Those who are passionate about jewelry know that the most extraordinary pieces aren't defined solely by their appearance or price, but also by their historical value. Around the world, there are countless age-old treasures laden with artistry and significance, and many jewelry aficionados spend their lives searching for pieces to add to their collection. Collecting jewelry is akin to collecting works of art: some pieces are simply irreplaceable - and throughout history, there have only been a handful of collections to fill the gem world with awe.
We all know of Elizabeth Taylor’s collection, which sold for a record-breaking $116 million in 2011, or Marie Antoinette’s royal collection of treasures, which the ill-fated queen secretly sent abroad as she planned to escape from Paris. Whether you’re simply enamored with the stories behind these historical collections or are in the process of building your own trove of treasures, here are some of the most important collections to know about:
1) Elizabeth Taylor’s legendary auction
(photo source: Vanity Fair)
Famous for her passionate performances, blue-violet eyes, and string of whirlwind marriages, Elizabeth Taylor will go down in history for one more thing: her magnificent jewelry collection. Made up of both gifts from former lovers and pieces that the iconic actress bought herself, this collection is arguably the most valuable private collection in history.
Some of the key pieces in this collection include a 33.19-carat diamond ring, gifted from Richard Burton, and a world-renowned natural saltwater pearl, diamond and ruby necklace by Cartier, known as "La Peregrina", which once belonged to King Philip II of Spain.
2) Marie Antoinette’s infamous trove
(photo source: USA Today)
Notorious for her lavish taste and tragic fate, the late Marie Antoinette is said to have carefully wrapped her most beloved jewelry in cotton the night before she was arrested and executed by guillotine in 1793. According to an account by Antoinette’s lady in waiting, the queen spent an entire evening packing her jewels and sent them in a wooden box to Vienna, where it was eventually reclaimed by Marie-Thérese, Antoinette’s last surviving child.
Passed down amongst Antoinette’s heirs for 200 years and put up for auction in 2018, this collection boasts several iconic pieces, including a monogrammed diamond ring bearing a lock of Antoinette’s hair and a drop-shaped natural saltwater pearl pendant that sold for more than $36 million.
3) Queen Elizabeth II’s royal collection
(photo source: Royal Collection Trust)
The British monarchy is almost 1500 years old, so Queen Elizabeth II’s jewelry collection undoubtedly contains a score of irreplaceable pieces. Sapphire necklaces, glittering brooches, and jaw-dropping tiaras adorned with emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and pearls - each and every piece in the Queen’s collection is simply unmatched.
One of the Queen’s most memorable pieces is the Imperial State Crown, which she wore at her coronation in 1953 and again in 2006 at the State Opening of Parliament. Weighing in at a whopping 3 pounds and adorned with almost 3,000 stones, the crown features the legendary 317-carat Cullinan II diamond and the iconic Black Prince’s Ruby, a 170-carat red spinel that was worn on the battlefield by both Henry V and Richard III.
4) Cheapside Hoard: the discovery that captivated the jewel world
(photo source: Gem Gossip)
In 1912, a team of workmen demolishing buildings in London uncovered something they would have never expected: a buried casket laden with almost five hundred dazzling gems. Now known as the Cheapside Hoard, this discovery is the single greatest collection of Elizabethan and Stuart jewelry in the world, and some of the pieces within it are thousands of years old.
So who owned the jewels… and why did they bury them? Buried almost 300 years before its discovery, the Cheapside Hoard remains shrouded in mystery - and that’s what makes it so special. One of the Hoard’s most iconic pieces is a 2,000 year old agate cameo bearing what is believed to be a representation of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
The majority of the Cheapside Hoard now resides permanently at the Museum of London, and its story will forever captivate gem collectors and historians around the globe.
Aston, Ross. “A Look at Queen Elizabeth's Most Beautiful Pieces of Jewellery.” Vogue Australia, 17 Dec. 2019, www.vogue.com.au/fashion/accessories/queen-elizabeth-iis-life-in-jewellery/image-gallery/5d6ff880a0d7958ee5f6488ca5e385ca.
Fasel, Marion. “Auction Highlights: Marie Antoinette's Jewelry.” The Adventurine, 2016, theadventurine.com/culture/jewelry-history/auction-highlights-marie-antoinettes-jewelry/.
Museum of London. “The Cheapside Hoard – Collection in Focus.” Museum of London, Museum of London, 9 Aug. 2019, www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/cheapside-hoard-collection-focus.
Peltason, Ruth. “Photos: Highlights from Elizabeth Taylor's Jewelry Auction at Christie's.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 15 May 2017, www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/photos/2011/11/elizabeth-taylor-jewels-slideshow-201111.
Redmond, Caroline. “Marie Antoinette's Lavish Jewels Will Be On Display For The First Time In 200 Years - And On Sale.” All That's Interesting, All That's Interesting, 4 Nov. 2018, allthatsinteresting.com/marie-antoinette-jewelry-collection.
Silverman, Leah. “Queen Elizabeth Wore the Vladimir Tiara With Emeralds to Tonight's Diplomatic Reception.” Town & Country, Town & Country, 11 Dec. 2019, www.townandcountrymag.com/style/jewelry-and-watches/g14504829/queen-elizabeth-jewels-crowns-tiaras/.
Weldon, Robert, and Cathleen Jonathan. “The Museum of London's Extraordinary Cheapside Hoard.” Gems & Gemology, www.gia.edu/gems-gemology/FA13-cheapside-hoard-weldon.
(Featured image source: Timeless Wedding Bands)