The stories behind some of Wallis Simpson’s most iconic jewellery.

In the brand new book 20th Century Jewelry & The Icons of Style, authors Stefano Papi and Alexandra Rhodes explore the personalities behind some of the most iconic and alluring jewellery of last century, including the legendary Wallis Simpson, famed for her love affair with King Edward VIII. In this extract we discover more about Simpson’s vast jewellery collection and inimitable style.

It is difficult to compare the Duchess of Windsor’s jewellery collection with any other. It not only consisted of jewels that had been chosen by a king to give to the woman he loved and gave up his throne for, but also included some of the finest designs by the great 20th-century jewellers, particularly from the 1930s and 1940s.


The story of the relationship between King Edward VIII and the already once-divorced American Wallis Warfield Simpson is one of the most romantic and controversial of all time. To the British public – as well as to those in the Empire – the Prince of Wales had been the epitome of a Prince Charming: handsome, fashionable, modernising. He grew up surrounded by historic and important works of art, which instilled in him a taste for beautiful objects, and in particular jewellery – a passion inherited from his mother, Queen Mary. Many of the pieces he commissioned for Wallis were based on his own ideas.

In the postwar years, the American jeweller Harry Winston played an important role in adding some fine gemstones to the Windsors’ collection. In 1948 he sold them a superb pair of fancy yellow diamonds, which he intimated had formerly belonged to royalty fallen on hard times. The well-matched pear-shaped stones weighed 40.81 and 52.13cts and were mounted as lapel clips. In the correspondence between Winston and the Duchess about these diamonds, she wrote that she could not think of anything she would rather have than those two diamonds and then promptly asked him to supply her with earrings to match. He found two yellow diamonds of the same hue, brilliant-cut of 5.17 and 5.18cts. From each stone hung a pear-shaped fancy yellow diamond of, respectively, 8.13 and 8.01cts. In 1968 these were remounted by Cartier, Paris, as ear clips with the placing of the stones reversed. The new mounts were pavé-set with yellow diamonds.

In 1960, the Duchess had the yellow diamonds certified for insurance purposes by De Beers in London. The stones were submitted to an exhaustive examination and were given a completely ‘clean’ certificate, which meant there was no possible doubt as to their quality. De Beers added that it was impossible for them to put a value on the stones as they were ‘almost irreplaceable’ and only Harry Winston could say what they were worth.

Among the Duchess’ jewellery collection was a menagerie of animals, including an array of Great Cat jewels that were the inspiration of Jeanne Toussaint, who developed a close relationship with the couple. The Windsors began their collection with a panther clip in 1948. A gold panther decorated with black enamel spots and crouched on a large cabochon emerald weighing about 90cts, it was Cartier’s first fully three-dimensional cat jewel. They also bought a pair of ear clips to match the brooch.

In 1953, Harry Winston acquired from the Maharajah of Baroda a pair of cabochon emerald and table-cut foiled diamond anklets from which he created a stunning necklace. He sold it to the Windsors in 1956 but with unfortunate consequences. A year later the Duchess wore the necklace to a ball in Paris that was also attended by the Maharani of Baroda. The piece caused a stir and when the Maharani was asked her opinion she agreed about its beauty but added, ‘those emeralds used to be my anklets’. This did not amuse the Duchess, although she continued to wear the necklace. In 1960, however, she exchanged it for another jewel with the proviso that Harry Winston would not sell the necklace to anyone who might have known about her ownership of it.

The jewel that she now owned was a very fine 48.95cts pear-shaped emerald, which had once belonged to King Alfonso XIII of Spain, mounted with diamonds as a pendant. At the same time, the Duchess supplied Cartier with various jewels that could be unmounted, including a diamond brooch set with five pear-shaped emeralds that had been created by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1937. These jewels were remounted as a necklace from which the newly acquired emerald pendant could be hung. The five emeralds, repolished, became the central motif of the stylish necklace.

The jewels that the Duke showered on his wife were all extremely fine examples of the work of contemporary designers. The only piece that the Duke is known to have received from his family is a single row necklace of 28 natural pearls given to him by his mother, Queen Mary.

The Windsor jewels fetched £31 million at a 1987 [Sotheby’s] auction. The auctioneer, Nicholas Rayner, said at the time: ‘The three elements of history, quality and design make the collection altogether unique.’ It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the sale achieved such results.

Extracted from 20th Century Jewelry and the Icons of Style, to be published by Thames & Hudson on October 28 at £35.00. Text © 2013 Stefano Papi and Alexandra Rhodes.

This Book Club was taken from the October issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.

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