Described by Harper’s Bazaar in October 1927 as “extremely popular in the younger fashionable set,” Mr. Wolcott Blair and Mrs. Ellen Yuille Blair were highly admired for their excellent sense of fashion and design from the 1920s through the 1960s. The Blairs often appeared in magazines and newspapers that featured fine living and society’s best dressed.
Wolcott Blair, a grandson of Chauncey Buckley Blair, who founded Merchant’s Bank of Chicago and was an early supporter of the Art Institute of Chicago, grew up in Chicago. He attended Yale College and became a successful investor. Often surrounded by noteworthy company, Mr. Blair gained notoriety in international social circles after he hosted his friend, the Duke of Windsor, in Chicago in 1924.
Ellen Yuille Blair was born in North Carolina to Nancy Williams Yuille and Thomas Burks Yuille and raised in Virginia before her family moved to New York. Mr. Yuille developed an expertise in the management of commodities at the American Tobacco Company and went on to serve as a respected officer, president, and director of numerous manufacturing and commodities companies. The eldest of four famous siblings, Ellen Yuille Blair attended the Oldfields School, where she became an accomplished equestrian and met Wallis Warfield, the future Duchess of Windsor. The two became lifelong friends.
Two years after their marriage in 1926 and after the birth of their son, Watson Keep Blair, Mr. and Mrs. Wolcott Blair left Chicago and divided their time between New York City, Long Island, Palm Beach, and Islesboro, Maine.
It was in Palm Beach where the Blairs built a highly acclaimed home. The architect Maurice Fatio of Treanor & Fatio designed the home in 1936, and Ruby Ross Woods and Billy Baldwin decorated it. The floorplan allowed for plenty of sunlight, and large windows could be lowered pneumatically to be flush with the floor to allow access to the gardens. This, combined with a crisp white and muted color theme, embodied the indoor-outdoor feel of Palm Beach. The home was admired for its clean elegance and photographed for such publications as Vogue, the Palm Beach Daily News, and Harper’s Bazaar.
As reflected particularly in their jewelry, Mr. and Mrs. Blair’s sense of design was also influenced by extensive travels in Europe, India, and Tibet in the early 1930’s.
Christie’s is honored to present property from the collection of Wolcott and Ellen Yuille Blair. The majority of the items in this collection were originally obtained by the couple and descended directly to their son, Mr. Watson Keep Blair, who proudly displayed the wonderful objects and art in his homes in New York City, Long Island, and Jupiter Island. The collection truly embodies the elegance and sophistication of this glamourous couple and the life they enjoyed together with their son, family and friends.
The sophistication and elegance reflected in the Blairs’ homes was also apparent in their taste in jewelry. Their collection was passed onto their son, Mr. Watson Keep Blair, who continued to appreciate the items and nourish the assemblage. With a keen eye, the Blairs not only purchased, but also commissioned many unique pieces from noteworthy firms such as Buccellati, Cartier, René Boivin, Tiffany & Co., and Van Cleef & Arpels.
In 1935, the Blairs’ home in Long Island, New York was robbed of over $100,000 worth of jewelry. The event flooded the newspapers, noting that ten servants were in the house at the time of the robbery and yet, the burglar was able to escape. Mr. Blair had been away for the evening and Mrs. Blair was attending a dinner at the time. The burglary was exposed the following day when Mrs. Blair asked for her jewelry to be brought to her and her maid discovered it missing. Due to the robbery, the Blairs made significant purchases in the late 1930s and 1940s in order to refurbish their collection and attempt to fill the absence of the lost jewels.
The Blairs’ meticulous records provide further insight into the family’s collecting habits. Countless receipts from Cartier reveal the couple’s close relationship with the firm and frequency of their purchases. Original records of this nature and completeness are rare. The inventory listings and past receipts help to also create a timeline of the family’s acquisitions. Diamond covered Art Deco jewels, carved precious stones and natural and cultured pearls were prudently obtained throughout the Blairs’ lives and travels. Their collection was not simply an arbitrary cluster of jewelry acquired over time, but a thoughtful grouping that captured both the elegant lifestyle of the Blairs, as well as the periods of design from which each jewel was created.
The Blairs also kept detailed notes on the jewels they disassembled and reworked as trends changed and new styles emerged. Fellow fashion arbiters, such as the Duchess of Windsor, Daisy Fellows and Mona von Bismarck were also known for recreating their jewelry. They took elements from their existing pieces and refashioned them with new additions to create notable pieces that captured the mood of the period and yet were entirely unique.
Lot 315, the Art Deco multi-gem and diamond elephant brooch, by Boivin, is a brilliant example of Mrs. Blair's awareness of trends and adaptability of style. Through the family’s records, it is known that Mrs. Blair had ordered a tutti fruitti bracelet from Cartier in 1932. By the late 1930s, fashion had changed and the tutti fruitti motif was no longer as desirable as it had been in the decade prior. Mrs. Blair was recognized as a style icon and socialite, but her sense of style went beyond simply wearing a piece of jewelry. In a sketch from Vogue 1947, Mrs. Blair is depicted wearing the elephant brooch at her collar. Intelligently commissioned pieces, such as this brooch that the Boivin workshop was able to adapt from Mrs. Blair's previously owned bracelet, is a true testament to the conceptual creativity she possessed.
In the mid-1950s, an insurance listing and hand-written inventory from the family archives, reveal that the Blairs had also worked with the Boivin workshop to create Lot 296, a gold and diamond watch bracelet. We can speculate that the watch bracelet was created from an antique gold bracelet that was acquired abroad and was married with a Cartier watch face, inscribed at the reverse 'Watson Blair, Glen Head Long Island 12-25-45'. The two pieces come together to create a chic watch bracelet, unique and fashionable.
Their avid selectiveness when purchasing jewelry and the foresight used to bring together different pieces for new creations exemplifies the careful thought that the family put into the items they acquired. The Blairs were not just consumers but intelligent collectors. From jewelry to home furnishings and art, they were tastemakers in their own right and Christie’s is honored to present property from their family collection.
PROPERTY FROM THE BLAIR FAMILY COLLECTION
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By the beginning of the twentieth century, renowned American jewelry house Tiffany had expanded into Europe and had more than a thousand employees, with salons in London, Geneva and Paris. On the corner of Rue de la Paix and the Place de l’Opera, the Paris location placed Tiffany alongside the most prestigious of Parisian jewelers. Not only did Tiffany’s presence in France allow for higher visibility to the firm’s expanding European clientele, the location provided new access to diverse workshops and highly skilled craftsmen, some with specialized techniques which did not yet exist in America. Relationships with these workshops proved to be beneficial for the firm and workshops alike.