There are 10 most iconic jewels throughout history. The iconic Koh-i-Noor diamondis just one of the famous jewels that have recently made headlines, as it is at the center of a story about King Charles' upcoming coronation.
Last month, Kim Kardashian made headlines when she paid £163,800 for a unique crucifix pendant worn frequently by Diana, Princess of Wales.
The US reality TV star, who also purchased Jackie Kennedy's Cartier Tank watch in 2017, is said to be amassing a jewelrycollection honoring the women who have inspired her. Helen Molesworth, curator of jewelry at London's V&A said:
An illustrious past can add huge value to a jewel, all the more so if that previous owner was extremely glamorous and had built a jewelry collection, like Princess Margaret or Elizabeth Taylor.- Helen Molesworth
Of course, a jewel is valuable for its quality and aesthetic beauty, she observes, adding that "the jeweler who created it can add cachet if they're a well-known designer," but it's a piece's provenance that will most often define it as truly exceptional.
Several remarkable gemstonesand exceptional jewelry designs have acquired histories that have made them indisputably iconic or downright infamous over time. From devout lovesymbols to colonial conquest symbols, "cursed" diamondsto bold fashion choices, we reveal the stories behind 10 of the world's most legendary pieces of jewelry.
Kardashian's eye-catching cross, with square-cut amethysts offset by 5.2-carat diamonds, was designed by London jeweler Garrard in the 1920s. The late Diana, Princess of Wales, was a fan of the company, and it was the firm that designed her engagement ring.
However, the bejeweled pendant was never Diana's; it was loaned to her on several occasions by its namesake, Naim Attallah, Diana's close friend and joint managing director of Asprey & Garrard at the time, who, according to his son, only ever allowed the princess to wear it. Molesworth says of Kardashian:
She's a self-made woman, buying for herself: a great signal for class and gender equality in the commercial collecting world.- Molesworth
The crucifix, bold and brilliant, represents a shift in Diana's increasingly empowered style during the 1980s. "To some extent, this unusual pendant is symbolic of the princess's growing self-assurance in her sartorial and jewelry choices, at that particular moment in her life," Kristian Spofforth, head of jewelry at Sotheby's London, said before the sale.
For example, in October 1987, she wore the giant cross to the Birthright charity ball, paired with what is thought to be her own pearl necklace and a dramatic, Elizabethan-style dress in a complementary purple.
The Black Orlov Diamond, a cushion-shaped, 67.49-carat stone with a distinct gun-metal hue and a bone-chilling accompanying legend, is perhaps the rarest of its kind. According to legend, the original 195-carat rough diamond was stolen from an idol of the Hindu god Brahma in a 19th-century shrine in India.
After being cursed, the diamond is said to have killed its thief and led to the suicides of three of its owners: a Russian princess named Nadia Vygin-Orlov, one of her relatives, and JW Paris, the diamond dealer who imported it to the United States.
Recent scholarship, however, has cast doubt on this early history, with experts believing that the diamond did not originate in India at all, and questioning the existence of Nadia Vygin-Orlov.
What is known is that the diamond was eventually re-cut into three separate gems in the hopes of breaking the curse and that subsequent owners of the Black Orlov - now mounted as a pendant with a diamond laurel wreath surround - appear to have escaped unharmed.
La Peregrina, a stunning pear-shaped pearl discovered off the coast of Panama in 1576, has a backstory as interesting as its shape. "It's simply one of – if not the most – perfect pearls in the world, and carries great history as well as romance," says Helen Molesworth of the V&A.
The pearl, which weighed 202.24 grains (50.56 carats), was purchased by Philip II of Spain for his bride, Queen Mary I of England, and passed down through Spanish royalty before falling into the hands of Napoleon's older brother, Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte.
