Actor Elizabeth Taylor was once walking out of a hotel in New York when the doorman said, “Wow. That’s a beautiful ring, it should be in a museum!” Liz Taylor promptly replied “Would you like to try it on?”, as she always did. Then she explained, “If you put it in a museum, nobody actually sees it. When you wear it, it goes much farther.”
Mumbai boy Rahul Kadakia, who heads the jewellery department at Christie’s America and is the curatorial specialist of the Elizabeth Taylor collection up for auction in December, narrates the episode. This is why he is not sad that the collection he calls “the crown jewels of Hollywood” will soon be scattered, and not remain a single collection.
Taylor was never photographed without a piece of jewellery. “We (at Christie’s) would visit her house in Los Angeles once a year to catalogue the collection, and it was not one thing that she said or did; her eyes would just light up as each piece was pulled out. She lived with each of these pieces, she knew them intimately. They were not gems in a cupboard somewhere; she wore them every day,” he says. Taylor was insistent her collection would one day be auctioned, taking “a part of her” with each piece.
A gem of an affair: (extreme left) Elizabeth Taylor; and the Taj Mahal diamond. Photo by Getty Images.
The Christie’s collection of Taylor’s jewellery is on a world tour. Having started from Moscow’s Red Square on Thursday, it will be exhibited in London, Dubai, Los Angeles, Geneva, Paris and Hong Kong before heading for a 13 December auction in New York. The collection features 269 jewels, some of them historic pieces.
While actors like Marlene Dietrich were also known for their jewels, Taylor built her collection consciously, asking questions of jewellers, wanting to know how each piece was made and why it was special. As Kadakia puts it; “Hers are the finest rubies, the finest sapphires, the necklace La Peregrina (estimated price at auction, $2-3 million, or around Rs9.56-14.34 crore) is the most historic natural pearl necklace in the world and dates back to the 16th century crown jewels of Spain. The Taj Mahal diamond is the original heart-shaped diamond gifted by Shah Jahan to Mumtaz Mahal on her 35th birthday, which was refashioned on to a Cartier gold and ruby thread ($300,000-500,000) as a gift from (Richard) Burton on Taylor’s 40th birthday. There is simply no other collection like it in Hollywood.”
Fascinating pieces accumulated through the years, sparked off by Burton’s whimsy—“If it’s Tuesday, let’s buy you some jewellery,” he would say. At their home in Gstaad, Switzerland, when he lost a table tennis match to her, he bought her a set of three diamond rings today named “The Ping Pong diamond rings” ($5,000-7,000). While shooting for Cleopatra in Rome, Burton bought her Bulgari’s Egyptian revival motif mirror ($8,000-12,000). The collection changed and grew along with her list of husbands. While Burton had an eye for historic jewels, film-maker husband Mike Todd surprised her while she was swimming, gifting her the Cartier Ruby suite ($430,000-620,000). He gave her a crown ($60,000-80,000) “because you are my queen”; she wore this to the Academy Awards in 1957. Taylor’s own tastes evolved too. She designed the green, blue and violet JAR sapphire ear clips with Joel Arthur Rosenthal ($100,000-150,000) to match the constantly changing colour of her eyes.
While the collection up for auction will feature iconic pieces like the Burton wedding bands ($6,000-8,000), Taylor’s journey through jewellery was intensely personal; there were Christmas gifts, jewellery celebrating films, births and marriages. While not the most expensive, the most charming jewels are these personal mementos.
When Edith Head, the eight-time Academy Award-winning costume designer of films such as Roman Holiday and Sabrina, a second mother to Taylor, fashioned a necklace out of 19th century Victorian ivory theatre tokens, Taylor made her promise she’d leave it to her in her will ($1,500-2,000). Together, Taylor’s five charm bracelets, built up since she was a teenager, form her autobiography. Tags on them range from an engraved clapperboard for The Taming of the Shrew to a gold sphere locket with four medallions, each engraved with her children’s names.
The auction from 13-16 December at Christie’s, New York, will feature Taylor’s couture, jewellery and film memorabilia. Catalogues and instructions to bid are available at www.christies.com/elizabethtaylor