The Most Magnificent Emeralds in the World

The Grand Duchess Vladimir wearing the emeralds for the great Court ball of 1903.  Aside from the emeralds on her headdress, note the other stones of size and importance on her clothes.

One of the most important collection of emeralds ever assembled in one jewel has to be those of the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia.  Aunt by marriage to Tsar Nicholas II, she set up a rival court in St. Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century, as the Tsar and his wife shielded themselves from public life as the haemophiliac condition of their only son Alexis began to take its toll on their private life.

The Vladimir emerald necklace in its original form.  Even though it is late 19th century, the design remains timeless.

Although she was born into minor royalty, she fulfilled her role as a Romanov with great taste and splendour.  The seed of her famed jewellery collection was her wedding present from her father-in-law, Tsar Alexander II: a magnificent parure of emeralds, the central stone of the necklace a hexagonal emerald weighing a magical 100 carats.  The Grand Duchess was an extremely welcome client at the great establishments of the day: Fabergé, Bolin, Chaumet et al, but it was with Cartier that she established the closest relationship.  Most of her resetting was done by them and it was through them that she made most of her important bespoke acquisitions.

Her famous emeralds were worn often, most memorably decorating her dress at the great Court Ball of 1903, in which the guests arrived dressed in 17th century dress.  The Grand Duchess was able to leave St. Petersburg during the revolution, escaping with her life, a few of her jewels and little else.  The majority of her jewels were salvaged by a brave Englishman named Bertie Stopford who managed to smuggle the jewels out of the country to their rightful owner before the Vladimir Palace was seized by the authorities.

The Grand Duchess died in France in 1920 and her jewels were divided amongst her children, her son the Grand Duke Boris inheriting the emeralds.  Shortly after that, penury biting at his heels, he sold the emeralds to Cartier, thus reversing the relationship his mother had had with them.  Cartier re-set the stones into a magnificent sautoir and promptly sold it to Edith Rockefeller McCormick.  She was an eccentric heiress who divorced her husband Harold in 192 and it’s somehow pleasant to speculate that she bought them for herself as a bit of post-divorce cheer.  It was also around this time that Mrs. McCormick achieved minor notoriety with the press by claiming to be the reincarnation of the wife of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen.  She did not enjoy the emeralds for long: Mrs. McCormick died of cancer in 1930 and her executors sold the stones back to Cartier.

The Vladimir emeralds in their last setting before they were dispersed.  This was a bespoke piece by Cartier for the heiress Barbara Hutton.

In 1935, they sold the emeralds (again- Cartier must have done really well out of these emeralds) to their most famous owner, thrift store heiress and serial spouse seeker Barbara Hutton.  In 1947 she had them re-set again by Cartier into a ravishing, striking tiara of oriental design, finished off in diamonds and yellow gold- this was going against the trend of the time, which favoured platinum.  The tiara could be worn as a necklace and Mrs. Hutton greatly enjoyed wearing the piece, especially dressed in exotic fabrics hosting fabulous parties in her palace of Sidi Hosni in Tangier.

In order to fund one of her many divorces, the emeralds were sold in 1965 to Van Cleef and Arpels, who recut some of the stones, remounted them and sold them individually.  It was not the first emerald set to suffer historical vandalism at the hands of Van Cleef: in 1953, they had bought the emerald tiara of the Empress Marie Louise, a wedding gift from Napoleon, and sold off the stones separately. 

There are few jewels with a set of stones of such impeccable provenance and unless Queen Elizabeth II starts disposing of her own collection, which is unlikely, we will probably never see such an assembly of emeralds on the market ever again.




Red spinel, pink tourmaline and diamond ring by Garrard and Co.

When I visited Baselworld last month, one of the world’s premier jewellery events, I was surprised but pleased to see the large amount of top quality spinels available on offer to buyers.  It is a very underrated stone which has never received the attention it deserves.  An increased supply means that there is an increasing market for them and I suspect that it is going to go the way tourmalines did 15 years ago- suddenly people fell in love with the variety and depth of their colour and their popularity (and price) took off.

