When Barbara Hutton died in 1979, she reportedly left very little money in her estate, but when her will was probated it revealed that she had retained many of her most important jewels. As there has never been an entire auction of her jewels and only a few of her most famous pieces have appeared in the sales rooms since 1985, it is tantalising to try to discover the full extent of, and her passion for, her jewellery collection.

Barbara Hutton, photographed by Cecil Beaton at Sidi Hosni, her palace in Tangier, where she held legendary parties, taken in 1961. She is wearing the Vladimir emeralds as a tiara together with a pair of emerald and diamond pendent earrings and the Marie Antoinette pearl necklace.

Barbara Woolworth Hutton was born in New York City on 14 November 1912, the daughter of Edna and Franklyn Hutton and the granddaughter of Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the phenomenally successful chain of retail stores bearing his name. Her mother died when she was only four years old and, until his death in 1919, Barbara Hutton was cared for by her grandfather. Subsequently her life became even more unsettled as she was moved from one relative to another, her father always ready with material but not the emotional support and love for which she longed. This disorganised start to her life obviously had a strong impact on her as an adult. The only stable aspect of her lifeappears to have been the vast fortune she inherited from her grandparents and her mother: before she was in her teens, she had well over $28 million in trust, and this was to be nearly doubled by the time she came of age. She partied, travelled, and lived a life of excessive excitement and self-indulgence, but even after seven marriages, she was still the ‘poor little rich girl’ of Noël Coward’s 1920s song, never finding the contentment she craved. Her debut, or coming-out party, was held in December 1930, the first year of the Depression, at a cost of some $60,000. It took place in three venues: the first was a tea party at the home of her uncle, Edward Hutton and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post. Her aunt disapproved of her lavish lifestyle and tried to convince her that in such a difficult time, these public displays of wealth were highly inappropriate. As orchestras played and the scent of thousands of flowers filled the air, Barbara Hutton officially entered the world of society, but not without her critics. The following year she was taken to England and, as one of the most recent American debutantes, was presented to King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace.

Formerly from the Collection of Barbara Hutton
A Fine Carved Jadeite Bangle
Sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1988 for HK$7,040,000.

Barbara, since she was a young girl, displayed a great passion for gemstones, and especially for jade of the jadeite variety, having been introduced to it by the owner of the San Francisco shop Gump’s, which specialised in Oriental objects. Although the majority of her vast collection was ornamental, she did have some amazing jade jewels. these included fine cabochon jades which she had mounted as rings, one of the finest examples by Cartier, important saddle rings and two fabulous jade bangles, one carved in a twisted ribbon design. The latter was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1988. It is believed that both her father and her first husband gave her jade necklaces. In 1988 a highly important jade bead necklace from the estate of Princess Nina Mdivani was auctioned in Geneva and was again auctioned in Hong Kong in 1994. It transpired that Barbara had given the necklace to her childhood friend, Louise van Allen, who also married into the Mdivani family. It was designed as a row of 27 large jade beads of beautiful translucency and brilliant green colour, graduated from 15 to 19mm, on a ruby and diamond clasp. This was probably one of the presents from her father for her wedding. In fact, we can see from Cartier’s Paris archive that in 1933 the necklace was insured for $55,000 and left with the French firm, which then created the elegant ruby and diamond clasp. In 1934, Cartier created a jade, ruby and diamond ring to match the necklace. When it was sold in 1988, it was described in the catalogue as ‘one of the most splendid jade necklaces (of the jadeite variety) for size and colour to have been offered on the international market.’ This necklace is now being sold as one of the highlights of this auction. Her first marriage was to a prince, the Russian aristocrat Alexis Mdivani. The marriage took place in June 1933 in Paris over a period of three days and was a huge international society event. The presents received by the bride included several exquisite pieces of jewellery, the most impressive from her father. Bought from Cartier, it was a necklace of 53 pearls that had been worn by Queen Marie Antoinette of France.

A studio portrait of Barbara Hutton by Horst, New York, 1939. She is weaering her famous Maire Antoinette pearl necklace and the ‘Pacha’ diamond ring, weighing 38.19 cts Private Collection

