Western treasures, Eastern inspiration

BFP Magazine

Doris Duke's jewelry

Western treasures,
Eastern inspiration

By Simon Teakle

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Doris Duke's jewelry collection gleams with her love of the orient

Doris Duke was an insatiable collector. Among her better known interests were French and English furniture, Southeast Asian and Islamic art, rare wines, and restoring houses. But her most impressive collection was also her most personal-her jewelry.

Remarkably, Doris Duke didn't consider it a formal collection but a mix of pieces she inherited from her family, gems she acquired on her travels and modern pieces she added later in life. Because Doris Duke often hand-selected gems and collaborated on the design of her pieces, her jewelry provides an intimate glimpse of her personal style. The collection also sets the story of her life against a backdrop of historical events, societal trends and aesthetic movements during the late 19th and almost all of the 20th centuries.

Doris Duke was born into privilege. As the only child of James Buchanan Duke, a wealthy tobacco and energy entrepreneur, she was raised in a cultured yet sheltered environment. As she matured, her curiosity about the world intensified and she became interested in foreign travel.

A tour of Asia at the age of twenty-two on her honeymoon with husband James Cromwell would change her interests forever. A love of the Middle and Far East enveloped her life and was reflected in her choice of jewelry; she chose pieces by Cartier and David Webb that incorporated Eastern gems and motifs, and amassed an extensive collection of Indian and Southeast Asian jewelry.

Among the earliest pieces in the collection are those that Doris Duke inherited from her grandmother, Florine Russell Holt. The intricately carved coral suite is a sublime example of how naturalistic European designs influenced American taste in the late 19th century.

In 1901, Edward VII's accession to the British throne upon the death of his mother, Queen Victoria, marked the beginning of the Belle Époque. Literally meaning 'beautiful era' it was a time when elegance was valued above all else in fashion and jewelry. The upper and middle classes flourished, especially in America, and indulged in clothing and jewels that expressed their wealth.

American firms were increasingly important gem merchants at this time, and the biggest was Tiffany & Co. in New York. Through major acquisitions made in the second half of the 19th century, Tiffany & Co. cut, sold and collected some of the most magnificent stones in the world.

Perhaps the most remarkable of Tiffany's acquisitions was a 287.42 carat rough diamond from the Compagnie Français de Diamant du Cap Mine, a branch of the Kimberley mine, in 1877.

The largest flawless yellow diamond in the world at that time, it was cut in Paris to its current weight of 128.54 carats and named 'The Tiffany Diamond.' The firm also purchased important stones from renowned collections including the estate of the Hungarian Prince Esterhazy; the 'jewel-mad' Duke of Brunswick, including a 30 carat canary diamond; and the acquisition of the Spanish Crown Jewels.

In 1887, the firm purchased a major share of the French Crown Jewels that had once belonged to Empress Eugenie. These magnificent jewels were brought back to America and soon adorned the newly wealthy industrial class. The 19.72 carat diamond included in this sale, which James B. Duke purchased at Tiffany's, exemplifies the high quality of jewels the firm had in its inventory as well as Mr. Duke's interest in buying only the best pieces available.

At the turn of the century, Cartier was one of the preeminent jewelers to the elite of Paris, London and New York. Cartier's designs reflected the fashions of the day: upswept hair and low necklines in the evening leant ever more importance to necklaces. Dog collars, sautoirs and lavalieres were popular styles, as was the garland-style festoon necklace.

The garland-a neoclassical style incorporating ribbon, swag and bow motifs-was popular following the sale of the French Crown Jewels in 1887. The House of Cartier's innovations with platinum contributed to its ability to rework neoclassical designs in a newly light and flexible way.

Although stronger than silver, which had been favored to display diamonds, platinum is less flexible, which prompted Cartier's designers to construct articulated jewels with hinged elements to create easy movement.

The diamond necklace in the Doris Duke collection is a magnificent example of the garland style by Cartier. It ranks as one of the most beautiful necklaces representing the Belle Époque period, both for the luxurious elegance of the design and for the opulence of the diamonds.

The necklace, inherited by Doris Duke from her mother Nanaline, was purchased in 1908 by James Buchanan Duke, who provided Cartier with some of the diamonds used in the necklace. The incorporation of Indian influences and gemstones into jewels was one of Cartier's greatest innovations in the Art Deco period.

The Indian-inspired emerald and diamond bracelet made in 1932 is an example of their oeuvre with arguably no finer example to be found. Jacques Cartier first grew enamored with Indian jewels at the turn of the 19th century.

