Posts tagged Christie's jewellery auctions

A necklace auctioned by Christie’s in May 2019, set with a 75.63 carat pear cut emerald once owned by the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia.

One of the things I love the most is tracing the journeys of important gems.  Having previously written about the famed emeralds owned by the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia, I was fascinated to hear that a single one of these stones had made an auction appearance earlier this year. The stone attracted attention not only because of its Imperial provenance, but also because it was arguably the finest emerald in the Grand Duchess’ collection.

The Grand Duchess Vladimir wearing her emeralds for the great Court ball of 1903. Note the emerald diadem; the large square on her chest is the 107 carat gem recently auctioned.

The emerald necklace in its original form: nine large emeralds set in diamonds, suspending important cabochon briolette stones.

A rare photograph of a young Grand Duchess Vladimir wearing the necklace, the brooch clearly pinned to the front.

Originally, the emerald was part of a parure, a wedding present from the Romanovs to Princess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, to celebrate her marriage to the uncle of Tsar Nicholas II, upon which she became Her Imperial Highness The Grand Duchess Vladimir Pavlovna.  These stones, in my opinion, were probably the finest collection of emeralds ever owned by an individual, unrivalled in size, quality and colour match.  The fullest extent of the Grand Duchess’ emerald collection can be seen in the famous photograph of her in historical Russian costume for a ball in 1903.  The centre stone of the parure’s necklace (more of which later) was a hexagonal specimen weighing over 100 carats, and can clearly be seen on the headdress.  The stone recently sold at auction was originally an emerald cut weighing 107.67 carats, set in diamonds and suspending an important drop emerald; this can also clearly be identified pinned at the front.  The rest of her emerald jewellery, all containing stones of considerable size, is sewn all over her dress.

Upon her death in 1920, the emeralds were inherited by the Grand Duchess’ son, the Grand Duke Boris, the rest of the jewellery divided into colours and bequeathed thus to her other children.  The first break up of the emeralds was effected by the Grand Duke, who sold the emerald necklace in about 1922 to Cartier; they were subsequently reset into a sleek Art Deco sautoir, bought by Edith McCormack Rockefeller.  However, some of the stones must have been held back by the Grand Duke, who clearly only sold out of sheer necessity.  The emerald set in the brooch sold by Christie’s was only acquired from the Grand Duke by Cartier in 1927; on expert gemmological advice the stone was recut from a 107.67 cut to an unrecognizable 75.63 pear shape.  The pear shape was then sold to John D. Rockefeller Jr., brother of Edith and owner of the other stones.  John D. Jr. must have known the Imperial provenance of the emerald he had bought and must have wanted to reunite it with the Imperial stones in his sister’s sautoir.

The emeralds as set by Cartier into the Art Deco sautoir bought by Edith McCormack Rockefeller.

The emeralds as set by Cartier into her Indian style tiara. Note there are now only seven stones.

The reunion was to be short lived; Edith McCormick died in 1932 and the necklace was sold and bought by the heiress Barbara Hutton, the transaction brokered once more by Cartier.  At this point, the more of the stones must have been dispersed: the McCormick sautoir clearly contained nine stones; when Barbara Hutton had Cartier reset the emeralds into a tiara convertible into a necklace, there are only seven.  There is speculation that she used the other stones in a ring and earrings, but on close inspection of photographs of these items it is impossible that the stones in these were recut octagon emeralds from the Vladimir necklace.

The Art Deco necklace unveiled by Van Cleef and Arpels in 1929; I find the similarity of these emeralds to the drops in the original Vladimir necklace remarkable.

If we go back to the emeralds as they were given to the Grand Duchess, we can also see that suspended from the necklace are nine important cabochon drop shape stones.  These stones do not feature in any of the McCormick/Hutton versions of the necklace- nor do they feature in any jewels created by Cartier in either the 20s or 30s.  I have a hunch: in 1929, Van Cleef unveiled a spectacular diamond necklace in the Art Deco style suspending 9 cabochon briolette emeralds, remarkably similar in shape and size to the 9 in the original Vladimir necklace.  I suspect that the Grand Duke had retained these stones, disposing of them only in 1927, the same time at which he sold the 100 carat emerald brooch.  Should my hunch be correct, I have no idea why the stones would have ended up in the hands of rival jewellery houses. Speculatively, it would make it the second time Van Cleef handled emeralds from the same Romanov source, as they acquired Barbara Hutton’s tiara in the mid 1960s and sold the stones off piecemeal. The Art Deco necklace was bought in 1947 by Princess Faiza of Egypt and is now owned by a private collector.

