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.
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.
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.
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.
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.