… color:#db0a5b !important;
18k gold bracelet with ruby and diamond clasp.
American, circa 1940
Length: 7 inches
… color:#db0a5b !important;
18k gold bracelet with ruby and diamond clasp.
American, circa 1940
Length: 7 inches
Montana sapphire and diamond pansy brooch with centrally set brilliant cut diamond in 18k white gold.
English, possibly by Johnson Walker and Tolhurst, ca. 1920.
Diameter: 2 inches
In 1895, Dr. George Frederick Kunz, the leading American gemologist of the time, was so impressed by the quality and color of the Montana sapphire, he pronounced them “the finest precious gemstones ever found in the United States.” In 1899, Johnson, Walker and Tolhurst, Ltd. of London purchased the New Mine Sapphire Syndicate for $100,000 (approximately $3.1 million in 2020). At this point, the operation became unofficially known as the “English Mine.” The rough material from the English Mine was shipped to London and sold in Europe. The mine went on to produce some 16 million carats until it ceased operations in 1929.
14k gold ring with a textured surface.
American, ca. 1960.
Pair of black opal and diamond earrings with triangular tops set in platinum.
Marcus and Company
American ca. 1910
Length 1 ¾ inches
These earrings appear in our Marcus & Co. video on our videos page.
Now that it’s June, it’s time to layer on the pearls, the birthstone for this month!
Appropriately dubbed “the queen of gems,” pearls have long been associated with royalty, crowning the heads of many queens throughout history. Cleopatra’s legendary pearl earrings, Byzantium’s Empress Theodora’s pearl tiara, and Queen Elizabeth I’s pearl-studded ensembles, for example, immediately spring to mind. But here at A La Vieille Russie, we think of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.
The Tsarina was not particularly interested in fashion, preferring simpler, lightweight gowns to the sumptuous finery she donned at court. Her taste in jewelry was similar, favoring pearls over other gems, noted by American writer Kellogg Durland, who traveled to Russia in 1907 to write about the Empress. He later reflected on this visit in his 1911 book, “Royal Romances of To-Day,” in which he remarks on Alexandra’s fondness for pearls:
“The Tsaritsa’s pearls, which she wears with her court costume are famous the world over. […] Perhaps, of all her jewels, she cares most for a long string of wonderful pearls, which she wears very often. The string is so long that she can wear it twice around her neck, and yet have the longest loop reach to her knees. The short loop comes to the waistline, and is finished with one single pear-shaped pearl of enormous value.”
This penchant for pearls was nicely documented, for example, in our colored photograph of the Empress (pictured above) and in this charming photograph of Alexandra and the Tsarevich, Alexei, playing with her pearls:
Who can blame the Empress’s preference for pearls? These gems of the sea have captivated mankind for millennia and it’s easy to see why, from their beautiful luster to their seemingly magical, organic formation.
Pearls have long been associated with purity, innocence, and humility, qualities that can be attributed to their mystifying, organic origins. American mineralogist, (and Tiffany & Co. Vice President 1879-1932), George Fredirick Kunz explains how:
“Unlike other gems, the pearl comes to us perfect and beautiful, direct from the hand of nature. Other precious stones receive careful treatment from the lapidary, and owe much to his art. The pearl, however, owes nothing to man […] it is absolutely a gift of nature, on which man cannot improve.”
As an organic gem, the pearl’s origins intrigued and perplexed man for centuries. Its association with the sea led to many water-inspired myths and theories. Ancient poets surmised that pearls formed from tears of the gods that fell into open oysters. Similarly, in Greek and Roman mythology, Aphrodite/Venus shook droplets of water from herself as she rose from the sea, the droplets then hardening into pearls. Such myths inspired the belief that pearls formed from drops of dew, a theory that persisted for centuries. This theory endured until around the 16th century, when naturalists began to speculate that pearls formed from oyster eggs.
Pearls in fact are the result of a mollusk’s response to a foreign particle. The pearls form when layers of nacre (mother of pearl), a variety of calcium carbonate, surround a foreign particle, like a grain of sand or a parasite. Not as fantastical as tears of a god, but still magical in its own way.
For centuries, the main sources of pearls were the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, as well as the rivers and lakes of China and the coast of Japan. After 1492, the discovery of pearls in the New World provided Europe a supply so great that the region came to be called the “Land of Pearls.”
Pearls come in many colors, ranging from white to black, and varying shades of cream, gray, blue, yellow, lavender, green, and mauve. The color produced depends on the mollusk and its environment. Pearls also vary in size, from tiny seed pearls, to large, irregularly shaped baubles called baroque pearls. Baroque pearls were popular in their namesake Baroque period but also so during the Renaissance, when jewelers fashioned them into pendants and brooches resembling animals, mermaids, and other creative, figural representations. Baroque pearls continued to inspire jewelers in subsequent periods, including during the Renaissance Revival period in the mid-nineteenth century, and even later. For example, our baroque pearl and diamond dog figurine/pendant dates to the early twentieth century.
