HEAVENLY: THE ALLURE OF STAR RUBIES AND SAPPHIRES

A star ruby, star sapphire, diamond and pearl cross by Luis Miguel Howard.  Note the difference in colour in the star rubies and sapphires.

I have always been fascinated by and drawn to more unusual stones; star rubies and sapphires have an ethereal beauty to them and I have always considered them rather underrated.  Their allure is not immediately obvious as the star is not immediately obvious if viewed in natural daylight.  But shine a light on it and a crisp, white, iridescent star will appear to reveal itself from within the depths of the stone.  For me, it was love at first sight.

A valuable ring set with impeccable star rubies and sapphires.

In this gemstone, it is a case of perfection born from imperfections.  Rubies and sapphires are the same stone- the corundum family.  The only difference between them is that when the presence of chromium is strong enough it to be red and therefore classes as a ruby.  Any other coloured corundum is a coloured sapphire.  Most rubies and sapphires contain naturally occurring flaws called rutiles- microscopic, needle like flaws which are known as silk.  A star is produced when the stone contains an abundance of silk, all criss-crossing within the stone which causes the light to diffuse and produce a six ray star effect.  This effect in gemmology is known as asterism.

 

 

A top quality star gem should be a rich, saturated colour with little or no secondary hues or overtones.  High transparency, so highly prized in conventional stones, will only result in a poor star, so good star rubies and sapphires will always be semi opaque.  The star should be crisp and almost luminous, with the rays being perfectly straight.  Star rubies and sapphires are always cut cabochon, the only way to release the optical effect within.  The star should also always be visible when exposed to any kind of artificial light- if you have to hold the stone this way and that to appreciate it, it is not good enough.  The stone should also be clean- there should be no black spots or any other visible inclusions of any kind.  With no criss-crossing facets to hide inclusions under, clean stones are rarer and therefore more expensive.

A star ruby and diamond necklace sold at Christie's.  This stone weighs 250 carats and fetched $190,000 at auction.

A diamond ring set with a grey star sapphire.  This colour is more affordable and still makes it an attractive, desirable gemstone.

The highest quality gems come from Burma for rubies and Sri Lanka for sapphires.  That said, the largest star ruby in the world, the 138 carat Rosser Reeves in the Smithsonian is Sri Lankan.  Demand for perfect rubies and sapphires has soared (especially in Asia) and fewer gems of larger sizes (five carats and above) are being mined.  This has put enormous pressure on wholesalers to satisfy the market- most star rubies and sapphires of exceptional quality will be heat treated (this is not uncommon: 90% of the world’s coloured gems are heat treated) to dissolve the silk and produce the coveted faceted gemstones which are achieving world record prices at the moment.  As such, perfect star rubies and sapphires are extremely rare- especially rubies (which are already the world’s rarest gemstone), where you can expect to pay $50000 a carat for a perfect example.  A perfect blue is not so rare, but you can still expect to part with over $5000 a carat if the stone is over 5 carats.

However, if on a budget (as most of us are) one can easily compromise on the colour- and sometimes I find that ‘less than perfect’ stones will suit a jewel or a wearer almost better than the textbook example.  There are beautiful examples to be found in greys, soft blues and pink for a tenth of the price quoted above- if you are thinking of buying one, just don’t compromise on the star- after all, that is the point of a star gem.  Above all, choose a stone that speaks to you.

THE RETURN OF THE STATEMENT BRACELET

Salon de Mercure bracelet by Dior in rubies and diamonds.

Marqueterie cuff bracelet by Boucheron in chalcedony, mother-of-pearl and diamonds.

There is no doubt about it, big bracelets are back: in these days of so-called austerity, more is more.  For some years now, jewellery has been mirroring the way we shop: the acquisition of one or two very good life lasting pieces to be mixed in with fun high street buys.  More than one fashion editor is to be seen on social media sporting an armful of pretty bracelets, Dior gold and diamonds stacked up with colourful holiday buys.  The days of wearing a single golden filet on a delicately bronzed wrist have been replaced, in these days of so-called austerity, by the look of ‘more is more’.