 The drop shape emerald had been bought from the Rockefellers by the Esmerian family, the same gemmologists who had advised on recutting the gem.  The pear is set in an unremarkable contemporary diamond setting which I suspect will not survive, achieving an auction price of CHF4,335,000.  Imagine if the stones had survived as a set.


The Cartier ruby necklace Elizabeth Taylor was given by her third husband, Mike Todd.  It was accompanied by matching earrings and a bracelet.

What could be more romantic than an impromptu gift of rubies from your husband?  This is precisely what happened to Elizabeth Taylor as she was doing laps in the pool of her rented house in the South of France when Mike Todd, her third husband, walked onto the terrace and waved a red leather case with ‘Cartier’ stamped in gold on the lid.  The contents of the case matched the red leather, containing a suite of matchless rubies and diamonds set into earrings, a necklace and bracelet.

Elizabeth recounted the episode in her book ‘My Love Affair With Jewellery’:

A still from a home movie showing Mike Todd fastening the necklace he has just given Elizabeth Taylor.

Another still from the home movie shot when Mike Todd gave a 24 year old Elizabeth Taylor the Cartier ruby suite.  Her delight is palpable.

Another still from the home movie shot when Mike Todd gave a 24 year old Elizabeth Taylor the Cartier ruby suite.  Her delight is palpable.

A youthful Elizabeth Taylor wearing the Cartier earrings and necklace to an event.  With her ususal panache, she is wearing a diamond flower in her hair.

‘When Mike gave me the rubies I was pregnant with Liza.  We had rented a villa... about three months into our marriage.  The most beautiful house you’ve ever seen... I was in the pool, swimming laps at our home, and Mike came outside to keep me company.  I got out of the pool and put my arms around him, and he said ‘’Wait a minute, don’t joggle your tiara’’.  Because I was wearing my tiara in the pool! [Why, one may ask? Because she was Elizabeth Taylor and she could].  He was holding a red leather box and inside was a ruby necklace, which glittered in the warm light.  It was like the sun, lit up and made of red fire.  First, Mike put it round my neck and smiled.  Then he bent down and put matching earrings on me.  Next came the bracelet.  Since there was no mirror I had to look in the water.  The jewelry was so glorious, rippling red and blue like a painting.  I just shrieked with joy... It was a perfect Summer day and a perfect day of love.’

Mike was Elizabeth’s third husband and she was only 24 at the time.  Although their relationship was tempestuous they were very much in love.  The ruby set was by no means the only piece he gave her- he was very fond of presenting her with beautiful things, often laden with meaning or as a gallant surprise.  During one Paris trip, Elizabeth bought an elegant pair of paste earrings.  Some months later, she noticed they felt different- Mike had taken them away and quietly replaced them with diamond copies he had had made for her.

She was utterly heartbroken when he died, just 13 months into their marriage.  When the necklace was auctioned on Elizabeth’s death in 2011 (the proceeds going to her AIDS charities) the ruby set realised over £5400,000 several times over its top estimate of $600,000.  Although Elizabeth would have been thrilled at the amount of money raised for good causes, jewellery for her was not about the material value but the stories behind it.  In her telling of the story of the ruby suite, it is clear she never lost her naive delight and pleasure she derived from her collection.


Ring set with a 3.15 carat bluish green diamond by Tiffany in their inimitably elegant style.

The biggest, most famous green diamond in the world: the Dresden Green, weighing 41 carats.

Gemmologists and collectors alike are fascinated by green diamonds not only because the hues and tones in this gem vary so greatly, but because it is not yet fully understood why they occur. 

Of the coloured diamonds in the spectrum, red and green are the rarest.  Chromacity is usually determined in other diamonds due to the trace presence of elements; in green the result is thought to come about after the stone has been exposed to radiation over a period of thousands of years.  The source of radiation is usually uranium near the Earth’s surface.  As these unlikely conditions have to be absolutely perfect for this to happen, the appearance of a green diamond is a genuinely rare natural occurrence.  The effect can be replicated in a laboratory, achieving the same effect, making the differentiation between the natural and the artificial extremely difficult.

