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Shirley Temple – The Blue Bird that failed to fly.

Shirley Temple – The Blue Bird that failed to fly.

Mountain BluebirdBy Elaine R. Wilson (NaturesPicsOnline)

The advertising was heart-warming, the coverage intense.

  Shirley Temple’s face was everywhere and speculation was rife.  Stamps were launched and you couldn’t go on Instagram without seeing a pink drink with a maraschino cherry on it.  As the hype built, the world was waiting. 

But the stone didn’t sell.

The Shirley Temple Blue – a Fancy Deep Blue cushion-cut diamond weighing 9.54 carats, graded VVS2 but speculated to be internally flawless – failed to reach its lower estimate of US$25 million at Sotheby’s New York.  The bidding reached US$22 million – a considerable sum in and of itself – but below the reserve figure for this lot.

When one adds the buyer’s premium (applied at variable rates) to this figure, the total sum that the final bidder was prepared to pay would have been US$24,890,000 – still just under that magic US$25 million lower estimate. 

So what went wrong?

Cut & Colour…

The nearest comparable stone to this one in the market is the 12.03 carat Blue Moon of Josephine – sold for US$48.46 million at Sotheby’s Geneva in November 2015, setting a world record price for any stone of any colour or type at auction.  It too is a cushion-cut stone and possesses a depth to its colour reminiscent of the Shirley Temple diamond.  However, it is colour graded at the highest possible level – a Fancy Vivid Blue.  The Shirley Temple Blueis a step behind this grade at Fancy Deep Blue.

The sale of the Shirley Temple diamond happened to fall in between that of two other large and extremely important Fancy Vivid Blue diamonds – one at Sotheby’s Hong Kong  (The De Beers Millennium Jewel 4) and one with Christie’s in Geneva next month (The Oppenheimer Blue).  Now while it is impossible to predict what will turn up where – such is the nature of the auction world – it should be seen as a stroke of sad misfortune for Sotheby’s New York that the Shirley Temple Blue came to auction directly between two stones of a ‘higher’ grade colour.

That cushion-cut shape is an interesting factor as well.  Technically speaking, the very best cut for a diamond is the round-brilliant cut, as it shows off the balance of fire and brilliance in a diamond to best effect.  The cushion-cut is rather an old-fashioned shape.  Diamond connoisseurs and antique jewellery dealers adore this shape – it speaks of romance, candlelight and ‘the good old days’.  There is more poetry to one of these stones.  But it is not the best cut with which to display the wonders of this material. 

Both The Oppenheimer Blue (an emerald cut) and the De Beers Millennium Jewel 4 (an oval brilliant cut) carry the prestige of being the largest blue diamond in their particular style of cut to have ever reached auction.  This honour amongst cushion-cuts had already been taken by the Blue Moon of Josephine.

Carat & Clarity…

The Blue Moon is also a step above the Shirley Temple Blue in that it is Internally Flawless – two grades above the Temple diamond which only had speculation that it might be such – and weighs 12.03 carats against Temple’s 9.54 carats.  This might not seem to be such a big step up, but in the world of diamond weights, hitting those full numbers makes a big difference when it comes to pricing.  While a 1 carat diamond and a 0.98 carat diamond might look exactly the same size in your hand, the 1 carat diamond will come with a heftier price tag.  It’s really about perception and pride in the stone – bragging rights if you will.

At 9.54 carats, the Temple stone was already on the back foot – the two other stones in the bevy of blues at auction this spring both weigh over 10 carats.  Both the De Beers Millennium Jewel 4 (10.10 carats, Internally Flawless) and The Oppenheimer Blue (14.62 carats, VVS1) weigh more and have a higher clarity grade than the Shirley Temple Blue, and as we have already discussed, come with the highest colour grade available.  Given these factors, it is not surprising that the desirability of the Shirley Temple blue paled in comparison.

There are other factors to consider. 


While Shirley Temple was without a doubt a force for good at a bleak and uncertain time in America’s history, at the age of 22 she retired completely from the movie industry.  Her natural progression into adolescence meant that her box-office popularity began to wane.  The reality of the adult world is such that the charm and good cheer for which she was lauded became impossible to promote.  It is one thing to be a loveable waif – all charm and sweetness – as a child, to promote those same traits as an adult becomes disingenuous. 

Nowadays, the starlet could have undergone a Hollywood transformation and changed her image, back then, she was stuck with it.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shirley Temple moved into areas where she could do good as an adult – in diplomacy and international relations for a number of American Presidents. 

So back to the stones. 

While the Blue Moon of Josephine came with no provenance of note, it was the first blue diamond of a considerable size to be seen at auction in a number of years.  The De Beers Millennium Jewel 4 was widely displayed and is associated with the turn of the century – an important recent historical event.  The Oppenheimer Blue comes from the collection of one of the most important families in diamond mining and trading.  To learn more about these histories, take a look at our Out of the Blue article.

A glut on the market…

As discussed in Out of the Blue, we are currently seeing a surge of interest in coloured diamonds in the market.  It would appear that as prices fall for colourless diamonds there is an exponential rise in the prices of the rare blue and pink stones.  The problem with this is that as the market becomes flooded with diamonds in a range of hues, and what was once a rare and special thing becomes perceived as commonplace.   Familiarity breeds contempt, and stones of a smaller size and a lower grade become rejected in favour of the bigger and better. 

Auction fluctuations…

It has been a difficult time for the jewellery and diamond industry over the last few years.  Prices have simultaneously plummeted and peaked in different categories of goods, and there appears to be little certainty in the market.  Nearly $30 million was spent last night at the Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels sale across 317 lots.  However, this is a considerable fall from the figures seen just last year at the same sale when the total figure spent was closer to $65 million over 368 lots.

A considerable number of the lots in last night's auction were left unsold.  There were some surprisingly high figures attained for unexpected pieces, however other important stones and signed jewels were left behind having failed to reach their reserve figures; including the star lot – the Shirley Temple Blue diamond.  The market is undergoing a number of changes and it is extremely hard to predict what will be the right thing to sell at any given time. 

One might also consider the geographic location of this sale as a factor.  Traditionally, the heavy-hitting stones have sold well at salerooms in Geneva and Hong Kong as opposed to London and New York.  The markets appear to be stronger for these goods in those locations.  Perhaps it’s tradition, perhaps it’s the location of the buyers.  But in today’s global market environment, with the outreach available through the internet, this should not dramatically impact the sale of any one particular stone.

Don’t be blue…

So what’s next for the Shirley Temple Blue?

Last night a Sotheby’s spokesperson commented: "The Shirley Temple BlueDiamond is an exceptional stone in quality, rarity and provenance. It has been an honour to share its story with collectors, connoisseurs and Temple's loyal fans over the past few months.  Unfortunately, tonight wasn’t its night in the salesroom, but we remain fully confident that it will find a buyer." 

We are certain that the stone will go to a good home.  While comparisons are most certainly odious, one may have no doubt that the marketability of this stone was detrimentally affected by the presence of two larger, brighter and bolder diamonds of the same type nearby. 

This should not however detract from the luminous beauty of this very lovely diamond.  As the Diamond Girl and I agreed in conversation last night, we find the deeper, darker, more mysterious tones of the Fancy Deep Blue to be highly attractive and in some respects, more appealing than the azure tints of the Fancy Vivid Blues. 

We will be pooling our pennies and dreaming of contacting Sotheby’s soon.  In the meantime, our hearts go out to all those who worked so very hard on the auction.

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