08 December 2015

Famous Jewels - The Duchess of Windsor's Collection

Reams of copies and books have been written about these bijou royale, especially after the deaths of this exiled couple who personified style and regal cachet, far from the British crown that the Duke wore briefly before abdicating in the name of love. Even the copyists had a field day after the collection became public news.

On the streets from Taipei to Bangkok, jewellers were flogging glass copies of the prowling panthers and other lustrous jewels that came steeped with history. It was a collection that stunned and intrigued the world for their sheer breathlessness of design, not to mention the romantic idyll behind them.

Skeptics said it was the Duke's gesture of undying gratitude for the woman who believed in him, known as he was for not relishing the shackles that came with being monarch, despite her alleged disappointment at not becoming Queen of England.

Wallis Warfield Simpson, American and a divorcee did not go down well as would-be queen for these two reasons. So in exile, she basked in the glittery ransom he showered on her, even if they did not have the cachet of royal heritage. And she wore them with splendid aplomb, shopped till she dropped and was reputed to have said, "a girl can never be too rich or too thin," and "I'd rather shop than eat".

She may not have been Queen of England but she was queen of the privileged society that fawned on her.

The Duke certainly had a fondness for gems. His finely honed sense of design, excellent perception of quality and colour led to a magnificent collection of jewellery. He was a trend-setter steeped in the traditions of ceremonial attire having been brought up in monarchical splendour. He was critical of dress to fault. His 'Windsor Knot' and 'Prince of Wales Check' passed into the Hall of Fame and set not only the styles but the sartorial language.

In the pre-war years, he was known to have spent long hours in the company of Jeanne Toussaint of Cartier and Ranee Puissant at Van Cleef & Arpels; relationships which resulted in some splendid avant garde jewelled creations.

This was the period of jewellery craftsmanship at its peak in Paris and the Duke's discerning eye gleamed on every gem to be set into splendid necklaces, brooches and bracelets. The lady herself was no slouch in the style stakes and reigned supreme as one of the best-dressed women of her time for three decades. She hob-nobbed with the likes of Chanel, Schiaparelli and Poiret - doyens of the designing world who doted on her sense of style and elegance.

She introduced Balenciaga to the Paris society and the Duke introduced her to the world of bespoke jewels. The Duchess was not inclined to antique jewellery - though if she had become queen, she would have had a whole cave to choose from - preferring the decorative styles of the 40s and 50s.
Characterised by expanses of gold and bombe clusters of small gemstones, each piece created for her had perfect foil in the costumes she wore.

She set the trend for wearing yellow gold - in short supply because of war years hoarding - after 1945. And elements of history were engraved on many of the pieces, a family tradition the Duke was following.

A century earlier, Prince Albert had dates and loving messages engraved on jewellery he gave to his beloved Victoria. The royal association, quality, design and history have made the collection unique. When it went up for auction at Sotheby's, it generated world-wide attention. Film stars and the assorted mega-rich including Japanese consortiums, made furious bids for the pieces. Elizabeth Taylor parted with $1.2 million for a jewelled feather Prince of Wales clip.

It was also the Duchess' dying wish that the proceeds be donated to the Pasteur Institute in Paris in recognition of the French government's hospitality to them during their exile.

12 December 2011

Tiffany & Company

The name comes with it a cachet that is hard to define after its early start selling stationery, umbrellas, Chinese bric-a-brac and pottery. ln 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany borrowed $1000 and with his friend John P. Young opened a general store in New York City. Within 12 years, Tiffany's inventory grew to include watches, clocks, silverware and bronzes. Its reputation soon burgeoned when Lewis added gold and diamond jewellery to his stock which became the corner-stone of the business.

Lewis was an inventive and shrewd man with a flair for the sensational, like purchasing and selling Marie Antoinette's famous 'Girdle of Diamonds'. He had come a long way from taking $4.38 on his first day of trading to leaving an estate worth $35 million on his death in 1902.

As an innovator, he created the famous six-pronged 'Tiffany Setting' for diamond solitaires that soon adorned the fingers of millions of women around the world. His son, Comfort Tiffany, took over his creative mantle and became the firm's first Director of Design, a post he held for 16 years. He had the foresight and flair to devote an entire floor of Tiffany's to craft original and colourful jewellery in his own studios.

America's rich and famous became his clients, commissioning items that were far from orthodox. Like a ten-foot high carved mirror and a solid sterling silver bicycle by Lillian Russell's most ardent admirer, the flamboyant Diamond Jim Brodie. Miss Russell was Queen of the American Music Hall in her day. And her friend, the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt was no slouch when it came to pampering herself. She had Tiffany make a sterling bathtub which travelled with her during her theatrical tours.

