Once upon a time….
Sometimes, miracles do happen. The announcement of the sale of Queen Nazli’s diamond necklace is one of these little miracles, which make my job as an historian of jewellery so exciting. That necklace is one of the jewels I have always dreamed to see. I had assumed that it had been destroyed a long time ago. And there it is, in 2015, absolutely intact.
This extraordinary piece of jewellery was created by Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris at the end of the 1930s. With a matching tiara, it was bought by Queen Nazli (1894-1978) for the grandest ceremony that had ever happened in Egypt since the time of the pharaohs: the wedding of Queen Nazli's eldest daughter, Princess Fawzia (1921-2013) to the crown Prince of Iran, Mohamad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980).
PROPERTY TO BE SOLD TO BENEFIT A CHARITABLE FOUNDATION. MAGNIFICENT AND HISTORIC PLATINUM AND DIAMOND NECKLACE, VAN CLEEF & ARPELS, 1939. ESTIMATE $3,600,000–4,600,000.
The actual wedding ceremony took place on March 15, 1939. According to Muslim culture, none of the ladies of the family, not even the bride, attended, and it was a very low key event. The gala dinner, given on the evening of the 15th of March, was something quite different.
Pictures show Queen Nazli, then in her forties, looking extremely elegant in a rather risqué evening gown designed by Callots Soeurs. Seated on the right side of her son King Farouk at the wedding banquet, Queen Nazli appeared to be literally covered in diamonds; her ensemble included a huge tiara, a necklace (the one offered here), a pair of girandoles earrings, and five or six diamond bracelets. Both the tiara and the necklace had been ordered especially at Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris for this wedding. The Queen Mother was so pleased by the jewels that her great chamberlain wrote a letter to Van Cleef & Arpels in order to express the gratitude of the Queen.
Although she was Queen Mother of Egypt, Nazli had a rather unusual background. She had a famous French ancestor named Soliman Pasha al Faranzawi (1788-1860). Born Joseph Sève in the French city of Lyon in 1788, he became an officer in the army of Mehemet Ali Pasha, the first viceroy of Egypt and a great admirer of France. He finally converted to Islam, took the name of Soliman Pacha, and married and Egyptian girl who gave him four children. His second daughter, Hazle was Queen Nazli's grandmother.
Born on June 25, 1894, Nazli Sabry (her family name) was brought up in a rather liberal way to a French speaking family. She studied at the very famous Catholic School of Notre Dame de Sion in Alexandria. She got married a first time, but not much is known about that wedding, except that it ended very quickly in a divorce. Around 1919, at the age of 25, Nazli became engaged to another man, nationalist leader Said Zaghloul; the ceremony never took place, however, because Nazli's destiny changed in a rather brutal way.
It seems King Fouad I of Egypt (1868-1936) saw Nazli for the first time in May of 1919, during a performance at the Cairo Opera. He immediately fell in love with her and started calling her at her father's house. 50 years later, Queen Nazli would admit that the royal courtship was so intense that there was virtually no way for her to refuse to marry the King. He was 19 years her senior and his first marriage to his cousin, Princess Shivekiar, had been a complete disaster.
During all the years she was married to King Fouad, Queen Nazli was kept under close guard in the harem of the Koubeh Palace although she had provided him with the heir he desired, the future King Farouk, in 1920. She was allowed two pleasures: Opera two or three times a month, provided that she did not go in the royal box but in a special harem box out of public view, and jewellery, – the King would give her enormous amounts of diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
The death of King Fouad in 1936 finally gave Nazli some of the freedom she wanted but it was still not enough. By the end of 1948, pretending that she had to follow a very important medical treatment, she decided to take a trip to the USA. She was supposed to stay there for a few months, but finally, she remained there until her death in 1978. In America she was absolutely free.
Her first years were very comfortable. She bought homes in Hawaii and Hollywood and received a monthly allowance of $5,000 from Egypt. In 1952, the Egyptian revolution marked the end of the world she had known. Queen Nazli had gone to the United States with a large sum of money and all of her jewellery, but had no idea how to handle that fortune. She spent and lost most of it during the 1960s and faced a rather critical financial situation at the beginning of the 1970s. A large part of her jewellery collection, including the necklace offered here, was sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York on November 20, 1975. By the time Queen Nazli died in 1978 she had converted to Catholicism and had been baptized under the name Elisabeth.
Many members of the Egyptian royal family moved to France after the 1952 revolution. And I was very lucky in meeting some of them. I remember their descriptions of the extraordinary refinement of the Egyptian court. This is the reason why finally getting to see this amazing necklace was such an exciting moment for me. It is a perfect piece of jewellery. And of course the legend surrounding those diamonds is fascinating. It is a fairy tale that took place in Egypt and Paris a very, very long time ago. It is a story that usually starts with the magic words “Once upon a time;” except that in Queen Nazli’s case, everything is true.
Vincent Meylan is a French Journalist and Historian of Jewellery. He is one of the editors of Point de Vue, a French Weekly Magazine, specialising in history and royalty. He has written many books about Jewelry, among them Van Cleef & Arpels, Treasures and Legends (2014).