Beyond Priceless: Wallis Simpson’s Jewellery Collection

The romance between King Edward VIII and the American divorcée Wallis Simpson stands out as one of the most captivating and controversial love stories of all time. The Duchess of Windsor’s jewellery collection is equally unparalleled. It boasts not only jewels personally selected by a king for the woman he abdicated the British throne for, but also showcases some of the most exquisite designs from renowned 20th century jewellers. 

Wallis Simpson’s jewelled flamingo brooch made by Cartier in 1940 / Alamy

Her impeccable taste in fashion and jewellery radiated glamour, cementing her status as an icon for designers both during and after her lifetime. As a prominent figure in high society, the Duchess of Windsor cultivated relationships with the elite of the fashion world. This resulted in numerous bespoke gowns crafted especially for her to showcase her jewels, by iconic designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior.

Never one to follow trends, her choice of engagement ring was less than conventional. The Duke of Windsor proposed with a dazzling 19.77ct emerald ring crafted by Cartier. Jacques Cartier reported that the gem was one of two stones cut from an emerald as large as a bird’s egg that once belonged to a Grand Mogul. It was also inscribed on the platinum shank with a hidden message “We are ours now 27 X 36”. The date was significant as it referred to the day, month, and year of the beginning of Simpson’s divorce proceedings from Ernest Simpson. These hidden messages became a recurring motif within the couple’s jewellery.

When the prime minister, the press, and the public learned about the king’s desire to marry an American woman soon to be twice divorced, it became a national crisis. The pressure was so intense, that the king decided to abdicate. In his radio address to the nation on December 11, 1936, he said, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” This decision changed the line of succession and ultimately saw Elizabeth II on the throne 17 years later.

The Duchess of Windsor wearing her Cartier emerald engagement ring, 1936 / Alamy

Among the Duchess of Windsor’s collection of jewellery were her iconic ‘Great Cat’ pieces commissioned from Cartier. Jewellery often communicates when words fall short. The leopard belongs to the Panthera genus, known as the Great Cats. What sets these cats apart is their unique ability to roar, rather than purr. One of her first “Great Cat” acquisitions was the sapphire and diamond panther brooch, crafted by Cartier in 1949. The majestic feline on this brooch is depicted in a lifelike crouch, as if poised to leap over the moon, adorned with a large, perfectly round cabochon star sapphire weighing 157.35 carats. Yet, it’s the legendary panther bracelet that holds a special place of honour in her collection. To this day, the bracelet boasts the world record for the most expensive bracelet ever sold at auction (£7.4 million in 2010) and it was even rumoured at the time that the buyer was Madonna.

Edward VIII showered the love of his life throughout their marriage with the finest jewels. Indeed, so obsessed was he with Wallis, he insisted the Duchess of Windsor’s collection of jewels be dismantled after her death. Edward VIII was determined that no other woman would ever wear them. However, the former King of England was not to have his way. In 1987, Around 1,000 bidders crowded into a huge tent erected by Sotheby’s next to Lake Geneva for the two-day sale. The Wallis Simpson Jewellery Collection consisted of 214 pieces and sold for the record price of $53.5 million. The Duchess of Windsor’s jewels were unique, not only because of the record prices they fetched but also since these pieces immortalise the most controversial love story of modern times.

By Lauren Boustridge, Senior Jewels & Timepieces Specialist

Top Image: The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson on their wedding day, 1937, Chateau de Cande, Monts, France / Alamy

May 2024