Why Diamonds Are STILL a Girl’s Best Friend

Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend"A kiss on the hand might be quite continental,
but diamonds are a girl’s best friend
A kiss may be grand, but it won’t pay the rental
on your humble flat, or help you at the automat

Men grow cold as girls grow old,
and we all lose our charm in the end
But square-cut or pear-shape
These rocks don’t lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

So sang Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953). It was a catchy tune and very tongue-in-cheek, but it captured the wisdom handed down from mother to daughter since the Middle Ages: go for the jewels. Because if your man died in battle, fell out of favor, or ran off with someone half your age, at least you could sell your jewelry to keep food on the table and a roof over your head.

It’s hard to fathom that mindset these days when nearly 40% of women make more than their husbands. But as recently as 1970, there were only three acceptable occupations for women outside the home: nurse, secretary, or teacher. Mid-paying jobs at best. Female executives were rare, and female-owned companies were rarer still. So if the white picket fence dream went awry – as it often did and still does – it meant disaster for most women, particularly those who had been raised in wealth and had never had to work.

Here are some sobering statics from Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff (2000):

  • Women comprise 50% of the population
  • We clock 60% of all working hours
  • Yet we only make 10% of the world’s income
  • And we only own 1% of the world’s real estate

That was in 2000.

To say, “it’s a man’s world,” is an understatement. If you think it’s tough to get ahead in business today, just imagine the challenges faced 100 years ago when pharmacists refused to fill prescriptions written by female doctors, and getting married typically meant the end of your career.

For many women, jewelry meant security. They couldn’t own property or a bank account, but they could own jewelry. It was the one female-friendly negotiable tender.

In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, high society girls were given their first parure (pah-roo) – or matching suite of jewels – by their parents when they came of age. More sets followed when they married, gave birth, and for anniversaries or other special occasions. The parures were made up of interchangeable pieces that could be worn in a variety of ways, like as necklaces, pins, or tiaras. It allowed the owner variety and made her look like she had more jewelry than she did.

Catherine the Great Emerald Parure

Catherine the Great’s Emerald and Diamond Parure (c. 1765)

Joan Crawford Aquamarine Parure

Joan Crawford’s Aquamarine Parure (1938)

Queen Elizabeth II Aquamarine Parure

Queen Elizabeth II’s Aquamarine Parure (1958)

In Woman as Decoration (1917), author Emily Burbank describes a Spanish beauty who had such good taste and such a large jewelry collection that she’d appear at society balls dressed head to toe in the color of her precious gems. She’d wear a sapphire blue velvet gown with her sapphires, red with her rubies, green with her emeralds, and white with her diamonds. The variety was a testament to her wealth.

Fine jewelry continued to be a sign of wealth up until the 1980’s, when people with money began to spend it on other things, like yachts, private planes, or fleets of cars. Grand jewelry collections became a thing of the past.

But there were still a few old-school hold-outs, including:

Wallis, Duchess of Windsor

Wallis Warfield was born middle class in 1896, but when her father died before her first birthday, she and her mother became the “poor relations” who had to rely on handouts from relatives and were always short on money. So when Wallis caught the eye of Edward, Prince of Wales years later and he began to lavish her with jewels, she didn’t say no. After they married, she went on to amass one of the largest collections of fine jewelry in the world, including bespoke pieces from Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. When she died in 1986, her collection was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $45 million.

Wallis, Duchess of Windsor

Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, c. 1938 

The beautiful Prince of Wales feather brooch, designed by Edward for Wallis in 1935 and based on the Prince of Wales Feather Insignia, was one of the most sought after pieces. Prince Charles wanted to buy it for Princess Diana, but he was outbid by. . .

