I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.” These were the characteristically dry words of Wallis Simpson—the whippet-thin Duchess of Windsor and one half of perhaps the 20th century’s most scandalous couple—uttered, no doubt, while wearing one of the many exquisite baubles the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, bestowed on her during their 36-year marriage. Not content to let her Mainbocher and Chanel suits remain bare, the Duchess was a jewelry fiend, piling on flame-hued ruby flamingo pins, onyx-studded panther brooches, delicate bracelets of diamonds and sapphires and, of course, her signature ornaments: unmatched diamond and natural pearl ear clips, one black and one white. It’s this rare, decidedly fashion-forward pair along with a single-strand natural pearl and diamond necklace and pearl pendant that are being auctioned in December in New York by Sotheby’s, with a presale estimate of between $2.2 million and $3.1 million. The sale will take place nearly 20 years after the Duchess’s vast jewelry collection brought in a whopping $50.3 million at Sotheby’s Geneva (where the aforementioned three pearl pieces were snapped up by current sellers Calvin and Kelly Klein for a total of $1.18 million).
The uncommon quality of the pearls and their drama-laced backstory make the sale a fascinating one on its own. But nothing heightens auction drama like a little competition, and who better to give the Duchess a run for her money than Marie Antoinette? Just a week after the Sotheby’s auction, Christie’s hopes to fetch up to $800,000 for the French queen’s 33 slate gray natural pearls, which had been loose and were set in and suspended from a diamond and ruby collar in 1849. One might call the coincidence a modern duel of royalty’s feistiest fashionistas. “I do think it’s kind of hard to beat the House of Windsor,” says Lisa Hubbard, Sotheby’s chairman of North and South America, international jewelry, who attended the historic Simpson sale in 1987 and admits to doggedly pursuing the Kleins, who were not looking to sell, in order to commemorate its 20th anniversary. “Everybody loves royal pearls, because they are natural instead of cultured. With the climate changing, oysters aren’t producing as much. It makes these pearls even more prized.”