Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Have you noticed that jewelry isn't "important" any longer? You used to hear about important jewelry in the context of scandalous relationships; William Randolph Hearst gave any number of important jewels to mistress Marion Davies. Wallis Simpson had important jewelry. Lovers imbued important jewelry with the symbology of wealth and influence: My family jewels are bigger than yours. Important jewelry was jewelry with a complicated story that tattled equally on the giver and the receiver.

Sometimes the story was ignominious and sometimes the story was tragic. American heiress Doris Duke had a collection of both diamonds and cataclysms, as did Barbara Hutton. We don't build our heiresses or our jewelry like this any longer. Hard cheese, of course, always tastes the same.

Jewelry was deemed important on the basis of its cost and its weight. The term fell out of favor as the world rotated on the axis of war and was replaced by the class-conscious "status piece" or the neutral "major piece." And we mustn't forget that such pieces were also cheekily referred to as "battle stripes" when the context in which they were received was predicated upon an illicit sexual relationship.

The fine line between importance and vulgarity spoke more to the perceived class of the wearer than it did to the piece itself. Before the real American democracy took hold, an arriviste wearing a twenty-carat diamond would be seen as tasteless and striving, whereas the same piece decorating the finger of a descendant of the "400" would be viewed with an entirely opposite aestheticism.

The cuff above is from the French jeweler Mauboussin, circa 1940. Mauboussin made a number of significant bracelet cuffs for the actress Marlene Dietrich, another bearer of a rich biography. Just as one doesn't hear of important jewels any longer, one rarely hears of Mauboussin, a company that has quietly gone about making jewelry in the French capital since shortly after Waterloo.

Link: Mauboussin ruby and diamond bracelet, price on request

Link: The collection of Doris Duke

Image: A la Vieille Russie

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