In the bustling heart of New York City, 1912 marked the birth of a jewellery legend, Barbara Hutton, forever remembered as the “Million Dollar Baby.” She was the cherished only child of Edna Woolworth and the illustrious granddaughter of Frank W. Woolworth, the iconic retail tycoon. Her life story would unfurl as a captivating narrative of immense wealth, a string of seven marriages, and a legendary jewellery collection that continues to captivate us today.
On Barbara’s 21st birthday, her inheritance stood at a staggering $42 million, an astronomical sum that, when translated to today’s currency, would equate to nearly 2 billion dollars. This wealth granted her access to a world of opulence and luxury that was beyond the wildest dreams of most.
Her jewellery collection was an unparalleled treasure trove of unique, commissioned masterpieces by the most sought-after jewellers including Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Yet, her passion transcended the confines of high-end jewellery; she held a particular fascination for royal and noble jewels.
Among the jewels of nobility in her collection were the Grand Duchess Vladimir’s emeralds, an extraordinary set of stones that she entrusted to Cartier for a stunning 1947 transformation into an Indian-inspired tiara. The resulting creation was nothing short of breathtaking. Cecil Beaton, the famous photographer, immortalised her in an iconic image where she wore this tiara alongside the Pasha diamond, once owned by King Farouk. However, as circumstances would have it, the tiara later changed hands as Barbara endeavoured to finance one of her divorces. Van Cleef & Arpels took possession of the tiara, recognising the extraordinary value of the emeralds. They were subsequently sold individually, with some eventually becoming part of the iconic emerald necklace worn by Elizabeth Taylor.
During her marriage to Prince Alexis Mdivani in June 1933, Barbara’s father gifted her an extraordinary single-strand natural pearl necklace, believed to have once graced the neck of Marie Antoinette. Barbara held this necklace dear, often running the French Queen’s pearls through her fingers. It found a new home in 1993 when it was auctioned at Christie’s, fetching an astonishing 2,203,500 Swiss Francs.
Another gift from the same marriage would come to be known as the most iconic piece of jadeite jewellery in history; the Hutton-Mdivani Jadeite Necklace. Dating back to the late Qing period and comprised of 27 beads with magnificent green hues and exceptional translucency, this necklace was a masterpiece without equal. In 2014, it left the world awe-struck by setting records at auction, selling for over 27 million US dollars. The necklace found a fitting residence in the Cartier Collection, an acknowledgment of its breathtaking beauty and historical importance.
Barbara Hutton’s jewellery collection was more than just a display of wealth; it reflected her impeccable taste, style, and the extraordinary life she led. Each piece held a story – of opulence, love, and an unyielding quest for beauty.
Our Important Jewels Auction takes place on Tuesday 5 December at 6pm in Sydney. For viewing times and to see the full catalogue please visit our website.
LAUREN BOUSTRIDGE / Senior Jewels Specialist, Sydney
Banner Image (Detail): Barbara Hutton and Robert Sweeney, Palm Beach, 1940 / Alamy