The Rockefeller Emerald - a guide to buying coloured gems at auction

The Rockefeller Emerald - a guide to buying coloured gems at auction


Emeralds have been one of the best performing gemstones in recent years and their increasing prices have been well documented but the fine art of successfully buying and selling these beguiling stones is a lesser known industry secret. Recently an 18.04 carat emerald, once owned by the famous Rockefeller family, fetched $5.5 million at Christie's New York, setting a new record price per carat auction record of $305,000. This pipped to the post the previous record of $280,000 per carat set by Elizabeth Taylor's collection of Bulgari emeralds, which was said to have been greatly influenced by the provenance of its ownership. The Rockefeller emerald was originally commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, the only son and heir of the Standard Oil co-founder, in 1930. It was originally mounted as the centre stone of an amazing brooch he gifted to his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Almost touching the top end of its $4-6 million estimate, Christie's stated that it was "among the finest emeralds to be offered for sale at auction." The piece was purchased by the renowned US jewellery house Harry Winston, whose CEO, Nayla Hayek, described her motivation as a desire to "bring this magnificent gem home at any price." It is clear to see that coloured stones are very much in vogue and fetching ever higher prices, both at auction and private sales. The Rockefeller Emerald was sold as part of the Magnificent Jewels auction at Christie's New York on 20th June 2017.



(Christie's auction room in New York has seen many fine emeralds go under the hammer)

As is often the case with fine gems and jewellery, the provenance of this stone is fascinating. When Abby Rockefeller died in 1948 the stones comprising the brooch were divided equally between their five children and this wonderful 18.04 carat gem was bequeathed to their youngest son, David Rockefeller. Unsure as to what to do with it he turned to his father's favoured jeweller, Raymond Yard, for advice. Yard set it into a platinum ring, flanked by diamonds, which is how it remains to this day. Yard's success as a jeweller had been forged in no small part by his close relationship with the Rockefeller family, who had introduced him to the elite of early twentieth century American society, including the Vanderbilts and the Woolworths, among others. Renowned for their exceptional colour and clarity, Colombian emeralds, such as the Rockefeller, fetch the highest premiums of all coloured gems in both private sales and auctions and larger examples are increasingly rare on the market. The American Gemmological Laboratories described the Rockefeller as "exceptional" and possessing "an unusual combination of size, provenance, absence of treatment and quality factors (contributing) favourably to its rarity and desirability." Indeed it is very appropriate that this stone should be auctioned by Christie's New York, as their sales room is located within the Rockefeller Center.

Liz taylor

(Elizabeth Taylor in her prime and adorned with Bulgari designed Colombian emerald jewellery)

Renowned for their amazing colour, emeralds have been a source of wonderment since antiquity. The Roman nobleman Pliny the Elder famously claimed there to be "no gem in existence more intense than this." Many of the emeralds of this era were found in Egypt so it is not surprising that they attracted the attention of Egypt's most famous monarch. Cleopatra was said to have been so enamoured by this gem that she ordered the construction of her own mines in Egypt. Quite remarkably evidence of two of these mines, Sikait and Zubara, can still be found on the slopes of Mount Smaragdus, otherwise known as the "Emerald Mountain." Following in this tradition Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps in a nod to her Hollywood role as 'Cleopatra' in the 1960s, built up a fine collection of emeralds throughout her life, much of which was gifted to her by former husband Richard Burton. Chief among her vast emerald collection was her Bulgari Emerald Suite, which fetched an eye watering £15.9 million at Christie's in 2011, some pieces of which were purchased by contemporary celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Angelina Jolie. In all the Elizabeth Taylor jewellery collection raised in excess of £100 million, setting an all-time world record for a jewellery auction that is unlikely to be surpassed for many years to come. Below we have distilled the advice we have garnered over the years from the major auction houses, including Sotheby's & Christie's:

(Cleopatra built several emerald mines just to satisfy her personal desire for these beautiful gems)

Colombia is the number one source of the oldest and finest emeralds

While emeralds were mined in antiquity in Egypt, India and Austria, Colombia is now universally regarded as the number one source of the oldest and most famous emeralds and it produces the majority of the world's gem quality emeralds. The first of the 'great' three Colombian mines, Chivor, was named after the Chibcha people who first owned the land and it was brought under Spanish control in 1537. Some three decades later the Muzo mine, the most prolific emerald mine in history, was discovered some 60 miles to the north of modern day Bogotá. Muzo has produced some of the most famous emeralds including the 1,383.95 carat Devonshire, named in honour of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who was gifted the stone by Emperor Dom Pedro I of Brazil. Later the Chivor mine entered production to complete the 'green triangle' of superb emerald production.

Colour is King

Unlike diamonds, the most important factor determining the value of an emerald (or any other coloured gem) is colour. The most sought after emeralds possess a verdant green hue and a high degree of transparency, often likened to the appearance of a green wine bottle when held to the sun.

All emeralds are included

Every emerald in existence contains imperfections, inclusions and fissures - these are normal and to be expected. In fact most dealers will walk away from a non-included emerald for fear that it may be a synthetic forgery of a natural stone!


Treatment (oiling) is normal

Nearly all emeralds are lightly oiled with cedar oil to fill small surface fissures. The only treatments to avoid are polymers and resins, which can crack and deteriorate the stone over time. Emerald treatment is generally classified as: no-oil; minor/insignificant; moderate; heavy/significant.


Cut is important

Emeralds can be cut in numerous ways but by far the most common is the rectangular step-cut, more commonly known as the 'emerald' cut. Some emeralds are found in a cabochon (rather than faceted) cuts depending upon the nature and positions of the inclusions.


In demand

Global demand for emeralds is high and rising, with prices of both rough and polished quadrupling in the past decade alone!


May birthstone

It is worth noting that in the Gregorian calendar emerald is the birthstone of May, making them a perfect gift for those born in that month or indeed anyone else with an appreciation for this sublime gemstone!



Find out more about emeralds, diamonds and other gemstones and view our range online:

The most exciting pieces from Phillips Hong Kong Jewels and Jadeite auction

Christie’s & de GRISOGONO – an emerging partnership of jeweller & auctioneer

Why Choose a Coloured Gemstone Engagement Ring?

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