History’s Jewels and Gems

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The view around town. Photo: JH.

Thursday, April 20, 2023. Fair and sunny yesterday in New York although it was chilly in the 60s. However the soft green of the new leaves is emerging, and there are many signs of Mother Nature’s gift of Spring to us.

Nature’s gems in the form of cherry blossoms deposited on the street below.

Monday I turned in my monthly Diary for Quest’s May issue. It is their annual Jewelry issue, so naturally I was tempted to write something about the subject of which I have little knowledge, let alone expertise. Although I have been exposed to it as a fascinating subject, at least when it comes to the history and the ownership of great and famous pieces. 

It’s also interesting how its presence has changed over the ages from the monarchs who wore massive jewels, at least when being crowned, and right up through the 18th century. By then, aside from the monarchs’ wearing, their princesses and other titled ladies had taken up the fashion, and were lighting up their palace balls and receptions with their brilliant tiaras, necklaces, rings, bracelets and other astounding ornamentation. Then, of course, when a woman married the king or was born into that royal domesticity, there was more.

Today, jewelry (with real jewels) is mainly regarded as a female interest. They are outright secure investments. I know there are men out there with the funds to acquire gems, often unset, because like gold they never lose their value. In royal or very rich families, these collections were moved around, often secretly from one country to another, especially in political revolutions.

It was said, for example, that during the Russian Revolution, when the Czar and Czarina, Nicholas and Alexandra could see their monarchy was in mortal danger, they sent a great collection of some of their most valuable royal jewels to the King George V and Queen Mary in London. They were secretly sewn into the hems of their then floor length skirts and coats and delivered by their maiden. Of course, their objective was in vain as Nicholas and Alexandra and their entire family were mass assassinated.

Alexandra in full imperial court dress, including her pearl and diamond diadem and accompanying pearl and diamond choker necklace and pearl and diamond cluster necklace. Boasson and Eggler St. Petersburg Nevsky 24. Bain News Service, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Mary, however, having been charged with protecting the astounding array of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc., was naturally quite taken with them. Once it was clear that the Russian monarchs would not be coming to pick up their treasure after the revolution, Queen Mary took possession of everything, and had them re-made into her own royal collection. 

Undoubtedly some of Nicholas and Alexandra’s jewels have often seen the light of day in merry olde England, worn by other princesses (and queens and duchesses and dukes) who may have been unaware of their “history” or from whom all such “blessings” of natural beauty were sent.

Queen Mary donning the Cambridge Sapphires, a fabulous set of sapphire and diamond jewels. Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress Bain Collection

The story in next month’s Quest about one of Elizabeth Taylor’s acquisitions — something much sought after an “adored” by the world, famously glamorous possessor — is not an unusual one. Not a few of those girls/women who “collected” these personal treasures over the centuries personally enjoyed possessing them.

They would often spend time just gazing at the array.

“Queen Elizabeth” showing off a smattering of her Cartier ruby and diamond jewelry, provided in this case by Mike Todd.

Taylor, I was told, loved to get her collections out, often spread on the kingsize bed she slept in, and always mesmerized by her treasure, often fondling or briefly wearing various rings, bracelets, necklaces and of course tiaras — although she probably waited until her coiffure was arranged perfectly before trying the tiaras.

My friend Sassy Johnson, who ran Halston’s couture department, told me that Taylor had Halston make dresses specifically to match her emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds. “She’d bring them to the office and they were staggeringly beautiful. Many if not all were sold through Christie’s after she passed away.”

A number of years ago, a woman I knew from Los Angeles named Marge Dye — who happened to be named after her grandmother, Marjorie Meriweather Post — was visiting her grandmother in Palm Beach. I met her at a lunch down there at the time of her visit. She talked about her cousin Barbara Hutton also in Los Angeles, residing at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. 

Barbara had an enormous collection of treasures and was the “poor little rich girl” as she was famously dubbed as child, in the press across America during the Depression of the 1930s. She soon was old enokugh to very frequently add to her jewel collection. One day cousin Marge went over to her suite for a visit. Barbara was in bed but with a wide variety of her precious jewels surrounding her. She was wearing a magnificent diamond and emerald necklace when Marge arrived.

