What is it that continually fascinates about the famously infamous Duchess of Windsor, the woman who 84 years ago seduced Edward VIII away from the British throne? She wasn’t the first to seduce a king, nor to use that influence to shift culture, maybe sway politics, definitely change history. Yet something about the former Mrs Simpson remains compelling. It’s not just the nostalgia and fascination with the royals, pressure-cooked up by The Crown — Madonna directed a box office bomb about her (the execrable W.E. of 2011), Karl Lagerfeld shot fashion editorials in homage to her, the designers Erdem Moralioglu and Dries Van Noten own her portraits, copies of her pug pillows sell on Etsy, and books about her are regularly published, telling and retelling her tale.

Maybe it is all because, although Wallis Windsor had a seemingly storybook romance — she got her prince and her jewels, in a paparazzi-documented love affair that even inspired Walt Disney’s animated Snow White of 1937, the year she was married in a castle — there was something a bit skew-whiff about her fairytale. There’s the sense of happiness never quite fulfilled, that Wallis and David — as Edward was known by his intimates — never got quite what either of them bargained for, nor really wanted. Which was, for Wallis to become queen. She was denied that, and denied the style Her Royal Highness, which rankled both until they died.

That is why, perhaps, the Duke of Windsor made up for it with a bounty of jewelled gifts so rich they became known as “the alternative Crown Jewels”. As tangible, glittering souvenirs of one of history’s great love affairs — or at least one of history’s most famous — these works of the jeweller’s art still tantalise today.

It was on April 2 1987, in a gargantuan red-and-white tent pitched outside the Beau-Rivage hotel on the banks of Lake Geneva, that pieces from Wallis’s extraordinary collection of jewellery were first sold, auctioned by Sotheby’s in a frenzied bidding war that ultimately brought in £30m — six times the expected figure.

Less than a year after the duchess’s death (by French law, the sale had to be held within 12 months), 1,500 people crammed into the venue for two sweaty days of bidding. “It was, to an auctioneer, a god’s gift,” says David Bennett, Sotheby’s worldwide jewellery chairman, who helped oversee that Geneva sale in 1987. “It had everything. It had astonishingly beautiful jewellery, some of the most important pieces made in the 20th century. And it had this wonderful love story: the man who gave up his throne for the love of a woman.”

Onyx and diamond panther bracelet by Cartier photographed in 1952
Onyx and diamond panther bracelet by Cartier photographed in 1952 © Camera Press/ED/CVA/Sotheby’s
Ruby and sapphire brooch given to Wallis Simpson by the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VIII, sold on December 7 2006 at Bonhams, London
Ruby and sapphire brooch given to Wallis Simpson by the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VIII, sold on December 7 2006 at Bonhams, London

The pieces had previously been displayed in New York to entice interest — but not in England, where the duchess was still a contentious figure. They would only appear there in 2010, when a cache of 20 items originally sold in 1987 were auctioned again by Sotheby’s. “I have to say, I was quite nervous — in 1987, the prices paid for some of the important pieces were by far record prices,” says Bennett. These included the highest price for a pearl necklace, for a ruby necklace, for a yellow diamond and for a single-owner jewellery sale, and were only surpassed when Elizabeth Taylor’s gems were sold in 2011. Incidentally, the first important piece of jewellery Taylor ever bought for herself was from the 1987 Windsor sale: a diamond brooch in the form of the Prince of Wales’s feathers.

“Putting them up for sale again [in 2010] at close to the original price paid was a bit scary,” continues Bennett. “What was extraordinary was, from the moment we launched the sale, it took on its own momentum. It caught the imagination again.” The items, which made double their estimate, included two spectacular Cartier masterpieces: the 1952 panther bracelet, entirely articulated in pavé diamonds and onyx, which at £4.5m became the most expensive bracelet ever bought at auction (the buyer was rumoured to be Madonna); and a flamingo with plumage of calibre-cut emeralds, rubies and sapphires, which sold for £1.7m.

The latter exemplifies the Windsors’ taste for modernity, composed as it was of old pieces broken apart — a necklace and four bracelets supplied 42 each of rubies, sapphires and emeralds and 102 diamonds. Much of Wallis’s jewellery was reputed to contain gemstones with regal provenance. Her engagement ring, another emerald, weighing in at 19.77ct, was cut from a stone once worn by a Mughal emperor, purchased from Cartier in 1936 for £10,000 (which equates to some £700,000 today).

Jewellery is the glittering, material legacy of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It took the place, perhaps, of art — their taste in that wasn’t sophisticated. The pictures in their house in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris consisted mainly of stylised, idealised portraits of the duchess, which the duke called his “Wallis Collection”. There were a few minor works of portraiture, by Sir Gerald Brockhurst, Cecil Beaton and the fashion illustrator Drian, but most were heavily retouched photographs, cluttering every surface.