This jewel, which the press described as ‘one of the rarest strands of pearls ever sold by Cartier’, became one of her most cherished possessions. This extravagant wedding present was the beginning of Barbara’s passion for pearls; there was also a necklace of two strings of extraordinary golden pearls and an equally remarkable row of black pearls. Matching earrings obviously accompanied these necklaces. The Marie Antoinette necklace had not been Franklyn Hutton’s first purchase for his daughter at Cartier. In the summer of 1929 he persuaded his reluctant daughter to accompany him on a trip to Europe by offering her a jewel of her choice. The story is told that when they called in at Cartier in New York, trays of wonderful rubies were brought out for her to inspect. Once she had made her choice the salesman beamed but her father was less ecstatic: the ring she had chosen was the finest ruby in Cartier’s stock and cost her father $50,000, over ten times the figure he had envisaged spending, but it reassured him of her impeccable taste in jewels. Barbara Hutton became a lavish admirer of Cartier’s jewels, and made many purchases from them. and the ruby ring was the beginning of a life-long passion for rubies. Both friends and jewellers noted that Barbara not only loved her jewels and gems but knew a great deal about them. She was also known to be so fascinated by them that she would spend many hours holding, studying and admiring each piece, not as an object of commercial alue but as a beautiful combination of nature’s and man’s creation. By 1935 her first marriage had ended in divorce, 24 hours after which she married the Prussian-born Danish Count Haugwitz-Reventlow with whom she had her only child, Lance, born in 1936. Barbara, as the Countess Haugwitz-Reventlow, ade one of her  most famous acquisitions from Cartier: the Romanov emeralds, once in the possession of the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia. Early in the century, the emeralds had been bought by the Chicago tycoon Harold McCormick for his first wife, who was John D. Rockefeller’s daughter Edith. They had been mounted in the style fashionable in the 1920s, as a sautoir: a long necklace that would complement the straight lines of the new dress styles. After Edith’s death the stones were unmounted and sold by the executors of her will to Cartier for $480,000.

Barbara with her first husband, Prince Alexis Mdivani, photographed in 1933 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. She is wearing her jadeite necklace and a ruby and diamond bracelet of French manufacture. Private Collection

It reportedly cost Barbara Hutton over $1,000,000 to acquire them, but they came with more criticism from Woolworth’s employees. Initially, she commissioned Cartier in London to create a ring, a pair of earrings and a necklace with the largest emerald, weighing 100cts, set at the centre. In 1947, by now the wife of Prince Troubetzkoy (whom she married after divorcing the actor Cary Grant) she instructed Lucien Lachassagne of Cartier to design for her a wonderful necklace/tiara in Oriental style, mounted in yellow gold instead of platinum, which had been ore fashionable in previous years.  Barbara loved to wear this xtraordinary creation with a pair of cabochon emerald and  diamond pendent earrings and a sari while receiving guests in her uxurious palace, Sidni Hosni, in the Kasbah of Tangier. In 1965  she sold the jewel to Van Cleef & Arpels, who subsequently decided, because of the enormous value of the emeralds, to sell the stones individually. She was also a lover of the stylish “Great Cat” jewels, the xquisite creations inspired by Cartier’s director of haute joaillerie, Jeanne Toussaint, and chose three of the  finest examples from the cat menagerie: a brooch, a pair of earrings and a bracelet designed as tigers in diamonds and carved onyx with yellow diamond stripes. They date from 1957, 1961 and 1962 respectively. In 1967, Barbara Hutton instructed Van Cleef & Arpels to design a new head ornament for her. The firm created an extraordinary diadem, which had as a central motif a pear-shaped diamond of 54.82cts. It was further decorated by three other diamonds of 29.49, 10.95 and 10.67cts, together with almost 80cts of other diamonds. The light setting in platinum gave the impression that the stones were almost floating above her head. It was from Bulgari that Barbara bought the famous 40cts ‘Pasha’ diamond which, at the time that t  was acquired by the Viceroy of Egypt, Ibrahim Pasha, was believed to be the finest stone in the Egyptian treasury. It emained there until Ismail  Pasha was deposed in 1863, when he took it out of the country and sold it to an Englishman. Its hereabouts were unknown for many years until  Bulgari bought it from King Farouk of Egypt. Unhappy with its slightly octagonal form, Barbara had it re-cut at Cartier to a weight of 38.19cts and mounted as a dazzling ring. During her lifetime she had amassed a remarkable collection of jewellery. The few pieces that one is able to identify as part of her vast collection are a tribute to a lady with a great sense of beauty and style. Certainly her jewellery was  not just a display of her great wealth but also a source of comfort o her. What she found in her gemstones was that combination of durability and perfection that she was never able to find in the rest of her life; as well as being an object of beauty, this necklace is surely a perfect embodiment of these two criteria.

Princess Mdivani arriving at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, in 1933, wearing her jadeite bead necklace.

Alexandra Rhodes

Senior Director

International Specialist, Sotheby’s London

Co-author of “20th Century Jewelry & The Icons of Style”, 2013,

Thames & Hudson

                                                        Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite

                                                               7 April 2014 | Hong Kong