Jewelry In Focus

Clive Kandel Reveals the True Story of the Hutton-Mdivani Cartier Jadeite Necklace

Hutton-Mdivani Jade Necklace Story Cover

A guest post by Clive Kandel, a Cartier and 20th century jewelry historian and 1stdibs Fine Jewelry Curator

The sale of the Barbara Hutton Mdivani Cartier Jade Necklace for $27.44 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong to the Cartier Collection and the passing of so many years has jogged my memory about the sad and mysterious circumstances of this famed strand of jade beads.

Barbara Hutton Princess Mdivani arriving at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, in 1933, wearing her jade bead necklace.

Barbara Hutton Princess Mdivani arriving at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, in 1933, wearing her jade bead necklace.

Princess Nina Mdivani, Barbara Hutton’s sister-in-law, was married to Denis Conan Doyle, son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes escapades. The Conan Doyle fortune, derived from royalties, was similar to that of today’s authors such as Danielle Steele and Stephen King, the difference being that the Sherlock Holmes stories are still being read and filmed over 100 years later. Huge amounts of revenue flowed into the family trust funds and continue to do so to this day. This is where one of the marrying Mdivanis enters the scene. Nina was perhaps the least attractive of the famous Russian clan. Denis Conan Doyle married Princess Nina Mdivani in 1936. A year earlier, Barbara Hutton had divorced Nina’s brother Prince Alexis, but during that brief marriage, Nina and Barbara developed a very close friendship. It was not difficult to be Barbara Hutton’s friend in those early years. Hutton was lonely and Nina had a very shrewd and determined lust for cash and jewels. It was a perfect mise-en-scène; the experienced Russian refugee and the gullible spoilt richest girl in the world. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could not have played this out so well. It was a bond that lasted until the tragic death of Barbara Hutton in 1979.

Dennis Conan Doyle and Nina Conan Doyle Princess Mdivani arrive in New York on the Cunard liner Aquitania January 1937

Denis Conan Doyle and Nina Conan Doyle Princess Mdivani arrive in New York on the Cunard liner Aquitania January 1937
Image Clive Kandel Collection

Nina Mdivani would accompany Barbara Hutton on her shopping trips to Cartier. The game that she would play was that of “one for you and two for me”, and the Poor Little Rich Girl was just too happy to oblige. Nina was fun and it was all kept in the family, as they say.

Princess Nina Mdivani had a very rich husband in Conan Doyle and an even richer best friend in Barbara Hutton. However, the Conan Doyle fortune had to be shared amongst Denis’ siblings. I do not think Nina liked sharing; in fact later on in her life that became her tragedy. During the late 1930’s, Hutton lived in grand style in London, as did Nina. Hutton, now an ex-Princess having become a Countess, remained faithful, loyal and very generous to her ex sister-in-law. Many Cartier jewels that have appeared as having been owned by Barbara Hutton were given as gifts to Princess Nina Mdivani. One can imagine how the scheming Nina saw her future paved with Hutton gold and diamonds.

Cartier Paris Diamond Palm Tree Brooch<br />Provenance Princess Nina Mdivani, Clive Kandel Collection

Cartier Paris Diamond Palm Tree Brooch
Provenance Princess Nina Mdivani, Clive Kandel Collection

Denis Conan Doyle practiced and preached spiritualism, and both Nina and Denis Conan Doyle traveled the world accompanied by Denis’s very handsome secretary, Tony Harwood, of Eastern Seaboard Blue Blood stock. Tony was tall, mysterious, well educated and secretively gay. Seduced by the glamor of Nina and Barbara Hutton, Tony developed a taste for the finer life, and both he and his employer’s wife were such best friends that when Denis suddenly died on a trip to India in 1955, they married soon after. During the 1950s and 1960s, Nina fought for more control of the Conan Doyle fortune and succeeded in buying back the family shares with the help of a brilliant publisher and a very willing bank that was more than impressed with Nina’s association with Barbara Hutton. These were Nina’s golden years. She could now spend like Barbara Hutton. Nina ordered from H.J. Mulliner a coach-built white Silver Wraith Limousine de Ville Rolls Royce, in which the chauffeur sat exposed whilst his Princess was driven around the finest European cities. Nina and Tony traveled extravagantly, staying in the finest hotels. The Rolls Royce would be either waiting outside a London or Paris Ritz or Cartier rue de la Paix or New Bond Street. Nina’s race with her ex-sister in-law, however, was slowly emptying her coffers and the easily impressed bank was not being repaid.

Princess Nina Mdivani and her husband Denis Conan Doyle London 1936

Princess Nina Mdivani and her husband Denis Conan Doyle London 1936
Copyright Yevonde Portrait Archive

I can imagine the phone calls in Nina’s seductive deep accent: “Barbara darling, is Nina, I love to see you”. Barbara Hutton, ever generous and wanting to please, would order gifts for Nina from Cartier Paris until the 1960s.

About 1973, fantastic Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry was offered anonymously in a London auction room, only to be withdrawn an hour before the auction was scheduled. The groan of the London jewelry dealers was loud. It happened again and again. Shortly after, by sheer good fortune, I met Princess Nina Mdivani’s godson, who enlightened me to the reason for this mystery. Some of Nina’s jewels were being held as security against loans and Barbara Hutton would rescue her at the last moment, thereby rendering the auction house bare of those amazing jewels. I found myself as a young jewelry dealer in the right place at the right time with the right newfound friend.

