For many, the Duchess of Windsor has become synonymous with exquisite jewels. Long before Dame Elizabeth Taylor was amassing her treasure trove, Wallis was busy building a collection that would enchant the world for decades. Whilst it is true that many of her jewels came to her in the form of romantic gifts from the Prince of Wales, Wallis had been an avid collector of jewellery long before she began her liaison with him. She was not opposed to paste (simulated gemstones) provided that the setting was tasteful and she had a special fondness for pieces in the shape of animals, birds, flowers or even fruits.
But the most famous items from her collection are naturally those given to her by her future husband. The Prince of Wales enjoyed giving Wallis gifts of jewellery just as much as she enjoyed receiving them. For this first glimpse into her jewel case, I’ve chosen the Cartier Nine Cross Charm Bracelet which is perhaps the most important piece Wallis owned but also, her favourite.
Throughout his life, David (as the Prince, King and later Duke was called by his family) had a keen eye for designing jewellery and was adept at incorporating intimate sentiments into the pieces he commissioned. In 1934, his relationship with Wallis now a serious one, David gifted her a bracelet that would come to serve as a means of private communication between the couple. Crafted by Cartier, the concept behind the charm bracelet took it’s inspiration from a pendant the Prince himself wore of a simple gold latin cross hanging from a gold chain.
Lady Diana Cooper, the actress, writer and close friend of the Prince of Wales, joined David and Wallis on their cruise of the Adriatic Sea aboard Lady Yule’s yacht, the Nahlin, in 1936. She made special reference to the matching pieces in a letter to Conrad Russell, the British historian and politician, after Wallis was photographed wearing the bracelet for the first time by paparazzi following them during the Nahlin’s tour of the Dalmatian Coast. Cooper felt that the jewels were an outward sign of strong bond that could never be broken.
Wallis’ bracelet is a platinum chain bracelet with 22 circular- and brilliant-cut diamonds with a navette-shaped clasp. Though not uniform in their spacing, the bracelet has nine Latin crosses suspended from it. The first is cast in platinum and is engraved (in David’s handwriting); WE are too, 25-XI-34. WE refers to the discrete abbreviation of their names which the couple adopted at a time when they could not be public in their affections, even among their closest friends or family. “Are too” is believed to refer to the impending marriage of David’s brother George to Princess Marina of Greece of Denmark. The message can be deciphered as, “Wallis and Edward are in love too from this date in 1934”.
The next charm came from the Prince of Wales on his 41st birthday. It is set with calibré-cut sapphires with an inscription that reads; Wallis – David, 23-6-35. Wallis now took up the idea of giving charms as gifts herself and asked Cartier to make a similar cross (set with rubies) with the inscription; David – Wallis, 23-6-35. He added the charm to his gold pendant and, clearly pleased that Wallis was enjoying this intimate exchange of charms, commissioned another from Cartier almost immediately. This time, he intended to give Wallis the gift during their summer holiday. The two month vacation took in Cannes, Paris, Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg with a special stop off at a small town in the Salzkammergut of Upper Austria called St Wolfgang.
It was here that David presented Wallis with the next charm. Set with calibré-cut rubies, it is unclear as to why St Wolfgang was so special a place to the Prince who had clearly intended to gift the cross there from the outset of their trip. But having visited St Wolfgang myself, I can see the romantic appeal for a Prince in love. Located on the northern shore of the Wolfgangsee, tucked into the foot of the Shafberg mountain, it is a beautiful town with picturesque views but also has a distinct feel of seclusion and privacy to it when compared to Salzburg itself. Authors of the Windsor romance have proposed that it was here in St Wolfgang that the Prince first determined his intention to marry Wallis and perhaps this is why David chose such a stunning location to give his gift.
The cryptic inscription on the next charm has two possible origin stories. Set with baguette diamonds, it marks the first charm given after David had become King (though it was not the first piece of jewellery she received following his accession). One theory is that David was by now so-obsessed with Wallis that she took a private trip to Paris with friends so as to allow herself some respite from the anxiety of her situation. Her marriage to Ernest was now in tatters and the King was calling her almost four times a day to check on her progress abroad. Wallis is said to have slammed the telephone down and refused to take any further calls. Another story goes that when Wallis refused to return at his request, the King slammed the telephone down on Wallis. The diamond cross charm is therefore inscribed; The Kings Cross God bless WE 1-3-36.
However, there is another origin story to the ‘Kings Cross’ charm which comes from the politician and diarist, Chips Channon. Channon was a friend to both the King and Wallis, indeed, Wallis often spoke openly about the difficulties of her situation to Channon in a way she couldn’t to others. According to Chips, so well known had Wallis become in London that when she hailed a taxi and said “Kings Cross” (referring to the train station), the taxi driver replied, “I’m sorry lady”. When she relayed the story to the King at Balmoral, he is said to have roared with laughter and immortalised the joke in a gift from Cartier. Whatever it’s symbolism, the diamond cross marked the first of three charms Wallis would receive in 1936.
The following two charms had strange inspirations. The first came on the 10th July 1936 and is called the X Ray Cross. Set with calibré-cut emeralds, it appears to be an attempt on the part of the King to cheer Wallis after weeks of ill health. She had been subjected to head to toe x-rays to try and find the source of her digestive problems which were said to relate to ulcers from which she had long suffered. No doubt exacerbated by the stress of her situation, the King also became deeply concerned that Wallis may be facing serious health problems and chose to express his relief that she was not in the form of a charm.