Green diamonds are always submitted to a gem laboratory to establish the origin of colour, but even with today’s advanced technology it is not always possible for the lab to produce a satisfactory assessment.  Most of them are not green all the way through; many have green radiation blotches or stains on the surface which get polished away during the cutting process, which means the colour is lost.  Cutters have to work their way around this in order to present the highest colour saturation in the best way.  It is highly unusual for a stone to be evenly coloured all the way through, but they do occur. 

Generally, the longer the exposure to radiation, the deeper in to the gem the colour will have penetrated.  How deep the colour has gone will also determine the hue.  Coloured diamonds, apart from their primary colour will also have a secondary colour; green diamonds have two, blue and yellow, making their classification difficult.  Hues, therefore, range from the palest mint green, through to vivid parrot and intense olive green.  More often than not green stones will be named yellowish green, greenish blue, blueish green and so forth.

A yellowish green diamond surrounded by pink and white diamonds.  A perfect example of how much the greens can vary from stone to stone.

The most famous green diamond in world is also the largest: the Dresden Green, weighing in at 41 carats.  It was acquired by Augustus, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony in 1742 and it remains on view in the Green Vaults in Dresden today.  It sets the benchmark for all stones of its kind because its colour is natural and homogenous all the way through, experiments with radiated diamonds not beginning until 1904.  Gemmologists were allowed to study it in detail and their results were inconclusive- they determined that additional research is required to establish the definite cause of green in diamonds.  I rather like the fact that some precious stones still retain some genuine mystery.

A notable example of an exceptional green is the Ocean Dream diamond which possesses a truly unique bluish green hue that gives it its name.  It weighs 5.5 carats and was recently exhibited at the Smythsonian’s ‘Splendor of Gems’ exhibit.  Another gem worthy of a mention is the Aurora Green, a spectacular fancy vivid green weighing 5.03 sold in Hong Kong by Christie’s last year; the sale fetched $16.8 million, or $3.3 million a carat, a record for a stone of its kind.  Enough to wake the green eyed monster in any of us.

The Aurora Green, weighing in at 5.03 carats.  It was sold by Christie's for $16.8 million, setting a record for a diamond of its class.


Boehmer et Bassenge's new Jardin d'Isabelle diamond necklace, composed entirely of pink and D flawless diamonds.  The estimate for their upcoming auction at Christie's is $8-12 million.

Two of the most astonishing pieces of jewellery to be created since the French Revolution are to be auctioned at Christie’s Geneva on the 15th November.  They consist of a necklace called Le Jardin d’Isabelle and earclips named Miroir d’Amour- appropriate Rococo nomenclature given the name of the creator: Boehmer et Bassenge.

The original Boehmer et Bassenge were the court jewellers to Marie Antoinette, who created an infamous diamond necklace which could be said to have been the fuse that lit the French Revolution.  The Parisian jewellers began composing a necklace in 1772, consisting of 647 diamonds weighing a total of 2800 carats, all of them reputed to be D flawless, costing some 2 million livres.  The jewellers were hoping to persuade Louis XV to buy it for his mistress Madame du Barry, who was known to be exceedingly fond of diamonds.  Unfortunately, before the necklace was finished the King died and Madame du Barry was sent away, leaving Boehmer and Bassenge without a buyer.  The necklace was offered to his successor Louis XVI for his new queen, Marie Antoinette, but the royal couple turned it down, the Queen stating that she had enough diamonds.  The monarchs sensibly suggested to the pair that at such an exhorbitant price they might like to break up the piece and sell the stones separately in order to recoup their costs.  But Boehmer and Bassenge had spent so much time and energy creating this unparalleled jewel that they could not bring themselves to carry this out.  Rather pathetically, they toured most of the courts of Europe trying to flog the necklace without success, even going as far as Constantinople to offer it to the Sultan.

The fuse that lit a Revolution:  A replica of the diamond necklace by Boehmer and Bassenge.  Turned down by Marie Antoinette and all the other crowned heads of Europe, this piece cemented France's hate against the Queen.

The Comtesse du Barry, Louis XV's beautiful, not very clever mistress.

Marie Antoinette painted in all her courtly glamour.  Although her dress and hair are decorated with priceless jewels, ironically she was rarely painted wearing a necklace.

