Category Archives: Reviews

Bring jewels to life: a competition about Ilona Ptasnik’s jewellery collection in Schoonhoven

Ilona Ptasnik

Last year the Dutch Silver Museum in Schoonhoven received a generous gift from the estate of Ilona Ptasnik. A large collection of antique jewellery was given by this lady who had been unknown to the Museum before her gift. Ms. Ptasnik  was born in Amsterdam in 1918 from a Jewish Polish family. In 1938 her family emigrated to the USA where Ilona married Adriaan van der Bilt with whom she returned to The Netherlands after the Second World War. From her jewellery collection appears a preference of gemstones, but apart from this, a large variety of styles, techniques and fashions.

The Museum got curious; Who was this woman, how did she look and what does her collection tell us about her life? The Museum asks us to help them bring her jewellery to life. We can contribute with stories, drawings, collages, poems – anything – with your idea about who Ilona Ptasnik was. You can send your work to: All contributions will form a part of the exhibition that shows Ms. Ptasnik’s jewellery collection from 25 September until 25 November in Schoonhoven. You will see what promises to be a very impressive collection and if your ideas correspond with reality. I can’t wait to see and who actually knew Ilona??


Doris Duke’s pierrot by Van Cleef & Arpels

This charming Pierrot brooch has a nice provenance, it comes  from Doris Duke’s personal jewelry collection.

It was made for Van Cleef & Arpels designed and patented by Maurice Duvalet in 1949. Duvalet worked both for Van Cleef & Arpels and John Rubel & Co. and was most famous for his ballerina brooches that he designed for both companies.

One of the masterpieces at the Rare Jewels and Objets d’Art: A Superb Collection at Christies NY in 2009 was the diamond ruby and emerald “ballerina” brooch. Several ballerina brooches had been designed in the late thirties by Maurice Duvalet for the New York branch of Van Cleef & Arpels. This particular brooch depicts Maria Camargo, a Spanish star ballet dancer from the 18th century, posed in arabesque. The use of emeralds and rubies resulted in a brilliant rendering of the flowers set on her costume as pictured by a French painting from Nicolas Lancret. Maurice Duvalet designed this particular piece in 1942 and used mainly rose-cut diamonds which are reputed to have originated from the Spanish Crown Jewels. This piece was manufactured by John Rubel & Co, the usual manufacturer for Van Cleef & Arpels New York. Estimated by Christie’s at $80,000 to $120,000, the brooch reached $350,000 (before commission). Also the Arpels had close ties with the ballet and were influenced by the great dancers and choreographers of the day. They even approached George Balanchine to produce a ballet entitled ‘Jewels’ where various countries were represented by different precious stones.

Duvalet’s,  more modest Pierrot, is in the same style. It is made from 18 carat gold, weighing 9.8 grams.  The brooch has graduated cultured pearl arms and legs that move, and a cabochon ruby head.  It measures approximately 2 inches tall, and is signed and numbered: Van Cleef & Arpels, 15838.

This pierrot brooch was originally owned by the tobacco heiress, Doris Duke  (1912 – 1993).  All Ms. Duke’s jewellery was sold by Christie’s auction house in 2004.  Per Doris Duke’s instructions in her will, all of her jewelry was temporarily on display at her home, Rough Point, in Newport, Rhode Island prior to the auction.  Her jewelry collection was overwhelming.  Duke’s 399 piece jewelry collection was catalogued in Gems From the East and the West, The Doris Duke  Jewelry Collection, by Janet Zapata, Ulysses Dietz and Zette Emmons in 2003. Page 102 of the catalogue shows our Pierrot brooch.

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the Utrecht Museum of Musical Clocks presents Emperor Qianlong’s Singsongs: paste extravaganza

In Utrecht we have a unique museum: the Museum Speelklok (Museum of Musical Clocks). They house any kind of automatic  musical instrument, such as this monster of a carousel. Until 28 February a very special exhibition SingSong displays a selection of clocks representing the most important objects from the Qing dynasty. Leading European clockmakers, such as the master of the craft James Cox, produced many of these magical and mysteriously frivolous showpieces. They have never left China before.

Although they do contain proper clock movements, their main aim was not to tell the time but to amuse and impress, making them exclusive and expensive toys for prominent adults. The exotic designs went way beyond any imagination expressed in the European rococo and chinoiserie of the time. During the 18th century, the most spectacular and costly clocks were traded from the West to China. The clocks were much sought after by the Chinese emperors and were also highly desirable gifts.


