What you see: The Rockefeller emerald, an 18.04-carat gem set in a platinum and diamond ring designed in 1948 by Raymond Carter Yard. Estimated at $4 million to $6 million, it sold at Christie’s New York in June 2017 for $5.5 million. It set a world auction record for a price-per-carat for an emerald.
The expert: Angelina Chen, senior vice president and senior specialist in Christie’s jewelry department.
I’d like to start by talking about Yard and the Rockefeller family. How did they help Yard? How does this emerald ring show how they trusted him and his artistry? We always run into people who have a personal jeweler, someone you like and trust and who shares your vision. Marcus & Co. was the firm that the Rockefellers started with. As Raymond Carter Yard moved up the ranks at Marcus, they realized he was very talented and had shared views. The emerald was in a Van Cleef & Arpels brooch originally. They [the Rockefeller family] took it apart and gave the largest [stone] to David [Rockefeller]. They could have given it back to Van Cleef & Arpels to remount, but they gave it to Yard to do it.
You said you were surprised that the Rockefellers didn’t ask Van Cleef & Arpels to remount the components of the brooch. What did you find surprising about that? Typically when you buy something from the original house and take it apart, you go back to the house and ask, “Can you refashion it for me?”
Were the Rockefellers taking a risk in bringing the stone to Yard rather than going back to Van Cleef & Arpels? In a way, but the Rockefellers wanted their own vision and their own design. Van Cleef & Arpels is a French company. Yard was much more American.
And Yard created this ring in 1948? Probably the early 1950s. It says 1948, but ultimately, it might be one or two years later.
Where was Yard in his career by that point? He had set up his store in 1922, so he was pretty established by then.
What marks this ring as a Yard design? Also, was it considered cutting-edge in its time? I wouldn’t call it cutting-edge. It’s very minimalist for its period in some ways. He toned down everything else and put the focus on the stone. The lines are very clean and very modest. The emerald is at the center of attention. It’s beautifully made. I love the fact that the side diamonds are trapezoidal in shape–so unromantic, but they flank the emerald beautifully. They slope down just right so the emerald pops up.
I see he used platinum for the setting metal. Was that a cutting-edge choice in 1948? No, not at all. Platinum was well-established. It’s the metal Yard always worked in. Anything white would be platinum.
How rarely does an emerald of this size–18.04 carats–come to auction? The size is not so rare. What makes it rare is the lack of treatment. You rarely see emeralds over 10 carats with no enhancement.
What does “treatment” mean when we’re talking about emeralds? Usually that means it’s oiled with cedar oil. It makes the emerald’s crystal structure shine a little bit better. That’s a tradition from eons ago. It’s quite a porous stone. Opticon is a man-made material [that accomplishes much of what cedar oil does].
Do these treatments make an emerald more stable and less likely to chip? It all adds to it, yes. Emeralds are more fragile than other gemstones, but still wearable.
How can you be sure the emerald wasn’t treated? We sent it to two labs because it’s such an important stone. The provenance chain is good, but we always send it to two labs to certify it. [This time it was] Gübelin and AGL [American Gemological Laboratories].
Do we know when the emerald came out of the ground? No, there’s no notation for that at all. AGL said it was a “classic Colombia”. When “classic” precedes a Colombian stone, it alludes to the fact that it’s from an old mine source. It’s probably early 20th century or so. I’d be uncomfortable calling it before 1900.
What condition is the emerald in? It was in great condition. It wasn’t worn every day. It wasn’t chipped or anything like that when we received it. There’s always some wear and tear, but that’s from normal wear.
What is the inherent value of the emerald? What would it be worth without the Rockefeller provenance? The stone itself is an important stone. It’s 18-plus carats and it’s very clean, a beautiful color, a classic Colombian–that’s important in and of itself. It would have gotten a page in in the catalog [without the provenance]. Rockefeller adds a premium to this. I don’t know what the multiplier is, but I saw the Rockefeller sale, and it sold extremely well.
On the inside of the ring I see something that looks like a brace. What is it? It’s a ring guard. A lot of times when you have a ring, it tends to roll around. This is a grip so it won’t roll around so much.
Did you try it on? I did. [Laughs,] It’s wonderful to have a rare gem on your finger. It’s special. It’s stunning. Anything that’s rich in color like this, it’s very different. Color tends to elicit a different emotion for sure, and you can’t help but think of where this ring has been.
The size of the stone isn’t awkward on your hand? The rule of thumb is it’s never too big. Eighteen carats is not too big. It’s very wearable, not ostentatious.
What was the bidding like? It was definitely longer than a minute. Only a handful of collectors would be bidding at this level. The ones who were not prepared to go to that level left quite quickly. One of the bidders was in the room and another was on the phone. It was tense. The winning bidder was in the room.
The Harry Winston company revealed itself as the winner. Do we know what its plans are for the ring? Harry Winston is famous for buying famous gems. If they got an offer they couldn’t refuse, I wouldn’t be surprised if they offered it in a Winston setting.
How long do you think the price-per-carat record for an emerald will stand? What could challenge it? That’s the best part of my job. I discover things all the time. I never know what’s going to come up.
So you’re not aware of anything out there that could come forward and sell for more? Not that I know of, but you’ll be the first to know.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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