Much later, in 1969, Richard Burton purchased it for Elizabeth Taylor and remounted it on a Cartier necklace. "It's a great love story, but also a fun one," says Molesworth of this chapter in the pearl's history. "Taylor recounted in her autobiography how once while sitting on the sofa with Burton, she realized the pearl had come loose from its chain.
She looked down to catch her puppy chewing something on the carpet – the pearl was between his teeth. Fortunately, she managed to recover it relatively unscathed." La Peregrina was auctioned off by Christie's New York in 2011 for $11,842,500, making it the most expensive natural pearl ever sold.
The "cursed" Hope diamond, another spellbinding diamond with a sinister past, is the crown jewel of the Smithsonian Museum's National Gem Collection. Arabella Hiscox, the jewelry specialist at Christie's London, says of the 45.52-carat gem, which is the largest known diamond of its kind.
It's a very rare deep-blue diamond, named after one of its owners. When exposed to ultraviolet light, it glows blood red, adding to its mystique.- Arabella Hiscox
In his 1996 book, The Unexplained, Karl Shuker recounts how the Hope was "impiously plucked [from] the brow of an Indian temple idol" by a Hindu priest, who was then said to have sparked the curse and suffered accordingly.
The diamond was purchased by Louis XIV of France in 1668, only to be stolen during the French Revolution amid whispers that Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette had succumbed to its curse.
The Hope was set in the striking white-diamond necklace it now adorns by Pierre Cartier, who sold it to the ill-fated mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean in 1912. "Two of McLean's children are said to have died whilst she was wearing it," Hiscox explains.
The Hope's then-owner, jeweler Harry Winston, donated it to the Smithsonian in 1958 in what Hiscox calls a "very clever tax write-off" - and, now encased, its curse appears to have been lifted.
The infamous love affair between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, who abdicated the British throne in 1936 to be with the US socialite, can be traced in many ways through the awe-inspiring collection of bespoke Cartier jewelry that the duo commissioned for one another throughout their lives - much of which was sold by Sotheby's in a 2010 auction.
Simpson's 1952 onyx-and-diamond-encrusted panther bracelet, complete with searing emerald eyes, was the auction's star, a gift from Edward during the couple's exile in Paris.
"This piece has almost every quality that renders a piece of jewelry iconic," Sotheby's Paris head of jewelry Magali Teisseire tells BBC Culture. "It's very important within the history of Cartier. It was designed by [the pioneering female jewelry designer] Jeanne Toussaint, nicknamed 'La Panthère' by Louis Cartier, who conceived their original panther designs.
So you have the quality, the storied design, and of course the romantic provenance." Madonna, who was filming the Simpson biopic WE at the time, is said to have tried on the bracelet before the auction, but the buyer, who paid a whopping £4.5 million for the feline finery, was never revealed.
The 105.6-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond, one of the world's largest cut diamonds, is also one of the most contentious of the British Crown Jewels.
Originally thought to have been mined in medieval South India, the diamond's written provenance dates only back to 1628 when it adorned the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan's gem-encrusted throne.
In 1739, the throne was plundered by the Persian ruler Nader Shan during his invasion of Delhi, and the diamond was carried off to what is now Afghanistan.
The stone then "passed between the hands of various rulers in one blood-soaked episode after another," according to Smithsonian Magazine, before resurfacing in India, landing in the lap of Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh in 1813.
The East India Company, which was already colonizing much of the Asian subcontinent, heard about the diamond around this time and, enchanted by its mythological status, was determined to claim it.
They did so in 1849, forcing the 10-year-old heir to the Punjabi throne to give up both the diamond and the throne, and presenting the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria. The stone was mocked for its lack of brilliance at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and it was later re-cut and polished amid rumors that it bore a curse.
The Koh-i-Noor currently adorns the late Queen Mother's crown, but the governments of India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan have all demanded that this unique symbol of colonial conquest be returned.