Cartier Royal necklace in diamonds and a pink spinel from Tajikistan.

The range of colours available in spinels is incredible, from deep reds to silvery greys.

The rarest and most sought after colours are saturated reds and blues and because they occur in areas where the most highly prized rubies and sapphires are mined the gems were often confused.  The most famous spinel in the world is a stone known as the Black Prince’s Ruby.  It has a romantic history, having been brought back to England by the Black Prince, son of Edward III from his battles against the Moors in Spain during the 14th cenury.  It was worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and set in the Imperial State Crown in 1837, where it has remained ever since. 

Pink and violet spinel earrings from Van Cleef and Arpels.

Spinels and sapphires and rubies are two distinct and separate mineral families with different mineral structures.  The stratospheric rise in price of the latter has lead to an increased demand in red and blue spinels which can be offered as an attractive alternative (in some cases an improvement).  Unlike many coloured stones on the market, spinels are rarely heat treated and this is seen as a huge bonus by serious gem collectors.  Spinels also rank high on the Moh’s scale of hardness, coming in at about 7.5-8, which makes them durable.  Blue and red aside, spinels range from the palest pinks and violets through to astonishing candy floss fuchsias, deep royal purples and silvery greys.  Pastel tones should be relatively free of inclusions, but as the top colours are rarer, some inclusion is to be expected.  It goes without saying that you should buy the best clarity you can afford.  Cut is of paramount importance in this stone: when it is properly proportioned it has excellent brilliance and even the untrained eye can spot a dull stone.  Do not be tempted: it is shoddy workmanship.

In terms of price, pastel tones are still relatively affordable and can be bought for £500-£1000/carat.  Large, top quality red and blue stones are already rising in price and you can expect to pay several thousand pounds a carat.  The big brands are still testing the waters with this gem, although Garrards have recently produced a line featuring fine red spinels and Cartier created a high jewellery necklace set with an important fuchsia pink stone from Tajikistan.  JAR, of course, always decades ahead of the game, has been using them for years. 

As has been mentioned before, the finest examples come from Sri Lanka and the Mogok mines in Burma.  However, good deposits quality deposits are also being extracted from Vietnam, Tajikistan and various African mines- the stones emerging from Madagascar are particularly exceptional.  I would rarely advise people to buy stones as investments, but if you are thinking of making an important purchase whose value you would like to see rise satisfactorily in the next 10 years, I would be happy to take a punt on the spinel.

The Black Prince's Ruby is in fact the world's most famous spinel.  It is set in the Imperial State Crown.


The first Fabergé Egg: the 1885 Hen Egg made for Tsarina Maria Feodorovna.

The late 17th century gold egg from the collection of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, which may have served as inspiration for the egg.

The 18th century gold and ivory egg in the Danish Royal Collection.

Easter just wouldn’t be what it is without eggs and the jewelled, decorated ones that Fabergé created for the Russian Imperial family between 1885-1916 are the most famous of all.  They are the pinnacle of the goldsmiths’ art: ingenious and beautifully made, some with techniques now lost to us.  The quality of design of some of them is questionable, to put it charitably, but that can never detract from the incredible attention, care and detail that has been lavished on each one.

The tradition of presenting painted eggs to loved ones had long been established in Russia.  Easter is the most important festival in the Russian Orthodox Church, celebrating as it does the Resurrection.  It is always celebrated in the Spring, a time in which Russia is finally seeing the end of its long, harsh Winter and therefore a time of rebirth, the egg being a symbol of that rebirth.  Before the Romanovs had started presenting each other with jewelled eggs, they had already been commissioning beautiful porcelain examples from the Imperial factory to hand out as official gifts.