Tiffany's clients read like a roll call of international celebrities from presidents to conjurors and expensive mistresses. Imperial jeweller to virtually every crowned head in the world including Queen Victoria, the Shah of Persia, the Czar of Russia and the Khedive of Egypt, Tiffany's was not above the common man.

A century later, Tiffany was still at it, creating bespoke jewellery to indulge the rich and the indulgent. Today, Tiffany straddles the globe dispensing fine jewellery and traditional craftsmanship with stores in Japan, Hong Kong and Europe.

11 November 2011

Diamond are forever

Rare, treasured, inaccessible and the result of the most protracted efforts, the diamond is at the heart of a most precarious industry which has been stabilised worldwide by the Central Selling Organisation (CSO). It was created in 1930 by the late Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, chairman of the DeBeers Consolidated Mines which today remains the leader of the industry.

Sir Ernest guided the company for 28 years founding the Diamond Corporation as a single entity representing both the producers and the buying syndicate. Its role was to buy diamonds from all producers so they could be released at a rate which the market could absorb, avoiding the uncertainties and anomalies of earlier years.

In 1934, he initiated the formation of the Diamond Trading Company to act as the valuating and marketing link in the diamond pipeline. This then was the first gleam of a centralised concept of diamond marketing - a function that had at best been chaotic up until then.

The years that followed between 1930 and 1967 needed the fine balance of such an organisation to cope with the discovery of new diamond sources in Siena Leone, Tanzania, the Soviet Union and Botswana. At the same time, new cutting centres were discovered in Belgium, the United States, Israel and India.

Upon his death in 1957, Sir Ernest was succeeded by his son Harry Oppenheimer who further developed the company into an international group that today encompasses the whole world.

A century ago, conditions were none too ideal in the diamond fields at both the DeBeers company and the Kimberley Central Mining Company controlled by a feisty East-End Londoner Barney Barnato. The two rivals finally came to terms and amalgamated their companies to form the present organisation with Rhodes as chairman and Barnato as lifelong governor.

The CSO guided the industry through tumultuous times and established the mechanism for an orderly marketing of the world's diamond production. Unlike most commodities where price fluctuations form a normal part of their trading pattern, diamonds are unrelated to any clearly defined economic considerations. Essentially a luxury, spasmodic price fluctuations would throw the trade into confusion and undermine confidence in the long-term value of diamond jewellery.

One fact remains sharply evident. Diamonds, like all other minerals, is a diminishing resource and governments seek to ensure they are used in a manner best designed for maximum economic benefit; that income from them remain constant.

The CSO maintains adequate supplies to the cutting centres at stable prices. It also has the financial clout to carry stocks in the event demand strips supply as it did in the 19th century. Producers all over the world are assured of unbiased equality as the CSO sorts, values and mixes diamond stocks to be sold at the same price for each category. There are some 3000 of them, requiring different specialised techniques and involving different costs in cutting and polishing.

While cutters want the diamonds they can cut most efficiently and sell most readily, producers have little control over the types and qualities which emerge from their mines. The CSO therefore balances supply with demand from available production for the benefit of cutters and producers alike.

Each year, the CSO's offices in London sort out tens of millions of diamonds individually for the sales or 'sights' which take place every five weeks in London, South Africa and Switzerland. Clients have to submit their requirements which are then analysed and matched by the CSO as far as possibie. The diamonds are then sent on to the cutters before being sold to wholesalers and finally to jewellery retailers.

Although sorting diamonds depends largely on judgement and experience, research is going on all the time to mechanise the job. Laser beams and other automated facilities are now used especially for the smaller diamonds that have to be handled with care.

For more than 40 years, the CSO has also been involved in corporate advertising, marketing and promotional activities to stimulate the demand for diamonds. Its marketing arm works closely with retailers, designers and manufacturers in co-operative advertising campaigns, trade education and design competitions. These efforts are embodied in that famous advertising slogan - A Diamond is Forever.

For more than 30 years, DeBeers has sponsored the world's most prestigious diamond jewellery competition - The Diamonds International Awards. Selected from thousands of entries, it has taken the art of diamond jewellery design to great heights stretching the imagination of designers around the world. Before an international jury in London, these designs are selected on the basis of their originality, drama and creative innovation.