Hearing of their plight, an adventuring conwoman calling herself the Comtesse de la Motte offered her services to the jewellers to act as a go between between them and the Queen in order to effect the sale; in fact it was all an elaborate ruse to steal the necklace.  The Comtesse in fact had no position or influence at Court and had never even met the Queen.  However, she managed to persuade the gullible Cardinal de Rohan, Grand Almoner of France.  He had fallen out of royal favour; desperate to regain his high courtly position, he gullible enough to try anything.  The Comtesse persuaded him through various means that she was in the Queen’s confidence and that she was longing for the famed necklace, but was too frightened of public opinion to buy it openly.  Would de Rohan act as intermediary between the Crown and Boehmer and Bassenge and act as buyer on her behalf?  Astonishingly, he agreed.  The necklace was delivered to the Cardinal, who passed it to the Comtesse to give to the Queen.  The Comtesse promptly ran off to London, broke up the necklace and sold the stones.  Inevitably, when the jewellers did not receive the first instalment owed, they approached the Queen, who was confused to say the least, and the entire affair came out into the open.  All those implicated went on trial, including the duped Cardinal.  At this date (1785) Marie Antoinette was widely loathed for her perceived extravagance; the trial effectively became a trial on the Queen’s character and although the Comtesse de la Motte was convicted as a thief, the Cardinal was acquitted.  It was a widely held belief by the public at this point that the Queen had secretly spirited away the necklace. The whole affair merely solidified her as a scapegoat figure for the country’s economic woes and unleashed a poisonous vitriol towards her of an intensity that would be hard for a modern mind to comprehend.  The ironic thing is that in her portraits Marie Antoinette is rarely seen wearing a necklace of any kind. 

Miroir d'Amour earrings by Boehmer et Bassenge.  Each of these pear shaped diamonds is D Flawless and weighs over 50 carats.  They are the largest of their kind ever to be offered at auction.

The new incarnation of Boehmer et Bassange is as yet hard to pinpoint.  A thorough internet search yields only opaque results and elegantly worded press releases.  The message, however, is loud and clear: to create pieces of such peerless quality that they will pass into legend.  And no doubt they will- in accordance with the famous name they are trading under, Boehmer et Bassenge work only with D Flawless diamonds.  The Miroir d’Amour earrings are the largest pear D Flawless pair of pear shaped stones ever to be offered at auction.  The two stones weigh over 50 carats each and the pre-sale estimate is $20-30 million.  The Jardin d’Isabelle necklace, although not the gargantuan 2800 carats like the Queen’s, is nearly 150 carats, the largest stone in it coming in at 31.8 carats.  The estimate for the necklace is $8-12 million. These lots are being offered without reserve, so it is worth watching this space to see what happens.  Every single diamond in the piece is D-Flawless.  These stones are not just the top 1% of diamonds mined; they are the world’s top 100th of 1%.  Regardless of what happens at auction it is an astounding, unheard of collection.  Madame du Barry, the original intended recipient of the original necklace, would have approved.


The Cullinan Dream, second from left, flanked by its three sister stones.

Christie’s have launched a new publicity blitz with the unveiling of the sale of another remarkable stone: the Cullinan Dream Diamond.  At 24.18 carats, it is the largest blue diamond ever to be offered up to auction.  Christie’s have a good track record with record breaking stones, having sold to date the largest vivid orange, vivid green, vivid blue and vivid red diamonds.  The clarity of the diamond has not yet been revealed, and nor has the official pre-sale estimate.

The rough stone from which the Cullinan Dream was cut, weighing an astonishing 122.52 carats.

Christie's image of the stone being worn, which gives a good idea of its size.

It will be interesting to see what price the stone achieves: the record per carat to beat will be that held by the Fancy Intense Blue VVS1 stone weighing 1.74 carats which Christie’s sold last year.  This stone fetched an eye watering $1.106 million a carat and was rather ignored by the media.  One can only assume it was due to lack of provenance or its perceived modest size.  Stone dealers will be keeping an extra close eye to the results of this sale not only because of the importance of the stone but because of the spectacular flop that was the sale of the Shirley Temple Blue diamond last month at Sotheby’s.  The pre-sale estimate of this much hyped gem was $25-35 million; bidding stalled at £22 million and the jewel was withdrawn.  Although apparently money is not an issue for the seller, there will be expectations to sell the Cullinan Dream for a high price- as we know, coloured diamonds have no pricing index like regular commodities and the price per carat achieved will underpin the future prices of other important coloured diamonds.

The Cullinan Dream is the largest of four main stones that were cut from a rough weighing 122.52 carats.  This whopper was discovered in the South African Cullinan mines owned by Petra Diamonds.  The most remarkable thing about blue diamonds from this mine is that they are specifically extracting colourless stones, so any blue ones discovered are pure chance.