As the director of Cartier London, he was exposed to the lavish jewels of the Indian princes who often visited Britain. Jacques himself traveled to India in 1911 in an effort to establish Cartier's reputation among the Indian elite.

Indian tradition held that gems were a permanent investment. As they were passed from generation to generation, they would constantly be reset and jewels reinvented with old stones. Over time, Cartier gained the admiration and respect of the Indian royal families, and they entrusted Cartier to reset and transform their jewels into modern designs, infusing traditional motifs with the latest Parisian styles.

As travel increased between Europe and India, not only did Parisian styles become more popular in India, but Indian fashion and design became prevalent in Europe as well. Cartier began to purchase whatever precious gems were available in India, including delicately carved emeralds, sapphires and rubies. Fine quality gems cut en cabochon were often used to reinterpret unique motifs from the Mughal Empire, which merged Hindu and Persian elements.

It is interesting in the context of Doris Duke's collection that her purchase of one of Cartier's Mughal-inspired bracelets and matching clip in December 1934 preceded her first trip to India and foreshadowed her passion for collecting Mughal jewelry. This bracelet incorporates three of the most valued gems in Indian jewels: emeralds, pearls and diamonds. The richly saturated cabochon emeralds are the focal point of the bracelet, the bold, geometric plaque, trimmed by diamonds, extends diamond and emerald accents to the simple four-strand pearl bracelet and Art Deco diamond clasp.

Emeralds have a rich and interesting history. Until the 16th century, the only known source of emeralds was in Egypt. However, the Egyptian mines produced gems of only mediocre quality. Some of the best examples were thought to have historically originated from India, but recent scholarship has shown that the origin of the wonderful Indian emeralds, adored by the Maharajahs, was in fact Colombia.

The most important of the Colombian mines were the Muzo and Chivor, located approximately 75 miles from Bogota. The Incas rigorously defended the locations of the sacred mines by concealing the way; they were discovered accidentally in 1558.

With the rise of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 15th and 16th centuries and their capture of the Inca Empire, Colombian emeralds began to journey across the oceans to Europe and the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony at the time.

From the Philippines, the emeralds continued on to the Maharajahs of India. The relative softness of emeralds allowed the Mughal Emperors to carve verses of the Koran into the gemstones as well as exquisite foliate designs. The Maharajahs set the Colombian stones into elaborate belts, kada bangles and headpieces.

The two-strand emerald bead necklace belonging to Doris Duke contains emeralds that are old material, most probably originating from the Muzo mines. The intense color and distinct saturation that typifies a Colombian emerald is illustrated perfectly in this remarkable necklace.

Although a number of Doris Duke's jewels were inherited, she also infused the collection with her own personality. Fulco di Verdura, David Webb and Seaman Schepps all created highly distinctive pieces and made their mark in the history of 20th century jewels. Doris Duke enjoyed collaborating with some of these masters on her pieces, such as the spectacular ruby and pearl necklace by David Webb in this sale, which combines the sophistication of New York with the spirit of Mughal India.

David Webb opened shop in the late 1940s in New York's jewelry district, but it wasn't until the early 1960s that Webb's popularity soared and he established himself as the quintessential American jeweler. He relocated to Fifty-Seventh Street, where he sold his designs to private clients in an upstairs salon while maintaining relationships with Bonwit Teller and Bergdorf Goodman.

Doris Duke began to frequent David Webb's boutique in the early 1960s and often selected suites of jewels. She purchased dangling ear pendants, brightly colored necklaces and other bold pieces. It is not surprising that Doris Duke felt an affinity for David Webb's designs, as Webb often used imagery based on his studies of 18th-century jewels from Jaipur, India.

The 1960s were a period of change in American culture as women gained greater independence and confidence, and David Webb captured that sentiment to create bold jewels to be worn as statement pieces. He was enamoured with unusual gemstones, baroque pearls, and semi-precious stones, which he combined in modern and innovative designs.

David Webb attracted a celebrity clientele. The Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy visited his New York boutique and purchased his jewels, and President Kennedy commissioned several gifts of State from him.

Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, Paul Flato, Suzanne Belperron and Charlton are also names represented in this sale, which clearly illustrates the extraordinary depth of interest Doris Duke had in her 'accidental' collection.

Together with the superb pieces inherited from her mother and grandmother, Doris Duke's passion for beautiful jewelry combined the best of East and West in a marriage of styles, materials and techniques.

The magnificent jewels from this collection provide a rare and intimate glimpse into the story of this truly remarkable woman.

Simon Teakle, Department Head, Christie's Jewelry, New York

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