Just six days later, Wallis received another charm with bizarre connotations. George McMahon, also known as Jerome Bannigan, was a dangerous fantasist who had spent many months making allegations of various plots and conspiracies to the police. He even claimed to have knowledge of an assassination attempt that was being planned against the life of the King. Following the Trooping of the Colour ceremony on the 16th July 1936 to celebrate his birthday, David was riding through Hyde Park on his way back to Buckingham Palace when McMahon produced a revolver. The weapon was wrestled from him before he could take a shot.
The King decided to commemorate this bizarre incident in glitter. Cartier produced another cross, this time set with calibré-cut aquamarines with the inscription; God Save the King for Wallis. 16. VII .36. This date is also interesting as, by now, the King and Ernest Simpson had come to an agreement that Ernest would allow Wallis to divorce him in order for the King to take Wallis as his bride. 5 days later, Ernest would check in the Hotel de Paris in Bray with another woman in order to give Wallis grounds for legal separation. 7 days later, following the advice of her lawyers, Wallis wrote the letter informing Ernest that she would be filing for divorce. The God Save the King for Wallis inscription is therefore a clear indication that within 6 months of his accession, the King had already made up his mind to make Wallis his Queen.
His plan failed. His abdication on the 10th December 1936 sealed the Windsors’ fate as exiles but at least the pair could now look forward to their marriage. For this, the most important date in David’s life, he commissioned a very special cross charm from Cartier. Following the same pattern of six calibré-cut stones to the charm, this was comprised of sapphires and emeralds with a ruby just below the central stone; a baguette diamond. It is inscribed; Our marriage Cross Wallis. 3.VI.37. David. On their wedding day, David also wore his latin cross pendant which now held three almost identical charms to those featured on Wallis’ bracelet; the original gold, the ruby (given in 1935) and the sapphire (given in St Wolfgang in the same year).
Though Wallis had taken to wearing the bracelet every day, photographs of her wearing the item are rare before her marriage – possibly not wishing to risk too many questions about the sentiment of each charm. On her wedding day however, the bracelet takes pride of place on her right wrist and after this time, the piece was never hidden from public view again. Though the Duke of Windsor (as he now was) continued to commission various jewelers to make important pieces for Wallis following his abdication, the Cartier charm remained in it’s seven cross form for the next eight years.
It is possible that the expenditure required following his abdication made such lavish gifts impossible for a time. Whilst he had been given a financial settlement as part of the agreement made during the planning of his abdication, David had kept his true wealth a secret from everybody involved – including Wallis. Wallis was petrified of poverty and throughout her life fought for financial security in case she found herself alone. But both she and the Duke had expensive taste and in setting up their new home together in Paris, the couple had also decided to rent the Château de la Croë on the Cap d’Antibes peninsula of the Côte d’Azur. All this came at an enormous cost and possibly left little remaining for extravagant gifts of jewellery.
In 1944 however, the Duke added two final charms to the bracelet in quick succession. The first came in August and was inscribed Appendectomy Cross, 31.VIII.44, the Duchess having undergone surgery at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York City during her husband’s tenure as Governor of the Bahamas. The Appendectomy Cross, set with six calibré-cut amethysts, appears to have been a twin with a Get Well Soon cross following a week later. The Get Well Soon cross is dated Sept.44 and is set with yellow sapphires. These final additions brought the grand total of charms to nine and though the Windsors marriage would last until the Duke’s death in 1972, no further additions were made to the piece.
Following the Duchess’ death in 1986, the Cartier charm bracelet was sold at Sotheby’s in 1987 and purchased by the Syrian-Saudi financier, Wafic Said. He is said to have purchased a further 19 pieces from the sale of the Duchess’ jewellery. By 2010 however, the bracelet returned to Sotheby’s to be sold once again. This time, it sold for £600,000 to an unknown collector. Almost immediately, journalists began hunting for the new owner and settled on an interesting theory. They believed the new owner was none other than singer and actress Madonna.
Madonna was working on the 2011 motion picture W.E, her personal fascination with the Windsor romance having been well publicized. So determined was she to ensure the film was accurate in every detail, she commissioned Cartier to make reproductions of some of Wallis’ most iconic jewels – including the Nine Cross charm bracelet. The replicas were worn by Andrea Riseborough who portrayed the Duchess in the film but Madonna’s intention was to keep the pieces for herself after shooting had concluded. Cartier refused, insisting that the pieces be returned and dismantled after the filming was complete. One of Madonna’s favourite pieces was the Nine Cross charm bracelet but during scenes shot in the Mediterranean, the replica was lost in the sea and another had to be created for future scenes.
During the promotion of W.E, Madonna was pictured several times wearing what appeared to be the Nine Cross Charm bracelet. Cartier later confirmed that it had dismantled the second replica and made a new bracelet based on the original design for Madonna to add to her own jewellery collection but made clear that the piece worn by Madonna in public was neither the original bracelet owned by the Duchess or either of the two replicas Cartier made for the movie. The press accepted that Madonna had not been the lucky buyer at the 2010 Sotheby’s auction and the identity of Wallis’ favourite piece remains a mystery. Whilst other replicas have been offered by high street stores for years, none can ever be invested with the sentiment of the roller-coaster romance which cost a King his crown.