Amongst aficionados of precious gems, the collection owned by the Duchess of Windsor is the Holy Grail of jewelry. Created in collaboration with some of the great European jewelry houses, her brooches, cuffs, bracelets and necklaces are said to represent some of the most avant-garde work by the leading design talents of the time (in particular, those pieces by Jeanne Toussaint, Cartier’s High Jewelry Director). And, more importantly, this is jewelry as it should be: pieces that commemorate moments in her life, most significantly her relationship with King Edward VIII. When the collection was sold at Sotheby’s Geneva in 1987 it was, and remains, the most valuable single-owner jewelry collection ever sold. The modern equivalent might be the record-breaking auction of Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Berge’s art, but that collection lacked the narrative of a love story and the intimate inscriptions of “Wallis, Love David”. As 20 of the original lots are about to be sold once again at Sotheby’s London on November 30, we look at the highlights and explain the sentimental value that will fuel the bidding to an estimated total of £3 million.

The Highlights

A heart-shaped emerald, ruby and diamond brooch by Cartier applied with the initials W.E. (Wallis, Edward) was commissioned by the Duke in 1957 to mark their 20th wedding anniversary.

A jewel of great personal significance is the Duchess of Windsor’s favorite diamond bracelet by Cartier which supports nine gem-set Latin crosses, each representing special moments of her life during the years 1934-44. One cross was inscribed for the marriage (“Our Marriage Cross Wallis 3-V-37 David”); another was a reminder of an assassination attempt against the King (“God save the King for Wallis 16.VII.36”).

With the Duke’s encouragement, the creative genius Jeanne Toussaint, Cartier’s High Jewellery Director, produced some of her most extraordinary work, among them a realistic onyx and diamond panther bracelet designed in 1952 – perhaps the finest among her three-dimensional “great cats” jewels.

A further testament to the admiration of the Duke and the Duchess for Jeanne
Toussaint’s avant-garde designs is found in a splendid flamingo brooch, ablaze with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, citrines and diamonds, bought by the Duchess in 1940. Through the 1987 sale, this brooch caught the imagination of the world and became the emblem of the sale.

One of the most interesting pieces from a historical point of view is the gold cigarette case inscribed “David from Wallis, Christmas 1935”. On the lid is a map of Europe which shows the three holiday voyages they made together during 1934-6,. It’s a typical example of how they used jewelry to commemorate their relationship and particularly poignant because on the 1936 voyage Kind Edward VIII made the historical decision to abdicate and marry Wallis.

The 1947 Cartier Gold and Diamond Necessaire Du Soir may have been a 10th wedding anniversary gift from the Duke of Windsor to his Duchess given the dated inscription. The Duchess wore this evening bag at White House dinner with President Nixon in 1970.

According to the archives of Van Cleef & Arpels, New York, this 1942 purse was purchased in 1943 by Mrs Jane Donahue, a Woolworth heiress who was an intimate friend of the Duchess of Windsor. Several items were to be found in the Duchess of Windsor's collection that were located in the Van Cleef archives as being purchased by Mrs James Donahue; most were by Van Cleef & Arpels and were all purchased in November or December – they are therefore assumed to be Christmas presents to the Duchess either from Mrs Donahue or her son.