the court jewellers to Marie Antoinette, who created an infamous diamond necklace which could be said to have been the fuse that lit the French Revolution.  The Parisian jewellers began composing a necklace in 1772, consisting of 647 diamonds weighing a total of 2800 carats, all of them reputed to be D flawless, costing some 2 million livres.  The jewellers were hoping to persuade Louis XV to buy it for his mistress Madame du Barry, who was known to be exceedingly fond of diamonds.  Unfortunately, before the necklace was finished the King died and Madame du Barry was sent away, leaving Boehmer and Bassenge without a buyer.  The necklace was offered to his successor Louis XVI for his new queen, Marie Antoinette, but the royal couple turned it down, the Queen stating that she had enough diamonds.  The monarchs sensibly suggested to the pair that at such an exhorbitant price they might like to break up the piece and sell the stones separately in order to recoup their costs.  But Boehmer and Bassenge had spent so much time and energy creating this unparalleled jewel that they could not bring themselves to carry this out.  Rather pathetically, they toured most of the courts of Europe trying to flog the necklace without success, even going as far as Constantinople to offer it to the Sultan.

The fuse that lit a Revolution:  A replica of the diamond necklace by Boehmer and Bassenge.  Turned down by Marie Antoinette and all the other crowned heads of Europe, this piece cemented France's hate against the Queen.

The Comtesse du Barry, Louis XV's beautiful, not very clever mistress.

Marie Antoinette painted in all her courtly glamour.  Although her dress and hair are decorated with priceless jewels, ironically she was rarely painted wearing a necklace.

Hearing of their plight, an adventuring conwoman calling herself the Comtesse de la Motte offered her services to the jewellers to act as a go between between them and the Queen in order to effect the sale; in fact it was all an elaborate ruse to steal the necklace.  The Comtesse in fact had no position or influence at Court and had never even met the Queen.  However, she managed to persuade the gullible Cardinal de Rohan, Grand Almoner of France.  He had fallen out of royal favour; desperate to regain his high courtly position, he gullible enough to try anything.  The Comtesse persuaded him through various means that she was in the Queen’s confidence and that she was longing for the famed necklace, but was too frightened of public opinion to buy it openly.  Would de Rohan act as intermediary between the Crown and Boehmer and Bassenge and act as buyer on her behalf?  Astonishingly, he agreed.  The necklace was delivered to the Cardinal, who passed it to the Comtesse to give to the Queen.  The Comtesse promptly ran off to London, broke up the necklace and sold the stones.  Inevitably, when the jewellers did not receive the first instalment owed, they approached the Queen, who was confused to say the least, and the entire affair came out into the open.  All those implicated went on trial, including the duped Cardinal.  At this date (1785) Marie Antoinette was widely loathed for her perceived extravagance; the trial effectively became a trial on the Queen’s character and although the Comtesse de la Motte was convicted as a thief, the Cardinal was acquitted.  It was a widely held belief by the public at this point that the Queen had secretly spirited away the necklace. The whole affair merely solidified her as a scapegoat figure for the country’s economic woes and unleashed a poisonous vitriol towards her of an intensity that would be hard for a modern mind to comprehend.  The ironic thing is that in her portraits Marie Antoinette is rarely seen wearing a necklace of any kind. 

Miroir d'Amour earrings by Boehmer et Bassenge.  Each of these pear shaped diamonds is D Flawless and weighs over 50 carats.  They are the largest of their kind ever to be offered at auction.

The new incarnation of Boehmer et Bassange is as yet hard to pinpoint.  A thorough internet search yields only opaque results and elegantly worded press releases.  The message, however, is loud and clear: to create pieces of such peerless quality that they will pass into legend.  And no doubt they will- in accordance with the famous name they are trading under, Boehmer et Bassenge work only with D Flawless diamonds.  The Miroir d’Amour earrings are the largest pear D Flawless pair of pear shaped stones ever to be offered at auction.  The two stones weigh over 50 carats each and the pre-sale estimate is $20-30 million.  The Jardin d’Isabelle necklace, although not the gargantuan 2800 carats like the Queen’s, is nearly 150 carats, the largest stone in it coming in at 31.8 carats.  The estimate for the necklace is $8-12 million. These lots are being offered without reserve, so it is worth watching this space to see what happens.  Every single diamond in the piece is D-Flawless.  These stones are not just the top 1% of diamonds mined; they are the world’s top 100th of 1%.  Regardless of what happens at auction it is an astounding, unheard of collection.  Madame du Barry, the original intended recipient of the original necklace, would have approved.

The beautiful Jubilee Ruby, with a weight of 15.99 carats, imaginatively set by Verdura.

The beautiful Jubilee Ruby, with a weight of 15.99 carats, imaginatively set by Verdura.

The jewellery auction season is over and now that the blizzard of publicity and eye watering numbers has stopped cascading towards us we can step back and take a measured look at how the sales have performed.

There have been several ‘Biggest Ever’ stones offered at auction this year.  These stones were exceptional not only in size, but also in quality.  We must add a mention here for the largely unsung hero that is the stone cutter.  Coloured stones take months of studying before faceting; not only does the cutter have to remove the maximum amount of flaws to maximise the clarity, he also has to ensure the colour is evenly spread.  Coloured stones are rarely evenly coloured and the cutter must ensure that the colour is as close to the centre of the stone as possible in order to ensure maximum colour saturation.  The cutter is solely responsible for maximising a gem’s potential.

 But I digress- the prices achieved this year did not disappoint.  The Unique Pink Diamond sold by Sotheby’s in May fetched a world record as the most expensive pink diamond ever sold; at 15.38 carats it was the largest pear shaped pink diamond to be sold at auction and it fetched $31.56 million.  It sold to an anonymous Asian buyer who was bidding over the telephone and so far their identity remains secret.

A trio of blues of exceptional quality and size also held auction watchers agog.  The Oppenheimer Blue, a beautiful emerald cut of over 14 carats smashed its $29 million top estimate, fetching $57.5 million. It made it the most expensive blue diamond ever sold, also setting a record sale time of just 25 minutes.

More nervous were Christie’s during the sale of the Cullinan Dream, the 24.18 carat blue behemoth, the largest blue diamond in the world ever to be auctioned.  They had reason to be, after the disastrous withdrawal of the Shirley Temple Blue Diamond earlier that month, which had failed to reach its reserve.  Bidding was slow on this lot and the price went up agonisingly slowly.  However, it managed to reach $25.3 million- still a remarkable sum for a single gem, by any standards.

One more stone that deserves an honourable mention is the Jubilee Ruby sold by Christie’s, beautifully set by Verdura (I do often wonder why some of these amazing stones aren’t more imaginatively set).  A rare stone of just under 16 carats, it set a US record with a hammer price of $12.5 million, plus fees.

Overall, it was a good year for gem auctions.  Although prices held very well, other than the stones mentioned above, no other records were broken and most lots came in just shy of their high estimates, with a few exceptional stones coming in short of their low estimates.

The Oppenheimer Blue Diamond, the most expensive blue diamond ever sold at auction.

The 14.38 carat Unique Pink Diamond.