JEWELS OF MEMORY
By Nicky Haslam
Beautiful jewels can bring back quiescent memories as vividly as a distant song, or that once-savoured madeleine. Whether they have intrinsic value, a fascinating history or romantic connotations, it is the sudden perception of the wearer that stirs the heart. This is the case, for me, with many of the exquisite pieces shown on these pages, as they belonged to my most beloved friend, Romana von Hofmannsthal. And they descend, ultimately, from her lineage with that fabled New York family, the Astors.
Romana’s mother, Alice Astor, was a mere teenager when her father was lost on the Titanic. This tragedy may have guided her to spurn the over-opulent diamond negligees or pearl stomachers of that Gilded Age, and set her natural taste veering towards the more sophisticated and intellectual in her houses, clothes, jewels, and indeed her husbands, Russian, Austrian and fastidious Englishmen among them.
Her Nilotic profile - she was rumoured to have Native American blood - and slender limbs (‘Alice’s wrists begin at her elbows’ as Cecil Beaton wrote) were the ideal surface for the more ‘barbaric’ stones she preferred; uncut, unpolished and simply set, and created by the young European jewellers she befriended - Fulco Verdura, Boivin, Paul Flato among them - and indeed encouraged; some of the former’s work is included here, among other more traditional pieces from Alice’s Astor forebears and contemporaries.
Romana, by now herself married to the painter Rory McEwen, needed no gleaming adornment to her honeyed beauty, and wore these things, whether at ceilidhs in the Highlands or balls at the Palace, with a gay insouciance and humour, but with deep family pride, loving their story as much as their worth. Perhaps her favourite was the golden and diamond brooch (‘It works on anything’ she’d say) that family tradition maintains was made, though unsigned, by that most original of jewellers, Verdura, for Alice. Given their deep friendship there seems no reason to presume differently. And anyway, something so ravishing, as with the other historic pieces, are incomparable treasure which can imbue the wearer with the unforgotten, and unforgettable, aura that sets alight the heart’s emotion.