The Duchess's telltale brooches

MUCH has been written over the last 50 years on the remarkable devotion that caused King Edward VIII to abdicate on Dec. 11, 1936. Those who listened to his abdication speech on the radio will never forget hearing him give up his throne for ``the woman I love'' - the American commoner Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson. Can anything new be said of a love story that some regard as one of the greatest in history? Yet it continues to fascinate. The story has inspired plays and books, but no opera as yet - perhaps because the famous couple lived happily ever after.

The recent announcement that the Duchess of Windsor's famous collection of jewels is to be auctioned by Sotheby's has renewed interest in both the Duchess and her jewels. Now we can see just what the jewels are really like. Both they and the catalog allow us to peer a little deeper into the mystery of what inspired a king to sacrifice his throne.

Much can be discerned about the Duchess from her jewels. Nothing is so revealing about us so well as a study of the choices we make - and the Duchess clearly enjoyed choosing jewels.

David Bennett, head of Sotheby's jewelry department, has learned to read character from the point of view of his speciality.

``She had a definite eye,'' he says. Although most of the early pieces were gifts from the Duke, he explained, it was not long before the Duchess became the main influence in the choice.

As one example, Mr. Bennett notes that one of the most important pieces - a lavish diamond and ruby necklace - was presented to her by the King on June 19, 1936, her 40th birthday. It was designed and made by Van Cleef and Appels and inscribed ``My Wallis from her David.'' Only three years later the Duchess had it redesigned by the jewelers, who managed to retain the inscription. She had her large emerald engagement ring from Cartier's completely reset after World War II.

For many years there was much speculation as to whether the Duke had given her much of Queen Alexandra's jewel collection, which he was said to have inherited. There was never much evidence of this, and if the story had not been debunked before, a glance at this collection should be enough to do so. There is not a single antique jewel to be seen in the lot. It seems the Duchess did not like them. This is a collection that consistently looks forward, not backward.

The Duchess loved to be in the vanguard of fashion. (She was known as one of the world's best dressed women.) She bought the most modern jewelry, not only at the leading jewelers (her favorite was Cartier), but also from some who were less well-known. Sotheby's Bennett infers from this that she was very self-assured in her taste. She needed no one to tell her what to buy - or how to wear it. Nor did she rely on sheer value of stones to create effect. Both the Duke and the Duchess were keenly interested in design and were involved in the creation of many of the pieces.

Of course, any great collection must have its high points. Among them is a fine 31-carat diamond, mounted as a ring, that once belonged to the celebrated Washington hostess, Mrs. Walsh McLean. Mrs. McLean owned several world-renowned diamonds, and her collection was bought by the famous New York jeweler, Harry Winston, from whom, in turn, the Windsors bought several pieces.

One of the most distinctive features of this collection is the number of pieces that bear inscriptions, often of a very personal nature. Bennett finds this most unusual. In most cases this practice might be regarded as merely charming, but in this case it is significant in revealing something of the depth of this remarkable relationship.

A ruby and diamond bracelet, given on March 27, 1936, a time when great pressure was being exerted to break the romance, is inscribed with the enigmatic words, ``Hold Tight.'' The following year, to celebrate the drawing up of the French marriage contract on May 18, the Duke presented her with a large sapphire and diamond bracelet inscribed ``For our Contract.''

Perhaps the most personal of the jewels is the charm bracelet hung with nine gold and jeweled crosses. Each cross is inscribed to commeorate a special moment in their lives. Three record recoveries of her health. Another, inscribed ``God save the King for Wallis,'' followed an attempt on the King's life in July 1936. Another, inscribed ``The Kings Cross, God Bless,'' recalls the amusing story of Mrs. Simpson's hurried departure by train for Scotland, early in 1936. Calling to the taxi driver ``Kings Cross'' he replied, ``I'm sorry, lady.''

Overall, this collection would be of great significance not matter who had formed it. Already paste copies of some of the famous Cartier ``Great Cat'' brooches and bangles in the form of panthers and tigers are appearing in a department store in London. But the real jewels - these most personal mementos of a great romance - will command premium prices for a great many years to come.

The jewels were on view in New York March 17-22. The sale takes place in Geneva on April 2 and 3.

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