Prince of Wales Pin, 1935

Prince of Wales Pin, 1935

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, producer Michael Todd, was the first to introduce her to the world of fine jewelry when he gave her a 30 carat diamond engagement ring from Cartier. Fifth (and sixth) husband Richard Burton also had a “thing” for jewelry, and bought her the Grand Duchess Vladmir Suite, The Krupp Diamond (33.19 carat engagement ring), La Peregrina Pearl, The Taj Mahal diamond, and the 69.42 Taylor-Burton diamond, among other pieces. When Taylor plunked down $449,625 for Wallis’ Prince of Wales feather brooch in 1987, it was the first piece of jewelry she ever bought for herself (at age 55). She and Wallis moved in the same circles, and she just “knew” Wallis would have wanted her to have it.

Elizabeth Taylor wearing the Grand Duchess Vladmir Suite

Elizabeth Taylor wearing the Grand Duchess Vladmir Suite

The necklace from the Grand Duchess Vladmir Suite

The necklace from the Grand Duchess Vladmir Suite

Elizabeth Taylor wrote a book about jewelry in which she said that no one really “owns” beautiful things like jewelry, they just have temporary custody. Following her death in 2011, her collection was auctioned at Christie’s for nearly $116 million, the largest ever for a private jewelry collection. Wallis’ Prince of Wales pin was bought by an anonymous bidder in Asia for $1.3 million.

Sophia Loren

Born illegitimately in Catholic Italy in 1934, Sophia Loren grew up in poverty being taunted every day. Life was difficult, particularly during World War II, but Sophia finally caught a break when she entered at beauty pageant at age 15. She didn’t win, but the experience led to acting lessons, acting jobs, and her first starring role at age 19. She was in Hollywood by 22, and has been a legend ever since.

Sophia Loren, 1950's

Sophia Loren in her 20’s (c. 1958)

So has her jewelry collection. She started collecting as soon as she could afford to in her early 20’s, and continued to do so until her mid-40’s, when she stopped for a while after being robbed twice at gunpoint in the mid-1970’s. She went back to occasional collecting in the 1980s; the current estimated value of her collection is at least $100 million.

Sophia Loren 2012

Sophia Loren, November 2012

Diana, Princess of Wales

As the daughter of an earl, Diana grew up with fine jewelry and was given several beautiful pieces before her marriage. She liked pearls and sapphires, and selected the beautiful 12-carat sapphire ring from Garrad of Mayfair for her engagement ring. The Saudi royal family gave her a sapphire necklace and earrings as a wedding gift. She wore the Spencer family tiara for her wedding and for several occasions throughout the years. Queen Elizabeth also gave her several pieces from Queen Mary’s vast collection, which Diana liked to mix and match and wear in different ways.

Queen Mary's Emerald Choker

Diana wearing the Queen Mary Emerald choker as a headband, 1983

Diana wearing pearls and sapphires

Diana wearing pearls and sapphires, c. 1996

When she died, Diana’s personal jewelry was given to her sons. The jewelry given to her by Queen Elizabeth reverted back to the royal collection.

So will Kate Middleton become the next great royal jewelry collector? It’s hard to say. While her parents gifted her with $80,000 diamond earrings for her wedding, she is not known for her extravagance or her jewelry. That may change when she becomes the Princess of Wales one day, but like most young women her age, fine jewelry does not hold the same allure that it did for previous generations.

Kate Middleton Wedding earrings

Kate Middleton borrowed Queen Elizabeth’s Cartier “Halo” tiara for her wedding;
her bespoke Robinson Pelham earrings were a gift from her parents

In fact, I remember watching a television report in 2000 that talked about a growing trend among young female entrepreneurs to sell their grandmothers’ jewelry in order to fund their startups. They were using the legacy handed down by their grandmothers to create a legacy of their own.

So what’s the bottom line here?

Fine jewelry is nice and always lovely to get as a gift. But like fine art and fine antiques, it has a value beyond its intrinsic beauty: it’s negotiable tender. If push comes to shove and you need to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, do what your grandmother would have done: hawk the jewels. It’s why diamonds are STILL a girl’s best friend and have been since the Middle Ages.

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10 Comments

  • Thank you Diana, another great article and well researched.

