Reams of copies and books have been written about these bijou royale, especially after the deaths of this exiled couple who personified style and regal cachet, far from the British crown that the Duke wore briefly before abdicating in the name of love. Even the copyists had a field day after the collection became public news.
On the streets from Taipei to Bangkok, jewellers were flogging glass copies of the prowling panthers and other lustrous jewels that came steeped with history. It was a collection that stunned and intrigued the world for their sheer breathlessness of design, not to mention the romantic idyll behind them.
Skeptics said it was the Duke’s gesture of undying gratitude for the woman who believed in him, known as he was for not relishing the shackles that came with being monarch, despite her alleged disappointment at not becoming Queen of England.
Wallis Warfield Simpson, American and a divorcee did not go down well as would-be queen for these two reasons. So in exile, she basked in the glittery ransom he showered on her, even if they did not have the cachet of royal heritage. And she wore them with splendid aplomb, shopped till she dropped and was reputed to have said, “a girl can never be too rich or too thin,” and “I’d rather shop than eat”.
She may not have been Queen of England but she was queen of the privileged society that fawned on her.
The Duke certainly had a fondness for gems. His finely honed sense of design, excellent perception of quality and colour led to a magnificent collection of jewellery. He was a trend-setter steeped in the traditions of ceremonial attire having been brought up in monarchical splendour. He was critical of dress to fault. His ‘Windsor Knot’ and ‘Prince of Wales Check’ passed into the Hall of Fame and set not only the styles but the sartorial language.
In the pre-war years, he was known to have spent long hours in the company of Jeanne Toussaint of Cartier and Ranee Puissant at Van Cleef & Arpels; relationships which resulted in some splendid avant garde jewelled creations.
This was the period of jewellery craftsmanship at its peak in Paris and the Duke’s discerning eye gleamed on every gem to be set into splendid necklaces, brooches and bracelets. The lady herself was no slouch in the style stakes and reigned supreme as one of the best-dressed women of her time for three decades. She hob-nobbed with the likes of Chanel, Schiaparelli and Poiret – doyens of the designing world who doted on her sense of style and elegance.
She introduced Balenciaga to the Paris society and the Duke introduced her to the world of bespoke jewels. The Duchess was not inclined to antique jewellery – though if she had become queen, she would have had a whole cave to choose from – preferring the decorative styles of the 40s and 50s.
Characterised by expanses of gold and bombe clusters of small gemstones, each piece created for her had perfect foil in the costumes she wore.
She set the trend for wearing yellow gold – in short supply because of war years hoarding – after 1945. And elements of history were engraved on many of the pieces, a family tradition the Duke was following.
A century earlier, Prince Albert had dates and loving messages engraved on jewellery he gave to his beloved Victoria. The royal association, quality, design and history have made the collection unique. When it went up for auction at Sotheby’s, it generated world-wide attention. Film stars and the assorted mega-rich including Japanese consortium, made furious bids for the pieces. Elizabeth Taylor parted with $1.2 million for a jewelled feather Prince of Wales clip.
It was also the Duchess’ dying wish that the proceeds be donated to the Pasteur Institute in Paris in recognition of the French government’s hospitality to them during their exile.