NEW YORK - For the great mid-century socialites, women of fashion, fortune, style, substance and status the Duchess of Windsor, heiresses Barbara Hutton, Daisy Fellowes, Millicent Rogers or American collector and philanthropist Brooke Astor jewels were an essential ingredient for a perfectly honed image. The ultimate expression of individuality, jewels were signs not of wealth but of exquisite taste and sublime personal style. Even more, their jewels spoke to the world and told their stories, becoming part of their persona and imbued with their spirit.

This intensely personal relationship with the wearer is what sets jewels apart from other arts and what attracts today’s collectors. The belief that some of this inimitable style of the women who wore them will rub off on us. Provenance matters; but as Lisa Hubbard, chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America, explains, it has to be attached to a jewel of superb design and craftsmanship. “When there is both provenance and a wonderful jewel, there is also the aura of the woman, a window into a different world, a life and a lifestyle.” These elements come together beautifully this December, when an array of desirable jewels by illustrious houses including Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and the American master Oscar Heyman – come to auction from the collections of great women of style and achievement: Grand Duchess Vladimir, Helen Hay Whitney, Matilda Dodge Wilson, Estée Lauder and Evelyn H. Lauder and Marlene Dietrich.


helen-hay-whitney-necklace-1From the Estate of Helen Hay Whitney,
Thence by Descent: A magnificent
platinum-topped gold and diamond necklace,
circa 1902. Estimate $2,500,000–3,500,000.

With the exquisite and eminently wearable diamond necklace that was a wedding gift to Helen Hay Whitney comes a glorious glimpse into America’s Gilded Age. The 1902 wedding of Helen Hay, daughter of distinguished American statesman John Milton Hay, to Payne Whitney, son of politician and financier William C. Whitney, was one of the most talked-about society events of the day. President Theodore Roosevelt attended, and lavish gifts included houses, a yacht and jewels of inestimable value. The bride received magnificent diamonds from her bridegroom and their families, and it is said that this necklace, with the prevailing ultra-feminine refinement of Belle Époque style, and kept until now in a heart-shaped silver box, engraved “HH” and dated February 6th 1902, was amongst those prized gifts. Other jewels from this prime collection have also remained in the family until now: a Cartier “Stalactite” lapel-watch, circa 1925, the epitome of modern 1920s chic; two Colombian emerald rings, whose Jazz Age style is offset with the opulence of magnificent emeralds; and a “toi et moi” ring, with two soft, lustrous natural pearls, held in streams of white and yellow baguette diamonds.

Through her jewels, Estée Lauder celebrated a new world of strong, determined femininity, freedom, achievement and success the American Dream. Estée Lauder, and her daughter-in-law Evelyn, whose jewels are also included, clearly understood the power of beauty, the ability of jewellery to enhance and illuminate complexion and character. Among the Lauder jewels is an Art Deco masterpiece: a Cartier bracelet from 1928 in the “Tutti Frutti” style, one of the firm’s most distinctive and desirable lines. With its lush growth of carved gem leaves, and dark, shiny black berries, the bracelet is finished with zig-zag detailing to the clasp. Another bracelet, circa 1925, made by the American master jeweller Oscar Heyman, also has an Art Deco design, and conjures the 1920s fashion for armloads of stacked bracelets. Abstract, with a touch of Ballets Russes exoticism, the intense and intoxicating bracelet, with its mix of green and blue, emeralds and sapphires, was avant-garde at the time. Other treasures to come out of the Lauder jewel box are seminal pieces by Van Cleef & Arpels, snowflake earrings, flower cluster diamond earrings and a diamond ribbon twist bracelet – supple, silky and springy.


dodgePortrait of Matilda Dodge Wilson by Louis
Betts, 1928

Emeralds, smouldering, hypnotic and redolent of royalty and nobility, are threaded throughout these collections, but none could be more poignantly romantic, storied and historic than the famous Vladimir emeralds, owned by the jewel-adoring Grand Duchess Vladimir, sister-in-law to Tsar Nicholas II, who held one of the most brilliant, cultivated courts in Imperial Russia. These emeralds, so inextricably entwined with her wealth and personality, chart the tragic downfall of the Russian Imperial family. With the wit of the wily Grand Duchess, and the daring of a British envoy, her jewels were smuggled out of Russia after the Revolution and, although she did not live to see it, they were passed down to her daughter Princess Elena of Greece, and to her daughter, Olga. Aside from their historical associations, the Vladimir Colombian emeralds are of a quality, beauty and intensity rarely seen today. They make a reappearance this December, in the shape of spectacular drop earrings, framed in diamonds, previously sold by Sotheby’s as part of the Thurn und Taxis collection.

More divine emeralds come from the collection of Matilda Dodge Wilson, married to John Dodge of the eponymous car company. A leading socialite and philanthropist who epitomised the American Dream, her multiple achievements were crowned by her position as first female chairman of the board of Fidelity Bank and Trust company. The restrained opulence of the fluid, elegant 1930s necklace, set with the drop-shaped carved emerald, hints at the influence of the bejewelled Maharajahs, and together with an emerald ring, made by Cartier in 1933, tells of the stately splendour, style and extravagance of American socialite jewels of the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally, the irresistible allure of Marlene Dietrich shines through in a stunningly modern heavy gold chain and lapis lazuli bracelet that exudes her powerful androgynous style. This bracelet was a gift to the star by her friend Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, whom she had met in Venice. He knew that she loved lapis and that the strong, masculine design would suit her to perfection. It would suit us all. A jewel, like all the jewels in this cluster of intensely personal collections, that carries with it the scent of a woman.

Magnificent Jewels

09 December 2014 | New York