10 October 2011

Lalique - The Belle Epoque

Picture the imperious vision of a film star, a femme fatale with mesmerising kohl-rimmed eyes in a richly-sensuous velvet cloak sweeping down the grand staircase of the Paris Opera House.

Other lesser-known opera buffs and assorted stargazers are trans-fixed not so much by the haughty mien of the lady but by the magnificent clasp of silver and enamel holding her cloak just below her milk-white throat.

This was Sarah Bernhardt, queen of the silent movies in the Belle Epoque era who could very well have sported this almost heraldic omament, a creation by the Art Nouveau master of the 1890s, Rene Lalique.

It was the splendid Bernhardt - reputed to be the greatest actress of all time and the celluloid epitome of Cleopatra - who put Lalique on the map. Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a revolt in most of Europe against jewellery historicism manifesting in a blend of naturalism and abstraction.

This found particular expression in very expensive jewellery - especially like the high relief Egyptian headpiece that was converted into a brooch later - with naturalistic animal figures, snakes, beetles and butterflies. They were meant to give the impression of a mobility, chiaroscuro flights of gossamer fancy through the colour of their iridescent stones.

Rene Lalique, who rode on the rising star of Miss Bernhardt creating many original and stunning pieces for her, was born in 1850 to a Parisian merchant. At 16, he was apprenticed to a jeweller Louis Aucoc and in 1878 went to college in England. After his return to Paris two years later, he began designing fans, fabrics and wall papers.

In 1884, Lalique exhibited his own jewels for the first time at the Louvre and between 1891 and 1894 made the dramatic jewels for the divine Sarah that brought them both to the forefront of the public. She gave his creations the magnetism that she exuded on the silent screen.

By 1902, he had expanded so much he moved his workshops and opened a showcase for them in his museum in Lisbon.

In 1905, he was commissioned to produce scent bottles for Francois Coty and thereafter, the Lalique name and signature became embodied in Belle Epoque glassware, of which the Coty bottle still remains a classic.

Though Lalique glassware are collectors' items, he was most influential in transposing the Art Nouveau forms onto lavish jewellery, many of which reflect the other famous Art Nouveau master William Morris of England. The latter's designs on wallpapers and fabrics are much-sought after and are today available at Liberty's of London.

This French Impressionism drew heavily from the master impressionist Monet whose favourite still life subject of lilies were often embodied in Lalique's muted glass creations of ethereal elegance.

The name Art Nouveau is believed to have come from the German journal Die Jugend which means 'Youth Style' developed in France but spread to the rest of the world by the beginning of the 20th century.

For the invention of new jewellery, there was suddenly a vast area of creativity and it actually became irrelevant whether an individual piece was of costly gems and precious metals or silver and agate. This new style was all - from furniture to clothing to jewellery - and became an end in itself.

By l920, a counter-revolution in favour of richness and costly gems had begun and once again jewels took centrestage. The result was quite vulgar pieces of thick platinum, gold and silver where what matter was the costly gem at centrestage and not the aesthetic design or artistic effect of the setting.

After World War I, the shift was still towards decorative value. There emerged from Viennese workshops, an ornamental style that utilised much less expensive jewels yet produced completely new designs that was neither Art Nouveau nor the pure geometry that existed at the same time.

Gold, small stones and pearls formed the new type of omaments that gave the wearer a decorative character. The art for everyone had been found, sometimes termed jewels of the bourgeoisie. Lalique turned his attention to glassware, the medium he was most inspired with.

Lalique's silver, enamel and turquoise head ornament circa 1890 was made for Liane de Pougy, a famous courtesan who married a French Prince and upon widow-hood, became a nun. Because of Lalique's association with Sarah Bernhardt, it was believed to have been inspired by her role of Cleopatra in 1890. The dragon's body with textured wings of fine scale and feather detail has a startling impression of frozen evil in its gaping jaws. The two beads hanging from the tail are of chrysophase stones, with an almost primitive quality about them. Liane and Sarah were good friends and no doubt shared many intimate secrets of their different conquests.

The present owner, Bernard Silver who owns the Silver jewellery shop in Burlington Gardens, London, is not about to sell it to just anyone. Perhaps some grand dame who will once again wear it to stunning effect. Certainly not an investor after a quick profit, Miss Bernhardt and Miss Pougy would turn in their graves.

A more definitive Lalique piece is the Thistle Corsage clasp in gold, glass, enamel, diamonds and aquamarine circa 1905-1907. Moulded glass thistles are set into spiky green enamel and a gold frame set with diamonds to depict foliage on either side of a large aquamarine.

Lalique made only five of these with two currently in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.
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