The Cowdray Pearls: when grey is anything but dull

It has been said there is no finer collection of pearls in existence. No surprise then, that Middle East collectors are expected to be among bidders for the single string of grey pearls described as “exceptional” by the Swiss Gemmological Institute.

The Cowdray Pearls, once owned by the late Viscountess Cowdray, Lady Pearson – a well-known English collector who died in 1932 – are expected to fetch between $4.5 million to $7m at an auction by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on October 7.

“In the last 15 or 20 years there have been a couple of other strands to come up at auction but they are always mainly white pearls,” says Quek Chin Yeow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and chairman of international jewellery, Asia.

The necklace, comprises 42 rare, natural grey pearls strung by Cartier, with a matching pair of natural grey earrings. The pearls’ colours vary from shades of grey and brown and overtones of rosé, to purple and green.

Only three types of oysters produce the rare gems in The Cowdray Pearls, but analysis by the Swiss Gemmological Institute narrowed it down to two that grow in the South Pacific – the black-lipped pearl oyster and the rainbow-lipped pearl oyster.

Saltwater oysters produce between one and three pearls at a time, making them rarer than pearls produced by freshwater molluscs and highly sought after. Grey gems such as those in The Cowdray Pearls are even more prized because they are perfect and there are so few examples, with cream the most common pearl colour.

The auction is expected to generate interest globally, with the collection currently on an international tour ahead of the sale. A date is set to be confirmed for viewings in Doha, Qatar, and a Dubai viewing will be added if there is enough interest.

“We are, of course, in contact with our top Middle East clients,” says Mr Yeow. “We had them come out to Hong Kong sales a couple of seasons ago when we had a special collection of pearls. We had a strong presence of people flying in to see the pearls from two different countries in the Middle East, one of which was the UAE, which was interesting.”

q&a ancient industry in the round

Gillian Duncan delves into the UAE’s pearl history:

How long did the pearl industry operate for in the Emirates?

No one really knows when people living in the Arabian Gulf started harvesting and trading pearls, but they have been found in archaeological digs at sites dating back 7,000 years. Pearls were very popular in Roman times. In 1154, the Arab writer Al Idrisi wrote that Julfar, which is now known as Ras Al Khaimah, had become a major pearl hub. By the 1580s, the region had become so famous internationally for its pearls that the Venetian state jeweller Gasparo Balbi paid it a visit.

How big was the industry?

Huge. At the start of the 20th century, when pearling was at its prime, it has been estimated that the industry employed about 10,000 people in Dubai alone – almost 70 per cent of the population – and 80,000 regionally. It is thought the average annual value of pearls exported from the Arabian Gulf at that time was more than £1.4 million, while exports of mother of pearl added a further £30,439, the UAE Interact website states.

What happened?

A number of factors combined to bring about the industry’s downfall. In the early 1920s, Japan started produced cultured pearls, which were cheaper than the natural ones harvested in the Trucial States. The industry was dealt a further blow in the 1930s by the Great Depression and then the following decade the newly-formed Indian government banned the import of Gulf pearls in 1947, effectively finishing it off. However, the pearl industry was replaced soon after by the discovery of another rich natural resource – oil.

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