Portrait of Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, 1960
Portrait of Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, 1960 © Getty

The Paris house encapsulated not just the Windsors’ aesthetic, but their entire approach to life: decorated by Stéphane Boudin, who later masterminded Jackie Kennedy’s budget-blowing rework of the White House interiors, it was more theatrical mise-en-scène than home: all faux marble and silver gilt, Louis Quinze-ish furniture and trompe l’oeil — literal and metaphorical. The appearance of a palace, for a has-been king and Wallis, his would-be-queen in her other crown jewels.

“Her entire life was dedicated to trying to make the duke feel that he was still a royal figure,” says Suzy Menkes, editor for Vogue International and author of the books The Royal Jewels and The Windsor Style. She visited the house in the mid-1980s, when the Duchess of Windsor was alive but bedridden. “The house, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, was so filled with objects and trinkets on every surface that I can still feel the tense panic of trying to find somewhere to put down a cup of tea.”

However, although the house was filled with trompe l’oeil and the photos were retouched, the jewels were — are — resolutely real. They became Wallis Windsor’s signature while she was still Mrs Simpson: Edward began to shower her with priceless gifts even while she remained wed to her second husband, effectively blowing the lid on their clandestine romance. The diarist Chips Channon used words such as “smothered” or “dripping” to describe the way she wore her pieces in the 1930s; one observer commented on how the severity of her outfits was ruined by her taste for flashy costume jewellery, prompting peals of laughter when it was relayed that the gems were, in fact, real. A king’s ransom, indeed.

They were also highly personal — a 1936 ruby-and-diamond bombé-link bracelet by Van Cleef & Arpels (along with Cartier, the Windsors’ most frequent go-to for custom items) is inscribed on the clasp with the phrase “Hold Tight”, executed in a facsimile of Edward’s handwriting. It is dated March of that year — Wallis would divorce in October, and Edward abdicate in December, making this bracelet not only an exceptional piece of jewellery but a unique historical document.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor at their home, the Château de la Croë in Cap d’Antibes, Cannes, January 1939
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor on September 1 1941 © Bettmann Archive
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor
The Duke and Duchess Windsor at their home, the Château de la Croë in Cap d’Antibes, Cannes, January 1939 © Getty

Fifty years later, over the Christmas of 1986, Sotheby’s Bennett was in the Banque de France, cataloguing the Duchess of Windsor’s pieces. “The first of these huge red Morocco leather boxes came out, with the duchess’s monogram on,” he recalls, remembering that the first piece to emerge was the ruby bracelet. “Up until that point, nobody knew — apart from the men who engraved them — that the jewels had been inscribed with this very personal language between the duke and duchess,” says Bennett. “This was March 1936, Edward was still king. This would have been a bombshell, had it been known by the British public back then.” And almost every single piece bears some kind of literal message, a love note, pet name or phrase in a childish language with meaning then known only to them, now deciphered for the history books.

The Windsors engaged the best jewel houses across the globe, among them Cartier, New York’s Harry Winston and Cartier’s Place Vendôme neighbours Van Cleef & Arpels. “Jacques Arpels was still alive when I was writing the catalogue, and I was able to spend some time with him in Paris,” recalls Bennett. “He could remember the duke and the duchess coming in and designing, picking the stones, arriving with jewels. He mentioned that the duke was extremely involved, loved gemstones, loved jewellery. You do get the idea that it was a collaboration between the two of them.” And those two in turn worked with leading designers such as Jeanne Toussaint, who inspired Cartier’s now signature panthers, and Suzanne Belperron, an avant-garde French designer championed by Elsa Schiaparelli, the couturière who created Wallis Windsor’s trousseau. “Her Belperron jewels were perhaps the first to turn up at public auction, and really cast a light on this designer who, until 1987, hardly anyone knew about,” says Daniela Mascetti, European chairman of the jewellery department of Sotheby’s. “She was setting a trend — everything she started wearing, be it clothes or jewels, immediately became fashionable.”

There are those, of course, who aren’t so enamoured. Christian Lacroix, the French couturier, called the jewels “horrible” in the 1980s, just after their world-famous auction. Menkes, who literally wrote the book, comments that “Wallis seemed conventional about jewellery, but loved it bold to get people’s attention”. The Windsor jewels are certainly bold, and not everyone would want to wear a flamingo, even one that costs a cool million and is a masterpiece of engineering.

The Cartier Flamingo and Panther are, Bennett believes, exceptional irrespective of Wallis’s ownership, but he says that, with the added provenance, it’s dynamite. “I’m reminded of the famous pearl we sold a couple of years ago in Geneva, which belonged to Marie Antoinette,” he says. “Estimated £1-2m, it made £36m. That provenance, we were jokingly saying, “Is there a more grand provenance than Marie Antoinette? What about Cleopatra?” But the Duchess of Windsor, and the whole package, is up there with Marie Antoinette, in a weird way.”

Maybe Wallis did become some kind of a queen, after all.

Follow @financialtimesfashion on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen.

Get alerts on Fashion when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article