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The 20th century's most stunning jewels ... with a price tag to prove it

By Stefano Papi and Alexandra Rhodes, Special to CNN
updated 10:57 AM EST, Thu December 12, 2013
This week, some of the most magnificent gems ever made will be sold at auctions from New York to Dallas for millions of dollars. At Christie's <a href='' target='_blank'>Magnificent Jewels</a> auction on December 10, this art deco "Tutti Frutti" bracelet by Cartier sold for $2,045,000 This week, some of the most magnificent gems ever made will be sold at auctions from New York to Dallas for millions of dollars. At Christie's Magnificent Jewels auction on December 10, this art deco "Tutti Frutti" bracelet by Cartier sold for $2,045,000
Auction frenzy
Precious provenance
Jewels of 20th century
Dawn of a new era
One of a kind
Old gems in new times
Beauty from the depth
Elegant splendor
Pharaoh frenzy
Crown jewels
Vivid colors
Exotic opulence
Jewels of 20th century
La Divina
Jewels of 20th century
Jewels of 20th century
Jewels of 20th century
  • In the past few decades some of the world's most fabulous jewels have been auctioned
  • If a gem belonged to a notable historic personality its could drastically increase its price
  • Roaring twenties brought more freedom to women who broke from trends of the past
  • This was reflected in a new style of jewelry, with historic gems put in new settings

Editor's note: Stefano Papi is an author and world renowned jewelery historian. Alexandra Rhodes is senior director of Sotheby's. The are co-authors of "20th Century Jewelry and the Icons of Style", published by Thames and Hudson.

(CNN) -- An object of beauty and desire, a jewel also provides a perfect reflection of the personality, lifestyle and tastes of the owner. Jewelry auctions are not a 20th-century phenomenon, but over the past few decades we have seen a wealth of the world's most fabulous jewels, once owned by some of the most notable personalities of the century, pass through the salesrooms.

Earlier this week, Sotheby's held an auction of "Magnificent Jewels", which raised a rather magnificent $60.5 million. Not to be outdone Christie's, in New York, held a jewelry auction the following day, amassing $65.8 million in sales -- with one diamond ring alone selling for $10.9 million.

How much is this diamond worth?

Many of these jewels were formerly in the possession of members of royalty, the aristocracy, high society and the stars of the screen.

In each instance, whether it was one piece or a whole collection, the designated jewelry gives us a fascinating insight into the life and times of the owner as well as the opportunity to see some of the finest gemstones and the most stunning jewels created in the 20th century.

The allure of heritage

The increase in price that an important provenance can add to a jewel can be phenomenal, as seen in sales like the Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor which was held by Sotheby's in Geneva in 1987; many pieces exceeded their estimates tenfold or more.

In the 20th Century the glamorous, roaring twenties saw the birth of a glittering social scene after the darkness of the First World War.
Stefano Papi

A major figure of the beau monde of the 1930's, the Duchess of Windsor - previously Miss Wallis Simpson -- built up an incomparable jewelry collection over the years.

In their own right these pieces were some of the most important and sensational examples of the twentieth century jewelers' art, but they were also the jewels chosen by a king -- Britain's King Edward VIII -- to give to the woman for whom he abdicated his throne.

Read more: Green with envy: Why emeralds make some of us mad with desire

Maria Callas, 20th century's greatest opera diva, wearing her diamond and pearl pendent earrings.
Courtesy Cecil Beaton

Among the many international jewelry sales this week, on December 12, at Sotheby's in London some of the original pieces from the extraordinary 1987 sale will again be on offer.

These include the stylish sapphire bracelet created by Cartier, circa 1945, which she chose to wear on the State visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Paris in May 1972. The Queen had agreed that on this visit she would see her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, who was known to be very close to his death.

For this historic occasion the Duchess chose to wear the sapphire bracelet with a matching brooch; it will be intriguing to see what the importance of both the history and the provenance add to the price of this exceptional jewel.

Dawn of a glamorous era

In the 20th Century the glamorous, roaring twenties saw the birth of a glittering social scene after the darkness of World War I.

Drastic changes in Europe put an end to several monarchies, and powerful figures from the world of business rose to join a reborn social elite.

The royal jewels that had once adorned the empresses and queens of ancient regimes now passed into new hands. Women, more independent and influential than ever before, broke away from restrictive trends of the past: they cut their hair, abandoned their corsets and wore looser-fitting clothes.

This change in fashion led to a new style of jewelry, which peaked in 1925 at the Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs in Paris; the historic gemstones were reset and new jewels were created.

The royal jewels that had once adorned the empresses and queens of ancient regimes now passed into new hands.
Stefano Papi

Read more: Rare Psalm book sells for $14.2 million

These years were conceivably the most glamorous of all for rich and powerful leading women who led hectic, international social lives for which they required designer dresses and designer jewels.

Alluring figures like American socialite and business owner Marjorie Merriweather Post, Parisian fashion icon Daisy Fellowes and Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon were such women.

For them, these pieces were not only accessories or statements of social standing, but also had an irresistible attraction that sublimated their intrinsic value.

They could all afford to buy the best, and with their great sense of style built unique and memorable collections alongside the jewels' skilled creators.

Read more: Beauty from the crypt - mystery of Europe's jeweled skeletons

Read more: Princess Diana's favorite fairytale dress could be yours ... for a price

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