Yesterday, I attended the preview of Christie’s New York Magnificent Jewels sale (on which I will report in a separate post), which also had on display highlights from the upcoming Hong Kong and Geneva sales. Among the Geneva lots was the incredible Art Deco Cartier sautoir comprised of 14 splendid old-mine Colombian emeralds.
Reflecting on the sautoir today, I am reminded by another one of Cartier’s necklace masterpieces featuring prized emeralds: Merle Oberon’s emerald bead and diamond necklace by Cartier London, circa 1938. Sold by Geneva’s Antiquorum Auctioneers in November 1996 for more than $2.1 million, the legendary necklace became the headlining jewel of the magnificent sale, “The Magical Art of Cartier.”
Merle Oberon, known for her elegant taste and exquisite jewelry, rose to fame in 1933 when she played Anne Boleyn in “The Private Lie of Henry VII,” which served as the catalyst for what would become a brilliant and successful acting career for the British actress. At the height of her career, Oberon married the prominent producer Alexander Korda in 1939, who showered the exotic beauty with dazzling jewels. While her collection of jewelry included many superb pieces by Cartier, the most famous of all her jewels is the emerald bead and diamond necklace made by Cartier London.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, glamorous Hollywood-style jewelry was all the rage and Cartier aimed to create the most memorable and distinct pieces. With Indian and Oriental influences already in their repertoire of Art Deco designs, the revered jewelry house continued to produce such enduring jewels influenced by these motifs well into the 1940s. To give these exotic jewels a more authentic look, Cartier collected important emeralds from India as well as other Oriental gems throughout the first decade of the 20th century, which they would later incorporate in their designs of similarly respective inspiration.
The 29 emeralds used in Oberon’s necklace, the design of which being very exotic and unusual when compared to the popular designs of the period, are impressively-sized and baroque in shape. It is believed that emeralds of the same shape and size historically adorned regal maharajahs and mighty moguls, giving the piece a romanticized air of mystery and exoticism. In addition to the historic associations, whether true or not, the subtle graduation of the emerald drops and balance of the shapes are of particular note as together they suggest an elegance not usually seen in necklaces using similarly large stones. Another interesting design aspect of the necklace is its unusually rare construction, using diamond-set loop bails to rotate totally around the platinum from which they are suspended. The 360 degree movement of the bails allows the necklace to lay perfectly around the neck, gracefully adorning the sensual lines of a woman’s collar bone.
According to Antiquorum’s lot notes and AP reports, the necklace was made for Oberon in 1938; however, in the book “Hollywood Jewels” by Penny Proddow, Debra Healy and Marion Fasel, Oberon is quoted explaining to a reporter, who asked if it was designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, how she came to acquire the necklace:
“No, but she almost got it! I saw it in a Paris shop, and I went back a second time to look at it. The salesman said someone else was interested, but I only half believed him. The next time I went in, the necklace was not in the case. My mysterious rival had been looking at it in one of the little private rooms. Still I hesitated because the design was so exotic – so unlike the classic settings for precious stones. The next day I walked right by the shop, not intending to be tempted again, but Mme. Schiaparelli was just coming out. Instantly I knew why she had been there, and assumed she had the necklace right in her handbag. I must have looked my disappointment when I got back to the hotel, because Mr. Korda, in his direct way, put on his hat and went out. He walked across to the shop; the necklace was still there, and he bought it.” (p. 92)
At the time of its auction in 1996, this magnificent piece has been the most photographed Cartier necklace of all time. Whether this remains to be the case, there is no question that Merle Oberon’s Cartier necklace is one of the house’s most iconic and significant pieces of jewelry ever made.
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