The commission of the first Imperial Easter Egg was the culmination of a long PR campaign by Fabergé.  Alexander III had already bought some small pieces from the firm and they had been working on cataloguing, restoring and organising objects and jewellery in the Hermitage for free during the 1870s.  At some point during these years they had been challenged by Alexander III that they could not equal the craftsmanship of the great 18th century goldsmiths.  They duly replicated an elaborate gold and red enamel snuffbox of the period and presented it to the Tsar, who declared the great master goldsmiths surpassed.

The Tsarina Maria Feodorovna in full Court dress in the mid 1880s, around the time she received her first Fabergé egg.

The Tsarina Maria Feodorovna in full Court dress in the mid 1880s, around the time she received her first Fabergé egg.

Porcelain Easter presentation egg from the Imperial factory bearing the monogram of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna.

So it was natural that by 1885 Fabergé had become the Tsar’s go-to firm when he decided he wanted something extra special to present to his beautiful, accomplished pleasure loving wife, the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna.  The result was the charming Hen Egg, beautiful and simple and lacking in the elaborate decoration of subsequent creations.  It is made of a gold shell overlaid with white enamel.  The shell ‘breaks’ open to reveal a golden yolk- this in turn unscrews to reveal a hen perfectly rendered in three colour gold.  The hen opens to yield a miniature diamond crown with a ruby pendant.  The egg could be said to be a close replica of an 18th century one in the Danish Royal Collection, made in ivory and revealing similar surprises- it would have been a sentimental touch to remind the Tsarina of her native Denmark.  However, there is another one of an earlier date and similar design in the Green Vaults in Dresden- Peter Carl Fabergé spent much of his youth there as an apprentice, absorbing techniques and styles which he was later to distil into the world famous ‘le style faberge’.  Almost certainly some of the incredible goldsmithing he studied there was the inspiration for the immaculate three colour gold rendering of the hen in the surprise.

The Hen Egg of 1885 was only supposed to be one off bespoke trinket- but the Tsarina was so delighted with it that Alexander III immediately put in a standing order for a yearly egg and gave faberge the title of ‘Goldsmith by Special Appointment to the Imperial Crown’.  The tradition was continued by his son, Nicholas II, who increased the standing order to two eggs a year- one for his mother and one for his wife.  In total, 50 Imperial Eggs were created, of which 43 survive.

Fabergé's subsequent, more elaborate creations.


The 59.60 carat Pink Star diamond. the most expensive gemstone in the world.

The Pink Star diamond last week became the most expensive diamond ever sold at auction.  Gem dealers had been looking at the sale, conducted by Sotheby’s, with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.  The excitement because of the quality of the stone: it is the largest pink diamond of its kind ever to be graded by the GIA.  The fabulous gemstone ticked every box: it is internally flawless and has been given the classification of Fancy Vivid Pink, the most sought after in coloured diamonds.  The icing on the cake for the stone was its designation as a Type IIa, meaning it is a chemically pure stone- a designation only given to 2% of gem quality diamonds.

The hammer comes down on the Pink Star diamond at Sotheby's Hong Kong.

Failed to sell: the Shirley Temple Blue diamond.

The apprehension came from the stone’s recent chequered history.  The stone had been auctioned relatively recently, in 2013, achieving a hammer price of $83 million- but the buyer defaulted on payment.  There has also been speculation recently on whether the eye watering amounts being fetched in the last few years by large coloured diamonds is sustainable.  After all, there aren’t that many people in the word who can afford such things, and within that clientele not all are interested, which makes the potential client base very small indeed.  The flop that was the sale of the Shirley Temple blue diamond was something Sotheby’s was anxious not to repeat again.  The prices achieved at auction for important coloured diamonds are the benchmark by which the industry sets the prices, so with colourless stones experiencing something of a lacklustre period at the moment diamond dealers were hoping for a whopper to underpin asking prices.

