Princess Grace of Monaco and Old Monte Carlo

From October 15 through 26, 2007, Sotheby’s New York will be hosting ‘Grace, Princess of Monaco: A Tribute to the Life and Legacy of Grace Kelly’ in aid of the foundation named after Her. An exhibition of Her wardrobe, personal belongings, accessories and jewels will be on view. HSH Prince Albert ll and TRH The Prince and Princess of Hanover will honor the 25th anniversary Princess Grace Awards Gala with their Presence to be held at Sotheby’s on October 25th.

In 1956 after marrying Prince Rainier, Princess Grace chose Luis Estevez’ gown of imported white Chantilly lace for her first royal portrait by Ralph Cowan. Monte Carlo seems to be synonymous with the late princess. The princely marriage took place in 1956 and threw this tiny principality into the world’s limelight. Newsreels and TV screens exposed the yachts and narrow streets.

Before that Monaco was very much an exclusive domain sometimes made public by movies ‘To Catch a Thief’ or ‘Rebecca’ with the fat diamond laden Mrs Van Hopper lounging in the lobby of the Hotel de Paris puffing ”Most girls would give their eyes for the chance to see Monte.”

The Author at School in Monte Carlo, Age 15

What was Monte like before Grace Kelly arrived? It had a reputation where the rich could squander shamelessly. After recovering from the war, my parents, joined by fellow Brits avoiding currency restrictions, went to Monte Carlo. A U.K. Inspector, Mr. Tarr, would follow travellers from the Paris Ritz on the Blue Train to the Riviera and make notes on who was spending more than the ten British Pounds limit. A diamond bracelet innocently worn on a wrist and then sold for cash could ensconce one in Monte Carlo comfortably that August 1950.

My parents checked into the Hotel de Paris. My great uncle Maurice de Vries shot himself there after losing his fortune at the tables in 1915. It was during their stay that my existence commenced. I was to be the second born. No small wonder that diamonds are in my blood.

Hôtel de Paris.

French casinos were the red carpets of those days. Monte Carlo was the most extravagant. Allow me to mention a few of those long gone people who were known by their wealth, diamonds and jewelry.

Frequenting the casino were names such as Khan, Hutton, Maxwell, King Farouk, Gould, Beaumont, Westminster, Selfridge, Agnelli, Baroda, Madame Coty, Andre Citroen, Gulbenkian, and the new American millions all defying the Greek Syndicate’s constant winning luck. They not only owned their jewels but others frequently recognized and knew about those jewels.

Van Cleef and Arpels Diamond necklace 1949. (Courtesy of Sotheby's).

These people sat, wandered around, chatted with each other, all dressed liked peacocks preening their expensive feathers. Couture evening dresses, displays of jewels, and white tie or dinner jackets for men were mandatory.

The more you had, the more you belonged in Monte Carlo and deserved to be seen nightly sitting behind your high pile of chips placed next to your ostentatiously displayed gem encrusted Cartier cigarette case.

Men might delicately place chips close to a pile belonging to an unaccompanied woman. Her discreet acceptance would ensure, if she lost, an eventful night. If she won, a half downcast smile might be the reward. ‘Faites vos jeux’ loosely translates as ‘throw your money down’. The more you were seen to lose, the richer you seemed to be. When you either shot yourself in the head because Daddy didn’t rescue you, or you left town, that meant you were ‘dry.’ Rien ne va plus. It’s over. Although I was at school close by, I was never allowed in to the Casino. Minimum age is 21 and maximum is: still breathing. I went 10 years ago for the first time. I played roulette. Remember August 1950? I played 8-1-9-5-0 five times. Each time one number came up consecutively. I pocketed my winnings, looked up at the chandeliers, thought of Uncle Maurice and left, never to return.

Pair Feather Diamond Clips, Van Cleef and Arpels from Magnificent Jewels, lot 285, 16 Oct 2007, Christie's NY.

Harry Winston 23.14 ct Diamond ring from Magnificent Jewels from a Distinguished Private Collection, lot 1040, 16 Oct 2007, Christie's NY.

There’s an old chestnut about the woman who walks into a casino and crosses herself. She’s really checking off her jewelry. Earrings, necklace, clips and bracelets. Van Cleef, Boucheron and Winston. The most popular and modern accessory that year (1950) were the Boucheron Birds of Paradise Minaudieres. They came in silk carry all pochettes, cut out so the jewelled front could be seen. The pochette fabric matched your dress. It was the sac de soiree and everyone had to have one. Your diamonds usually came from Van Cleef, lots of showy baguettes and huge pearshapes. Your ring had to be square and might have come from this delightful, trustworthy, lovely man from New York called Harry Winston. He would stay at the Hotel du Cap and always happened to have a big diamond or emerald in his pocket that he thought you might like to see. ”Look how beautiful this is, just take it and see if you want to keep it”.

Boucheron Gold Diamond Birds of Paradise Minaudiere c.1950 from the collection of S.M. Empress Nam Phong D'Annam, the last Empress of Vietnam (courtesy of Christie's).

Everybody liked Harry, he was so kind and so nice. Dresses were big, your diamonds had to be in scale. Big Dior skirts, bare shoulders and arms needed big diamonds. The Salle de Jeux world famous enormous chandeliers lit this stage and everyone knew they were on display.

Harry Winston Diamond bracelet from Magnificent Jewels from a Distinguished Private Collection, lot 1039, 16 Oct 2007, Christie's NY.

What does Grace Kelly have to do with this, you may ask? She changed it. This elegant well, brought up perfection of the New American Girl brought a huge breath of refined display of wealth, arts and social consciousness. Few of us can look at her image and honestly say that we’re dry eyed. I cannot.

Images Courtesy of Christies Images, Sotheby’s Images, V & A , British Museum,
and Clive Kandel Collection