- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
September 13, 2012 12:16 am
Place minerals containing carbon approximately 150 km below the surface of the earth. Apply high temperature and intense pressure; wait for between 1bn and 3bn years. Organise a deep volcanic eruption to bring the result close to the earth’s surface: then mine, cut, set, and place on the finger of the person you love.
It’s not surprising, given the timeframe of this recipe for making a diamond, that all the clichés relating to the gemstone are to do with timelessness, eternity, foreverness. Something of the sense of this immense expanse of time, in the creation of the stone we see, gives it its power and certainly its mystery.
It might seem odd, therefore, to talk of current trends in relation to gemstones that have been millennia in the making. But there is an appetite for novelty even within the purlieu of timeless values, and one strong trend this year takes us well away from the classic single translucent sparkler and into exuberant, multicoloured pieces that might mix precious and semi-precious stones in floral or animal or even fishy patterns.
Another recent trend, which concentrates on association pieces, on nostalgia and references to the past, is hardly new at all. A previous owner or wearer, or the sense that a gem or a piece of jewellery has had a long and busy life, has always been an important part of its allure, as if its history lives inside it. Yet now designers seem to be embracing this aspect with unusual vigour. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of Coco Chanel’s first jewellery collection, Chanel, for instance, is recreating pieces in the spirit of 1932 – or rather, in the spirit of Coco – and will be putting them on show during the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris this week.
How complex the layering of associations can become was shown when in New York last year a famous pearl, La Peregrina, set records when it was sold as part of the collection belonging to Elizabeth Taylor. Its $11.8m price-tag was attributed to the Liz-effect that sent all her prices rocketing – but there is more to the story. The pearl’s biography goes back to the 16th century, when it was given to Mary Tudor on her engagement to Spain’s Phillip II. Later, Velázquez painted the pearl twice – around the necks of different Spanish queens.
Famous gems often have a life story that is more interesting than those of its owners. No one would remember much about the American heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean if she had not for a time owned the great steel-blue Hope diamond, which she reportedly used to display at her Jazz Age parties hung around the neck of a Great Dane called Mike. She had been persuaded to buy it despite the fact that the Hope is reputed to carry a curse, and certainly Mrs McLean’s subsequent life was filled with tragedy – although she sensibly didn’t blame the diamond.
Perhaps the reputation came from the stone’s strange ability to absorb and then emit a red glow (a stain of blood?); or it may originate in the fact that, although it is still a mighty 45 carats, roughly the size of a bird’s egg, it was cut from a much bigger stone known as the the Tavernier Blue or the French Blue as it belonged to the French royal family, who famously lost their heads. But if every jewel Marie-Antoinette had ever worn was “cursed”, owners of beautiful gems would have been dropping like flies ever since. And the Hope’s story has a happy ending: in 1958 it was donated to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in an act of great generosity by the jeweller Harry Winston, who sent it to the museum in a brown-paper parcel via the US mail.
In fact it’s hard to see why the history of that particular stone is much more doom-laden than many others that might be thought to carry bad luck. One might wonder, for instance, whether any young bride, royal or not, would particularly want to wear the engagement ring of Princess Diana: it can hardly be seen as a good omen for a long and loving marriage, after all. And the large diamond given to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton may be extremely beautiful – but, well, that couple was divorced not once but twice.
These examples seem to prove one thing, though, which is that association jewels are more likely to be imbued by their pursuers with the glamour and romance of their previous owners, rather than the unhappier life events of which they may actually be an emblem. If jewels are valued for sheer magical beauty, then they are seen as embodying and carrying with them the delights of life, not its sorrows. Otherwise, as the American publisher Malcolm Forbes is supposed to have said: “Diamonds are nothing more than chunks of coal that stuck to their jobs.”
Another famous diamond, now housed in the Louvre, is the Regent, whose chequered history contains both glory and tragedy. Its extensive biography begins, as that of all diamonds did in the late 17th century, in the Golkonda mines of India. It was reputed to have been a socking 410 carats – almost 10 times the size of the Taylor ring illustrated here. The slave who found it is meant to have smuggled it out of the mine by (squeamish readers should skip this bit) slashing a deep wound in his own leg and hiding the stone inside it.
It found its way to “Diamond” Pitt, as the English bucaneer-trader came to be known, who used it as a means of carrying home to Britain the enormous wealth he had accrued in India: it enabled him to live in grand style and his descendants included two British prime ministers. Before that, though, he had to sell the stone. The majority of it, cut into a 141-carat cushion brilliant, was bought by the French Regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, and went on to lead an eventful life in the French court. It was set into the crowns of Louis XV and Louis XVI for their coronations, after which Marie Antoinette wore it in a hat. It was stolen during the Revolution, then rediscovered in an attic. Napoleon had it placed in the hilt of his sword; it adorned the heads of three more French monarchs.
Until diamonds were discovered in Brazil in 1725 (and not for another 150 years in South Africa), India was their sole source – and the country still has some of the world’s finest examples. But in 1928 when the young Maharaja of Patiala asked the House of Cartier to make him a resplendent ceremonial necklace, it was centred on a South African stone, the world’s seventh largest diamond, the yellow 428-carat “De Beers”. The whole chest-plate construction contained 2,930 diamonds – a total of about 962.25 carats. This necklace, however, had short-lived glory: by about 1948 its whereabouts were unknown, its main stones dispersed or sold off. Only in 1998 did parts of the necklace come to light; they were promptly bought by its original creators, Cartier, who then spent four years sleuthing out other pieces of the work or restoring it with replacement stones.
Pictures of the Maharaja festooned with an almost absurd quantity of glittering gems, only 90 years ago, shows the radical changes in the fashions of the rich – especially among men. These days, apart from watches, there are few opportunities for men to wear jewels, especially in the west. Perhaps the sole really new invention, in terms of jewellery-wearing, was the fashion for “grills” launched in the 1980s by rappers and hip-hop stars. Not content with their ropes of gold and diamond-studded rings and crosses, they made “grills” (tooth-coverings of gold or silver, often studded with gemstones) a badge of cool luxury. Just this summer, these rather nasty objects reappeared in the mainstream news when American swimming star Ryan Lochte was refused permission to wear his grill, set with rubies and diamonds in the pattern of the American flag, on the Olympic podium when collecting his gold medal. Lochte has said that wearing grills is for him “a unique way of showing personality”. More than winning 11 Olympic medals?
I once encountered a much more subtle and delightful way for men to wear gemstones – again, thanks to an Indian collector. At the Victoria & Albert Museum’s dinner to launch their Maharajah exhibition a few years ago, my neighbour at the table was dressed in a very elegant, very plain black kurta. It took me a few minutes to realise that the line of buttons down the front of the garment, glowing a dull deep green, were in fact cabochon-cut emeralds. Perhaps Karl Lagerfeld, presiding fashion genius of this year’s Biennale des Antiquaires, could take note.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.