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THE JEWELS OF JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS BY ELLEN STEIBER

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was, without question, one of the great icons of the twentieth century. Wed to both an American president and a Greek shipping magnate, she was also a mother, a book editor, and a patron of the arts who spearheaded the fight to save New York City’s Grand Central Station. A notoriously private person, she inspired a veritable industry of gossip partly, I suspect, because she handled whatever life threw at her with such incredible grace. Whether or not it was deliberate on her part, the more she concealed, the more of a hold she seemed to have over the public imagination. So in April of 1996, when Sotheby’s held a three-day auction of her estate, the response was phenomenal. It was estimated that 40,000 people came to the presale viewings and between 74,000 and 100,000 copies of the auction catalog were sold. (The proceeds from the catalog went to charity.) Everyone wanted a bit of Jackie, and this was their chance to actually buy it.

I recently found one of these catalogs in my local second-hand bookstore. Being an admitted “gem freak,” I went straight for the jewelry section, which takes up 329 of the catalog’s 584 pages. Actually, there are two jewelry sections, one for her fine jewels and one for what Sotheby’s terms her “fashion jewelry.” What is undeniable about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is that she had an impeccable sense of style that seemed both effortless and elegant. Every outfit looked exactly right and each one was accented by the perfect piece of jewelry. She never wore too much or too little, and nearly everything she wore seemed to become an instant classic. Catalogs for estate sales are a voyeur’s delight, a way of defining someone’s character by their possessions. Of course, this is an unreliable way to try to understand anyone, and yet the clues that fill the Sotheby’s catalog are tantalizing: photographs of Jackie wearing these pieces, often with someone famous in the shot; captions noting the designer or the person who gave her the piece. But mostly, the notes on the jewelry just describe the piece and let the reader fill in the history behind it. And you can’t help wondering: Did she choose this piece herself or was it given to her? Did she actually love that necklace or did she wear it because the ambassador of some country gave it to her and she was having dinner with him that night? It’s not only her own taste reflected in these pieces but a lifetime of international travel and celebrity.

On another level, the catalog is a fascinating reflection of the way we give things value. Auction houses traditionally low-ball their estimated prices to encourage bidding, and Sotheby’s was no exception. Most of Mrs. Onassis’ jewelry was assigned rather modest prices. (Keep in mind that the price of gold was far lower in 1996, just over $400 an ounce.) Still, pieces with an estimated worth of a few thousand dollars routinely sold for ten or even twenty times that amount. One item not even pictured in the catalog was a strand of 33 amber worry beads, its gold link engraved “Jackie.” Estimated at $200-$300, it sold for $21,850. Another seemingly affordable item was a pair of “reverse-tinted crystal intaglio fox cufflinks.” These round cufflinks, each featuring the image of a little fox, were estimated at $300-$400. They sold for $17,250, probably because it was easy to imagine Jackie using them to fasten her cuffs before setting off on a hunt. The introduction to the catalog, penned by Caroline and John Kennedy, describes the pieces in the auction as things that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis “cared about,” which is the key to what made these pieces so valuable. They represented a chance to own a piece of history. Or perhaps the auction was simply an extension of the ancient belief that jewelry somehow retains the spirit of its owner: Wear a piece of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ jewelry, and you have a chance to share in some of her glamour, beauty, and endless mystique.

In our next part you’ll find a small sampling of the jewels that were sold at the auction. All prices—both estimated and the actual sale price—come from the Sotheby’s catalog,

The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: April 23-26, 1996. All prices are in U.S. dollars.

The Fine Jewels.

As you might expect, Mrs. Onassis owned pieces designed by the pre-eminent jewelers of the twentieth century. Van Cleef & Arpels of France seems to have been one of her favorites. Among the many Van Cleef & Arpels pieces are a pair of gold earclips designed to look like tiny Chinese masks. With an estimated worth of $600-$800, they sold for $23,000. Van Cleef & Arpels also designed the whimsical 18-karat gold scarecrow brooch. The tiny figure, whose head is a dyed green chalcedony cabochon, wears a top hat and scarf and is decorated with rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. Estimated at $1,200-$1,500, the scarecrow sold for $101,500.