    If you’re in the UK (or paying a visit to London) and would like to see some fabulous jewellery then I highly recomend “The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery” at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) Free Entrance.

    The display of jewellery in the V& A collection was completely revamped a few years ago and there are some simple stunning jewels on display. I’ve included a link here:
    http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/jewellery-gallery,-room-91,-level-3/

    You may also be intereste in the fashion galleries while you’re there
    http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/fashion-galleries-room-40-level-1/

    Looking forward to the next article! HKT

    • Diana

      Reply Reply March 1, 2013

      Hi Helen,

      Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for your note.

      Thanks also for the jewelry collection recommendations! I’ll make a point to visit next time I’m in London. 🙂

      Diana

  • Jennifer

    Reply Reply March 1, 2013

    I always learn something new from your articles, the history of why jewels were given and how we perceive it today is fascinating. From not being well dressed and exciting with it, to using it more to finance who we are today. In some ways that makes sense as the inherited jewelry may not be thing we really want to wear to do and we might as well turn it into something useful.

    One thing I noticed in all the photos is that the jewelry the focal point and the clothing was chosen to support it. Just what you teach us about accessories.

    Thanks for another great article!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply March 1, 2013

      Hi Jennifer,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks so much for your kind note.

      Yes, the jewelry SHOULD be the focal point, since it’s generally the most expensive part of the ensemble. 🙂

  • Shelly

    Reply Reply March 1, 2013

    Thank you for the great article and images! Funny, when I was having my wedding ring sized, the clerk at the jewelers said admiringly I could pop the diamond out if I ever got in a bind and needed to pay the mortgage. She wasn’t that old. Nor was I. So the sentiment of jewelry as tender still persists. Thanks again.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply March 1, 2013

      Hi Shelly,

      LOL! Clearly, she’s helped out a girl (or two) in a bind. Thanks for sharing!

      Diana

  • Janet

    Reply Reply September 13, 2013

    I just discovered your website. I had to smile when I read this post. I had been dating my husband for a few months when he surprised me with a gift. As he presented it to me he said, “A woman wears a watch, a lady wears a timepiece.” He had given me a beautiful vintage Rado. Fast forward 10 years. I was sitting on the bed with my two young daughters. We were trying on and modeling all of Mommy’s jewelry. My husband saw an old watch and asked me about it. I made an offhand remark that it had been my Grandfathers. A few months later my husband presented me with another box. Inside was my Grandfather’s old watch. It had been serviced, polished and a new bracelet added. That old watch was a 1930s vintage Gruen. While these watches will never pay the mortgage they have been very worthwhile. When I attend meetings it never fails for one of the men in the room to comment on and admire my vintage timepieces. How many young women would think a man might notice her watch? Most gentlemen admire a quality timepiece. That is why Rolex is one of the most valuable brand names in the world.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 13, 2013

      Hi Janet,

      What a great story! Thanks for sharing.

      Yes, most men LOVE timepieces. I think watches are to men what shoes are to women. So yes, it absolutely makes sense that your vintage pieces would become conversation starters with men. Your husband is very thoughtful. Hold on to him!

  • iamloved

    Reply Reply February 5, 2014

    How enlightening this article is! I didn’t grow up in a social class familiar with these associations with fine jewellery, so I find it really interesting to learn.

    I’m at a point in my life where I’m moving from ‘cheap and cheerful’ everything, to a new desire for quality in my wardrobe and accessories. A simple pair of diamond studs for frequent use will be one of my first investments. I’m also inspired to collect some pieces to give to my little daughter as heirlooms when she’s older.

    I’m a Londoner, and so will going to the V & A at the earliest opportunity!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply February 5, 2014

      Glad you enjoyed the article! Yes, diamond studs are a WONDERFUL investment, as you’ll get lots of use from them in years to come. Other pieces you should consider for future purchases include a string of pearls, a diamond pendant, and a tank watch. They’ll all withstand the test of time.

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