When we think of the Duchess of Windsor and her extravagant collection of jewels, most of us are immediately drawn to her fabulous flamingo brooch with its ruby, emerald and sapphire feathers or her striking amethyst, diamond and turquoise bib. But among these elaborate and quirky pieces are more classic items which we usually associate with royalty. One such item in the Duchess’ jewellery box stands out for precisely this reason. Wallis’ two-strand pearl necklace with diamond and pearl drop pendant has a royal provenance which perhaps makes it the most fascinating item she owned. Naturally it stands out for its rare beauty, but it carries with it a story which reveals the truth about the relationship between the Duchess of Windsor and her imperious mother-in-law, Queen Mary.
Queen Mary’s encounters with Wallis were brief and unremarkable, only gaining significance following the dramatic events of 1936. Wallis met Queen Mary only twice, they corresponded just once. Their first brief encounter took place on the 10th June 1931 at Buckingham Palace. At this time, there was no hint of the future role Wallis would come to play in Queen Mary’s life. The Simpsons had been on the fringes of London society but now they were to be pushed further into the maelstrom when friends of Wallis proposed that she should be presented at court. Ernest Simpson was not a wealthy man and a presentation came at a cost; a new white gown with train, white feathers and of course, a tiara. The necessary kit for her Palace debut was therefore borrowed from Thelma Furness and Connie Thaw, both close friends of Wallis, and despite her reluctance, the presentation went off without a hitch. Well. Almost.
At the presentation, Wallis overheard the Prince of Wales say to the Duke of Connaught; “Uncle Arthur, something ought to be done about the lights. They make all the women look ghastly”. When Wallis met the Prince (their second meeting) at a party given by Thelma Furness later that evening, he spoke admiringly of her gown.
“But Sir”, I responded with a straight face, “I understood that you thought we all looked ghastly?”
He was startled. Then he smiled. “I had no idea my voice carried so far”The Duchess of Windsor, The Heart Has It’s Reasons
The Prince was impressed by Wallis’ candour and forthright attitude. So began his keen interest in her. Her meeting with Queen Mary that same day was dull by comparison. Wallis simply curtsied to her future mother-in-law who was seated on a dais alongside the King with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Connaught standing at each side. There was no opportunity for a face to face introduction and it wasn’t until 1934 (by which time the relationship between the Prince of Wales and Wallis had become much more intense) that Wallis would have the chance to speak to the Queen directly.
Prince George, (later Duke of Kent), had come to count Wallis and Ernest among his circle of his friends and though he was concerned about his brother’s interest in Wallis, Prince George liked her. She had stopped David drinking too much and attending late night parties. He seemed content and more stable than ever before. The King and Queen did not share their son’s enthusiasm. By now, they knew of Wallis’ position within the Prince’s life and sought to discourage it. In 1934, Prince George was to marry the beautiful Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark and naturally, the Prince of Wales wished to add Wallis to the list of guests. The King refused. Prince George vouched for the Simpsons, asserting that they were his close friends too and that nothing could be more appropriate than for them to attend his wedding celebrations. The King gave in.
Wallis was hardly inconspicuous. At a ball held at Buckingham Palace two days before the wedding ceremony, Wallis was introduced to the King and Queen by the Prince of Wales. “David led me over to where they were standing”, Wallis recalled, “It was the briefest of encounters – a few words of perfunctory greeting, an exchange of meaningless pleasantries, and we moved away. But I was impressed with Their Majesties’ great gift for making everyone they met, however casually, feel at ease in their presence”.
Queen Mary was less than impressed with Wallis whose bold gown made her stand out in the crowd. She was further displeased when Prince Christopher of Greece, the bride’s uncle, gave her a glowing report of Wallis whom he thought “very charming”. Two years later, the Queen could ignore Wallis no longer. The Prince of Wales was now King and Wallis, his intended. When the King told his mother that he wished to marry Wallis, Queen Mary replied, “That is quite out of the question”.
Queen Mary refused ever to receive her daughter-in-law following David and Wallis’ marriage in 1937. But though the relationship remained mostly frosty, there were glimpses of a thaw. In 1944, Wallis wrote to Queen Mary for the first and last time, having noticed how painful it was for David that communication had broken down. The pair had not corresponded for some time and David (now Duke of Windsor) was deeply depressed by his mother’s coldness toward him. Wallis wrote; “It has always been a source of sorrow and regret to me that I have been the cause of any separation that exists between mother and son and I can’t help feeling that there must be moments when you wonder how David is”.
