Specialist Daphne Lingon on the ‘very special moment’ she set eyes on an exceptional piece once owned by a style icon
Described by Harper’s Bazaar in October 1927 as ‘extremely popular in the younger fashionable set’, Wolcott and Ellen Yuille Blair were widely admired for their sense of fashion and design from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Wolcott was the grandson of the founder of the Merchants Bank of Chicago, and Ellen Yuille, his wife, was a lifelong friend of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. They often appeared together in magazines and newspapers that featured fine living and society’s best dressed.
In 1935 the Blair family home in Long Island, New York, was robbed of more than $100,000 worth of jewellery. The burglary was covered extensively in the newspapers, which reported that although ten staff members had been in the house at the time of the theft, the perpetrator had still managed to escape. The crime was only discovered the following day when Mrs. Blair, who had attended a dinner the previous evening, asked that her jewels be brought to her, only to discover them missing.
Despite the family’s loss, the Blairs’ love of jewels persisted. In the late 1930s and ’40s they began to source exceptional pieces in an attempt to rebuild and grow their collection. The theft prompted them to keep meticulous records for their new acquisitions which, today, provide further insight into the family’s collecting habits, with countless receipts from Cartier revealing the couple’s close relationship with the firm and the frequency of their purchases.
Christie’s international jewellery specialist Daphne Lingon recalls the first time she saw the emerald, pearl and diamond flower brooch by Cartier pictured above. ‘We were in Florida, at the home of the Blairs’ son, Watson,’ she recalls. ‘We began opening up boxes and found one lovely piece after another. This jewel was like finding a treasure.’
Our specialists pored over the extensive collection of receipts and records that had been meticulously kept by the family. ‘We know this piece was purchased at Cartier in New York in 1946, but that it could have been made earlier, say, in the 1920s or ’30s,’ says Lingon. ‘Emeralds are very soft compared to diamonds or sapphires, so carving an emerald, like this flower blossom, without breaking it is an incredible achievement and a testament to the carver’s expertise. This brooch incorporates the influential Indian style of the period with Cartier’s exceptional design, workmanship and detailed execution.’
The Blairs kept detailed notes on the jewels they disassembled and reworked as trends changed and new styles emerged. Fellow arbiters of fashion, such as the Duchess of Windsor, Daisy Fellowes and Mona von Bismarck, were also known for recreating their jewellery. They took elements from their existing pieces and refashioned them with new additions, thereby creating notable pieces that captured the mood of the period and yet were entirely unique.
‘What’s most remarkable is that this beautiful brooch has remained intact for 70 years and in the same family throughout,’ adds Lingon. ‘It’s the best of all worlds.’