GENEVA (Reuters) - A large Kashmir sapphire ring set a world record at auction on Thursday night, fetching nearly $3.5 million, but half of the jewels on offer failed to sell in a market shaken by the financial crisis, Christie's said.
Jewels netted a total of $22.5 million a day after Sotheby's sold gems for $14.85 million at flagship sales in Geneva.
Only 49.71 percent of the 342 lots at Christie's found new owners, even though the auction house issued many "revised" lower estimates shortly before the sale based on its rival's poor results.
The cushion-shaped sapphire, which weighs 42.28 carats, was described by Christie's as "blue velvet" due to its rare color and purity. The pre-sale estimate was $2.9 million-$3.8 million.
"It is the most expensive sapphire ever sold at auction in the world. And it was sold at a time when the market is a bit patchy," Francois Curiel, international director of Christie's worldwide jewelry department, told Reuters.
The previous world auction price was set by Christie's in April 2007, when a Kashmir cushion-cut sapphire pendant of 22.66 carats sold for just over $3 million. That sapphire retains the record per carat of $135,000 against $80,000 for the latest one.
A rectangular-cut 22.90 diamond ring by Van Cleef & Arpels fetched $2.04 million on Thursday night according to Christie's, which is owned by French billionaire Francois Pinault.
The jewel market is driven by top-end diamonds, which brokers and leading fine jewelers say have come off price peaks touched earlier this year to more sustainable levels. They are a barometer of the financial health of high networth individuals.
"People want to buy rarity. They want diamonds and color gemstones that are not easy to replace," said Rahul Kadakia, head of Christie's jewelry department for North America, who conducted part of the sale.
"A lot of diamonds didn't sell. The sale was based on the extreme high demand for jewels last summer," he added.
But vintage jewelry -- especially Cartier Art Deco pieces -- and natural pearls commanded strong prices, he said.
"Vintage and signed jewelry and natural pearls went through the roof, even in this market," Kadakia said, pointing to several lots that quadrupled their pre-sale estimate.
Andy Cohen, a Geneva-based trader, noted that the sapphire set a world record as the New York stock exchange had fallen nearly 100 points.
"Diamonds haven't hit bottom yet, they are still searching. But pearls continue to rise and so do Kashmir sapphires. In this market there is interest in things that are truly rare and irreplaceable," Cohen told Reuters in the saleroom.
Editing by Andrew Roche