Wallis begged the Queen to meet with the Bishop of Nassau who was on a short trip to England to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury so that he could update her on David’s progress as the Governor of the Bahamas. Queen Mary agreed. Though she did not write to Wallis directly, she dispatched a letter to David with the cryptic and uncharacteristic post-script; “I send a kind message to your wife”. This royal nod of acknowledgment to her daughter in law was repeated in February 1953 when Wallis was undergoing emergency surgery. In a letter to David, Queen Mary said, “I feel so sorry for your great anxiety about your wife”. It was hardly the reconciliation the Duke had hoped for but Queen Mary had one more gesture in store which must have taken the Windsors completely by surprise. In 1952, Queen Mary sent a gift to her a daughter-in-law; a pearl necklace from her own collection.
Until now, the pearl necklace in question has led to confusion among those who have studied the Duchess of Windsor with various accounts of how she acquired it. For some time, the most accepted version has been that Queen Mary bequeathed the pearls to her son in her will in 1953. However, Wallis was first pictured wearing the pearl necklace on the 2nd May 1952 when she sat for a series of photographs by Dorothy Wilding. Queen Mary died in 1953 but Wallis is not pictured wearing the pearls before May 1952. With the death of King George VI earlier that year, it is possible that a grieving Queen Mary attempted to make amends with her eldest son in exile. Determined never to receive his wife, perhaps this was her one last attempt to heal the rift that had tortured them both in previous years?
This sounds a reasonable explanation, however, the Duchess herself muddied the waters when it came to the origin story of the pearls. Princess Ghislaine de Polignac, the French socialite who married Prince Edmond de Polignac in 1939, was a long-time friend of the Windsors and in later years gave several interviews to authors eager to tell Wallis’ tale. In one such interview, the Princess recounted a story from a dinner party at which a fellow guest complemented the Duchess of Windsor on the pearls she was wearing.
“Oh yes”, replied Wallis nonchalantly, “The Duke inherited them from his mother”.
Perhaps this was what Wallis wanted her guests to believe? She may have feared “A Royal Reconciliation” story appearing in the press which would have raked up old bitterness at a time when the Windsors were enjoying a period of calm and stability. Or perhaps she was referring to an earlier gift directly from mother to son? It is possible that the pearls may have been given well before 1952 but Wallis would undoubtedly have worn them had they been in her possession by then. To add to the confusion, there are differing accounts as to how Queen Mary acquired the pearls to begin with.
According to Diana Mosley, the Princess de Polignac referred to the necklace in another telling of the dinner party anecdote as “[Wallis’] Russian pearls”. This seems to have set a few authors on the wrong track when trying to source the origin of Queen Mary’s gift. In at least two biographies which refer to this inheritance, it is suggested that the necklace once belonged to the of Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia. The photograph below is offered as proof of this. Queen Mary acquired several items of jewellery from the Dowager Empress following Marie Feodorovna’s death in 1928. These included a sapphire and pearl choker (now worn frequently by the Princess Royal) and a sapphire, pearl and diamond brooch (now worn by Queen Elizabeth II).
In a 1930 portrait by the artist David Jagger, Queen Mary is depicted wearing a simple pearl choker which does appear similar to the pearl necklace worn by both Marie Feodorovna and then later, by the Duchess of Windsor. But as impressive a pedigree as this would undoubtedly be, it is unclear as to whether the necklace worn by Queen Mary in the Jagger portrait is in fact the necklace the Duchess of Windsor later came to own. What is clear, is that the necklace in the portrait, whilst admittedly a potential match, has no connection to Marie Feodorovna. In fact, it was commissioned from Cartier as a gift for Queen Mary by King George V in 1926 – two years before the death of the Dowager Empress. The necklace is therefore an original Cartier creation.
Diana Mosley further clouded the picture concerning the inheritance of the Cartier necklace when she suggested that it was actually left to the Princess Royal (Princess Mary, the Duke’s sister) who felt badly that Queen Mary had made no provision for David and his wife when it came to her collection of jewels in her will. A guilty Princess Mary is said to have gifted the pearls to David so that he in turn could present them to Wallis. But again, as the pearls appear before Queen Mary’s death in 1953, this theory cannot be correct. Though the precise timing of the gift (and it’s intention) is unclear, it is certain that Queen Mary gave the necklace to the Windsors before her death, suggesting that the Dowager Queen had softened just enough in her attitude towards Wallis to make a gift to her (directly or indirectly) of jewels which had royal provenance and which Wallis then made a staple of her collection – indeed, she is pictured wearing Queen Mary’s pearls more than any other piece she owned.
