Elizabeth Taylor swam in a vintage diamond tiara.
Three months into her marriage to Michael Todd, the producer came home to the villa they’d rented outside Monte Carlo to discover Taylor swimming laps while wearing the jeweled adornment. Her third husband had given the tiara to her with the words, “You’re my queen.” As if that wasn’t enough, he had a red leather box in his hand that day, and inside was a glittering ruby necklace with matching earrings.
Throughout her life, Taylor had many affairs of the heart, but her most enduring passion was her unparalleled jewelry. “How many young women get a set of rubies just for doing something wholesome like swimming laps? Or win a diamond ring at pingpong with their husband, or find a perfect pearl in the soft little mouth of their sweetest puppy? Well, I did,” the actress, who counted on the men in her life to provide, wrote in her 2002 book My Love Affair With Jewelry. Once, after an argument, Richard Burton gave her a pavé diamond-heart necklace. “That man knew how to make up!” Taylor noted in her book.
That passion and acquisitive nature helped her amass one of the world’s pre-eminent private collections of exquisite rubies, emeralds and diamonds, each with a personal story — a rarity now that everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Angelina Jolie borrows their baubles. Taylor’s trove, which includes pieces from Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron, is reportedly valued at $150 million and will likely be auctioned by Christie’s for her AIDS foundation and amfAR, the charity she helped found near the beginning of the epidemic in 1985.
Decolletage never shone so brilliantly — its diamonds, like their wearer, were larger than life. The two most celebrated are the 33.19-carat Asscher cut Krupp diamond and the 69.42-carat pear-shaped Taylor-Burton diamond, both presents from Burton. “There are many great love stories with Elizabeth Taylor and Cartier, but my favorite is the Taylor-Burton diamond,” says Emmanuel Perrin, president and CEO of Cartier North America. “Originally she wore it as a ring but later had Cartier design a necklace. It was the first time a diamond was sold for more than $1 million!”
It’s unlikely Taylor would have been able to pick a favorite gem from her jewelry box. Asked what she would tell someone to buy if they could only own three pieces of jewelry, she said: “Start with a glamorous ring and earrings, I’d say. They are the basics for me. A pair of long, drippy chandelier earrings — diamond, of course. A beautiful pin is an add-on … or a necklace. Oh God, I also love bracelets!”
Shopping in Monte Carlo Circa 1958
While on holiday, Taylor tried on a diamond Cartier necklace at Monte Carlo’s Hotel de Paris. Hotel shop windows, she once said, “have always been my downfall.” On occasion, top jewelers even flew in special pieces to show her wherever the star was vacationing or residing.
Van Cleef & Arpels Daisy Necklace | Acquired 1993
One of the only pieces Taylor ever borrowed was this yellow-diamond daisy choker with chrysoprase leaves from Van Cleef & Arpels. After weariing it to the 65th Annual Academy Awards, where she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, she decided it was her new lucky charm. She brought it from the jeweler to add to her private collection.
Diamond Chandelier Earrings | Acquired 1957
Taylor found the antique chandeliers while staying at the Ritz in Paris with Michael Todd.
“I was smitten and wore them whenever I could — and they weren’t even real diamonds!” Taylor wrote in her book. After they returned to New York, Todd surprised Taylor and had the earrings remade with real diamonds. “Mike was so incredibly inventive!” Here, Taylor wears them at 1958’s Golden Globes and again at the Oscars in 1992.
Bulgari Emerald Necklace and Drop Earrings | Acquired 1962
“One of the biggest advantages to working on Cleopatra in Rome was Bulgari’s nice little shop,” Taylor wrote of finding this 60.5-carat necklace and 20.64-carat earrings while on location. “Richard gave me some spectacular gifts on birthdays and Christmas, but in truth he’d use any excuse to give me a piece of jewelry.”
Taylor-Burton Diamond by Cartier | Acquired 1969
The 69.42-carat Taylor-Burton diamond was purchased at auction by Cartier in 1969 for more than $1 million, but Burton persuaded the jeweler to sell it (for $50,000 more than what they’d paid) after promising to let them display the flawless stone in the window of their New York flagship. Taylor debuted the sparkler at Princess Grace’s 40th birthdayparty in 1969 in Monaco, making a grand entrance with machine gun-armed guards.
Early 16th century “La Peregrina” Pearl | Acquired 1969
Burton bought the natural pearl at auction for $37,000 in January 1969. “Not long after I received the pearl, we saw a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, and that’s when I decided how I wanted to set it — we took pictures of the painting to Cartier to have them design a setting,” Taylor wrote of having the natural teardrop pearl, once part of the Spanish crown jewels, suspended from a diamond-and-ruby drop necklace. Above: Taylor wears the bauble at a Beverly Hills gala, circa 1988.
Bulgari Sapphire Necklace | Acquired 1972
A gift from Burton for Taylor’s 40th birthday, the 50-carat sugarloaf cabochon sapphire could be worn long (photo circa 1972, above) or doubled around the neck to emphasize the Art Deco-style pendant. “Richard learned so much about jewelry, and his taste became so refined — he loved to watch my reaction to any piece he was considering buying for me,” Taylor wrote.