An unusual pair of hammered gold cuff bangle bracelets also came from Van Cleef & Arpels. There’s a fabulous photo of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wearing them as she clasps hands with Muhammad Ali. With an estimated worth of $1,500-$2,000, the gold bracelets sold for $167,500. There are also several pieces by the American jewelry designer David Webb whose bold designs were collected by socialites and celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Duke, Gloria Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Windsor, Diana Vreeland, Nan Kempner, and Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwell. Jackie not only had a long 18-karat gold Webb chain necklace, but 18-karat gold and green enamel earclips signed by Webb, which were estimated at $2,000-$3000 and sold for $23,000. Wearing charm bracelets is a custom that may go as far back as the ancient Egyptians who wore amulets for protection and luck. Queen Victoria is credited with making charm bracelets popular in the Europe, and after World War II, there was revival of interest in them when soldiers brought home handmade trinkets for their wives and girl friends. The idea was that each charm was connected with a memory or an event. The catalog gives no hint of whether Jackie’s charms were connected with events in her life, but the bracelet had so many charms--25 in all—that they hung from both top and bottom of the connecting gold links. Sotheby’s describes them as being made of gold, enamels, glass, and hardstones. Among them are a watering can, a golden fish with a turquoise eye, a heart-shaped padlock, a slipper, a number of fruits, a tiny cowrie shell framed in gold scrollwork, a scimitar, and a hand with a fist (which I believe is a Figa, a Brazillian good luck charm).

Sotheby’s appraised the bracelet as being worth $1,500 to $2,000. It sold for $68,500. One style from the Classical and Hellenistic periods that has remained popular is animal head” jewelry--bracelets and rings where one or both ends are in the shape of an animal head. Mrs. Onassis had quite a few pieces in the Classical Revival style, including a gorgeous pair of gold “antelope head” bangles, set with tiny rubies and sapphires. With an estimated value of $2,000-$3,000, they sold for $28,750. One of the more spectacular pieces—and there are many—is an emerald and diamond pendant-brooch and chain necklace. (This means the pendant could also be worn as a brooch, and there’s a 1992 photo of Jacqueline Onassis wearing it as a brooch as she stood beside Rudolph Nureyev at a benefit for the American Ballet Theater.) The brooch itself is described as lozenge-shaped with a dark green emerald-cut emerald (approximately 18.00 karats) in the center, surrounded by approximately 9.00 karats of diamonds. Even the chain for the pendant is gorgeous—each delicate rectangular gold link is connected by two emeralds and a diamond. Appraised at $10,000-$12,000, this piece sold for $74,000.

No one can ever really know what goes on inside another person’s marriage. However, one thing that can be said about Jackie’s second marriage is that Aristotle Onassis gave her the equivalent of a royal dowry in jewels. There was a bracelet that he gave her for Easter, tiny 18-karat gold eggs set with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. The diamonds alone weighed approximately 15.00 karats, with another 13.00 karats in colored stones. Sotheby’s estimated the bracelet’s value at $15,000-$20,000; it was sold for $96,000.

As one of her engagement presents, Mr. Onassis gave her another jaw-dropping trinket from Van Cleef & Arpels, an emerald and diamond necklace, which probably has to be seen to be believed. Each of the five pear-shaped emerald drops (totaling approximately 132.00 karats) are capped by gold and diamonds, and then each of these drops is attached to a gold-flower set with diamonds. Valued at $100,000-$125,000, it sold for $277,500. Presumably to go with this necklace, he also gave her (as a Christmas present) a Van Cleef & Arpels ring, featuring a huge cabochon emerald, weighing 61.17 karats, surround by diamonds. With an estimated worth of $10,000-$15,000, it sold for $85,000. Jackie’s actual engagement ring from Mr. Onassis was the Lesotho III Diamond from Harry Winston. A marquis-shaped “potentially flawless” diamond (40.42 karats) with an estimated worth of $500,000-$600,000, it sold for $2,587,500. Aristotle Onassis also gave her many lavish wedding presents, including a Van Cleef & Arpels ruby and diamond ring. The oval faceted ruby weighed 17.68 carats and was surrounded by round diamonds. Estimated at $20,000-$30,000, it sold for $288,500.