Contemporary jewelers continue to use pearls in creative ways. For example, a large cultured pearl is used as the body in this late 20th century spider brooch. A cultured pearl results from manmade intervention in the pearl-making process. A particle, such as a bead or a piece of shell, is placed inside a mollusk for the layers of nacre to form around it. While such attempts existed for centuries, it wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century when a number of individuals successfully refined the process. What was once a rare jewel only accessible to royals and aristocrats now became attainable for many people throughout the world.
Throughout history, pearls were not just prized for adornment, but also valued for their presumed curative properties. Ingesting pearls was believed to cure any number of ailments, from indigestion to melancholia. Elixirs were made with pulverized pearl and vinegar, sometimes with the addition of lemon juice and other ingredients. While we can’t speak on the curative benefits of ingesting pearls (in fact, please don’t), wearing them is sure to chase away the blues! As George Fredirick Kunz, said, “there are few ills to which women are subject that cannot be bettered or at least endured with greater patience when the sufferer receives a gift of pearls.” At ALVR we’re pleased to offer a lovely assortment of pearl gifts, from brooches to rings. Here are some of our favorites:
Opal is the birthstone for October, but we think this gem should be celebrated year round! Opals are truly a wonder to behold. A hydrous variety of silicon dioxide, it’s composed of tiny silica spheres bonded together with silica and water. Known for their brilliant flashes of color, this optical phenomena is the result how the silica spheres are layered within the stone, scattering the light in different directions.
Opals come in a brilliant range of colors, including orange, yellow, red, green, blue, and purple. White opals are the most common. Found in Hungary, white opals feature flashes of color against a white, almost translucent, ground. Black opal, one of the more prized forms that is mined in Australia, exhibits a play of color against a dark ground. Fire opal, so named for its bright yellow, orange, or red background color, is primarily found in Mexico and Ethiopia.
Opals have been revered for centuries. Because the colors of other gems can be found in opals, the Romans considered opal to be the most precious and powerful of all gemstones. In the Middle Ages, opals were believed to bring good luck by embodying the virtues of all gemstones.
Although admired since ancient times, the reputation of this luminescent gem darkened in the nineteenth century. In this period, opal lost its luster thanks to the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 novel, Anne of Geierstein. In the novel, the character Lady Hermione wears an opal with supernatural powers that changes color according to her mood. After the opal is sprinkled with holy water, it loses its color, leaving her ill, and the following day, reduced to ashes. Scott’s decision to use the gemstone as a supernatural life source must have been inspired by the flashes of color seen on an opal when it’s exposed to light. Misunderstanding of this optical phenomenon, along with the stone’s delicate nature, inspired awe and superstition.
Unfortunately, Scott’s artistic license had consequences for the opal market, rendering this once lucky stone to be quite the opposite. In fact, within one year of its publication, sales of opals decreased by nearly 50% and remained low for the next twenty years. Superstition arose from a misunderstanding of opal’s delicate nature. They rank 5.5 to 6.5 out of 10 on Mohs scale of hardness, making opal more fragile than other stones. Because of their high water content, they’re particularly sensitive to sudden climate changes. While Sir Walter Scott exaggerated this sensitivity, it should be noted that the stone can crack under dry conditions, or rapid changes of temperature.
Like Sir Walter Scott, nineteenth-century American poet Hannah Flagg Gould was inspired by opal’s lifelike qualities. In her 1845 poem “The Opal,” she describes the stone as “the gem with the burning heart,” referring to the luminous spot that changes position in the light. Her interpretation is more optimistic than Scott’s, implying that the stone is imbued with holy light:
Gem with the burning heart,
That, as a living soul,
Pervading Every Part,
Gives beauty to the whole,
What angel’s hand thy bosom lit,
With the bright spark enkindling it.
Published in 1845, the poem illustrates opal regaining favor by mid-century. However, at the time of the Crimean War, old superstitions returned briefly when the stone was blamed for giving soldiers bad luck. In subsequent decades, attitudes warmed as more opal deposits were discovered, rekindling the opal market. This was particularly so later in the century when, in 1877, black opal was discovered in New South Wales, Australia. Queen Victoria also played a significant role in restoring opal’s reputation. She loved to wear them and was known to give them as gifts. She gifted opal jewelry to each of her five daughters as wedding presents and loved to give opal rings to many of her friends.
In this age opals are revered once again. So long as it’s taken care of, the burning heart endures.
Arts and Crafts 14k gold ring with black enamel floral designs and three small diamonds surmounting the high setting.
American, ca. 1925
Special price: $5,800
Pair of diamond and ‘tear drop’ diamond earrings, mounted in platinum.
American, ca. 1910
(each ‘tear drop’ 2 carats)
Length: 1-1/4 inches
These earrings appear in our diamond drop earrings video on our videos page.
Diamond and green garnet slithering snake brooch, set in platinum and gold, and with a ruby-set head.
American, ca. 1900
Length: 2-1/4 inches