Great jewels have lives of their own. The story of the Hutton-Midivani Necklace is as singular as the historic jewel itself. Designed by Cartier, it was a present for the first wedding in 1933 of famed American Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton to Russian prince Alexis Mdivani from the bride’s father, who supplied the exotic gems.

Barbara Hutton wearing the Hutton-Mdivani Necklace, accompanied by her first husband Alexis Mdivani in 1933.

Acquired by the Cartier Collection on 7 April at Sotheby's Hong Kong, the strand of 27 extra large, lustrous emerald green jadeite beads, mounted on a clasp of rubies and diamonds, zoomed to a world record-smashing price of $27.44 million, doubling the estimate. It is the highest sum ever achieved at auction both for jadeite jewellery and for a Cartier jewel.

When the necklace was offered in Hong Kong, reputed for fabulous Asian collections and renowned specialists in precious stones and gems, connoisseurs were competing for a legend. The phenomenal price came at the end of a fierce battle between eight determined bidders in the saleroom and on the phone. “It was a very long 20 minutes. Certain bidders took their time,” recalls the victor, Cartier’s Image, Style and Heritage director Pierre Rainero, who admits he had some anxious moments on the phone from Paris.

Formerly in The Collection of Ms Barbara Hutton. An Exceptional Jadeite Bead Necklace of Extreme Importance, 27 beads approximately 15.4 to 19.2 mm with ruby-set clasp by Cartier. Sold for HK$214,040,000 / US$ 27.44 million. Photography by Ernest Yiu.

Regaining this jewelled work of art was a Cartier priority. Now the most valuable gem in their almost 1,500-piece collection, “the necklace is unique, the most extraordinary jadeite necklace in the world,” Rainero affirms. Each piece in the collection, including such style milestones as Elizabeth Taylor’s ruby necklace, Daisy Fellowe's "Tutti-Frutti" necklace and the Duchess of Windsor's sapphire and diamond panther brooch as well as the Mystery Clocks, exhibits particular aspects of Cartier creativity. 

“What is equally interesting for us is that the Hutton necklace shows Cartier’s pioneering side. We were one of the first Western jewelers to work with green jadeite and show off its special quality by mixing it with rubies as early as 1921.”

The clasp that demonstrates this innovative Cartier style was not the initial choice, a navette-shaped diamond, but the second circular design of rubies with diamond baguettes that Hutton ordered a year later. “She completed the new clasp with detachable ruby and diamond tassels and, to match the necklace, she also ordered a jadeite, ruby and diamond ring that is in our collection,” Rainero reveals.

Detail of a ruby-set clasp by Cartier from An Exceptional Jadeite Bead Necklace of Extreme Importance, formerly in the Collection of Ms Barbara Hutton. Sold for HK$214,040,000 / US$ 27.44 million.

Right after the auction, the house exhibited the fabled jewel in the window of the Hong Kong boutique. “It’s important for the collection to show this work and share the beauty of this material that is inscribed in the aesthetics and style of Cartier’s early East-West vision,” Rainero explains. “The necklace will soon go on larger exhibition in China and we are reflecting on how we can do the same in Europe.”

Found only in Burma, jadeite is an unusual gemstone, a superior form of jade that gained prominence a short seven hundred years ago. It was a favorite of the Chinese Imperial family and is the supreme symbol of prestige and extreme wealth in the Far East. Jadeite can come in many tones, but the necklace is in the rare intense green called ‘Imperial jade” - worthy of an emperor - and dates to the late Qing dynasty.

Worn next to the skin, jadeite is said to be bring happiness. Before giving it to a friend, Hutton kept the necklace for 20 years, longer than she kept any of her seven husbands, none of whom lasted more than four.

Close-up view of An Exceptional Jadeite Bead Necklace of Extreme Importance, formerly in the Collection of Ms Barbara Hutton. Sold for HK$214,040,000 / US$ 27.44 million. 

A less than perfect judge of men, maybe, but Rainero quotes an anecdote from Hubert de Givenchy to confirm that Hutton was a brilliant connoisseur of gems. When the couturier asked his friend, Cartier directrice, designer and muse Jeanne Toussaint which one of Cartier’s grand glamorous clients had the best jewels, she replied, “Barbara Hutton - the most interesting collection and the most beautiful precious stones.”

Cartier archives contain the lists of all their commissions and designs, but Rainero doesn’t track the treasures down. “For Cartier, a jewel really comes alive when it is worn,” he maintains.

However, should another of Hutton’s prodigious trove re-appear, “we’d love to have her emeralds,” he admits.

Jean Bond Rafferty is a Paris-based contributing editor of Town & Country and also writes for the International New York Times.

Tags:Auction Results, Hong Kong, Connoisseurship, Collections, Jewellery