Another extravagant wedding present from Onassis consisted of a pair of Van Cleef & Arpels ruby and diamond earclips. The diamonds were set in gold flowers, and hanging from each flower, edged by diamonds, was a gorgeous pear-shaped ruby cabochon. Valued at $25,000-$35,000, the earrings sold for $360,000. One of her most spectacular wedding gifts, also from Van Cleef & Arpels—did the man buy out the store?—was what Sotheby’s describes as a “cabochon colored stone and diamond-pendant necklace.” The pendant features a heart-shaped ruby cabochon with a border of emerald cabs and diamonds, topped by a cabochon sapphire. The necklace itself is every bit as stunning as its pendant. Each link features a cabochon ruby, sapphire, or emerald surrounded by diamonds, so that each link of the necklace looks like a jeweled flower. Valued at $75,000-$100,000, it sold for $288,500. I imagine many people go through auction catalogs and think, “If I could just buy one thing . . . ” For me, the unspoken rule in this game of Jewelry Lust is that the item has to be something I would actually wear. Truthfully, I couldn’t picture myself in some of the more extravagant pieces, but there was one pair of earrings I couldn’t help coveting. Given to Jackie by Artemis Garofalides, Aristotle Onassis’ sister, they were deep-red faceted tourmaline briolettes hanging from amethysts set in matte 18-karat gold. Estimated at a modest $800-$1,000, they sold for $34,500.

Another piece whose beauty and simplicity fascinated me was a ring that dating from the 19th century—a heart-shaped garnet carbuncle surrounded by old-mine diamonds. (Carbuncle was term popular in Victorian times to describe a cabochon-cut almandine garnet.) The ring’s estimated worth was $1,200-$1,500. It sold for $33,350. And if, like me, you love the luscious deep red and purple stones, there was stunning necklace of graduated, smooth pear-shaped amethyst drops, spaced with gold beads and gold roundelles, the sort of thing I imagine a goddess might wear. Estimated at $1,500-$2,000, it sold for $57,500. One of the loveliest pieces in the catalog—and one that stands quite alone in its poignancy-- is a kunzite and diamond ring, which President Kennedy bought for his wife but never gave her. The pink faceted kunzite is a cushion-shaped stone, with a weight of approximately 47.00 karats, surrounded by twenty round diamonds and set in 18-karat gold. Clear, sparkling, and extraordinary, it seems to be a reflection of the woman herself. The ring’s estimated worth was $6,000-$8,000. It sold for $415,000.

The Fashion Jewelry

Not everyone realizes that while Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis owned and wore some of the finest gems in the world, she was also a great fan of costume jewelry. Many of the classic photographs of her show her wearing what were then relatively inexpensive costume pieces. It’s The Fashion Jewelry section of the catalog that features many of the strands of faux pearls that she made so famous.

The first “fashion jewel” in the catalog is the triple strand of faux pearls with an Art Deco style clasp that Mrs. Kennedy wore in the White House. The photograph of the necklace is accompanied by a 1962 shot of Jackie holding her then two-year-old son. He’s playing with a strand of the necklace as she tilts her head back, laughing. It’s a tender photograph, an almost idyllic glimpse of motherhood. This famous necklace was estimated at $500-$700, a low-ball price even if the pearls were made of paste. It sold for $211,500.

Though Jackie wore costume jewelry, a good deal of it was designer costume jewelry. There’s a signed Valentino brooch in the shape of a large crab with a faux topaz body and faux pavé diamond legs; a gilt metal cross by Christian Lacroix; simple “silvered metal balls” earclips by Yves Saint Laurent; and faux emerald and diamond earclips by Chanel.

One of the things that becomes clear from the catalog photographs was that Jackie had no qualms about wearing costume jewelry for even the most important occasions. There’s a photo of her speaking with France’s President Charles de Gaulle, during the Kennedys’ 1961 trip to Paris. Mrs. Kennedy is wearing a simple white dress and what Sotheby’s describes as a “black ‘stone’ bead double strand necklace.” She also wore this necklace on the day her husband announced his candidacy and while they were in the White House. It wasn’t a fancy piece, and I’m guessing the beads were made of glass, but somehow it accented her white dress perfectly. Sold with a single black earclip (the other earring must have gone missing), the set was estimated as being worth $200-$300. A true piece of history, it sold for $101,500.

