Sotheby’s specialist Alexandra Rhodes together with fellow jewellery historian Stefano Papi deploy their intimate knowledge of jewellery in their new book 20th Century Jewelry & The Icons of Style. In this excerpt they explain the idea behind the book and its stunning images.

LONDON - An object of beauty and desire, a jewel also provides a perfect reflection of the personality, lifestyle and tastes of the owner. Jewellery auctions are not a new phenomenon, but over the past few decades a wealth of the world’s most fabulous jewels, once belonging to some of the most notable personalities of the 20th century, have passed through the salerooms. These jewels were formerly in the possession of members of royalty, the aristocracy, high society and stars of the screen. In each instance, whether one item or a whole collection, the pieces of jewellery offer us a fascinating insight into the life and times of the owner as well as the opportunity to see some of the finest gemstones and the most stunning jewels ever created.

This was a glamourous period for the rich and powerful society women, like the ones described in this book, who led hectic, international lives for which they required designer dresses and designer jewels. They included heiresses such as Marjorie Merriweather Post and Barbara Hutton, film stars such as Merle Oberon and aristocrats such as Daisy Fellowes. For the discerning collectors who graced the social scene in the 1920s and 1930s, their jewellery was not only an accessory or statement of social standing, but also had an irresistible attraction that went beyond its intrinsic value. They could afford to buy the best, and with their great sense of style built unique and memorable collections, often with the help of the jewels’ skilled creators.

Countess Mona Bismarck, photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1936, wearing an aquamarine parure by Belperron. Photograph Courtesy Of Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

The work of French jewelers was the most in demand in the international high society in which these women moved, with the historic firms of Chaumet and Boucheron maintaining the outstanding reputations they had held at the turn of the century. Cartier, called by Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales ‘the King of Jewellers, Jewellers to Kings,’ was still pre-eminent. Van Cleef & Arpels, founded in 1906, became one of the most fashionable jewelers of the inter-war years, and innovative creations by the firm of Boivin and the designer Suzanne Belperron were essential elements in every stylish woman’s collection.

Following the turmoil and tragedy of the Second World War, high society started to flourish again, as did the fashion houses and the jewelry business. New Yorker Harry Winston, who had first opened his doors in 1932, became the most sought-after jeweler for extraordinary stones, especially diamonds. The well-known figures of the pre-war years were now joined by women such as the Maharani of Baroda, the Begum Aga Khan and Nina Dyer, each of whom created a stunning jewelry collection. The 1950s also saw the emergence of a star: Maria Callas, a legendary singer as well as an icon of elegance.

The collections formed by these women consisted of some of the most beautiful and extravagant jewels ever made and provide a fascinating insight into the intriguing personalities and worlds of their owners.


20th Century Jewelry & the Icons of Style by Stefano Papi and Alexandra Rhodes (Thames & Hudson, £35). A Russian language edition is also available.