In the world of fine jewellery, this has resulted in the creation of spectacular statement bracelets- the elegant, restrained single line of diamonds is now supplanted by fantastical cuffs or strings of impeccably matched beads with beautiful gem set clasps.  In terms of fine and high jewellery, although some of these pieces may cost the equivalent of a deposit on a flat in Kensington, they are far easier to wear.  They transition from day to night seamlessly; a multicolour creation discreetly embellished with diamonds will look just as good with jeans and a Zara jacket as with a designer Little Black Dress.  The same cannot be said for a diamond necklace or oversized chandelier earrings.

My Green Cuff, by Chanel, in diamonds, tourmaline and malachite.

Of course, large bracelets are nothing new- they have been an almost indispensable classic since Chanel teamed up with Verdura to create their famous cuffs.  Today, one of their strongest designs is a piece called My Green Cuff, a strong structural design in malachite and tourmalines which evoques marquetry techniques.  Speaking of marquetry, Boucheron have just launched a range precisely on that premise- their Marqueterie collection is a harmonious blend of greys and blues in chalcedony, mother of pearl and diamonds.  The clean, geometric designs are a refreshing move from the jewelled bouquets and menageries of other jewellers.  The cuff is genius, covered in small triangular stones which have all been precision cut to fit in with each other. 

Over at Dior, Victoire de Castellane offers a more neo-baroque approach with her Dior at Versailles collection, her irreverent juxtaposition of colour continuing to dominate the pieces.  On the British front, Theo Fennell’s solid gold Palm bracelet is an instant classic that should not date.

A lot of what is on offer borders on looking like costume jewellery- almost willing someone to look at the wearer and ask themselves ‘Is that really a £50,000 she’s wearing to lunch?’. It is a whimsical quality which I find fun and highly attractive in fine jewellery. 

The Cuff Queen: Coco Chanel photographed in the ritz wearing her trademark pearls and Verdura cuffs.

VIVIEN LEIGH'S JEWELLERY TO BE AUCTIONED IN LONDON

The engraved eternity band given to Vivien Leigh by Laurence Olivier, nestling among two important bow brooches.  The brooch on the left is the most valuable item in the sale, estimated to fetch £35,000-£40,000.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier shorty after their marriage.  Their feelings for each other are plainly written on their faces.

To my mind, Vivien Leigh was one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen.  Her romance and marriage to Laurence Olivier fascinated the public- they had left their respective spouses for each other and the electric talent and good looks of each of them inadvertently made them one of the early power couples of showbusiness.

Vivian Mary Hartley was born in India in 1913.  She always wanted to become a great actress.  She married barrister Leigh Holman in 1933 and started taking on small film roles from then on, her agent having persuaded her to change her name to Vivien Leigh, which was thought to be more theatrical.  In 1935, she was cast in the lead for a play called ‘The Mask of Virtue’, for which she received rave reviews and became an overnight success in England.  In the audience had been the actor Laurence Olivier, already a famous actor in his own right.  She left Leigh Holman, and Laurence his wife the actress Jill Esmond, in 1937.

During this time, the race for the role of Scalett O’Hara was hotting up and Vivien was obsessed with getting the role, despite being considered by most to be a hopeless outsider due to her being relatively unknown in the United States.  She flew to the States to meet David Selznick, the director, who had already started filming.  Film legend has it that she walked in on the set while filming the burning of Atlanta and he was instantly captivated.  Vivien, as we know, won the role and was awarded the Academy Award for her portrayal of Scarlett.

Vivien Leigh's 19th century diamond bow brooch with detachable tassel.  

Vivien's important 19th century blue enamel, gold and diamond fob watch.

Vivien's important 19th century blue enamel, gold and diamond fob watch.

Vivien continued to work to critical acclaim, both on the stage and the screen.  Her second Academy Award was to come from her role as the troubled Blanche DuBois in the 1951 film version of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.  Sadly, her life was blighted by manic depression and her role of Blanche exacerbated it.  Laurence did not know how to cope with it and the couple divorced in 1960.  Vivien found love again with the actor Jack Merivale but Vivien died in 1967 at the age of only 53.

