A marginal obsession of mine is the Duchess of Windsor - christened by the late Queen Mother as 'that woman' and viewed as either villainous or vilified according, it seems, to each individual's reading of her actions. Wallis Simpson, née Spencer, née Warfield, was either an innocent bystander, drawn into a web of political intrigue and possibly used as an excuse for Edward to renounce a throne he never really wanted; or an evil harlot, both American and a Divorcée in a period when either was enough to render one a social pariah, who ensnared the Golden-haired Prince of Wales with her sexual wiles and forced him to surrender his beloved Britain, empire and all, to be enslaved by her. As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two: Wallis was a double-edged sword, a two-faced coin, and continues to inspired fierce debate and interest. Hence the pull of Sotheby's latest sale - with the rather unwieldly title 'Exceptional Jewels & Precious Objects formerly in the Collection of the Duchess of Windsor' - viewing over the next two days at Sotheby's Bond Street following a worldwide tour, and going under the hammer tomorrow evening.
It's striking, but perhaps expected, that these jewels still seem sharp and contemporary today. The one thing - possibly the only thing - that is never disputed is the Duchess of Windsor's enduring status as a fashion icon. Her chic, often gracing the world's best-dressed lists, was dubbed 'Cocktail-shaker chic': an apt jazz-age (ish) description for the clean, crisp and fuss-free lines of her clothing. These were first created by interwar couturiers such as Molyneux and Mainbocher - the latter designed her startling blue wedding trousseau - and in later years by Dior's Marc Bohan, Balenciaga and his disciple Givenchy. The Duchess kept her clothes simple as foils for her spectacular jewels - a Prince of Wales triple-ostrich emblem in purest diamonds, for example, a mogul emerald the size of a duck-egg worn as an engagement ring, or a panther perched atop a 150-something carat Kashmir cabochon sapphire. That trio was just a fraction of the 306 lots offered by Sotheby's in 1987, when the Duchess' jewels made a breathtaking £31 million - still the most valuable single-owner jewellery collection ever sold.
The twenty lots that make up the latest Sotheby's sale mix famed pieces with more unusual and less-known items, and include pieces used by both the Duke and Duchess - engraved gold cigarette cases, bejewelled suites of evening buttons and a photograph of Queen Mary surmounted by precious gems. The high profile pieces, however, are the gem-encrusted items taken from the Duchess' personal collection - a heart-shaped diamond brooch given to commemorate their twentieth wedding anniversary, the articulated panther bracelet (unusually purchased by the Duchess rather than the Duke), and the shoulder-span flamingo, set by Cartier from a necklace and four bracelets belonging to the Duchess. This practice of dismantling older jewels to create new and exciting creations was a leitmotif of the Duchess' collection, reminiscent of her reported intention to have the whole of Buckingham Palace redecorated in hyper-modern thirties style by Syrie Maugham. Perhaps such disregard for British history also gave rise to the apocryphal that the Duke presented her with Queen Alexandra's emeralds, which the Duchess summarily had re-set to appear less dowdy.
However, despite stories such as that, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's relationship was extremely sentimental - and their sentiments were often expressed through jewels. Engravings abound, whether in jokey phrases such as 'No excuse for going in the wrong direction' scrawled across an oval gold watch/compass/sundial, or the simple 'Wallis from Edward, 1947' inscribed inside a solid-gold evening clutch. The most striking example, however, is the Duchess' gem-set cross bracelet - a chain spectacle-set with diamonds and suspending nine crosses. Each cross commemorated a trial or tribulation in their life together, with inscription to match - they were her 'crosses to bear'. Hence the 'X-ray Cross' and 'Appendectomy Cross' were presented following Wallis' spells in hospital, and one simply engraved 'The King's Cross' commemorates (and perhaps apologises for) a lover's tiff. The 'Abdication Cross', of course, needs no explanation.
Why is this collection notable? Besides the incredible quality of the stones and the fact the pieces could still easily be worn (albeit with an armed guard or three), these jewels are steeped with history - not only the history of one of the most photographed and written-about couples of all time, or that of the greatest love-story of the twentieth century, but indeed the political history of the monarchy, Great Britain, and the the world at large. That long-winded title, it seems, is bang on the money: these are truly exceptional pieces in every sense of the word, and this is a once in a lifetime chance to see them up-close.
'Exceptional Jewels & Precious Objects formerly in the Collection of the Duchess of Windsor' is on view until 16:30 GMT on Tuesday 30 November. The auction will take place at 19:00 GMT.