The stone was bought by the jewellery retailer Chow Tai Fook, who was bidding by telephone, who has renamed it the CTF Pink.  It is the stone’s third rechristening: it was originally named the Steinmetz Pink, after the group who bought the 132.5 carat rough gem.  They spent a cautious 20 months cutting and polishing the stone, unveiling the finished 59.60 carat gem in all its glory at a ceremony in Monaco. 


Jewels in the Art Deco style and strong colours were the order of the day at Basel in 2017.

Jewels in the Art Deco style and strong colours were the order of the day at Basel in 2017.

It was enormous fun visiting the Basel Jewellery Fair in Switzerland this year after not having been for 10 years.  Basel brings together a huge variety of brands and gem dealers and along with the Hong Kong and Tucson shows it is one of the most important dates in the jewellery calendar.  The standard of goods exhibited is incredibly high and sets the benchmark for standards in the industry.


Textured rose gold and rose cut diamonds are artfully put together in this ring by VAK.

Textured rose gold and rose cut diamonds are artfully put together in this ring by VAK.

An exceptional carved ruby and diamond watch by Graff.

An exceptional carved ruby and diamond watch by Graff.

Alongside the huge global brands such as Graff and Chopard Basel is also a showcase for smaller, lesser known brands.  There is a vast amount of talent and individuality, but within this it was possible to discern some direction and tendencies (I detest the word trends when talking about jewellery).  The one I loved seeing the most was the comeback of carved stones, particularly rubies and emeralds.  This craft reached its apogee in moghul India during the 18th century; it was a craft that was in danger of dying out, but some fine examples of modern carved stones were set in the creations of Graff and Bayco.  Exceptional new carved gems were also being offered by some of the gem dealers. 

Carved gemstones are making a comeback as exemplified in this emerald and diamond set by Bayco.


I love the use of flowers as a source of inspiration as much as the next designer; however, there were so many new floral motifs in so many collections that it is in danger of becoming an overused, overexposed element.  There was a lot of neo Art Deco jewellery.  The pieces I saw, such as those by Maria Gaspari and Cicada, had clearly had a lot of thought put onto them in terms of proportion and structure.


Diamonds are also being used in clever, inventive ways- there was some beautiful jewellery using chains of briolette cut diamonds which I am sure are going to become as ubiquitous as Tiffany’s Diamonds by the Yard chains.  Pieces set with rose cut diamonds are also proliferating as the appetite for vintage and antique looking pieces grows.  Rose cut diamonds are now far more readily available than they were 10 years ago as Indian manufacturers rediscover their old lapidary skills. 


It was lovely to see gold finishes and colour being experimented with- Carrera y Carrera had some lovely pieces on show, as did VAK, who had also incorporated rose cut diamonds into his matte, rose gold jewels.  It was also refreshing to observe diamond cuts being mixed up in the same piece- gone seem to be the days of rather dull layouts of round or marquise cut diamonds as emerald, round and cushion are creatively juxtaposed.

Within the gem dealers there was the usual fantastic array of world class stones.  Nothing of quality really is inexpensive any more-the opening up of the Eastern market and consequent demand has seen the prices of intensely coloured goods absolutely rocket- especially well saturated Paraiba tourmalines, rubellites, pink topazes and aquamarines.  A stone which for me has been under appreciated is clearly having an upturn: the spinel.  Stones of beautiful hue and brightness are being extracted from Africa and I hope it won’t be too long before we see more of it in mainstream jewellery. 

Exceptional sapphire and diamond bracelet by Maria Gaspari.


Aquamarine, gold and diamond ring by Andrew Grima.  His style became all the rage in the 1960s.

Aquamarine is one of those elegant, stately stones that has always been in the background but never out of fashion.  It has never been wildly trendy but has never suffered the highs and lows of popularity like some of its semi precious counterparts such as topaz, amethyst or peridot.  Aquamarine is a stone from the beryl family- its mineral structure is exactly the same as emerald, but its colour comes from trace elements of iron, whereas emerald is green due to trace emeralds of chromium and vanadium.  The finest examples come from Northern Pakistan, Brazil, Colombia and Thailand.

