The value of a special piece of jewellery is not just monetary - a gem with a story attached evokes a great deal about the past, says Lisa Jardine.
The internet auctioneer eBay has won a significant battle in the war over the sale of luxury goods on its site. An American court has ruled that the internationally famous jewellers, Tiffany & Co, failed to prove that eBay was responsible for the sale of fake Tiffany jewellery.
It had been alleged that eBay turned a blind eye to the sale of imitation brand-name jewellery, and that almost three quarters of so-called Tiffany jewellery pieces bought on eBay were counterfeit. The court decided that it was up to the manufacturer to pursue those auctioning counterfeit versions of their goods.
One of the problems for high-profile brand names is, I imagine, that some of today's younger purchasers are quite comfortable with a Tiffany fake - particularly if it comes with plausible pale-blue packaging. High Street shopping has democratised dazzle: this week's must-have imitation designer earrings can be worn with panache, then discarded at the end of the season in favour of something new.
A ring or bracelet, however humble, can be given more lasting value by the memories associated with it. Today, friends or lovers exchanging personal gifts will still expect the stones in these to be real.
The meaningful piece of jewellery par excellence is probably the diamond engagement ring - the modern version of which (a solitaire diamond in a six-prong setting, which raises the stone above the band for extra brilliance) Tiffany claim to have introduced in 1886.
Noses to glass
The crowds queuing to see the new William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery at the V&A Museum in London provide confirmation that it's the real thing that holds our interest.
The gallery with riches within
In well-lit cases, behind non-reflective glass, the visitor can get right up close to each of the over 3,000 glittering gems on display. These cover the entire history of jewellery, beginning with a beaten gold Celtic breast ornament from the late bronze age, which arrests your attention as you enter the gallery.
One among many highlights is the Heneage or Armada jewel, presented by Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Thomas Heneage in the early 1590s. On its front is a gold profile relief of the queen, in a pearl-studded crown and ornate ruff, on a blue enamel ground, surrounded by an intricately worked frame of square cut diamonds and rubies. Inside is an exquisite miniature portrait of Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard.
Then there are the 19th and early 20th Century high society necklaces and tiaras. In one of my early Points of View, I reported that the Poltimore Tiara, worn by Princess Margaret at her wedding, had been sold at auction to a Chinese multi-millionaire. I expressed the hope that British museums would court the new international rich to acquire and display such items (see Museums and the super-rich, linked on right of this page).
Shortly thereafter the V&A acquired the Manchester Tiara - a garland-style diadem made up of more than 15,000 diamonds, commissioned from Cartier in 1903 by the Cuban-American socialite Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester. It now sparkles in pride of place in the new gallery, collecting a crowd around it.
There is a fundamental difference between the gems in the Bollinger Gallery and the glittering ornaments with which women today deck themselves out on special occasions.
On the whole, only the fortunes of really costly, head-turning pieces of jewellery are recorded, as they pass from hand to hand, and generation to generation, thereby establishing a continuous narrative of acquisition and possession.
It is provenance - the story of how particular pieces of jewellery have been lovingly kept and passed down - that provides precious stones with a history. As such, they can, like other material remains, form an important part of our understanding of the past.
Here, for example, is a telling story involving the provenance of a strategically stylish piece of jewellery, from my own recent research.
In March 1641, the Portuguese Jewish gem-dealer Gaspar Duarte wrote from Antwerp to Sir Constantijn Huygens, First Secretary to the Dutch Stadholder - Holland's elected head of state, in The Hague.
The letter informed Huygens that Duarte's son Jacob in London had located a particularly gorgeous piece of jewellery - an elaborate, eye-catching brooch in the latest fashionable style, comprising four individual diamonds in a complicated setting, and designed to be worn on the bodice of a woman's dress.
Duarte was under instructions to find an impressive gift for the Stadholder's 14-year-old son Prince William of Orange to present to his bride-to-be, Charles I's nine-year-old daughter Princess Mary Stuart, on the occasion of their marriage in London that May.
Because of the exceptional beauty of the design and setting, Duarte writes to Huygens, the four diamonds in combination have the impact of a single diamond of value 1 million florins - suitably impressive to be presented by a family of minor royals to the far more prestigious house of Stuart.
Mary, Princess of Orange, circa 1641, the year she wed
On 7 April, Duarte's son arrived in Antwerp with the jewel, and the following day Huygens examined it closely. But a fortnight later negotiations had stalled - the price proposed was, according to Duarte senior, nowhere near high enough. King Charles I had seen the brooch in London (he told Huygens) and offered a considerably higher sum for it.
The suggestion that the English King himself had expressed interest in the piece was a shrewd way of applying commercial pressure, and was apparently successful. On 9 May, Duarte acknowledged receipt of payment of the asking price by Huygens on the Stadholder's behalf.
Shortly afterwards, the young Dutch prince, with an entourage of 250 people, arrived in England for his wedding, and was received at Whitehall Palace, where he presented members of the royal household with diamonds, pearls and other jewellery, to the value of several million pounds in modern money.
The delightful van Dyck wedding portrait of the young couple, now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, shows little Princess Mary wearing her own diamond-studded gift, tied with a ribbon to the bodice of her exquisite silver dress.
What a gem
When the English Civil War broke out less than a year later, Princess Mary and her mother Queen Henrietta Maria fled to the safety of William of Orange's court in The Hague, and the jewelled brooch went with them. Thus within a year, this distinctive, exquisitely crafted, costly piece crossed the English Channel three times.
