The Windsor Collection: The Magic of Brooches, Part One

In 1957, LIFE magazine asked the Duchess of Windsor (by then renowned for her love of jewellery) what she felt were the most essential items a young lady should have in her collection.

“You can never learn too early the magic of pins or brooches”, Wallis answered, “They’re so versatile. You can breathe new life into an old hat, or a jacket, and you can express your interests and personality through so many different shapes and designs”. Her own assortment of brooches was impressive; some real gemstones and some simulated. Wallis was an early convert to costume jewellery, indeed by 1966 she was celebrating paste as “affordable elegance” in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar. Wallis’ brooches have now become iconic, not only because of their historical provenance or the exquisite nature of their designs, but because they were an important element of her overall style. In this two-part series for the World of Wallis blog, we look at six of the Duchess’ most impressive brooches, each with its own fascinating story.

For Part One, I’ve selected three Cartier creations: The Prince of Wales Feathers, The Sapphire Pantheré and the famous Flamingo.

The Prince of Wales Feathers Brooch

Feathers Brooch
The Prince of Wales Feathers Brooch, Cartier, 1935.

The Prince of Wales Feathers Brooch was one of the first items of jewellery gifted to Wallis by her future husband and is perhaps the most significant brooch she owned. As Prince of Wales, David used a heraldic badge of three white ostrich feathers emerging from a gold coronet. Long associated with the heir apparent, the symbolism of three white feathers first became linked to the Prince of Wales back in the 14th century when they appeared on the coat of arms of the Black Prince. It is said that the eldest son of King Edward III took the feathers (and the accompanying motto Ich Dien or I Serve) from King John the Blind of Bohemia who was killed fighting alongside the Black Prince at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. The familiar design of the badge, now used by Prince Charles, first appears during the reign of King Henry VII when it was used by his eldest son, Prince Arthur, the elder brother of King Henry VIII.

The design has appeared in other forms of jewellery over the centuries, most notably in a piece created for Princess Alexandra of Denmark when she married the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII, David’s grandfather) in 1863. The Prince of Wales Feathers appear surrounded by a circle of diamonds with an emerald drop which can be worn as a brooch or as a pendant. Now owned by the Duchess of Cornwall, the Queen Alexandra Feathers caused some confusion in the 1940s and 1950s when the Windsors’ detractors accused them of having stolen emeralds belonging to the late Queen consort. The mystery of Queen Alexandra’s emeralds dogged the couple for decades and even though the design of the two “Feathers” brooches are quite different, it was assumed that the brooch in Wallis’ possession was that which had belonged to David’s grandmother.

The Duchess of Cornwall
The Duchess of Cornwall wearing the Prince of Wales Feathers Brooch with emerald drop owned by Queen Alexandra.

Rumours abounded that Alexandra’s brooch, which at the time had not been seen for decades, had been broken up or redesigned for Wallis following a similar design. These rumours were finally put to rest following Prince Charles’ marriage to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. As Princess of Wales, Diana began to wear Alexandra’s brooch both as a brooch and as a pendant. This confirmed that Alexandra’s brooch had not been “re-purposed” for Wallis but those who had originally peddled the theft tale must have known there had been no relation between the two pieces simply because of the difference in their design. Firstly, Wallis’ brooch is larger than Alexandra’s. It is three inches high with three plumes fashioned from platinum and set with baguette cut diamonds which could not have been taken from the 1863 brooch. The coronet is formed of 18 carat yellow gold and studded with brilliants, again, not seen in the original. Secondly, Wallis’ brooch has no drop, neither was it designed to “double-up” as a pendant.

Wearing her ‘Feathers’ for Dior.

The origin of Wallis’ brooch may not be found in the British Royal Family vault, but its provenance is nonetheless fascinating. It was commissioned by the Prince of Wales from Cartier in 1935 when his relationship with Wallis had become increasingly intense. His previous lovers had been set aside and his life had begun to revolve entirely around the then Mrs Ernest Simpson. Her presence was concerning to the establishment and was causing a deep rift between the Prince and his parents. David had made gifts to Wallis before 1935, many of them bearing his symbol as Prince of Wales. This was not unusual.

