THE EMPRESS EUGÉNIE PEARLS
A pair of nineteenth-century pearl drops, each composed of a gray pearl with a diamond-set cap suspended from a later prong and cut-down collet set round diamond and French hook earwires; mounted in silver and yellow gold
- 2 gray natural drop pearls
- 2 old mine brilliant diamonds, each weighing 3.01 carats
- Measurements: 1 1/2 × 9/16 × 9/16 inches
- Empress Eugénie of France
- George Crocker, by descent to his step-daughter
- Emma Wallace Rutherford (Mrs. Philip Kearny)
- Henry Rogers Benjamin, by descent to his daughter
- Anne Rogers Benjamin (Mrs. Robert R. Barry), by descent to her daughter
- Cynthia Barry (Mrs. Lewis A. Shea)
- Gemological Institute of America Natural Pearl Classification Report no. 2165901552, dated January 12, 2015, stating that the gray drop pearls with rose overtones are natural saltwater pearls from the Pinctada margaritifera oyster. Further stating there are no indications of treatment.
- Gemological Institute of America Monograph The Empress Eugénie Pearls, stating “No matter the time period, the discovery of two remarkably well-matched, natural pearls of gray color is an exceedingly unusual occurrence . . . Having once been owned and coveted by some of society’s most elite members, the Empress Eugénie Pearl Earrings call for the eyes of only those who appreciate uncommon beauty . . .”
The last empress of France, Eugénie de Montijo, owned an extraordinary personal jewelry collection, as well as having access to the French crown jewels. The wife of Napoleon III, Eugénie was aware of the scrutiny of her fashion choices as empress and she astutely chose to both look forward, supporting the fledgling careers of Charles Worth and Louis Vuitton, and to honor the past, drawing inspiration from Marie Antoinette. Her exquisite taste was copied around the world, and especially her taste for pearls.
Eugénie’s passion for jewelry and pearls can be seen in the numerous portraits by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. In the 1854 portrait in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Eugénie is shown wearing her grey pearl drops. Today, gray pearls are more expensive and rare than white pearls, but they were underappreciated until Eugénie realized their exquisite potential. Grey pearls are most often found in French Polynesia (often today they are called Tahitian pearls) and come from the Pinctada margaritifera or black-lipped pearl oyster.
Produced within a living mollusk, natural gem pearls are exceedingly rare. While pearl fishing does still occur in a limited number of places, most natural pearls to come to market were produced before 1945. Historically natural pearls have been so sought after that they were reserved for royalty and the very wealthy. At the height of the Roman Empire, when pearl fever reached its peak, the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
After the fall of the Second Empire, the former royal family relied on the sale of the jewels Eugénie smuggled to England. A strand of her perfectly matched black pearls sold at Christie’s in London in 1872 for $20,000 with the separated clasp selling privately for $5,000, an enormous sum. One of the many newspaper articles about the sale said, “The triumphs and homage these glittering gems have seen, and the atmosphere of splendour in which they have been displayed, are known to all.” Other jewels were sold privately to Indian, Russian, and European royals or to American nouveau riche looking to purchase pieces with royal provenance.
It was in this period that George Crocker acquired the Empress Eugénie Pearls. Crocker was the son of a railroad tycoon, and followed in his footsteps to take the helm of many rail, steamship, and coal companies, including becoming vice president of Southern Pacific Railroad. As was typical of wealthy socialites of this era, Crocker and his wife, Emma Rutherford Crocker, often traveled to Europe and looked to France for the decoration of their Beaux-Arts Fifth Avenue mansion as well as for jewelry. Emma was considered beautiful and successful socially. In January of 1900, Emma was written about in The New York Times as a guest of Mrs. Astor’s annual ball. The paper mentioned a necklace of similar lineage, “Mrs. George Crocker’s costume was white satin, with insertions of lace, heavily embroidered with pink roses, and her necklace of pearls was one formerly owned and worn by the Empress Eugénie.”
After passing to Emma Wallace Rutherford Kearney, Emma Crocker’s daughter ( from her first marriage), the Empress Eugénie Pearls were acquired by another American industrialist family around 1925. Henry R. Benjamin was the grandson of Henry Huttleston Rogers of Fairhaven, MA, who made his fortune as a partner in Standard Oil and founder of the Virginia Railroad. Rogers and his wife, Abbie Palmer Gifford, both descended from families who arrived on the Mayflower, and Rogers was a close friend and confidant of Mark Twain. Benjamin was a cousin of the fashion icon Millicent Rogers. Benjamin, married Dorothy Rennard, who wore the pearls on Christmas, 1925. Their daughter, Anne Rogers Benjamin, wore the pearls at her debut in 1941 at a ball hosted in her honor by her aunt, Beatrice Benjamin Cartwright, in the ballroom of New York’s St. Regis Hotel.
In 1945, Anne Rogers Benjamin married Robert Raymond Barry, and the couple settled in Bronxville, NY. In the 1959, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served three terms. The Empress Eugénie Pearls passed to her daughter, Mrs. Lewis A. Shea.
The Empress Eugénie Pearls are an impeccable set of matched natural gray pearls with an exceptional provenance passing from the royal courts of Europe to the families of important American industrialists. Rarely are such storied gems available on the market.