Those who claim we are witnessing a new Gilded Age need look no further for proof than the companion books to three recent exhibitions showcasing jewelry. Two of them—Gilded New York: Design, Fashion, and Society and Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America—revisit the original Gilded Age, with its jeweled lorgnettes, chokers, watch fobs, and ascot pins. The third, Jewels by JAR, brings this more-is-more aesthetic up to date with a veritable orgy of wearable wealth, custom-made for an exclusive international clientele over the past 35 years. The books illustrate that while diamonds may be forever, the politics of wearing—and, indeed, exhibiting—expensive jewels are dangerously volatile.
New York, where all three shows originated, has always been the standard-bearer of bling. Fifth Avenue jewelers like Tiffany, Dreicer & Co., and Black, Starr, & Frost flourished in the Gilded Age, spinning the straw of newly and dubiously acquired fortunes into glittering garlands of gold. A French visitor, fin-de-siècle novelist Paul Bourget, testified to “a profusion of jewels worn in daylight. At noon they will have at their waists turquoises as big as almonds, pearls as large as filberts at their throats, rubies and diamonds as large as their finger-nails.”
By “they,” of course, he meant the ladies. Like modern-day Real Housewives, Gilded Age matrons were celebrities whose every move was analyzed and imitated by a hate-watching public. Jewels were more than a fashion statement; they functioned as a bank statement. Quantity trumped quality. Gilded New York chronicles an 1874 party at which Caroline Astor was decked out in diamonds from head to toe; even her shoes were bedazzled. Mrs. George J. Gould changed her jewels several times a day, like an actress changing costumes between scenes—a habit acquired, perhaps, during her premarital career on Broadway. Her collection was so vast that she had her own storage vault at Tiffany. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once spent $15,000 on a diamond dog collar—an actual collar for her dog, not the fashionable wide necklace of the same name. Even crosses (such as the one modelled by singer Emma Cecilia Thursby in Beauty’s Legacy) were diamond-studded and the size of doorknockers.
But men sparkled, too. In Théobald Chartran’s portrait, James Hazen Hyde sports a chunky ring on each pinky finger and a pearl pin on his bow tie; his supercilious air and trim goatee evoke both a Medici and a Mephistopheles. (Soon after the portrait was painted, Hyde fled to Paris to escape a Lehman-like financial scandal.) The enormous gold watch fob Samuel Ward McAllister, the self-appointed gatekeeper of the Four Hundred, sports in his 1877 portrait by Adolphe Yvon is set off by his sober black bespoke suit. As Valerie Steele points out in her essay in Beauty’s Legacy, men were usually more discreet in their ornamentation. Perhaps McAllister was compensating for the fact that his wealth came from his wife?
Affluent New Yorkers saw themselves as American royalty, and openly emulated the tastes of Europe’s crowned heads—with the key difference that their jewels were bought, not inherited. (When the French crown jewels were auctioned off in 1887 after the fall of the Second Empire, Tiffany & Co. was the largest single buyer, snapping up a third of the lots.) Nothing advertised that one was American royalty better than a tiara. No longer reserved for queens and princesses, the tiara crossed over to American drugstore heiresses in the late 19th century, as impoverished aristocrats liquidated their family treasures. By 1894, New York was home to nearly 100 tiaras, according to Gilded New York; many more followed after the introduction of inheritance taxes in Britain that year.
If diamonds and pearls dominate portraits of Gilded Age New Yorkers, it is because they featured prominently in portraits of Elizabeth I, Empress Joséphine, Queen Victoria, and other royal role models. Consuelo Vanderbilt—who married her way into the British aristocracy, becoming Duchess of Marlborough in 1895—draped her famously swanlike neck in a 19-row pearl dog collar and two long strands of pearls; one had belonged to Catherine the Great and the other to Empress Eugénie. The first diamond strikes in South Africa in the late 1860s made diamonds plentiful to the point that their value threatened to plummet before the market was artificially stabilized in 1888. But pearls never recovered from the advent of commercial cultivation around 1916. Fifth Avenue jeweler Jacob Dreicer had once spent decades assembling a rope of perfectly matched natural pearls worth $1.5 million. What was the point of wearing pearls once even the middle classes could afford identical, cultivated copies? Tellingly, Joel A. Rosenthal—the reclusive designer behind JAR—refuses to work with cultivated pearls today, instead collecting antique, natural pearls to use in his oversized pendant earrings and gobstopper rings.