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Her Love Affair With Jewelry

For Dame Elizabeth Taylor, her love affair with jewelry started early on. “My mother says I didn’t open my eyes for eight days after I was born, but when I did, the first thing I saw was her engagement ring. I was hooked!” Since then Dame Elizabeth has acquired one of the greatest private collections of jewelry in the world, with pieces by such leading jewelers as Boucheron, Bulgari, Cartier, Chopard, Gerard, JAR, Ruser, Schlumberger, Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels, and David Webb.

For François Curiel of Christie’s, who appraised Elizabeth’s legendary collection, it was an experience like none other. “I shall never forget the trays and trays of jewelry that were presented to us… At first, it was the sheer volume that struck me, but gradually as I examined each piece, I was impressed by the quality and variety in the collection. And quality was the common denominator for every piece, regardless of stone or size.” Curiel was also impressed by Elizabeth’s vast knowledge of the provenance and design of each piece in her collection, one that started off quite small.

In 1945, Elizabeth acquired her first piece of jewelry, a beautiful gold plate and stone brooch, which was a gift for her mother. She had saved up her allowance for some time to be able to surprise her mother with the piece. As she grew older, Elizabeth would acquire some valuable jewelry, but it wasn’t until her marriage to the great showman Mike Todd that she began collecting expensive jewelry. Todd loved showering his new bride with fantastic pieces of jewelry, including a suite of rubies and diamonds by Cartier (given to her for swimming laps in the pool!), a 29 and 7/8 carat diamond engagement ring, (according to Elizabeth, “Mike insisted I say 29 and 7/8, because 30 would have been vulgar.”), and an antique Belle Époque diamond necklace. No occasion was necessary—everyday was some sort of anniversary. “I’ve had so many anniversaries, I’ll soon be as old as Mike,” Elizabeth joked, or “Oh, that’s just a Saturday night present,” Elizabeth would say. One of Elizabeth’s favourite pieces was a pair of chandelier ear pendants that originally contained paste diamonds, but were replaced with real diamonds by Todd as a surprise.

Elizabeth acquired some of the world’s most important pieces of jewelry during her two marriages to Richard Burton. Like Todd, Burton would, according to Elizabeth “use any excuse” to surprise her with a piece of jewelry. “I never discussed jewelry with Richard,” recalled Elizabeth. “It was given spontaneously.” Together they acquired pieces from the Grand Duchess Vladimir Suite, the Krupp Diamond, La Peregrina Pearl, the Taylor-Burton diamond, etc. It was not uncommon for the jet set couple to be visited by the world’s most famous jewelers while at the airport waiting for their next flight. And Richard, ever the history buff, loved acquiring pieces that were not only beautiful, but historically important.

Elizabeth has always worn her jewelry uniquely. During the years that the great Alexandre de Paris styled her hair, it was not uncommon for the famed hairstylist to weave a strand of pearls throughout her raven locks, or accent them with a beautiful brooch. The Proust Ball, hosted by the Rothschilds, and attended by the Burtons, as well as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, saw Elizabeth’s hair ornamented with jewels by Van Cleefs & Arpels in order to recreate the fashion’s of Marcel Proust’s novel, A la recherche du temps perdu, known in English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past.

Dame Elizabeth has been very generous with her collection—whether loaning a piece to a museum or allowing an admirer to try one on—so that people around the world can also appreciate their great beauty. Elizabeth once lent her $150,000 emerald and diamond brooch to one of Richard’s costars in Hamlet to be used as a safety pin for a broken zipper. But it was in 2002, when Dame Elizabeth penned My Love Affair with Jewelry, a beautiful oversized volume, that the public got a unique glimpse into such a historic and important collection. It was in the pages of that book that Elizabeth wrote “I’m fortunate to have some very important pieces of jewelry. I don’t believe I own any of the pieces. I believe that I am their custodian, here to enjoy them, to give them the best treatment in the world, to watch after their safety, and to love them.” She also wrote, “As I look at some of my jewels I realize what a very lucky girl I am. Sometimes I wonder what will become of everything, because just like the Duchess of Windsor’s collection, they will all be up for auction one day. They will be scattered to the four corners of the world, and I hope that whoever buys each piece loves it as much as I do and takes care of it and realizes that having jewelry is a temporary gift. In truth, we ‘owners’ are just the caretakers. Nobody owns beautiful paintings. Nobody ever owns anything this beautiful. We are only the guardians.” They couldn’t have a better guardian than Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Putting it all in perspective, Elizabeth remarked: “You can’t cry on a diamond’s shoulder, and diamonds won’t keep you warm at night. But they’re sure fun when the sun shines.”

A closer look: The Grand Duchess Vladimir Suite, The Krupp Diamond, La Peregrina Pearl, The Prince of Wales Insignia, The Taj Mahal Diamond, and The Taylor-Burton Diamond.

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Elizabeth Taylor Archives © Copyright 2001-2009 Andrew Budgell