Much like her mother-in-law who had a flair for redesigning jewels, Wallis made her own addition to the Cartier pearls – adding further to the mystery of the overall piece. In the 1952 Wilding photographs, the pearl necklace given by Queen Mary appears as part of a pearl trio. The Duchess is seen to be wearing two strands of pearls with a pearl and diamond pendant added to the bottom strand. It has previously been suggested that this pearl and diamond pendant was purchased from Cartier by Queen Mary or that it was part of another Romanov jewel which the Queen had acquired from Marie Feodorovna, had broken up and added to the pearl necklace. In her fabulous book, The Windsor Style, Suzy Menkes uses a 1955 Wilding portrait to illustrate the inheritance story and adds that the second string of pearls seen accompanying Queen Mary’s necklace was commissioned by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1964.
But how could a necklace not created until 1964 appear in a photograph taken in 1955? To solve this mystery, I went direct to the source and asked Van Cleef & Arpels to see what light they may be able to shed on the matter. The upper strand of pearls in the 1955 Wilding photograph is not by Van Cleef & Arpels. It is in fact, costume jewellery. These simulated pearls were commissioned by the Duchess to match the Cartier Pearl necklace from an American jeweller called Olga Tritt. Tritt made one further contribution to the suite in the shape of the pearl pendant.
The pearl in the pendant was purchased by the Duke of Windsor on a visit to Tritt’s workshop in 1948. It weighs 9.53 grams with a diameter of approximately 18.4mm. The Tritt Pearl was then taken to Cartier where it was fitted with a bell cap set with round single-cut diamonds to which she added a detachable stirrup-shaped diamond-set pendant fitting. This allowed Wallis to attach the pendant to any necklace she liked and, in 1948, she chose to attach it to Queen Mary’s necklace (worn as the lower strand in the Wilding portrait) as it too had been designed by Cartier.
The upper strand (the simulated pearls) now complimented the lower strand with its impressive pendant but it was still only simulated. Therefore in 1963, the Duke of Windsor commissioned a copy of his mother’s Cartier necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels. According to their original commission from the Duke, the Cartier Pearl necklace is comprised of of 28 pearls ranging in size from 9.2mm to 16.8mm and forms a necklace 14 inches long in total. The 1963 Van Cleef & Arpels necklace is almost identical. It is comprised of 29 cultured pearls all symmetrically shaped but with a variety of round, near round, button and drop pearls.
It is slightly longer and larger than Queen Mary’s original necklace but Van Cleef & Arpels ensured that the spacing be exact by adding an egg-shaped clasp set in platinum and diamonds which allows the the two necklaces to appear as an intentional pair. When the necklace was completed, the Duchess asked Van Cleef & Arpels to remove the pendant from the Cartier necklace and add it to the Van Cleef & Arpels necklace they had created for her. Thus, the upper and lower strands were swapped over and in photographs of the Duchess wearing the pearls after 1963, it is Queen Mary’s Cartier necklace which is worn (without the pendant) as the upper strand and the Van Cleef & Arpels necklace (with the pendant) which is worn as the lower strand. The two necklaces remained in this form for the remainder of their time in the Duchess’ possession.
Following Wallis’ death, her jewels were auctioned to raise money for the Louis B Pasteur institute. On April 2nd 1987, the two necklaces finally parted company forever. Queen Mary’s Cartier Pearl Necklace sold for $733,333. The Van Cleef & Arpels necklace (still with the pendant attached) sold for $193,000. The latter was purchased by Kelly Klein, the wife of the designer Calvin Klein, who had been photographed many times wearing Wallis’ pearls. She sold the necklace in 2007. The owner of Queen Mary’s Cartier necklace remains a mystery but then, these two simple strands of pearls seem to court mystery and intrigue. Are they a token of forgiveness, a gesture designed to affect a reunion between mother and son? Are they an acknowledgement of a past meeting or a symbol of acceptance? Whatever the meaning behind their journey into the Duchess of Windsor’s collection, they are jewels she favoured above all others. Whether for their sentiment or their style, who can know?
Author’s Note: I wish to extend my sincere thanks to the Patrimony Department at Van Cleef & Arpels for their invaluable help with this piece for the World of Wallis blog.
Update: Please note that one of the images used in the original article was incorrect and has now been replaced.