"In terms of people you want to have owned your jewelry, Marie Antoinette is high on the list," says Arabella Hiscox of Christie's. And the proof is in the pudding, or cake, as it were: a 10-piece jewel collection once owned by the French queen and later purchased by the Bourbon-Parma family sold for millions at a record-breaking Sotheby's auction in 2018.
A beautiful natural pearl pendant was the highest-selling piece from the storied collection, which had been hand-wrapped and placed in a wooden chest by Marie Antoinette and sent to Brussels shortly before her capture.
But it is a tiny monogrammed pinky ringthat Sotheby's Magali Teisseire deems the most special. She said:
It features the letters MA in diamonds, and inside is a lock of Marie Antoinette's hair. It's an incredibly intimate piece and a ring she wore very often. I remember asking the specialist who had valued the pieces how much such rare provenance could garner. The answer is a lot. The estimate was 8–10,000 Swiss Francs, and we sold it for 50 times that.- Magali Teisseire
This one-of-a-kind yellow diamond, purchased by Tiffany & Co-founder Charles Lewis Tiffany in the 1870s and made famous by Audrey Hepburn in publicity photos for the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's, has a troubled history.
The 128.54-carat gem has only been worn by four women: socialite Mary Whitehouse, Audrey Hepburn (who wore it set in a Ribbon Rosette necklace by Tiffany jeweller Jean Schlumberger), and Lady Gaga and Beyoncé (who both wore it in a more modern context: a 2012 necklace containing 100 carats of white diamonds).
However, the dazzling diamond's air of exclusivity has drawn scrutiny to the stone's far murkier origins.
The diamond was discovered in South Africa's Kimberley mine in 1877, where black laborers were notoriously subjected to dreadful working conditions and pitiful wages under British colonial rule.
In a 2021 column for the Washington Post, writer Karen Attiah argues that while the term "blood diamond" usually refers to "resources used by dangerous militias and warlords to finance their operations", the label should be extended to include diamonds such as this one, in acknowledgment of the "thousands of African lives that were lost and communities destroyed in the colonial quest to control the continent's resources".
One of the most symbolic treasures in the V&A's illustrious jewelry collection is a "beautiful but bijou sapphireand diamond coronet" designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria in 1840, the year they married.
It was created by Joseph Kitching of London's Kitching and Abud jewelers and remained one of Victoria's most prized possessions throughout her life.
"She famously wore the tiara as a closed circlet around her bun as a young woman, and again, in mourning, on her widow's cap: clearly a way for her to keep her beloved Albert close," Molesworth says.
According to Molesworth, sapphires are a particularly symbolic gem for the Royal Family, datingback to Albert's designs for Victoria and continuing through Diana's engagement ring. "They symbolize the blue of royalty, as well as faith and trust, so are ideal for marriage."
Finally, the deeply significant piece does what the very best jewels do, according to Molesworth: "contain both a public signal and personal meaning."
The historic Napoleon diamond necklace was given to the French emperor's second wife, Marie-Louise, in 1811, upon the birth of their son, Napoleon II, Emperor of Rome.
According to the Smithsonian, the stunning silverand golddesign was conceived by Etienne Nitôt and Sons of Paris and originally featured 234 diamonds: 28 old mine-cut diamonds, nine pendeloques, and ten briolettes enhanced by numerous smaller gems. Hiscox says of the necklace's hypnotic appeal:
All of the stones were mined in India or Brazil, where the best diamonds came from at this point. They have this extraordinary limpid, water-like quality.- Hiscox
Following Napoleon's defeat, his Hapsburg wife and her many jewels returned to her native Vienna, and the necklace was passed to her sister-in-law Sophie of Austria after her death.
The archduchess decided to shorten it by removing two stones and transforming them into earrings, the whereabouts of which are unknown at this time.
Meanwhile, the necklace remained in the family until 1948, when it was sold to a French collector, and then to US businesswoman Marjorie Merriweather Post, who donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1962. There, it is still regarded as "one of the most spectacular pieces of [its] period," according to Hiscox.