Barbara Hutton had a vast collection of jewelry, including a pearl necklace previously owned by Marie Antoinette.

Cousin Marge, astounded by its beauty, said: “Oh Barbara, that is soooo stunning …!!” At which point, Barbara took off the necklace and handed it to her cousin with a “here, try it on …”

Which Marge did immediately.

Again Barbara was astounded by her necklace with, “Oh, it’s divine on you! You should have it! Take it!”

Marge, astounded by Barbara’s out-of-nowhere generous remark said, “Oh, thank you Barbara but I can’t take it …” and they went back and forth with Barbara insisting until Marge put it back among the collection spread out before her, and left it.

Later when Marge was visiting her grandmother at her Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, and telling her about visiting cousin Barbara and the necklace, her grandmother asked: “Well, did you take it?”

“No, I couldn’t,” she confided.

“Well,” grandmother replied, “You should have because somebody else will.” Barbara had what her friend Johnny Galliher referred to as “inconsequential generosity.” 

Barbara Hutton wearing the ‘Pasha of Egypt’ diamond ring, weighing in at 38.19 carats.

Not long after cousin Marge’s visit, it was learned that Barbara’s collection had dwindled noticeably. As had her fortune. No doubt she’d shared it with admirers, and no doubt it was her pleasure.  Although it was widely believed that a South American man with a very social wife had befriended Barbara, and in the time of their relationship, acquired — quite casually — some of the most important pieces, one of which was often recognized by others as Barbara’s huge diamond ring.

In some ways, it seemed like Barbara was the victim because so many played into her generosity knowingly and even specifically.  She was known as the Woolworth heiress, a granddaughter of F. W. Woolworth, father of three daughters including Barbara’s mother, who had been married to E. F. Hutton, a Wall Street banker. The marriage ended early and sadly for Barbara’s mother who later killed herself when Barbara was  a four year old child. 

The orphaned Barbara began a lifetime of multi-marriages and divorces, famous in the national press as poor and extravagant. She built several houses all over including the mansion that is the American Ambassador’s residence to the Court of St. James. Barbara gave it to the country when she no longer wanted it. But it can be acknowledged that her jewels had another value to the eternally sad child. It was real pleasure; her love for beauty, especially beauty that couldn’t be destroyed.

A fleeting mother and daughter moment. It was four-year-old Barbara who discovered her mother’s body.

The grandeur of jewels as presented to the world in the centuries of royalties established their effect on the public and its values. But by the 20th century with royalty deteriorating politically, the jewels / jewelry had long begun to grace the people, and those who could afford it took on some of its luster. By mid-20th century, expensive jewelry had become more ordinary, even social and artful, and even casual.

Dorothy Paley wearing Fulco’s fanciful “Target” earrings.

Those ladies who lunched dressed for a public appearance, which was the style in New York mid-20th century. They wore their jewels and dressed for the visual occasion at the popular luncheon restaurants.  Fulco, the duc di Verdura was a jewelry designer, a duke de Sicily. He was also naturally charming.

The studio was located on the second floor of a building on Fifth Avenue between West 55th and 56th Street. The ladies and even their husbands or interested pursuers often stopped by for a chat with Fulco who might be at his designer board. Cocktails were served if desired and conversation took on the latest gossip or the bracelet or pin that he was designing for the individual personally. Fulco made everything part of the pleasure of the visit. He was also a darling of international society; a great guest with a great sense of humor and a willing ear for many.

The jewelry was made to order designs with Fulco’s touch of wit and beauty. They were often requested with a specific idea in mind. They interpreted the “idea” beautifully and with the wit intended.

It was expensive for the man on the street but very reasonable for his clientele, and they bought often for themselves, husband or wife, their children, relatives, friends, and back to the lady of the life. Today those same pieces are very expensive but attract a similar clientele, from far and wide. Beautiful jewelry with multi-messages.

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