On Dec. 16, 2008, at Bonhams’ prestigious salerooms on New York City’s Madison Avenue, a magnificent three-strand natural pearl necklace is expected to fetch $500,000-$700,000. Comprising 224 pearls and two diamond-studded Cartier clasps, the necklace is currently owned by descendants of the founder of Dodge Automobiles. The pearls arrive in San Francisco on Sept. 26 and in Los Angeles on Oct. 3.
In 1920, Horace E. Dodge bought these pearls from the House of Cartier for his wife Anna Thomson Dodge in the belief that they had once belonged to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.
The Michigan-born Horace Dodge was a self-made billionaire. A gifted mechanic, in 1886 he moved with his brother John to Detroit and later founded Dodge Automobiles— a brand name that is recognized throughout the world today. For a time the Dodge brothers built engines for Henry Ford in a deal that included shares of stock in the new Ford Motor Company. When the brothers decided to sell their shares to Henry Ford in 1919, each received $12.5-million from the sale. Horace promised to buy his wife Anna any "earthly thing she wanted," and the lady, a Scottish immigrant, decided she’d fancy a set of pearls.
Horace agreed and purchased a pearl necklace from Cartier. Anna is thought to have worn the necklace just twice in her lifetime and one of those occasions was for her daughter Delphine’s wedding to H.R. Cromwell, the son of a prominent Philadelphia banker. Anna is said to have dazzled some 3,000 guests and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra played throughout the reception.
Designed with versatility in mind, the necklace was originally made up of five strands of pearls, which allowed its owner to change the combination and style of the jewelry. Anna gave these pearls to her daughter Delphine, but after the daughter’s untimely death at the age of 44, the pearls reverted back to Anna. In 1968, Delphine’s daughter Yvonne acquired the pearls from her grandmother Anna and subsequently divided the strands amongst her friends and heirs. Three of these family members have decided to reunite their individual natural pearl strands to sell as one necklace at the Bonhams auction.
Ever since 1920, when Horace Dodge first bought the pearls from Cartier there has been much speculation over the necklace’s early provenance. A Cartier sales invoice to Horace E. Dodge, Esq., dated 24 May 1920, states that the "five row pearl necklace, consisting of three hundred and eighty-nine (389) pearls weighing forty-three hundred and five (4305) grains" was accompanied by an "enamel clasp representing Catherine, Empress of Russia" and "two (2) diamond alternate clasps."
Many newspaper articles written in the early 1920s and since then, including those from The New York Times and Detroit Times, have reported that the pearls once belonged to Catherine the Great and the heirs of Anna Thomson Dodge maintain that Horace bought the pearls from Cartier on that basis.
"I fear the truth will always be shrouded in mystery," says Bonhams’ International Director of Jewellery Matthew Girling.
Although proof of a direct connection between the pearls and the Empress currently remains inconclusive—despite research by Bonhams to document the necklace’s early provenance—it is a fact that in the early 1900s jewelry from Russian aristocrats found its way onto the open market. Russian émigrés, fleeing the Revolution, had lost their land and fortunes. Their funds were quickly exhausted in foreign countries and they had few other means to subsist than by selling the family jewels their wives were able to carry with them in their flight. Russian royal jewels found new owners in the wives of wealthy industrialists—many of them American.
Throughout history pearls have long been considered precious. The Romans invaded Britain for them and hundreds of years later Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World to bring pearls back for the Spanish Treasury. They have been found in Egyptian tombs and Chinese burial grounds and they’ve been cherished and worn by the Maharajas of India, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, and Coco Chanel, to name but a few.
"Pearls are never out of fashion. Current-day famous women known to wear them include Sarah Jessica Parker, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Keira Knightley and Katherine Heigl," adds Bonhams’ Matthew Girling.
Later this month, the magnificent pearls of Anna Thomson Dodge will go on view at Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco (Sept. 26-28) and Los Angeles (Oct. 3-5), and at Bonhams in Dubai and London prior to them being offered in New York on Dec. 16, 2008. For further details and viewing dates visit www.bonhams.com/jewelry.