Wallace Chan takes aquamarine carving to a whole new level in this magnificent example.  He has made the most of the refractive properties of the stone.

Aquamarine in its uncut form can be mined in relatively big crystals, which allow very fine, large specimens to be found.  It is less included than its emerald counterpart, so it is much easier to find eye clean, lively examples of the stone- when buying an aquamarine you should always strive for one that free of inclusions to the naked eye.  The most highly prized colour is a saturated pale blue, with only a very little hint of green.  Very pale goods or very greenish blue are not considered top quality so you should not be paying over the odds for these.  Like with all coloured gems, a buyer should buy what they like rather than be dictated to by what is considered to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  However, an aquamarine buyer should always make sure that the stone has a bright, limpid quality to it, as if it had a drop of sunlit seawater inside it.  The best colour saturation is normally found in stones of over 5 carats.  The last 10 years have seen a surge in prices due to increased demand from the Far East- good examples have gone from the high hundreds of dollars per carat to several thousand.

The Cartier clips of Elizabeth II, exhibiting examples of the many ways aquamarine can be cut.

A contemporary aquamarine and diamond ring by De Grisogono.

The reason for their appeal lies in their versatility, both to the jeweller working with it and the wearer.  A cursory glance into the archive of any jeweller will yield examples of aquamarines through the ages and good examples of aquamarine jewellery are simply too numerous to list here in any great detail.  Due to its relative softness and high refractive index aquamarine can be cut or carved into almost any shape and still look marvellous- indeed, a lot of artist jewellers have been experimenting with carving this stone into dreamlike and fantastical settings.  A good example is Wallace Chan, who cuts figures and faces into them and makes a play with the internal reflection of the stone.  It is not too bright or showy to be worn during the day and makes a great transition into the evening.  Russian aristocrats in particular loved this jewel as they could wear huge aquamarines in the day without being accused of being vulgar by flaunting large diamonds.  Diamonds and pearls complement them best and their gentle colouring ensures that they look good on anyone.


The Van Cleef and Arpels necklace made in 1939 for Queen Nazli of Egypt.  It contains 673 diamonds and was sold at Sotheby's in 2015 for over $4.2 million.

Van Cleef and Arpels are currently holding in London a fantastic exhibition of heritage pieces from their archive and in hands of private collectors.  It is not a huge exhibit, but it is a sumptuous one.  The carefully curated pieces take the visitor on a brief yet informative journey of the brand’s history and are a tour de force of ingenuity and craftsmanship which reveal why Van Cleef and Arpels deserves top billing in the luxury industry.

The peony ruby and diamond brooch, a masterclass in invisible setting.

Some of the pieces are monumental, the biggest of these being the diamond necklace commissioned by Queen Nazli of Egypt.  It is an impressive jewel, set with 673 diamonds suspended in almost invisible platinum settings.  The necklace in fact appeared for sale, intact, in 2015 at Sotheby’s, most experts believing it had been broken up.  It fetched over $4.2 million.  The piece had been part of a large parure which had also included a monumental tiara, bracelets and earrings.  The necklace was also an ode to the fact that Van Cleef has long been the go to jeweller to many a royal dynasty- let’s not forget that it was them who created the Empress of Iran’s jewellery for her coronation in 1967.

The firm’s metier, invisible setting, is represented by two objects, the ruby and diamond peony brooch and a ravishing gold and ruby minaudière.   The minaudière was the fashion object of the 1920s; it was a sleek and elegant alternative to the handbag made in precious metals, containing a small mirror, lipstick case, powder compact, pencil and sometimes a cigarette lighter.  By necessity they were nearly always rectangular, a shape that lent itself beautifully to the clean lines of Art Deco.  They were the perfect objects to show off the art of invisible setting as initially they only knew how to set the stones into flat surfaces.  The technology quickly advanced and by the 1940s, stones were seemingly invisibly set into curved surfaces.  The diamond and ruby peony brooch is a masterclass in this type of setting and one can only imagine the thousands of hours it must have taken to assemble it.