As Prince of Wales, David (much like his predecessor King Edward VII) favoured gifts to staff, foreign dignitaries and friends which the feathers design. These included silver cigarette cases, vesta match boxes and even cutlery. Wallis got in on the act when in 1933, she borrowed a silver spoon bearing the Prince of Wales Feathers from Fort Belvedere in order to have the design engraved on a silver cigarette case for David. Her second husband Ernest had received a similar gift from the Prince the previous year. But when David commissioned the feathers brooch for Wallis, he was making a dramatic statement of intent. By wearing the Prince of Wales feathers in so prominent and so glittering a design, Wallis would be identifiable to all as “The Prince’s Girl”. Those concerned about David’s increased dependence on Wallis could now be in no doubt; he was a man in love.

The sentimentality of the design was not lost on Wallis’ fellow jewellery lover, actress Elizabeth Taylor. Wallis had met Elizabeth several times and enjoyed her company, inviting her to call on the Windsors when she was in Paris and spending time with Elizabeth when the couple visited New York. In 1967, Wallis invited Elizabeth and her then husband Richard Burton to dine privately with the Windsors at their apartment at the Waldorf Tower. Wallis wore the feathers brooch, apparently as a nod to Richard Burton’s Welsh background. But it was Elizabeth who became entranced by the brooch so much so that the following morning, Richard called the Duke with an unusual request. Might he have his permission to copy the Duchess’ brooch for Elizabeth? The Duke and Duchess agreed but no such reproduction was ever made. Still, Elizabeth coveted the feathers’ brooch.

Dame Elizabeth
Dame Elizabeth Taylor wears Wallis’ feathers.

In 1987 when Sotheby’s auctioned Wallis’ jewellery collection, Elizabeth Taylor lay beside her pool calling in her bids for various pieces, but it was the feathers brooch she wanted more than any other lot. She bid $449,625. The brooch was hers. She later recounted that when she collected the brooch, she was told that she had upset a very famous and very keen buyer. “It was the Prince of Wales”, Taylor revealed, “He had wanted to buy it for Princess Diana but I got there first”. When Barbara Walters asked Taylor if she felt guilty for snatching up the jewel, Elizabeth retorted; “No! I know Wallis meant me to have it!”. Despite the long road to owning the brooch, Taylor wore it infrequently, being photographed wearing it just twice. Following her death in 2011, the brooch was auctioned by Christie’s and sold for a jaw-dropping $1.3m.

The Sapphire Pantheré

The Sapphire Pantheré
The Sapphire Pantheré by Cartier, 1949.

Both the Duke and Duchess of Windsor enjoyed designing jewellery and many of the pieces created for Wallis over the decades were based on original sketches produced by the Duke from the Duchess’ ideas. But in 1948, Wallis was inspired by an existing design from a Cartier catalogue which arguably gave the Maison it’s most famous and enduring hallmark; La Pantheré. Big cats had been used as a motif by Cartier as far back as 1914 with a wristwatch fashioned in leopard print appearing in a catalogue put together by Cartier’s Artistic Director of Jewellery, Jeanne Toussaint. Toussaint continued to incorporate big cat designs into the catalogues which Cartier himself adored. But how did Toussaint come across La Pantheré design in the first place? There are two theories. The first is that Cartier called Toussaint his “Little Panther” because she wore a coat made from panther fur. This inspired her to look to the panther for inspiration. The second explanation derives from a safari Toussaint and Cartier took together during which they saw a wild panther spring toward them. Instead of screaming for help, Toussaint is said to have yelled; “Emeralds! Onyx! Diamonds! It’s a brooch!”

Original Panthere
Wallis’ 1948 gold and emerald cabochon Pantheré.

Until 1948, no client had been bold enough to purchase any of the proposed big cat designs, though the animal print theme had been popular. Enter Wallis. Wallis adored statement pieces and had a fondness for brooches with designs inspired by nature. Her collection already included brooches modelled on birds, flowers and even fruits. Now she decided to add one of Cartier’s panthers. She commissioned the Maison’s very first La Pantheré. Crafted from gold and enamel and set with a cabochon emerald, Wallis loved the piece so much that the following year, she commissioned another. Far more more glittering than the gold panther, this brooch is made from platinum and white gold. The body of the panther is set with single-cut diamonds and sapphire cabochons which provide the spots. Two pear-shaped yellow diamonds provide the eyes and the panther sits astride a 152 carat Kashmir sapphire cabochon. Wallis had inadvertently started a trend and suddenly, Cartier was inundated with requests for Pantheré designs.

Panther Bracelet
Wallis wears her Cartier panther bracelet, one of the many “big cat” pieces she owned.

