Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Field Trip! Part VII - Personalities at the Van Cleef & Arpels Exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

I know it’s about time I brought this thing to a close but I've been having so much fun researching, writing and viewing all the beautiful jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels. However, something even more interesting exists...the back stories behind the jewelry, as well as some of the photos where the jewelry is being worn.

For example, did you know Muhammad Ali’s wife, Veronica, is the other woman in the photo above being pushed out of the way?  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994) is wearing her gold VC&A “Wonder Woman” cuffs and hoops (actually they are an early “Perlee” creation) and is doing a pretty good job of arm wrestling Muhammad Ali.  Ali's wife, Veronica, is the woman being ignored.  Jackie and Ali met in 1977 at the Rainbow Room kicking off festivities for the Robert F. Kennedy Tennis Tournament in New York.  
Most of the time you see this photo…and I always wondered who Jackie was talking to.  These cuffs were sold at the infamous 1996 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate auction at Sotheby's.  With an estimated worth of $1,500-$2,000 at that time (based on a gold price of a little over $400 an ounce, versus around $1500 per ounce today) these cuffs sold for $167,500.  You do the math if they were on the auction block right now.

One of the most spectacular pieces in the entire exhibit is the emerald and diamond necklace and earrings that belonged to the Maharani of Baroda.  There are many interesting stories about the Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda, (1917-1986), or as she was known, “The Indian Wallis Simpson” (you already know she was probably trouble).  Already married to someone else when she met and immediately fell in love with the Maharajah Pratapsinh Gaekwad of Baroda in 1943, she (and the lawyers) concocted a Chinese fire drill of events in order to obtain a divorce from her current husband so she could marry the Maharajah later that same year.  She converted to Islam and obtained a divorce under the grounds that she was unable to stay married to her present Hindu husband.  After the divorce, she re-converted back to Hinduism and was now free to marry her lover, the Maharajah of Baroda.  I'm exhausted just thinking about planning such a thing but hey, you go girl, jewels were at stake and a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

The Maharani placing the priceless seven strand pearl necklace on the Maharajah.   He is having agita after finding out how much these pearls are worth.
One of the only photos of the famous necklace.  Circa 1880.  All the stones in this necklace are diamonds.

After her marriage, she received gifts of jewels from the Baroda treasury that dated back to Mughal times. These included a magnificent seven-strand natural pearl necklace (see indigestion photo above) and an incomparable three-row diamond necklace (above) that suspended both the Star of the South diamond (cushion cut center top at 128.80 carats) and the English Dresden diamond (pear shaped below at 78.53 carats).  She also received many other Indian jewels from her husband and it was from these various jewels that she extracted the emeralds and diamonds used by Van Cleef & Arpels in her 1949 commission to create a most magnificent necklace and earrings. From time to time we have a cheesy remounting events in our store where customers can use old stones in new settings, but so far, nothing has turned out like this.

The “Hindou Necklace” first appeared for sale in Monte Carlo in 1974 where the Maharani had been residing since the 1960's.  It remained in private hands until 2002 when the necklace and the earrings were auctioned at Christie’s in Geneva with both pieces selling for $1,647,976. 

Completed in 1950, the piece was christened “The Hindou Necklace” by Van Cleef & Arpels. Made in platinum, with thirteen emerald drops (Colombian in origin), weighing approximately 150 carats, they are suspended from a panel of pavé-set diamonds and decorated with carved emeralds. The entire design originated from her Mughal beads.  Sita Devi liked to be green in so many ways and was ahead of her time in terms of recycling.


The earrings are comprised of five polished octagonal shaped emeralds and five drop-shaped emeralds with each earring containing a suspended diamond briolette weighing approximately 20 carats. As per a mystical Indian belief, these precious stones set within a circle are meant to gather and radiate cosmic energies to favor the one that they adorn.  It would have been cheaper to own Stonehenge.

The Maharani must have been a real hoot at party.  In 1953 the Maharani of Baroda sold Harry Winston a pair of anklets, consisting of cabochon emeralds and rose-cut diamonds.  Winston used them to create a necklace which the Duke of Windsor bought for the Duchess of Windsor.  The Duchess and the Maharani were both present at a ball in 1957, and, observing the necklace on the Duchess, the Maharani remarked rather loudly that the emeralds had looked just as good when she wore them on her feet. The Duchess needed some of those calm-me-down pills and returned the necklace to Winston the next day. Harry Winston promised not to sell the necklace to anyone who might wear it in the Duchess's presence or know this paper bag over the head story.  Years later Christina Onassis was turned down when she tried to buy it.

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