A New York Mansion Worth of Pearls

This is the fantastic story of a millionaire exchange of a New York City lavish mansion for a Cartier two strand necklace of natural pearls. That is how much pearls were worth in the early 20th century.

Portrait of Mae Caldwell Manwaring by Claudia Munro Kerr, being a re-interpretation of the original by Alphonse Junger, where the famous natural pearl necklace stand out. This painting can be seen at Cartier, in 52nd Street, New Your City © Cartier

There are still some iconic architectural landmarks in New York City that resisted the fury of skyscrapers that make the famous outline of this US metropole and this article focuses on one. In the dawn of the 20th century, it was common for the rich and powerful to commission majestic mansions to distinguished architects in Manhattan and the railroad tycoon Morton Freeman Plant (1852-1918) was no exception. He asked the famous architect Edward W. Gibson to build a lavish mansion that would stand out in the area. In 1905, an impressive five storey house was finished and was ready to use by the Plants at the corner of 5th Avenue with 52th Street. In 1914, when Morton marries his second wife, the young Mae Caldwell Manwaring, the mansion was given to her as a wedding gift. By that time, however, the neighbourhood no longer satisfied the Plants since the high class families, namely the Vanderbilts (one of the wealthiest families in America), were moving uptown, further north to the Central Park area, and to maintain their status, they started to consider moving as well.

The Morton Plant mansion that eventually became the headquarters of Cartier in New York City, 5th Av-52th St. © Cartier

When Pierre Cartier, grandson of Louis-Francois Cartier, founder of the Maison Cartier in 1847, moves to New Your City in 1909, establishes a flagship store in 5th Avenue and starts to entertain and serve a distinguished American clientele, including the Plants. In 1916, Mae Plant, or Maisie as she was known, visits Cartier on a special private view of what was considered the most perfect and expensive jewel of all times, and fells in love with that exceedingly rare natural pearl necklace that had an astonishing 1 million dollar price tag attached to it, a number that was absolutely astronomic at the time but that was somewhat in line with the net worth of top quality natural pearls. It was acknowledged that there was a significant scarcity of such high quality pearls, namely in the five virtues that define pearl quality, such as size, lustre, shape, colour and surface quality, and the demand for such gemmy biogenic concretions was high among the rich and powerful. We must remember that this was before the introduction of commercial quantities of cultured pearls by Kokishi Mikimoto in 1916 that were produced by the Akoya pearl oyster in Japan, hence the astounding offer and demand ratio for natural pearls in the early 20th century.
The necklace (represented in the portrait) was composed of two strands of very large natural South Sea pearls, one with 73 pearls and one with 55 pearls, totalling 128 pearls, that were reportedly of the highest quality, matched in colour, excellent lustre and surface quality. It seems that her husband said that no piece of jewellery was worth the a million dollars, but she had decided otherwise. As the mansion was her's, and being a very smart young lady, she then proposes to Pierre Cartier the exchange of their 5th Avenue sumptuous mansion for that dream necklace. She knew the trade had advantages for all, as the Plants were planning to move uptown to a preferred neighbourhood (and the property was already on sale) and as Pierre Cartier would not only be willing to close such an important sale but also looking for an the opportunity to get a more upscale address for the Maison's operations in the Manhattan. And so it happened. The Plants payed 100 dollars in cash and transferred the property to Cartier in exchange of the necklace in 1917.

Since that episode, Cartier's main address in the US is that 1905 building that has maintained its original lines and became a landmark in Manhattan where skyscrapers are now the dominant element. The whereabouts of the necklace today are not in the public domain, but after Mae Plant's death in 1956, then known as Mrs. John E. Rovensky, the heirs of her vast estate sent the necklace for sale at auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries in January 1957 (lots 114 and 116), where, as separated strands, was sold for $151.000 (other sources quote $181.000), approximately a fifth of its original price. This drop in value can be explained or speculated by various reasons, namely the change in paradigm in the pearl market due to a thriving cultured pearl industry. If the necklace turns out in its original case and good condition, it will be certainly an interesting situation to follow up if it ever goes to auction. Its provenance and rather unique history will certainly call the attention of buyers, collectors and Cartier itself.

This story is also a portrait of the time when natural pearls were in very high esteem and somehow stood out among other gems in such a way that they could be worth a sumptuous mansion in an important and sphosticated city centre as Manhattan. 

Acknowledgments - The author wishes to thank Antoinette Mattlins for her contribution with important facts related to this subject.

Adapted from Facebook by Portugal Gemas, posted Jan 17, 2017