Over the next two decades, Wallis acquired a Pantheré bracelet and a pair of tiger dress clips, an extension of the original range she had helped promote. Her panther pieces are among her most famous. In 1967, she travelled to London with the Duke for the unveiling of a plaque to the Duke’s late mother, Queen Mary. It was the first time Wallis would be received by Queen Elizabeth II and the first time she would be seen publicly in the presence of senior members of the Royal Family. In a dark blue Givenchy coat and white fur stole, she accessorised her chic look with the Sapphire Pantheré brooch.

The Cartier Tigers

At the auction of her jewels in 1987, Wallis’ gold Pantheré brooch sold for $63,374. The Cartier tiger clips were purchased by the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber for his wife Sarah Brightman to celebrate the success of his musical, The Phantom of the Opera. In 2014, Brightman put the clips to auction where they sold for $3.2m. In 2010, the Pantheré bracelet with emerald eyes sold for $4.5m. But Wallis’ most treasured panther, the Sapphire Pantheré, had a special future ahead. Cartier loved the design so much that the Maison bought back the piece that it had created for Wallis for $633,745. They placed the brooch in their museum, and it has since been on display at the Cartier Exhbition at the Grand Palais, Paris, mostly recently between December 2013 and February 2014.

The Flamingo

The Flamingo Brooch

For Wallis, birthdays came with the added excitement of something new for her jewellery collection. The Duke of Windsor often came up with designs with personal meaning which were then turned into beautiful (and wearable) pieces. In 1940, the David set Cartier a special commission for his wife’s birthday which would become the definitive Wallis jewel.

Cartier Ledger
The original design for Cartier’s Flamingo Brooch.

Long before the Pantheré designs of the late 1940s, Jeanne Toussaint had created pieces which took their inspiration from nature. Knowing how much Wallis adored such designs, David asked Toussaint if she might come up with a design for a brooch in the shape of a flamingo; the Duchess’ favourite bird. The original design by Toussaint suggested that only the feathers, eyes and beak of the bird be set with stones; the body of the bird would be enamel and the legs fashioned from yellow gold. In the original ledgers made available by Cartier, we can see the original design which changed before production began. Toussaint, at the wish of the Duke and Duchess, scrapped the gold legs and enamel body and together they decided that everything but the feathers of the flamingo should be set with diamonds. To make this a reality, the Duke provided a bag of gems including rubies, emeralds, diamonds and citrines which had been taken from a necklace and four bracelets already owned by the Duchess.

The timing of the gift could not have been worse however. Britain had declared war on Germany in September 1939 and Hitler had Paris in his sights. The Windsors were initially reluctant to leave France. Like many throughout Europe, they did not believe the war would really be pressed by either side and they certainly could not see a future ahead where France would be occupied by the Nazis. A few weeks before the Nazis rolled their tanks into Paris, the brooch was completed and hand delivered by Cartier. Had the brooch arrived any later, it would almost certainly have fallen into the hands of the enemy and the Duke and Duchess might never have seen it again.

Flamingo Details
The feathers of the Flamingo Brooch.

When they arrived in Madrid fleeing the German advancement, Wallis stepped from the train wearing the flamingo brooch in public for the very first time. She loved it so much that for the rest of that year, it was almost exclusively the only brooch in her collection she wore. Arriving in Miami to prepare for their posting to Nassau as Governors of the Bahamas, Wallis sported the brooch which caught the eye of every reporter. As well as it might. The brooch is three inches by four inches, the body is made of platinum whilst the feathers are crafted from 18 carat yellow gold. The body is studded with brilliant-cut diamonds with a sapphire eye and sapphire and citrine beak. The feathers themselves however are the real stars of the show with a riot of colour provided by calibré-cut emeralds, sapphires and rubies.  

Wallis wears the Flamingo in Bermuda, 1940.

When Wallis jewels were sold in 1987, it was the Flamingo Brooch which became the emblem of the sale. It was the most sought-after lot and sold for £498,000. Only one lucky buyer could own the original but the brooch so caught the public imagination that between 1987 and 1995, jewellers across the world began to produce reproductions in record numbers. Some were direct copies, others used the brooch as inspiration with flamingos in various colours and materials. It remains the most copied item from the Duchess of Windsor’s collection. At the 2010 Sotheby’s auction (at which the Sapphire Pantheré was resold), the Flamingo once again delighted those who attended the sale. It sold for a whopping $1.7m. The new owner remains a mystery, however in 2013, the Flamingo was included in the Cartier Exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. Perhaps Cartier decided to bring the Flamingo home too?

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