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Christie’s presents an historic opportunity for connoisseurs around the globe, when a remarkable selection of Jewels will be offered in London from the Portland Collection, undoubtedly amoung the most illustrious collections in England. The collection is led by a sumptuous antique diamond and natural pearl brooch from the jewel casket of Winifred Duchess of Portland (1863-1954), one of the great beauties of her time and a prominent society figure. Ted Sandling sits down with Keith Penton, Head of Jewelry in London to discuss the history and beauty of the jewels in this collection.
Why should a collector want to buy these pieces?
These jewels are beautiful examples that resonate with history. The brooch with the three drop shaped pearls was clearly one of Duchess Winifred's favourite jewels and appears in several images of her, including the iconic portrait by John Singer Sargent. The pearls play an integral part of the quasi-theatrical performance that Sargent directs, dramatising the history of the family and the special social position of the Duchess. The tiara is a potent symbol of prestige. In the 21st century they continue to inspire, lending a special poise and sophistication to the wearer.
Describe the particular beauty of these jewels.
The interest in natural pearls has rapidly increased over the last five years as buyers appreciate their true rarity. The large pearls in this brooch are a wonderful drop shape with a good lustre. Pearls are much in evidence in 17th century portraiture, and at this period were valued more highly than diamonds.
The tiara is spectacular example from the late 19th century, with a graceful and elegant design with an array of royal blue sapphires complimented by natural pearls and diamonds.
What was your first response when you first encountered these pieces?
It was extremely exciting to see this collection for the first time and made even more so when portraits of Duchess Winifred brought the pieces to life, showing how she chose to wear the various items. The coronation photograph of 1902 depicts the Duchess wearing a profusion of jewels, including many of the items to be offered on 1 December sale. The Duchess carried the canopy under which Queen Alexandra was anointed, making these jewels witness to the historic occasion.
How do these jewels relate to the rest of the Portland collection?
The tiara matches a sapphire, pearl and diamond stomacher brooch which is also being sold as part of the collection, but as it was listed in an inventory of the jewellery dated 1887, it predates the tiara by a few years and may have been the inspiration for the larger jewel. The tiara and stomacher look particularly regal when worn together and are shown in an early 20th century portrait miniature of the 7th Duke's wife, when she was Marchioness of Titchfield.
The tiara was created with jewels from earlier items in the family collection - how common a phenomenon was this?
A late Victorian inventory reveals that several family jewels were broken down to form the Portland sapphire tiara - a common practice until well into the 20th century. When examining jewels it is sometimes obvious from the shape and cut that they have been recycled from 18th or 19th century jewels. Duchess Winifred's ruby ring may be a 17th century stone judging by the flattened proportions, and the diamond fuchsia brooch was certainly changed to a head ornament at some point. These jewels were never regarded as museum pieces: they were made to be worn.