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’:
‘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.