D iamonds, the ultimate symbol of elegance and opulence, have captivated the hearts and adorned the lives of some of the most iconic women in history. Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Madame Wellington Koo, Wallis Simpson, and Barbara Hutton – all ahead of their time and trailblazers in their own right – have left an indelible mark on the world of high jewelry, shaping the legacy of iconic jewelry houses. These remarkable women punctuated significant milestones in their lives with the elegant gemstones they possessed, cementing their status as cultural influencers and trendsetters in the realms of fashion and jewelry.
Grace Kelly, often referred to as the “Princess of Style,” remains one of the most celebrated patrons of the jewelry world. Her journey from Hollywood actress to the Princess of Monaco only enhanced her status as a jewelry connoisseur. Grace had a penchant for elegant, timeless pieces, often opting for minimalist designs that allowed the beauty of the chosen gems to shine. Her collection featured exquisite pieces from renowned houses like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Bulgari. One particularly standout piece of Grace Kelly’s was a statement Bulgari Monete necklace, which she was seen wearing in Monte Carlo in 1972.
Sotheby’s Hong Kong Magnificent Jewels I this season will be presenting one such Monete piece – a necklace featuring an antique coin from the reign of the Roman Emperor Titus (79-81 AD), embellished with diamonds and carnelian. While there is evidence of setting coins in jewellery as early as the 7th century BC, Bulgari took it upon themselves to make this technique more mainstream, creating their Monete series in the 1960s using ancient coins from that same era.
'We offer an ancient coin, a relic of the past, the prospect of a second life. Instead of leaving it closed in a drawer, we transform it into a living thing.'
Elizabeth Taylor also wore exuberant Bulgari Monete pieces, bringing particular notoriety to the design when she starred as Cleopatra in the eponymous 1963 movie. Whether gifted by lovers or purchased for herself, Elizabeth went on to amass one of the most remarkable and high-profile jewelry collections in the world.
Among the other treasures adorning her collection were a number of stunning Bulgari jewels, notably a famous emerald and diamond suite comprising of five pieces gifted to her by Richard Burton. “I introduced Liz to beer, she introduced me to Bulgari,” Richard famously joked. Beyond the glamour of Hollywood, Elizabeth’s passion for collecting elevated her to the status of one of the most prominent patrons of the jewelry arts in the 20th century.
A distinguished figure with a vast jewellery collection in the East was Madame Wellington Koo, born Oei Hui-lan. The former First Lady of China and a style icon, her love for jadeite drove her to assemble a wide range of jadeite pieces from various cultures and eras. Madame Koo's dedication to jadeite, a symbol of purity and beauty in Chinese culture, also saw her as a longtime patron to Cartier. She acquired a jadeite pendant from the brand, while her father purchased a delicate tiara comprising five circles of diamonds for her.
While Madame Koo was known for her love of the delicate green stone, Barbara Hutton took her own love of jadeite to the next level. An American debutante, socialite and heiress, Barbara was not only one of the wealthiest women of her time but also a passionate collector of jewelry – and jadeite in particular. Her jadeite necklace, a wedding gift from her father on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Alexis Mdivani in 1933, sold for a record-breaking US$27.44 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2014. Featuring 27 jadeite beads, the original clasp was replaced by Cartier one year after the wedding, per Hutton’s request and commission. The single navette-cut diamond that was originally set on the clasp was replaced with a yellow gold clasp set with calibre-cut rubies and baguette-cut diamonds, which remain on the necklace today.
Barbara’s collection also featured a bangle from the captivating and ever-popular Cartier Tutti Frutti collection, a masterpiece from the coveted Art Deco era which featured precious gems from the East. Sotheby’s presents a Cartier Tutti Frutti bracelet this sale, with black enamel chevron details on the clasp. The coveted collection is well known for usage of carved rubies, sapphires and emeralds which were often sourced from India.
Other renowned Cartier pieces or collections include anything with the iconic Cartier panther. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was ahead of her time, especially when it came to her taste in jewelry. Her romance with King Edward VIII led to one of the most significant moments in jewelry history when she commissioned a Cartier panther bracelet. This daring choice defied traditional jewelry norms and paved the way for more innovative and unconventional designs. For the upcoming sale, Sotheby’s will be auctioning a Cartier Panthère wristwatch with emerald eyes, a onyx and diamond coat, embracing a striking rubellite.
Wallis was also an esteemed patron of Van Cleef & Arpels, and was said to have been the inspiration behind the brand’s celebrated Zip necklace. The Zip necklace was considered an incredible feat of high jewelry, taking more than 10 years to create and featuring a functioning zipper punctuated with delicate diamonds. The Zip could be worn both as a necklace or zipped up as a bracelet. A modern iteration of this iconic Zip necklace will be available for auction at the Sotheby’s sale, featuring delicate tassels with the piece set entirely with diamonds.
As we explore the stories and depth of these fabulous women and their passion for the jewelry arts, we are reminded of the resounding impact they have had across the industry. Their legacies continue to shine, inspiring a new generation of collectors who appreciate the beauty and artistry that adorn the world of high jewelry.