14 January 2014

Jewel History: Mrs. Mackay's Jewels (1884)

Mary Louise Hungerford Mackay [1]
"Mrs. Mackay's Jewels"
(originally appeared in The New York Times on 14 Jan 1884)

I recently had the pleasure of examining one of the finest collections of jewels outside of a royal treasury that exists in Europe, and which belongs to an American lady, Mrs. J.W. Mackay [2]. Many of the stones are unique, and the ornaments in general are characterized as much by the artistic beauty of their workmanship as by the splendor of the gems. Foremost in the collection shows resplendent the famous set of sapphires which attracted so much attention when exhibited by the jeweler Boucheron at the Parisian Universal Exhibition of 1878 [3]. It is valued at $300,000, and comprises the diadem, bracelets, ring, earrings, and necklace, with a large pendant. The necklace is double, the upper row being a band of large, square diamonds and sapphires, fitting the throat closely, while the lower row, a wide arabesque of the same stones, supports the pendant. This last is composed of one enormous sapphire, peerless in color and in water, and set in large diamonds. This stone is of the size of a pigeon's egg, cut transversely, a perfect oval in shape, and is valued at $30,000.

Next in beauty and in value come the pearls, the set including the necklace, bracelets, and diadem. The necklace has five rows, the pearls in the lowest row being of the size of the largest huckleberry, and those in the uppermost one being bigger than a large pea. Each pearl is perfect in color and in shape, the strings having been composed with the greatest care. The clasp is a sapphire set in diamonds. The diadem is of an arabesque pattern in diamonds, surmounted with five graduated pear-shaped pearls, the central and largest one being an inch and a half in length. The bracelets are formed each of five rows of pearls held in place by narrow bands of diamonds.

The set of turquoises, like that of sapphires, is unique in character, so large and fine in color are the gems whereof it is composed. It includes the diadem, bracelet, ring, necklace, and heart-shaped pendant, earrings, and brooch, the latter being a Prince of Wales's plume in diamonds, held at the base with a single enormous turquoise. The necklace is peculiarly magnificent, being a broad band of arabesques in diamonds, studded with large turquoises. This set is said to surpass the parure of the same stones belonging to the Empress of Russia, the earrings being especially beautiful in shape and hue. The parure of diamonds is remarkable for its workmanship, the broad arabesque-patterned necklace sustaining a pendant shaped like a lotus flower.

Mrs. Mackay's famous Boucheron sapphire necklace, photographed at the jeweler's request [4]
Another necklace is of Egyptian pattern, being composed of three rows of pointed diamond leaves. For the hair there is a long garland of small fern leaves in diamonds, studded with diamond dew-drops, a most graceful and poetic-looking ornament. It is also arranged to be worn as a necklace or to ornament the corsage of a ball dress. A broad collar-shaped ornament in diamonds, bordered with large single stones, can be worn either as a necklace or a diadem. The brooch is a large cluster of slender willow-shaped leaves. The bracelet is a diamond serpent, that encircles the arm above the elbow five times; it is formed of a single row of very large diamonds, 300 in number. The earrings and ring are very fine solitaires. A pair of wide-band bracelets, composed of diamonds and sapphires, go with this set.

In black pearls Mrs. Mackay possesses a necklace and a pair of earrings, the latter being composed each of a single round pearl as large as a cherry, and she owns a pair of white pearls of similar size and beauty and a pair of large pink oval pearls. Three fine rubies are set, two as earrings and the third as a ring. The set of pink coral is remarkable even amid its brilliant surroundings. The coral is of the palest and most delicate rose tinge, and is cut in oval bean-shaped pieces, which are linked together with small diamonds. It is very large, comprising a full suite of ornaments. A parure in antique filigree, set with cat's-eyes and small diamonds, is noticeable for its artistic workmanship. Among the minor ornaments are a brooch, representing a peacock standing on a globe of polished pink coral, the plumage of the bird's outspread tail being composed of diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds; an eagle with extended wings in diamonds, a slender diamond serpent with a large pear-shaped black pearl pendant from its mouth (this ornament is to be worn as a necklace), and other beautiful and artistic jewels.

The sapphire set has been photographed at M. Boucheron's request, and an engraving of it will figure in a work that is shortly to be published in Paris, entitled "The Famous Jewels of Europe" [5]. These treasures are nto kept in the hotel of Mrs. Mackay, as they would constitute a far too potent attraction for burglars, but are deposited in the bank. They are enclosed in a small chest of metal closed with a secret spring. The interior of this chest is lined with red velvet, and is divided into three compartments, each fitted with a set of numbered trays. I have never heard the value of the contents of this chest estimated, yet it cannot be far from $1,000,000, and yet, withal, there is probably scarcely another wealthy lady in Paris who does not wear more jewelry at balls or dinner parties or the opera than does Mrs. Mackay [6].

1. Detail of portrait of Mrs. J.W. Mackay, housed at the Nevada Historical Society; source here.

2. Mary Louise Antoinette Hungerford was the wife of John William Mackay, an Irishman who was a partner in the "Bonanza firm" that mined the Comstock Lode in Nevada. Mrs. Mackay complained that New York society would not accept her, so Mackay bought her a mansion in Paris.
3. The Macklowe Gallery website notes that Boucheron won "a Grand Prize at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878 for a foliage necklace of sapphires and diamonds set with a central sapphire of 159 carats, created for Mrs. H. Mackay."
4. Photograph of the Mackay Boucheron sapphire necklace found at this source.
5. Boucheron's official website notes that Mrs. Mackay was one of the house's best customers in the late nineteenth century: "Appearing 102 times in the Maison’s special order books between 1876 and 1902, Marie-Louise Mackay, a wealthy American, made the most impressive orders ever known by the Maison Boucheron. She first arrived at Boucheron with no specific creation in mind, simply asking the jeweler for an extraordinary stone. To express his love, her husband asked Frédéric Boucheron to secretly seek out the most exceptional sapphire to match the intense color of her deep blue eyes. He finally selected a 160 carat blue sapphire from Kashmir that he had set onto a necklace, which delighted Mrs Mackay, who was then said to own the world’s most beautiful sapphire. Frédéric Boucheron had already understood that the beauty of a precious stone or jewel is above all a means to highlight and enhance a woman’s radiance."
6. Boucheron: The Secret Archives (2011) by Vincent Meylan features a chapter on the jewelry house's relationship with Mrs. Mackay.