Some enchanting clocks played music every quarter of an hour, and the Chinese called this novelty ‘the clock that plays by itself’, or in Chinese: ‘zimingzhong’. This word was anglicised into ‘singsong’, the equivalent of the musical clock. Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796) accumulated a vast collection of these fascinating and imaginative clocks, which now form part of the collection of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City (Beijing).  For three years Museum Speelklok and the Palace Museum have restored the imperial clocks together. The exhibition also gives a great insight in this complicated collaboration.

The Pagoda clock

This clock is one of a pair of identical, fire-gilded bronze pagoda clocks. The pagodas have five levels, with roofs decorated with bells, garlands and pastes: glass which has been cut into gem-like forms imitation gemstones. The paste decorations are completely over the top.  Each hour on the hour, music plays and the pagoda clocks open up telescopically (to a height of almost two metres!), only to fall back again to their original size during the hour that follows.

The Elephant & the Pavillion clock

Watch these clock play below.


Georges Frederic Strass (1701-1773) invented the much desired gem imitation in 1730 and due to the huge success of the invented technique was awarded with the title King’s Jeweler in 1743. The glass “gems” could be set in silver or gold and could have been foiled or unfoiled. The 18th century pastes demonstrated on the SingSongs were always foiled. Foiled pastes were usually seen in closed-backed settings where the foil provided added reflection and brilliance. Pastes were much easier cut and shaped than real gems, making this close-fitting pavé look achievable. You see every color imaginal, including opaline pastes that are similar to opals as in this brooch. Only two gems real are used; amethysts and  chrysolite.

Paste in the Singsongs

Paste jewels are still immensely popular, but I have never seen examples like this before! Pay attention to the bouquet on top of the Elephant clock  in the movie above. Just imagine these bouquets on your shoulder, or just a tiny one…

The Duchess of Windsor’s jewels, revisited

King Edward VII gave up the British Throne and country to marry the twice divorced American socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson in 1936, making them the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. After this the Duke lived for The Duchess of Windsor. He adored her and gave her jewels for every occasion in their life together. Most jewels are larger than life, according to Wallis’ friend Lady Mosley.

On 30 November 2010 Sotheby’s London will sell 20 jewels from the Duchess of Windsor’s jewellery collection. 23 years after the much celebrated Sotheby’s Geneva auction of her jewels in 1987.  This auction was a global event in prosperous times and the 214-piece collection fetched a record price of EUR 35 million, seven times the pre-sale estimate. Reflecting the 1987 rage today’s estimates  are also completely over the top but will surely be paid. The total sale is expected to bring in around EUR 3 million.

On sale now are jewels that memorialize the most important moments in Edward and Wallis’ relationship. Wallis was greatly admired for her avant-garde style in fashion and jewellery alike. She combined simplicity with whimsy.

Many of the jewels were made by Cartier, two specifically by Cartier’s jewellery director Jeanne Toussaint,  the Onyx and diamond panther bracelet designed in 1952, is one of the finest examples of the ‘great cats’ jewels of which the Duchess was an avid collector. The bracelet is expected to fetch 1,000,000-1,500,000 pounds . This articulated cat forms a “stalking pose” when closed around the wrist.

Jeanne Toussaint also created this exotic flamingo brooch, decorated with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, citrines, and diamonds which was bought by the Duchess in 1940. The flamingo brooch was bought for £498,000 in 1987 and is today estimated at £1m-£1.5m.

Another precious jewel is the diamond cross bracelet by Cartier, supporting nine gem-set Latin crosses, each marking significant events during the years 1934-44. The bracelet is expected to raise £350,000-450,000, while it fetched only £200.000 in 1987.

It is a very sweet; every cross has an inscription and a story to it, but not everyone believes Wallis & Edward were the greatest love story of the 20th century. For a different opinion please read here.

Sotheby’s David Bennett and historian Hugo Vickers, however, make a splendid presentation below.

Barbie’s pink diamond

World news? Maybe not, but one month from now Christie’s New York will auction off the rarest and most expensive Barbie doll with an estimate of $545,000.

Mattel has asked the famed Australian jewellery designer, Stefano Canturi, to design a Barbie and create her ultimate accessories. He designed her a little black dress and a beautiful demi suite. The suite includes a ring and necklace with over three carats of white diamonds set in Canturi’s distinct cubism style: geometric lines in ditto or curved patterns. The necklace is highlighted by a pretty one carat bright pink square-cut diamond from the Australian Argyle mine. Just imagine this set life-size!

Canturi explains on his website: “I wanted the jewelry design to pay homage to Barbie’s modern yet timeless style, this is why I applied my Cubism design concept to her look; it is perfect for her.

Barbie will be auctioned at Christie’s “Magnificent Jewels” sale on October 20th 2010. Canturi & Mattel will donate 100 % of the profits to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Who’s bidding?

