Husbands may come and go, but diamonds, as the James Bond film says, are forever.
So it was for Elizabeth Taylor, who had a lifelong love affair with jewelry. Indeed, she even wrote a coffee-table book called “My Love Affair With Jewelry” (Simon & Schuster), a delicious source on the screen legend’s gems, as is Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s made-to-devour “Furious Love” (Harper), about her Puccini-esque relationship with the man she loved so much she married him twice. (Richard Burton, husband Nos. 5 and 6).
As Kashner and Schoenberger write, Taylor had a complex relationship with jewelry, using it to measure her worth as an actress, movie star, sex goddess and wife, even as she deployed it at times to draw attention away from her beauty.
A child star of such memorable classics as “Lassie Come Home” and “National Velvet,” Taylor soon discovered that if diamonds weren’t a girl’s best friend, they were certainly good company.
“She had learned early how to extract gifts from her directors and producers, like tributes paid to royalty by their subjects,” Kasher and Schoenberger write. “Queens are meant to accept tribute and having already become the first actress in history to be given a million-dollar-plus salary for her services (on ‘Cleopatra’), she was the closest thing America had to royalty. She had become accustomed to deference. Even her name befitted a queen.”
This would sometimes create trouble for frugal movie moguls and married producers who didn’t want to get in trouble with their accountants – or wives – by paying gemological homage to Liz, who remained undeterred in her quest for baubles of their affection. As she began filming what was to be one of her greatest roles – the corrosive Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for which she won her second Oscar – Taylor made it clear that she expected Warner Bros.’ head Jack Warner to give her an $80,000 brooch she had her eye on and producer Ernest Lehman to give her a piece of David Webb jewelry. When the men balked for fiscal and marital reasons, respectively, Taylor used jewelry to send a none-too-subtle message, showing off on-set a double rope of 9½-millimeter pearls bestowed on her by Martin Ransohoff, producer of her previous film, “The Sandpiper.”
Her directors were savvier, figuring jewelry was a small price to pay for keeping a goddess happy. Franco Zeffirelli, who directed her and Burton in “The Taming of the Shrew,” gave her a gold bracelet that had belonged to Napoleon’s sister from Bulgari’s flagship on the Via Condotti in Rome – a place that was to play a key role in her electrifying love affair and tempestuous marriages to Burton.
Other directors, faced with insuring the personal gems she often insisted on wearing in her films, were no less resourceful. Anthony Asquith, who directed the couple in “The V.I.P.s,” persuaded her to wear a copy of her emerald and diamond brooch that was part of Bulgari’s “Grand Duchess Vladimir Suite.”
It was this brooch that had signaled the flowering of her relationship with Burton on the set of “Cleopatra” (1963). Beset by paparazzi and Vatican denunciations, Taylor would take refuge in Gianni Bulgari’s aforementioned shop, where Burton bought her the first pieces in the suite, an emerald and diamond necklace with a detachable pendant that became a brooch. (It was, Kashner and Schoenberger write, more than the $100,000 Burton had planned on spending, but still economical, Taylor reasoned, as a two-for-one.)
The generous Burton – a coal miner’s son who took great pride in lavishing jewels on his beloved and expensive gifts on his family – would add the other pieces in “the Grand Duchess Vladimir Suite” to his wife’s collection – a ring, pendant earrings and a bracelet. Other Taylor hubbies displayed their affection in gems as well, with producer Mike Todd (No. 3) giving her a 27-carat diamond she called her “ice skating rink” and singer Eddie Fisher (No. 4) presenting her with a pair of yellow-diamond earrings, a brooch and a matching ring for her 30th birthday, even as she was in the midst of “le scandale,” as Burton called their affair. (Cast off, Fisher later billed her for the jewelry. “I probably paid it,” Taylor cracked.)
Burton’s gifts were the ones that made the headlines. There was “La Peregrina,” the $37,000 pear-shaped pearl that Philip II of Spain gave to his wife, Mary Tudor, elder daughter of Henry VIII, and the 50-carat, heart-shaped Taj Majal diamond, so-called because it belonged to Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj as a monument to his favorite wife, Queen Mumtaz.
No jewel was more famous, though, than the ready-to-be-auctioned, 69.42-carat, 1½-inch long diamond, set in a platinum ring with two smaller diamonds, that Burton frantically acquired from Cartier for $1.1 million in 1969 as he stood by a pay phone at The Bell Inn in Wales, where he and Taylor had gone to see his sick brother, Ifor. Even to this day you have only to mention Taylor’s name to the staff at Cartier’s Fifth Avenue store to elicit an “Ah, the diamond” and a knowing smile.
The Taylor-Burton diamond, as it became known, was the bourn they set how far to be beloved – to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” But it also showed off the multifaceted couple’s sense of humor, as when they appeared on the 1970 season opener of “Here’s Lucy,” in which Lucy (as in Lucille Ball) got the ring stuck on her finger and had to lend Liz a hand, literally, on a receiving line.
Yet if jewelry was a fabulous token of the couple’s love, it could also be dispensed with when that love played itself out. Taylor sold the Taylor-Burton diamond for $3 million during her staid marriage to U.S. Sen. John Warner (No. 7) to help out with their expenses.
“It represented a different phase in my life,” she said. “The fun phase.”
Taylor was about a lot more than the fun phase. “Elizabeth always rose to the occasion when disaster struck,” Kashner and Schoenberger write in “Furious Love,” ready to help friends, family and foes alike, even sending condolences to Joan Rivers, who had made fun of her, when Rivers’ husband died.
A contributor to Jewish causes from the time she converted to the faith in 1959, Taylor really emerged as a philanthropist with her work on behalf of HIV/AIDS sufferers in the 1980s as the disease was gripping the world and few would touch it. Inspired by the death of co-star Rock Hudson, she got in bed with AIDS patients to demonstrate it could not be transmitted casually and co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR) and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, helping to raise more than $270 million. It was as if her movie stardom was but the springboard to her real life’s work.
Even in death – she died at 79 in 2011 – Taylor continues to help others, with a portion of her estate, valued anywhere between $600 million and $1 billion, earmarked for her AIDS charities. That estate has been enriched by the 2011 auction of jewelry, costumes and artwork at Christie’s for $184 million and revenue from her White Diamonds fragrance, which made about $75 million at retail in 2011, according to Forbes magazine.
No doubt Taylor would be pleased. Though she loved possessing gems – sometimes touching them as if they were talismans – she was never possessed by them.
“One day somebody else will have them,” she wrote, “and I hope that new person will love the jewelry and respect it as much as I do. …I’ve never, never thought of my jewelry as trophies. I’m here to take care of it and to love it, for we are only temporary custodians of beauty.”