The catalog also offers two pairs of earrings, shaped to look like miniature conch shells. One pair, little pearlescent conches with gilt accents, was designed by Kenneth Jay Lane, who was known for his fabulous fakes. Jackie is shown wearing them in 1967 as she and Caroline gazed at the naval carrier, The U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, which Caroline had just christened. This pair of earclips, along with a second pair in a similar design, were estimated at $400-$600 and sold for $25,300. Other pieces were not quite so historic and yet carried Jackie’s charm. An ebony and ivory beaded necklace along with two ivory cuff bracelets and a pair of ivory cabochon earrings were estimated at $500-$700 and sold for $14,950. A choker made of four twisted strands of gold pearls, black pearls, and round crystal beads—all simulated— along with a pair of faux pearl earclips, was estimated at $150-$250 and sold for $17,250. Another necklace, a single strand of fake hematite beads with gilt roundels had an estimated worth of $150-$250 and sold for $13,800. Two strands of melon-shaped green glass beads—on Jackie, they probably were assumed to be emeralds--along with a pair of earrings, were valued at $300-$400 and sold for $20,700.

Kenneth Jay Lane has made a career of designing opulent fakes for the well-heeled set. Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Vreeland, and the Duchess of Windsor were among his famous clients in the sixties. Now he continues to sell his pieces to celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Mischa Barton, the Olsen twins, and Paris Hilton. Even Barbara Bush wore his triple-strand faux pearls when she was in the White House.

Lane successfully studied and adapted earlier styles and traditions in jewelry, and designed more-than-respectable knock-offs of Indian, Renaissance, Art Deco, Chinese jade, and pre-Columbian jewelry. Among the pieces he created for Jackie was a choker that looks for all the world like one of India’s extraordinary Mughal pieces. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear the gilt was gold and it was set with rubies, emeralds, topaz, and diamonds. Its estimated value was $300-$400. Even though several stones were missing, it sold for $9,775.

Though Lane was often considered a prince of excess, much of what he designed for Jackie was in her distinct style, simple yet classy. One pair of earrings, a variant of the classic gold hoop, seem to be made of curved pieces of gilt bamboo wound with tiny faux diamonds. The coordinating necklace featured what looked like golden (i.e. gilt) bamboo twigs linked with strands of simulated pearls. The set, which was estimated at $200-$300, sold for $10,350. Torsade is a term that describes a necklace or bracelet made of multiple strands of beads twisted together. Jackie had a truly gorgeous torsade of faux black seed pearls, with a gilt clasp covered with faux diamonds, signed by Mimi di Niscemi, another internationally known designer of costume jewelry.

Kenneth Jay Lane created earrings to match, black baroque “pearls,” topped with “diamond” pavé. This set was estimated at $400-$500 and sold for $20,700. The final jewelry offering in the catalog is a Kenneth Jay Lane set with a story behind it. The two pieces are reproductions of the Van Cleef & Arpels wedding necklace and ruby earrings that were given to Jackie by Aristotle Onassis. Interestingly, they’re not identical reproductions; Lane’s designs show slight differences. In the original necklace’s pendant, the big ruby cabochon has diamonds and emeralds beneath it. The colored stones beneath the copy’s “ruby” are not “emeralds” but “rubies.” The “gold and diamond” pattern around the gems is also somewhat different, but Lane faithfully captured the extravagant and colorful style. Sotheby’s write up quotes Lane who says that Jackie specifically commissioned these pieces from him. She was, apparently, taken a back when he told her what the design cost would be, and so they agreed that he’d absorb the cost of making the model if he could use the design in his own collection. Apparently, Jackie was quite amused when she later saw their necklace used on Dynasty. With the matching faux ruby earrings, the Lane reproduction was valued at $1,000-$1,500. It sold for $90,500.

Looking over the collection as a whole, you can draw certain conclusions. Jackie’s jewelry was an eclectic mix, encompassing almost every style—from African to Thai to Classical Revival to Renaissance to the jewels of Ancient India to the late twentieth century. She had gems from the world’s finest jewelers and an equally extensive collection of costume jewelry. And she had the boldness, or perhaps just the confidence in her own good taste, to wear it all. Simplicity seemed to be key to her singular style. Though she owned many parures, or suites of matching jewelry, she’d often only wear one piece, which somehow looked all the more dramatic for being her sole ornament.

Page 302 of the catalog shows a classic photo of Mrs. Onassis attending a gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in 1979. She’s wearing a dark strapless gown with no necklace or bracelets, just the dazzling ruby and diamond earrings that Aristotle Onassis gave her for their wedding. And as she does in almost all the photographs, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis conveys beauty and elegance and inimitable grace. One final thought: The extraordinary jewels that fill the Sotheby catalog are the gems her family didn’t want. Just imagine what they kept.