Below is Stefano Canturi with his Barbie.

Read my pins, says Madeleine Albright

The Museum of Arts and Design in New York has made a very special exhibition on the US’ former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s diverse and notable collection of brooches. Through October 2010 you can see over 200 pins, many of which Secretary Albright wore to communicate a message during her diplomatic career, in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Jewelry has always played a part in world affairs, expressing power, impressing people or forging alliances, but it was never used so eloquently as by Albright.

It all started when Madeleine Albright criticized Saddam Hussein in her role of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Saddam’s personal poet responded by calling her “an unparalleled serpent.” When deciding what to wear to their meeting, Albright chose to make a diplomatic statement by choosing a snake pin. Although her method of communication was new, her message was not. From that day forward, pins became part of Albright’s diplomatic signature.

Albright: Before long, and without intending it, I found that jewelry had become part of my personal diplomatic arsenal. Former president George H. W. Bush had been known for saying “Read my lips.” I began urging colleagues and reporters to “Read my pins.”

She has written her own catalogue to the exhibition, Read my pins, stories from a diplomat’s jewel. Her stories s behind her extensive pin collection, which includes flags, fruit, bugs, birds and almost everything else, are very amusing and humorous. Included are the antique eagle purchased to celebrate Albright’s appointment as secretary of state, the zebra pin she wore when meeting Nelson Mandela, and the Valentine’s Day heart forged by Albright’s five-year-old daughter.

This brooch, called Liberty, is made by Gijs Bakker for an earlier exhibition Brooching It Diplomatically; A Tribute to Madeleine Albright. The clocks are arranged so that Albright, looking down, as well as her visitor, looking up,  can both see when the time for their meeting is up.

Madeleine Albright talks about her pins

Birthstones, the legend

Gemstones have long been attributed mystical and magical powers in relation to religion and superstition. The notion that a certain gemstone is associated with a specific month, ‘birthstones’, derives from these early beliefs regarding one’s time of birth and its relationship to the planets.

Origin of birthstones

The tradition of birthstones originates from the Jewish astral depiction of gemstones. The high priest and brother of Moses, Aaron wore a breastplate that was covered with twelve gemstones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The stones also corresponded with the twelve signs of the zodiac and later the twelve months of the year. The Breastplate of Aaron is referred to in Exodus 28:17-20 and Revelation 21:19-20.

Indian planetary gems or Navaratna talisman

The belief in a cosmic universe where heaven and earth are connected also includes the supernatural powers of gems. Divine powers are everywhere from macrocosm through the physical elements such as mineral products. In India nine planets – all designated as celestial deities – watch over nine gems; Saturn is the planet for the blue Sapphire, the Moon’s ascending node for Hessonite garnet, the descending node for cat’s eye, Venus for the diamond, the Sun for the ruby, the Moon for the pearl, Jupiter for the topaz, Mercury for the emerald and Mars for the coral. Navaratna jewels (nava= nine; ratna = jewel) contain all nine gems in a specific order.

Gem symbolism

It is also believed every gem is endowed with different power and symbolism. The oldest crown of England, for example, which is on view in the Tower of London, contains the Black Prince’s Ruby and emphasizes the power of the wearer. This ruby is in fact a huge 170 carat spinel (rubies and spinels were only told apart from the late 19th century when they discovered that spinel is a magnesium aluminum oxide, while ruby (corundum) is an aluminum oxide. )

Modern Birthstones

It is still a common belief that gems hold power and that wearing the gem associated with your birthday functions as a talisman and will bring good luck, health or power. This faith in working power of gems can even be seen as a tool to gain power in the world. In today’s world of danger, uncertainty and less religious belief people tend to reach out to other irrational or magical beliefs such as lapidaria (knowledge of stones).

Birthstone jewelry has become a poetic tradition for gift givers as this Art Déco Cartier catalogue illustrates. Please ignore the old prices!!

Who of you wears or is looking for his or her birthstone? For more extensive reading on birthstones read this Jewelers of America leaflet or our Cartier catalogue on birthstones.

Month Gemstone Alternative gemstones
January Garnet Garnet
February Amethyst Amethyst or hyacinth
March Aquamarine or bloodstone Jasper or bloodstone
April Diamond Diamond or sapphire
May Emerald Emerald or agate
June Pearl, moonstone or alexandrite Pearl, moonstone or alexandrite
July Ruby Turquoise or onyx
August Peridot or sardonyx Sardonyx
September Sapphire Peridot
October Opal or tourmaline Beryl or opal
November Topaz or citrine Topaz or pearl
December Tanzanite, turquoise, zircon, lapis lazuli or blue topaz