Examining an old ring
As a piece of political dealing between London and the Netherlands, here is an intriguing story of a luxury object which played a key part in a dynastic marriage - one which brought together the ruling houses of England and the Dutch United Provinces, preparing the way for the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and eventually the Anglo-Dutch joint reign of William and Mary.
The wealthy Dutch Stadholder needed a gift which would impress the English King. The Duartes - suppliers of gems to Charles I in London - were close observers of English royal taste.
The expert advisor to the Stadholder, Sir Constantijn Huygens, was fluent in English and moved freely between England and the United Provinces, rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy on his regular visits to the English and Dutch courts.
The must-have appeal of the diamond brooch cemented relations between two ruling families, successfully straddling the geographical distance between them.
Standing guard outside Tiffany and Co
A story like this one suggests that Tiffany & Co can stop worrying about the general availability of tawdry take-offs of their jewellery, offered for sale by unscrupulous vendors on the internet. In the end, it is the desire for the real thing that triumphs, producing objects of enduring beauty like those on display in the Bollinger Gallery.
Most of us neither could, nor would wish to own such objects (personally, just the cost of keeping them safe would fill me with dread). But, the well-documented stories of their commissioning, who bought and wore them, who coveted and acquired them, together form a vital part of the historical record.
In some cases, indeed, posterity remembers individuals and whole family lines simply because of the name which attaches to a particularly striking heirloom, and the stories associated with it.
After all, how many of us would remember the name of Sir Thomas Heneage, had his reward for provisioning the land troops in preparation for a Spanish invasion in 1588 not taken the form of the fabulous Armada jewel?
Below is a selection of your comments.
Interestingly, there is a Heneage Lane in the City of London - on the corner of Bevis Marks. The Synagogue at Bevis Marks is for the Spanish and Portuguese community, who moved here from Holland and the synagogue building itself is a smaller size replica of the S&P Synagogue in Amsterdam. So now we now how Heneage Lane got its name. Thanks.
Barbara Harris, London, England
My family has a story about a Wedgwood plate handed down from Josiah Wedgwood himself in gratitude for services rendered by one of my ancestors (a governess at the time, apparently). My mum first told me about it when I was 18 and she presented me with a Wedgwood brooch. There's a letter attached to the plate with the names of all the previous owners of the plate as it was handed down over the years to the present. The plate is now in the possession of a distant relative. It's a fascinating tale to tell whenever I wear the brooch and anyone asks me about it.
B Elton, Rep of Ireland
Tiffany has every reason to worry: who wants to be seen in Burberry these days, real or fake, now the chavs have made it their own? The same may happen to Tiffany (or "Tiffan-ay" as I hear it called): once every Sharon in Essex is wearing fakes, the wealthy won't be seen dead in the real stuff. The brand's value is tied to its exclusivity, and once the exclusivity has gone, so has the value, and the brand.
Rob, London, UK
It seems disappointing that space has been given to article about the provenance of jewellery that entirely fails to acknowledge the human rights abuse and environmental damage inflicted by the trade both in the past and today that forms part of the backstory of many pieces. Maybe fake is better than conflict.
Charles I and his Queen Henrietta Maria were not English. The King was of Scots/French and Danish origin (and the grandson of Marie Stuart who was half-French) and his wife was the sister of Louis XIII; their mother was Marie de Medici (Italian) and their father Henri IV (French). However they were monarchs of England. Hence the Uncle of Charles II and James II was Louis XIII and why they were often at court in France and under his protection when they were young.
Yes Lisa, "diamonds are forever" - you're a trustee of the V&A and De Beers is a major sponsor of your organisation. It's just a pity the BBC seem to have so little interest in ensuring full disclosure - yes even with PR pieces like this masquerading as "opinion".
Couldn't give a proverbial, love real stuff but as long it's a good fake, don't care! Wear a diamond choker, love it, is it real? Put it this way, it would cost a fortune and the diamond trade makes enough.
Carole Young, Glasgow, Scotland
We now know that precious gems are only made precious by excellent marketing. Compare diamonds with their synthetically manufactured imitators, cubic zirconia. We measure diamonds by clarity, cut, colour and carat but cz gems beat them at all four. They are flawlessly clear, sharply cut, totally colourless, and heavier by size - so what are diamonds good for? Nothing. Gems and jewellery with interesting history is fine, but spiking the article with cynicism towards fake gems wrecks any credibility from that point on. In fact, fake gems have the most interesting history of all.
It's funny but when I read "history" relating to diamonds I thought somehow the article would be about the poor souls who had to dig these rocks out of the ground and suffered. I thought it would be about the countries who have been ripped apart by civil wars in order for someone to have control over the mines. They are just shiny rocks. We need to stop over-esteeming pretty things. Like the author says, owning something priceless turns your life into a nightmare of protecting it from thieves.
Yet another report concentrating on detail and missing the main point. Two teenage children getting married - passed over without comment.
Who cares what people sell on eBay. As long as it's not stolen or mis-described, who cares if it's a copy? I own an imitation Rolex. It was sold as a imitation of a Rolex. If I tried to sell it as a real Rolex that would be fraud. If I sell it then I shall sell it as an imitation.
George Cowley, Columbia, SC, US
Surely the difference isn't between real and imitation, but between pieces with and without history? Costume jewellery with a history can already command high prices. And one person's fake might be another's treasure (eg red spinel).
Chris, Cambridge, UK