Salvador Assael - A Pearl Pioneer
Few people in the fine jewelry industry have left such a meaningful legacy as the legendary “Pearl King” Salvador Assael. He spent his life traveling the globe, procuring and crafting the most magnificent pearls in the world, those of impeccable quality, highest luster and unwavering consistency. Salvador’s life story reads like an adventure novel, complete with swashbuckling treasure-hunting, pioneering entrepreneurialism, occasional bursts of luck, incredible business savvy, and the fortitude to overcome any challenge that life threw his way. His wit, fervor, courage and insistence on excellence galvanized the industry and have made the House of Assael synonymous with magnificence.
Luxury in his DNA
His father James Assael was the co-founder of the Milano Diamond Bourse in Milan, Italy. He specialized in larger stones of exceptional quality (3 carat + up). So Salvador grew up around precious gems. Just before WWII, his entire family left Italy, fleeing antisemitism, eventually settling in New York. What Salvador learned from his father was: to focus on rarity and only the very highest quality and to always be ahead of the curve.
He said he would never stop thanking his father for having the foresight to get the family out of Europe before the war.
Salvador was fluent in six languages, he served as a translator in the U.S. army during World War II. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and his battalion liberated the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. During the war, the Assael family in New York had started distributing Swiss waterproof watches to the U.S. government for all servicemen. But after the war, that demand dried up and Salvador traveled to Japan to sell the watches there. But the Japanese had no cash after the war. Instead, they bartered, offering Salvador a pre-war harvest of some very high-quality Akoya Pearls as payment. And Salvador fell in love.
And that’s how the Assael pearl business was born.
PUTTING SOUTH SEA PEARLS ON THE MAP
In the late 1950s and early 60s, Salvador Assael discovered a new product – South Sea pearls. They were just starting to be cultivated, and again, Salvador fell in love with their impeccable quality and their impressive size. Salvador was the first pearl dealer to make South Sea Pearls available in America. He popularized them and quickly became known as the “go-to” source for truly high-quality South Seas in America and Assael is still the go-to source today. In the early 1990s, he started the South Sea Pearl Consortium, organizing all the pearl farmers to join together to promote pearls. He galvanized the whole industry. Salvador had that kind of charisma – he inspired people with his robust passion and his incredible love of pearls.
He also financially supported pearl farmers in times of bad harvests or natural disasters. One of the main reasons that Assael is still granted 1st dibs on the cream of the crop every year.
A NEW GEM IS BORN
Salvador Assael single-handedly introduced Tahitian Pearls to the US in the late 1970s.
He bought an atoll (an island) named Marutea in Tahiti and partnered with a French businessman to establish pearl farms there. Using his pearl expertise, he began to cultivate Tahitian pearls. He brought in Japanese pearl specialists, and he literally built pearl farms to cultivate black pearls in Tahiti until he perfected the craft. When he had amassed enough perfect gem pearls, he brought a strand to his friend Harry Winston in New York who had never seen anything like it. Harry placed the strand in his best showcase window, in front, and that first ever Tahitian Pearl strand sold within 2 weeks. Harry Winston then bought Salvador’s entire assortment of Tahitian Pearl strands – that was in 1978. Soon to follow was Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany. Salvador was a smart, savvy businessman. He launched a full-blown media blitz with headlines proclaiming “A New Gem is Born” and indeed, it was.
PEARLS ON THE RUNWAY
Salvador Assael’s friendship with Oscar de la Renta inspired a wonderful collaboration in the 1990s. When de la Renta took the design reins at Balmain, he accessorized the entire Paris runway show with magnificent Assael pearls.
SETTING A NEW RECORD
True to his legendary title, Salvador Assael not only created new markets, but also, he personally aggressively grew those very same markets. To preserve the public’s enduring perception of the mystique and rarity of his finest pearls, Assael would sometimes offer his most exceptional pearls for auction at Sotheby’s. With the aim of setting new public price records for both black and white pearls, Assael brought only the very finest of pearls to auction. In 1993, an Assael Australian South Sea Pearl necklace sold at Sotheby’s New York for $2.3 million, a world auction record. It was the world’s highest price South Sea Pearl necklace ever.
To this day, Assael still holds that record for the highest price ever paid for a strand of South Sea pearls at auction.
CHRISTINA LANG ASSAEL
Following in Salvador’s entrepreneurial footsteps, his wife Christina Lang Assael spearheaded the company with a similar passion for excellence and adventure. Salvador’s keen focus on luxury lives on in Christina’s addition of the non-nacreous orange Vietnamese Melo Melo Pearl and the pink Bahamian Conch Pearl, as well as responsibly sourced, beyond rare coral to the brand’s esteemed offering.
Christina brought in Senior Vice President Peggy Grosz to reimagine the legacy brand’s image and to add innovative new design directions, including new collaborations with designer Sean Gilson, as well as pairing exquisite gemstones with similar colors of pearls to highlight and pay tribute to the natural colorful undertones in the pearls. Salvador would surely be proud that his legacy lives on in every decision being made at the company today.