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Live like a Rockefeller — A Raymond Yard engagement ring

Daphne Lingon, Head of Jewellery in New York, contemplates the ‘dramatic’ diamond ring with which David Rockefeller proposed to Peggy McGrath in 1940, and the family’s enduring relationship with one of America’s most celebrated jewellers

The winter of 1939-40 was an enjoyable one for David Rockefeller, the lengthening shadow of war notwithstanding. When not working on his doctoral dissertation, he was pursuing an idyllic courtship with Peggy McGrath, whom he had first met at a debutante party on Long Island. 

At Kykuit, the Rockefeller family home in Pocantico Hills, New York, David recalled how the couple ‘listened to the player organ together or picnicked at some beautiful spot, where we would go on horseback’, and ‘took long walks together through the woods, talking for hours on end’. Finally, in June 1940, David drew out all his savings — about $4,000 — and asked Peggy to marry him.

A diamond ring, by Raymond Yard. Set with a cut-cornered rectangular step-cut diamond, weighing approximately 5.63 carats, with epaulet and triangular-cut diamond shoulders, 1940. Estimate $80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in the Magnificent Jewels & The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller sale on 12 June at Christies in New York

A diamond ring, by Raymond Yard. Set with a cut-cornered rectangular step-cut diamond, weighing approximately 5.63 carats, with epaulet and triangular-cut diamond shoulders, 1940. Estimate: $80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in the Magnificent Jewels & The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller sale on 12 June at Christie's in New York

This ring, selected from Raymond Yard for the occasion, featured a rectangular, step-cut diamond weighing 5.63 carats. ‘We don’t know much about other gifts David gave Peggy while they were dating, but this one speaks volumes about the level of their commitment,’ says Daphne Lingon, Christie’s Head of Jewellery in New York.

Raymond Yard began his career as a 13-year-old messenger at Marcus & Co. in New York. After rising to become one of the jewellery house’s most sought-after salesmen, Yard had established on his own in 1922 with the encouragement of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had been impressed by Yard’s knowledge and honest demeanour. 

‘Whether they were buying directly from him, or he was advising them on purchases from elsewhere, Raymond Yard remained a steadfast guide for the Rockefellers’

The relationship between Raymond Yard and the Rockefellers continued for decades,’ Lingon explains. ‘Whether they were buying directly from him, or he was advising them on significant purchases from elsewhere, he remained a steadfast guide for them — a sounding board and an expert in the field.’

In addition to the Rockefellers, Yard’s clientele included members of the Woolworth, Flagler, Du Pont, Harriman and Vanderbilt families. He was known for his classic designs and superb diamonds, natural pearls and gemstones, also evident in the five other Raymond Yard pieces that will go on sale at Christie’s on 12 June, alongside 13 other jewels from Peggy Rockefeller’s collection. ‘They are all exquisite pieces featuring exceptional gemstones,’ says Lingon.

Peggy’s engagement ring was returned to Mr Yard in 1959 to be reset, with epaulet and triangular-cut diamonds added on either side of the central diamond. The side diamonds are a good match for the ‘dramatic, elongated rectangular design’ of the central diamond, notes Lingon.

For David Rockefeller, meanwhile, the ring continued to represent the pinnacle of enlightened thinking. ‘Asking Peggy to marry me was the best decision I ever made,’ he wrote many years later.