Cartier Paris 'Tutti Frutti' Creole Earclips  Provenance Princess Nina Mdivani, Clive Kandel Collection

Cartier Paris ‘Tutti Frutti’ Creole Earclips
Provenance Princess Nina Mdivani, Clive Kandel Collection

Sadly, Barbara Hutton was addicted to alcohol and drugs and was aging in an horrendous way. Nina’s Tony unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack in January 1976, whilst Nina herself was now a grey haired, nearly blind, overweight woman clinging to her past. London in the early 1970s was not the best place to be. Oil crises, inflation and left-wing governments assured equal misery regardless.

Perhaps it was her tough Russian background and determination that fooled her into trying to cling to her possessions whilst her living circumstances deteriorated. As many people of Nina’s generation were forced to do during those bleak years, she slowly sold her jewels piece by piece to keep herself in a style to which she was accustomed, although never revealing what jewels she was desperate to keep. I have seen this happen several times and it becomes a losing battle as one ages. No longer able to travel, her vast wardrobe of crowned monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks lay in storage, never to see the light of day until years after her death in 1987. The Rolls Royce as well as other trappings of a glamorous past had long been sold off.

A Cartier handbag commissioned in 1961 by Barbara Hutton for Princess Nina Mdivani. The handbag features the initials of Nina Mdivani and is now part of the Cartier Museum Collection.<br />Photo courtesy of Cartier

A Cartier handbag commissioned in 1961 by Barbara Hutton for Princess Nina Mdivani. The handbag features the initials of Nina Mdivani and is now part of the Cartier Museum Collection.
Photo courtesy of Cartier

Her fashionable Mayfair doctor, Gordon Atkinson, who was my doctor as well, tried to take care of her as her health and vision deteriorated, despite his mounting unpaid bills. Finally, out of exasperation, Dr. Atkinson told her that if she could not pay his fees she would have to apply for the British equivalent of Medicaid. Gordon was the most direct doctor I have ever met. I know that this was the final ignominy for Princess Nina Mdivani. Too proud to be considered poor, she became bedridden and alone for the last days of her life. Unbeknownst to the world, Nina died with a close kept secret. The Barbara Hutton-Mdivani Cartier Jade Necklace that sold April 7th, 2014 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $27.44 million to the Cartier Museum Collection was found hidden under her bed.

Sotheby's HK_The Hutton-Mdivani Necklace (2)

The Hutton-Mdivani Cartier Jadeite Bead Necklace sold for $27.44 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong and was purchased by the Cartier Museum Collection.
Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

This is a true story. Many years ago, a wise friend told me that if you live long enough you can see the whole world go by. Hopefully, I have much more to see and remember.

Copyright © Clive Kandel 2014

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Richard Hughes
    April 10, 2014 at 7:00 am

    Great piece, Clive. I love to read the stories behind the jewels. Thanks so much, Nathalie, for making this available.

  • Reply
    a.pierce
    April 10, 2014 at 11:30 am

    loved the story//do tell the hutton story please

  • Reply
    Georgia Donaldson
    April 10, 2014 at 11:41 am

    What a story!!!! Loved reading it.

  • Reply
    Tony de Gandarillas
    April 10, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Beautiful necklace, wonderful story, great reading about the “marrying Mdivanis”

  • Reply
    Hilary Heard Gurley
    April 10, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Under the bed?!?! That is magnificent!!!! Please somebody make a new, fabulous “Poor Little Rich Girl” movie and include this story. I see Gwyneth Paltrow playing Barbara, and Kate Winslet as Nina!

    • Reply
      Clive Kandel
      April 11, 2014 at 1:29 pm

      Many thanks Hilary. I think one should always check under the bed – in fact any bed.
      Best,
      Clive Kandel

      • Reply
        gabrielle Choo
        May 6, 2014 at 11:46 pm

        Clive Kandel …… This is WONDERFUL !!!!!!!
        VERY IMPRESSIVE writing !!!!!

    • Reply
      Victoria Paget
      April 11, 2014 at 6:20 pm

      I feel as though Clive Kandel has woven a Cartier magic carpet that’s carried me off into a glamorous past!

  • Reply
    Paula Marglin
    April 11, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Your terrific “backstory” has really brought this stunning necklace to life. Please keep writing and sharing
    the memories you have of amazing jewels and their histories.

  • Reply
    Diana Singer
    April 11, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    Have never heard this amazing story before. Thank you, Clive Kandel, for sharing these amazing Cartier recollections with us.

  • Reply
    Isabelle Kellogg, Kellogg & Partners
    April 12, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Clive Kandel has the perfect mix of history, intrigue, social commentary and wit.

  • Reply
    gabrielle Choo
    May 6, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    AS USUAL Clive Kandel NEVER DISAPPOINTS ….and amazing read and interesting facts & photos !!!!
    GREAT Job dear CLIVE !!!!!!!!

  • Reply
    TEdward Y
    August 11, 2014 at 8:57 am

    I’m curious – was Barbara Hutton related to the Long Island Hutton’s. I knew the son of EF Hutton, William E & his wife Joan.

  • Reply
    Happy Friday | De Petites Merveilles
    October 10, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    […] I just came across this fascinating story about one of the more famous jewels worn by Barbara Hutton who was once dubbed the Poor Little Rich girl.  Read all about the necklace in this wonderful post. […]

  • Reply
    livia
    November 3, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    could you please recommend books on jewellery private stories?

  • Reply
    Peter
    December 3, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    How did it leave Asia? Who was the previous owner before Frank Hutton? How was it ontained?

  • Reply
    elaina polidori
    February 28, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Loved reading the great story’s
    Love Elaina

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