Watches owned by jazz legend Billie Holiday, pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart and Gilded Age socialite Florence Preston Graves are offered in An Evening of Exceptional Watches on 7 December in New York
In 1958 Frank Sinatra told Ebony magazine, ‘Lady Day [Billie Holiday] is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years.’ When the pioneering jazz vocalist was given the platinum and diamond-set Gruen watch below in 1938 — offered in An Evening of Exceptional Watches on 7 December in New York — her career was firmly set on the path that would lead her to become a legend of 20th-century music.
Born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore in 1915, the singer moved to New York with her mother when she was a teenager. In Harlem she discovered one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country, and began to sing in obscure nightclubs. Her adopted professional name was inspired by Billie Dove, a star of the silver screen, and the father she barely knew, musician Clarence Holiday.
Holiday made her first recording as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman when she was just 18. In 1935 she recorded four tracks that became hits, including What a Little Moonlight Can Do, and the following year began working with Lester Young, who gave her the affectionate moniker, Lady Day. In 1937 she became a big-band vocalist with Count Basie, and in 1938 joined up with Artie Shaw, becoming one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra.
That year, her star seemingly burning brighter with each performance, Holiday was given the watch pictured above — inscribed To Billie From David, 1938, by an unnamed admirer.
Holiday would die tragically young, aged just 44 in 1959. In her obituary, The New York Times described the period in which she was given the watch as a pivotal moment of her career: ‘Miss Holiday came into her own as a singing star when she appeared at Café Society in New York in 1938 for the major part of the year,’ it noted. ‘During that engagement she established trademarks that followed her for many years — the swatch of gardenias in her hair, her fingers snapping lazily with the rhythm, her head cocked back at a jaunty angle as she sang.’
For those in the audience mesmerised by her performances of that time, it seems quite likely that the flashes of brilliant diamonds from the bracelet watch worn on her wrist would have been an integral part of her enduring mystique.
A token of friendship between two pioneering women of the 1930s, this silver Tiffany travel watch, created circa 1932, was given by the British aviator Amy Johnson to American aviator Amelia Earhart. The watch is engraved on the back of the case, ‘To Amelia, In Sincere Admiration, Amy’.
Johnson had much to admire. In 1932, the 34-year-old Earhart had become the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. It was the culmination of a magnificent feat of focus and endurance that lasted for 14 hours and 56 minutes, during which she contended with strong northerly winds, icy conditions and mechanical problems. Earhart landed in a field near Derry in Northern Ireland. When a farmhand asked her, ‘Have you flown far?’ the nonchalant pilot replied, ‘From America.’
Johnson, in turn, was a daring ‘aviatrix’ who in 1930 had become the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. Bound by their worldly visions and pioneering feats, the two women became close friends, and were united in their efforts to promote female rights, equality and education.
Earhart and Johnson overcame challenges not just in the field of aviation, but also in a wider world that restricted opportunity for women. This watch is offered from the family of George Putnam, the book publisher whom Earhart agreed to marry in 1931. In typically independent spirit, however, Earhart refused to adopt Putnam’s name as her own.
Florence Preston Graves
In the autumn of 1895, when Florence Preston became engaged to the financier Henry Graves, Jr., The New York Times hailed their union as one of ‘social prominence’. And well might these two twenty-somethings be considered a golden couple of the Gilded Age.
Preston’s family tree stretched back to Emperor Charlemagne; her ancestors witnessed the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Graves, the scion of a wealthy New Jersey family, is perhaps best remembered as one of the most important watch collectors of the 20th century. Graves commissioned the ‘Graves Supercomplication’, the Patek Philippe masterpiece that took seven years to craft entirely by hand. In 1933 the watch was delivered with 24 complications — among them a stunning celestial chart calibrated to replicate the night sky above the Graves’ Manhattan apartment.
Together the couple lived a life that can only be described as sumptuous, residing with their four children in a 27-room mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson that featured a ballroom complete with Tiffany windows. Throughout their marriage, Graves gifted his wife many stunning pieces of jewellery, several of which reflected his outsized interest in timepieces. Two of these pieces, both from the original family, are offered in An Evening of Exceptional Watches.
A spectacular platinum wristwatch, by Patek Philippe, features 3.54 carats worth of baguette diamonds. Presented to Florence in 1928, it is a dazzling example of the Art Deco style.
On a subsequent occasion, Graves presented his wife with a Marcus & Co. gold-and-enamel pendant with a removable butterfly brooch. Fashioned circa 1930 in the Egyptian revivalist style for which Marcus & Co was famous, it contains many of the brand’s trademarks, including the use of peridot gemstones, detailed blue-and-green enamel work, and lotus flowers embedded in the 12-inch gold chain.
The Patek Philippe wristwatch and Marcus & Co. pendant watch are believed to be the only known pieces from Florence Graves’ personal collection to surface at market. A portion of the proceeds from their sale will go to the preservation of Henry Graves Jr.’s family camp in the Adirondacks, which he donated to the New Jersey Girls Scouts in 1937.