When she was well, Vivien was known to be a highly cultured woman with immaculate taste.  Her clothes and houses were always the last degree of elegance without seeming contrived.  As a child of Victorian parents, her taste in jewellery could be best described as ‘restrained British’, with a few very good pieces and a fondness for sentimental jewellery.  The most important piece is undoubtedly a 19th century bow brooch set with old cut diamonds, with a detachable diamond tassel.  There are also several pairs of earrings set with green stones such as jade and emeralds, no doubt worn to highlight her extraordinary green eyes.

Her charm bracelet is surely undervalued at £1000-£1500 and includes a gold charm of a ‘Gone With the Wind’, inscribed ‘Vivien Leigh’ and ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ on the inside.  A tangible testament to the passionate love they enjoyed is the engraved gold band, inscribed ‘Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally’.

Vivien Leigh's charm bracelet marking important milestones in her life.  The gold 'Gone With the Wind' book charm opens to reveal the names 'Scarlett' and 'Vivien' engraved inside.

‘Vivien: The Vivien Leigh Collection’ is open to viewing at Sotheby’s, 34-35 New Bond Street, London, 22nd-25th September 2017.  The auction will be held on the 26th September 2017. 

THE FRENCH CROWN JEWELS PART 4: HISTORICAL VANDALISM

The emerald and diamond tiara made for the Duchesse d'Angouleme, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's only surviving child and married to the heir to the throne.  It was sold in 1887 and mysteriously reappeared in the 1960s, its provenance forgotten.  it is now on display at the Louvre.

By 1875, the Third Republic was established in France- it was the most radical sitting government since that of the Terror established after 1789 and agitations by extreme right wing monarchists gunning for another Restoration only served to further polarise French society.  In the National Assembly, the cry of “without a crown, no need for a king” began to gain currency.

This ruby brooch is all that remains of the Empress Marie Louise's splendid diamond parure.

Although the plan took some time to get off the ground, the sale was finally held in the Pavilion de Flore in the Louvre, on 12th-23rd May 1887.  Everything was put up for sale.  The surviving historic crowns were stripped of their stones, to be replaced with glass and sent to museums as historical curiosities.  A few important stones, (such as the Cote de Bretagne spinel which had been part of the collection since the late Middle Ages) were arbitrarily held back and displayed in the Museum of Natural History.  Likewise, the same happened to some of the liturgical instruments and vestments which were sent to cathedrals and abbeys throughout the country. 

The sale inevitably attracted enormous interest- it was well attended by jewellers from all over the world, desperate to buy legendary gems, some on their own initiative and others on the instructions of rich patrons.  The biggest winner was the American jewellers Tiffany and Co, who managed to acquire 24 of the 69 lots.  Through them, some of the pieces made their way to some of the new millionaires of America’s Gilded Age.  Van Cleef and Arpels acquired the Empress Josephine’s diamond diadem and Carl Faberge bought La Regente pearl, which he went on to sell to the fabulously rich Youssoupovs in his native Russia.  The eighteen Mazarin diamonds, bequeathed to Louis XIV by his Cardinal First Minister, were mostly dispersed.

A contemporary illustration of the French Crown Jewels as displayed prior to their sale in 1887.  Only the pearl tiara and bow brooch survive.  The large pearl at the centre of the huge brooch in the middle is the Regente pearl- it was acquired by Faberge and sold to the Youssoupovs.

Most of the most important pieces were broken up and reset as fashion demanded- a great loss to the jewellery world, especially the Empress Eugenie’s fantastic yet realistic flower and bow brooch stomachers, which were the forerunner of what was to become known as the Garland Style.  A few, however, have survived.  The Empress Eugenie’s fabled pearl and diamond diadem was bought by the Thurn und Taxis family.  The Duchesse d’Angouleme’s emerald and diamond tiara disappeared, to be rediscovered in the 1960s with its provenance forgotten.  Her ruby and diamond bracelets survived intact but the rest of the marvellous parure is broken up, bar the tiara, which is thought to be owned by the Niarchos family, although this is unconfirmed.

Marie Antoinette's pearls in a 19th century setting.  She entrusted them to the care of Lady Sutherland who never got a chance to return them.

Marie Anotoinette's diamond eardrops on display at the Smithsonian.

