Just last month, a record-breaking $8.7 million was paid for an 18th century Chinese Imperial ceremonial court pearl necklace at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong.

It once belonged to the 4th Manchu Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735). The court portrait shows the Emperor wearing the necklace. The portrait thus provides authenticated historical ownership (provenance) which probably explains the large sum paid for it.

The necklace construction is very different from what we are used to (see below). There are 3 additional long turquoise bead dangles coming from the shoulder down to the front. Another long dangle featuring a large chartreuse quartz cabochon goes to the back! This focal is surrounded by smaller spinel and sapphire cabochons.

The main design consisted of 108 large freshwater Eastern pearls with 4 round coral fotou (Buddha head) beads flanked by lapis lazuli gemstones placed evenly around the necklace.

The Qing dynasty was the last line of imperial rulers which started from 1644 until China became a republic in 1912. They were actually Manchus from Manchuria, not Han Chinese. Emperor Yongzheng's son, the 5th Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) was the ruler who secured access to Burmese jadeite or imperial jade and thus started a strong Chinese attachment to this gemstone. I wrote about him in The Son of Heaven's Jade Obsession. It's a sad tale of how this grieving man dealt with the early loss of his beloved queen by transferring all his love to jade.

By the 19th century, the Manchus were past their zenith. The power behind the throne during much of the late 1800's was a wily dowager queen. Together with unprepared advisers and other Manchu princes, she was ultimately unable to deal with change and growing foreign threats. Her story, The Last Empress of China and her 3000 jewelry boxes, explains the Manchu rule over the Han Chinese and how this former lowly concubine succeeded in clawing her way to the top in the Forbidden City.


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