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’s Emerald and Diamond Parure (c. 1765)
Joan Crawford’s Aquamarine Parure (1938)
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, 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
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
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.
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 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, 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.
Diana wearing the Queen Mary Emerald choker as a headband, 1983
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 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.
Want to learn more about great jewelry collections and how to use jewelry to create a signature style? Check out Signature Style Blueprint.