Occasionally, stones from the 1792 theft and from the contents of Marie Antoinette’s jewel case entrusted to friends ahead of her failed escape in 1791 pop up now and again.  Some of these stones are now famously housed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.  These include the ocean coloured Hope Diamond and Marie Antoinette’s huge drop diamond earrings.  They have also been bequeathed pieces such as the Empress Josephine’s diamond necklace, as well as Marie Louise’s diadem.  This has had its original emeralds replaced with turquoises- when the piece passed through the hands of Van Cleef and Arpels in the 1960s they removed the emeralds and sold them piecemeal, leaving the tiara a shadow of its former glory. 

Marie Antoinette’s fabled pearls, which she had entrusted to Lady Sutherland, passed through that family by descent- it came up for auction in 2007 and failed to sell.  Another strand of pearls though, which had also belonged to the doomed queen and which had been bought by Barbara Hutton, fetched $1.47 million when it was auctioned in 1999.  With the demand for natural pearls soaring, goodness knows what it is worth today.

Even by contemporary assessments, the 1887 sale was not a success- it failed to bring in the expected revenues and in fact temporarily depressed the market by flooding it with so many important stones.  The two important tiaras mentioned earlier, along with the ruby bracelets have been re-acquired for the French Nation by the subsequent Republics.  They continue to claw back what they can, not always successfully, and always at a far higher cost than that which they received.  These pieces are on permanent display at the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre

The Empress Marie Louise's once magnificent diadem.  The stones were removed by Van Cleef and Arpels in the 1960s and sold piecemeal.  The tiara was bought by Marjorie Merriweather Post, who bequeathed it to the Smithsonian Institute.

THE FRENCH CROWN JEWELS PART 3: THE SECOND APOGEE

The Empress Eugenie's currant diamond brooch, one of the very few surviving from a set of 30.

The Empress Eugenie by Winterhalter.  Her love of clothes and jewellery came to define the look of the Second Empire.

The abdication of Charles X in 1830 swept the senior branch of the Bourbons away from the French throne for ever, giving way to the junior Orleans branch of the family.  It was headed by the dreary Louis Philippe, who was proclaimed King of the French and who had married the equally uninspiring Amelie of the Two Sicilies.  King Louis Philippe and Queen Amelie had none of the panache required to pull off the magnificent personas demanded by the French.  Parsimonious by nature, this quality was initially admired in the Citizen King (as he was nicknamed), but began to grate on the French after a bit.  His contribution to the Crown Jewels and to the arts in general was negligible at best, destructive at worst.  At Versailles, he ripped out hundreds of beautiful 18th century apartments in the courtiers’ wings, the cream of French interior design and replaced them with long, boring picture galleries. 

Louis Philippe was sent packing in 1848 and replaced with the Second Republic, which by 1853 had become the Second Empire, personified in Napoleon III (nephew of the first Napoleon).  The new Emperor had the sense not to re-enact the defunct ceremonies and etiquette of the Ancien Regime and he was proclaimed, not crowned.  Although physically uninspiring, he was a dynamic figure, attractive to women and full of vision.  Under his direction, the French economy was rebuilt and flourished and beautiful Paris as we know it today was largely thanks to him.  He married the dazzling Eugenie de Montijo- he showered her with jewels and she was a worthy leader of the magnificence that was the Second Empire. 

The pearl and diamond diadem of the Empress Eugenie by Lemmonier.  It passed into the Thurn und Taxis family and is now back at the Louvre.

The Empress Eugenie enjoyed wearing jewels and was a leader of fashion- she wore the Crown Jewels with gusto, both the surviving pieces and the new ones created using spectacular stones from the treasury.  She and her husband continued to patronise Bapst et Fils, as the Bourbons had done, whilst also commissioning from Gabriel Lemonnier some of the more extravagant creations.  She gave some of the up and coming jewellers such as Pierre Cartier and Frederic Boucheron their big breaks, as well as talented couturiers such as Charles Worth.  Eugenie was an admirer of Marie Antoinette and adapted much of her style to her own taste.  The combination of 18th century motifs, talented jewellers and couturiers was a match made in fashion heaven and came to define the look of the Second Empire.