By: Beth Bernstein
We all love a good yarn, a legendary tale, something personal we might have not known when it comes to celebrated and renowned jewelry. Emeralds are steeped in this type of storied past—from nobility to Hollywood royalty, from Cleopatra to Catherine the Great—these gems fulfill our fantasies and entrance us with their beauty and their enticing histories. Here we present Part I of our two-part Emeralds Throughout Time Story.
But before we get into the famed emeralds –let’s talk about the gemstone’s cheerful color—the color of new beginnings, spring’s awakening, and happy times. The two most popular meanings associated with emerald are hope and prosperity. No wonder it’s a stone that so many famous people loved, wore, and owned.
THE ENGAGING EMERALDS
Long before the term alternative bridal was coined, some of the most iconic style-setters of their times received emerald engagement rings.
When Queen Victoria received her serpent engagement ring from her prince, it might have been the motif that received the most attention turning it into one of the most popular styles of the Victorian period in all categories of jewelry. But the more subtle beauty and personal significance of the ring was that Prince Albert also had it set with the young queen’s (born in May) birthstone—emerald. Who could ask for more romance than a ring that started a marriage with the new bloom of passion and the snake’s most sentimental meaning—enduring love?
Queen Victoria wasn’t the only royal to wear the joyfully colored gemstone. In 1922, Princess Mary, who was the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, and aunt to Queen Elizabeth II appeared in public wearing an emerald engagement ring, and the price of emeralds soared. This sealed the gem’s status as a favorite among the stylish aristocracy and those that followed their lead in jewelry.
Over a decade later, Princess Mary’s brother, Edward Prince of Wales abdicated his throne for Wallis Simpson—their love story told through secret messages and sentimental sayings on some of the most awe-inspiring jewels from the most renowned jewelry houses. They became the Duke and Duchess and Windsor after they married, and Edward proposed to Wallis in 1936 with a Cartier designed 19.77-carat emerald engagement ring.
The Duchess who set trends and became legendary for her impeccable style, took the ring back to Cartier in 1958 to have it modernized in a yellow gold setting with diamonds. But she kept the original shank with the sentimental inscription, “We Are Ours Now, 27.x36.”
Then in the 1950s, another arbiter of style received an emerald engagement ring: Two years after they met, John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier with a Van Cleef & Arpels engagement ring. It was a 2.79-carat cut emerald mounted next to a 2.84-carat diamond, accented with tapered baguettes. In 1962, Jackie Kennedy had the ring reset with additional diamonds to reflect more modern times just as The Duchess of Windsor did before her.
THE EARLIER EMERALDS
In 1806, thirty-one years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, in France, Napoleon Bonaparte gifted a stunning emerald and diamond parure, known as the Beauharnais Emeralds, to his adopted daughter Stéphanie on the occasion of her marriage to the Grand Duke of Baden. The necklace and earrings, which are now held in the jewelry collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, are all that remains of a larger suite. The parure featured huge emerald briolettes dangling from a double strand of mine-cut diamonds with a square-cut emerald center and rectangular-shaped stations with diamonds surrounding them. The gems were set open back, a technique that was just being developed by jewelers, and which allowed the stones to shine. The emerald drops at the back of the necklace, which were added later, could be detached, and worn as earrings.
Before making their way to the V&A in London, they were owned by British actress Merle Oberon who amassed a dazzling collection of jewelry by the time she arrived in Hollywood in 1935. Oberon caught the eye of director Alexander Korda, who would become her husband, and he made her a star. The necklace was one of Oberon’s earliest pieces purchased for her by Korda.
Merle Oberon didn’t stop at just one emerald necklace, and she wore many of her jewels in her films. The story behind Oberon’s acquisition of a Cartier 1938 necklace would make for an interesting scene in a movie itself. Oberon had spied the emerald and diamond necklace—with its flexible chain, diamond rondelle spacers, and twenty-nine graduated suspended emerald cabochons in a store in Paris. The shop assistant told Oberon that the jewels had another admirer, reportedly the designer Elsa Schiaparelli, but Oberon thought was merely a ploy to pressure her into buying it. Later that day she passed by the store again only to see that the necklace was gone. She told Korda the story who was still her husband at the time, and he went back to the shop a few days later, found that it had not been sold, and bought it for her on the spot. Oberon wore the necklace in the 1963 film Of Love and Desire.
THE EXILED EMERALDS
Catherine the Great was another collector who found emeralds enticing and amassed some of the largest stones that were in existence during her time. She owned an emerald necklace that originally weighed 107.67 carats and before her ownership it was part of the Russian Imperial collection for over 100 years. When she received the news of the revolution, she hid all of her important treasures including the necklace and emerald brooch, weighing approximately 65 carats in the Vladimir palace. Her jewels were transported safely to her son Grand Duke Boris who was living in exile in London. The brooch went for $1.65 million in 2010 at Christie’s America.
The necklace was eventually sold to Cartier in 1927. It remained in their private collection, and it was remounted and redesigned several times, finally recut into a 75.63 carats when it was bought by John D. Rockefeller Jr.
In November 1971, Rockefeller sold it to famed dealer Raphael Esmerian and then it changed hands and settings again when it went to a private collector, who owned it until it went up at Christie's Geneva on May 15, 2019 and sold for CHF 4,335,000.
The Imperial Emerald of Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia (75.61 carats)
The Vladimir Tiara was created for Grand Duchess Vladimir who had a collection that might have rivaled Catherine the Great. She was the aunt of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II. In 1921, after it was smuggled out of Russia by a British Diplomat. it was sold to Queen Mary; she adapted the tiara to be transformable with fifteen Cambridge emeralds as an alternative to the original pearls in design that were surrounded by diamonds. The tiara was inherited by Queen Elizabeth II from her grandmother, Queen Mary, in 1953.
Queen Elizabeth II in New Zealand
Read Part II of this story, where we bring you the enchanting, eccentric and electrifying emeralds of the socialites and stars of the silver screen, some pieces passed through royalty and others commissioned or designed specifically for the wearer of the jewels.