Saturday 25 March 2017

Diamonds are a girl's best friend

As the robbery of Kim Kardashian's €10million gems puts jewellery in the spotlight, our reporter talks to expert Judith Miller about our enduring love of bling

Elizabeth Taylor's jewellery collection sold at auction for €120million
Elizabeth Taylor's jewellery collection sold at auction for €120million
Audrey Hepburn sparkles in Breakfast at Tiffany's
The Duchess of Windsor's Cartier Flamingo brooch
Robbery victim Kim Kardashian
The Timur Ruby
The Hope Diamond
Judith Miller
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

The Antiques Roadshow is the cathedral of middle-class middle-England. Running since 1979, it pulls in sky-high ratings (4.2 million viewers at last count) and is, in itself, considered a "national treasure".

While the show purports to emanate nothing but comfort, culture, and toasted crumpets, most of us watch it for quite sadistic reasons. Namely to witness the acute heartbreak people experience when they hear that the ornate tin plate their great-great aunt Mary bestowed upon them is worth approximately - Ohhhh - 5p.

Their subsequent attempt to conceal any disappointment is even more compulsive.

"Five pence?" they say. "Well stone the crows! I thought it was only worth a penny myself - which is why I travelled 150 miles and queued for four and a half hours to get here.

Audrey Hepburn sparkles in Breakfast at Tiffany's
Audrey Hepburn sparkles in Breakfast at Tiffany's

"What a fabulous day out - now please excuse me while I punch myself in the face and drive all the way back to Skegness…"

Being the bearer of bad news is a tough task but Roadshow regular and antiques appraiser Judith Miller has perfected the art of letting people down, gently.

"I warn them by saying, 'I wouldn't book the cruise just yet' or stress that the piece is worth huge sentimental value."

Judith joined the Roadshow team in 2007 and has written over a hundred books on collectables. She is particularly fascinated with gems and has been dubbed the 'Martha Stuart of costume jewellery'.

Her latest contribution is the foreword to Jewel: A Celebration of Earth's Treasures - a heavy velveteen-bound coffee table read with thick glossy pages full of photographs of precious rocks and haute joaillerie. It's a must-have for magpies.

For someone who spends their life pouring over diamonds and priceless antiques, Judith is surprisingly down to earth. No stuffiness here.

Audrey Hepburn sparkles in Breakfast at Tiffany's
Audrey Hepburn sparkles in Breakfast at Tiffany's

"My parents were part of what we call 'the Formica Generation'," she says. "After the war they threw anything and everything old out. So I didn't grow up with antiques. I started collecting when I was in university - I think it's such a tangible link to the past."

The book is packed with fascinating nuggets of history and hearsay surrounding gems. I learnt that the 45ct Hope Diamond - owned by Marie Antoinette and tragic actress Evalyn Walsh McLean - carries a legendary curse.

That the Timur Ruby - a royal crown jewel - is not a ruby at all but a spinel.

That the Patiala Necklace contains some 2,930 diamonds and that there are seven Fabergé eggs still unaccounted for.

The day I interview Miller, news has just broken of Kim Kardashian's big bucks diamond robbery - giving the book a fresh pertinence.

"Poor Kim," Judith says. "I suppose that's the danger when everything is out there in the public domain. The Russian Tzarinas would never have worn pieces of that value in public places."

According to Judith, our love of shiny rocks goes right back to the days when we were living in caves and swinging clubs about the gaff.

"We've always been fascinated by the wonders beneath our feet and the fact that we can take something dull out of the earth and turn it into something of exceptional beauty," she says.

This transformative quality of stones may explain why crystals and gems are believed to have healing properties and why holy relics are encrusted with glittering gems.

I think the dazzling duality of rocks also captivates us. At one level, these hunks of rock are solid and adamantine (diamonds are used in industrial drilling), yet there is something so otherworldly about jewels.

Elizabeth Taylor summed it up perfectly when describing the $300,000 Krupp diamond Richard Burton gifted her. "It hums with its own beatific life," she said. "To me, the Krupp says: 'I want to share my chemistry, my magic, with you.'"

Thousands of people have flocked to catch a glimpse of Taylor's glimmering and glamourous collection.

"In those cases it's the celebrity, the fame and story behind the items that increases interest," Judith says.

It helps that the stories behind Taylor's collection are so decadent; she was once gifted a Cartier ruby bib by her husband Mike Todd for doing a few lengths in a swimming pool.

"I shrieked with joy," she later wrote. "I put my arms around Mike's neck, and pulled him into the pool after me. It was a perfect summer day".

There's another reason we love looking at A-listers' bling - at some level it makes them a bit more relatable. We attach high emotion and a degree of intimacy to jewellery - we buy pieces of the stuff at landmark occasions and inherit others at various stages of our lives. As a result, jewels tend to be bound up in our personal and family history.

Seeing an item that would have had the same emotional resonance with a celebrity gives us a sense of closeness to them.

Movie stars' jewellery is an area Judith is well versed in; possessing an impressive collection of pieces from jeweller-to-the-stars Eugene Joseff, aka Joseff of Hollywood.

Joseff was responsible for decking out all of Hollywood's leading ladies during cinema's golden age. He has pieces in Gone with the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Cleopatra, and My Fair Lady.

But this new book focuses less on celebrities, giving the gems and jewels themselves centre stage.

"I think we always have loved looking at gems, whether it's a Tutti Frutti necklace or a tiara, or a lapis lazuli or a moon pin broach. We're drawn to them."

While this is partly because of the glint and glimmer, it's also how we feel when wearing them. "I always think of the pieces a Tzarina would wear - a diamond necklace at a candlelight dinner," Judith says.

"Those facet-cut diamonds would have reflected the glow of the candle and lit up their faces, and made them sparkle." And, let's face it, we all need a little bit of sparkle in our lives.

'Jewel: A Celebration of Earth's Treasures', with foreword by Judith Miller, is published by DK at €30

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