Ingenious: this stork brooch suspends a 95 carat yellow briolette diamond.  The wings detach to form earclips and the diamond can be worn as a pendant.

The jewel which for me strikes the perfect balance of using an important stone playfully yet elegantly is the stork brooch, which in its beak holds an important yellow briolette diamond weighing 95 carats.  It was made in the 1970s as a special order to a client to celebrate the birth of a son.  The piece also continues the Van Cleef tradition of transformable jewellery, as the wings can be detached to be worn as earrings and the diamond can be worn as a pendant.

There are numerous references to flower inspired jewellery, all executed with Van Cleef’s ususal boldness and panache.  Old classics which continue to provide inspiration to their designers today, such as the fairy brooch and the Cadenas watches and bracelets are also given their due credit.  The pieces are truly set off by the extravagant interiors of the showroom and it is doubtful whether one will be able to see such beautiful jewels in such surroundings for some time.  I highly recommend a visit.


The Heritage Pieces of Van Cleef and Arpels is on until the 15th March 2017 at 9 New Bond Street, London, W1

The minaudiere: a must have for any 1920s flapper, this extravagant alternative to a handbag contains a lipstick holder, compact, pencil, pill box, lighter and cigarette case.  The surfaces have been embellished with invisibly set rubies. 


A German 19th century gold pill box where the hues of white, green, yellow and white gold can be appreciated.

Trinity ring by Cartier.  Pave setting the white gold band with diamonds makes the most of enhancing the three colours of gold.

Gold of different colours has been used in jewellery ever since man discovered smelting.  The use of coloured gold reached its golden age (no pun intended) in the 18th century, when master goldsmiths produced beautiful and elegant boxes containing up to 5 hues of the metal.  It was an art only equalled by Fabergé in Russia.  However, in the last few years a strong demand for golds of different colours in jewellery has prevailed, especially rose gold.  And Cartier’s Trinity collection, featuring pieces in rose, yellow and white gold continues to be one of their classic bestsellers.  One of the most frequently asked questions in my trade is ‘What is the difference between rose, white and yellow gold? Are they natural colours?’

The answer is fairly simple: all gold when it comes out of the ground is a rich, yellow colour.  Pure gold- or 24 carat gold- is too soft for jewellery purposes and needs to be alloyed with other metals to give it the necessary durability for day to day wear.  The carat number it is given refers to the parts of pure gold the alloy contains- so 18 carat gold (the most commonly used alloy in jewellery) is 18 parts pure gold, 6 parts alloy.

'Emotion' ring by Faberge in rubies and black gold. 

A distinctive four colour gold cigarette case by Faberge in the Art Nouveau style.

The type of alloy smelted into the gold will determine its distinctive colour.  Plain 18 carat yellow gold is alloyed with copper and silver.  Pure gold is reddish yellow in colour, the alloyed version being the creamy, warm yellow so familiar to us.  Rose- or red- gold contains a much higher proportion of copper- the more copper, the more intense the colour.  White gold is achieved with the addition of a silver-palladium alloy or nickel-copper-zinc.  White gold is really cream in colour and requires rhodium plating to achieve the brilliant white finish familiar to us.  Platinum and white gold are not the same thing at all- they are completely different metals and require different techniques in jewellery making.  Platinum is much tougher and is naturally brilliant white, requiring no plating.

Other colours also favoured by master goldsmiths are green and blue- although these are now very rarely seen.  These colours are not in fact strong- they are greenish gold and bluish gold.  Green is made by adding cadmium and blue by adding indium. 

Black gold has also been rising in popularity- it looks marvellous with black diamonds and gives coloured stones, especially greens and reds a luminous quality.  However, this is not an alloy but a surface treatment and buyers will need to get their pieces replated if they scratch the surface finish.