22 June 2015

Jewel History: Mrs. Leeds's Jewels Astonishing Paris (1912)

Nancy Leeds wearing her emeralds [source]

"Mrs. Leeds's Jewels Astonishing Paris"
(originally appeared in the New York Times on 23 June 2012)

PARIS, June 22 -- The society sensation of the present season here has certainly been Mrs. William B. Leeds [1], with her marvelous gowns and jewels. The latter embellishment of the youthful widow's beauty has caused the greatest astonishment in Paris society, especially when her wonderful collection of emeralds was recently increased.

To the well-known tiara and necklace of these stones she has now added a superb stomacher, bought at Cartier's for $140,000 [2]. The dazzling array of emeralds in the possession of Mrs. Leeds is now estimated by experts to be worth a good deal over a million dollars. They include many stones believed to be unique for size and perfection of quality.

Nancy Leeds, ca. 1914 [source]

Mrs. Leeds's apotheosis took place at a magnificent dance and cotillion just before she left Paris for London on her way back to America. It was an extremely exclusive affair, the guests not numbering more than 150. A striking feature was designed to be the cotillion favors. For the first time, hats by Rue de la Paix milliners were distributed, as well as specially prepared cameras and gold match boxes for the men.

When Mrs. Leeds, however, entered the room, almost covered with the world's finest emeralds, other guests held their breath, and from that moment everything else was thrown into the shade. The elaborate and costly gowns and jewelry of other women guests, which would otherwise have been widely discussed, passed almost unnoticed.

Nancy with her third husband, Prince Christopher of Greece and Denmark, ca. 1923 [source]

Mrs. Leeds was, during the evening, the centre of attraction, and it was noticed that her gentleman of honor, Moncure Robinson of New York, never left her side a moment during all the evening. Such jealous guardianship as Mr. Robinson showed was no doubt justified by Mrs. Leeds's million-dollar array.

Since this memorable ball Paris has been talking of nothing else but Mrs. Leeds [3].

1. Nancy May Stewart (1878-1923) of Zanesville, Ohio, was an extremely wealthy American widow who became one of Cartier's most valued clients. Her second husband, William Bateman Leeds, was known as the "Tin King." When he died in Paris in 1908, Nancy was widowed at the age of 30, and she inherited millions.
2. The creation and recreation of Mrs. Leeds's emeralds by Cartier is documented in Hans Nadelhoffer's 2007 book, Cartier. "Important examples include ... the magnificent epaulette made in 1912 for Nancy Leeds, widow of the American tin magnate William B. Leeds, which culminated in a 70-carat emerald" (42). Also: "Nancy Leeds's emerald epaulette was reset in 1921, when it was combined with the emeralds from a lavalliere dating from 1911 to produce the large emerald necklace worn by Mrs. Leeds in Laszlo's portrait of her" (331). And: "Pierre [Cartier] had created a giant emerald parure for Nancy Leeds by combining an epaulette with a necklace. When it was completed, the widow of America's tin king sat to the Hungarian portrait painter Philip de Laszlo, just as Queen Marie had done in distant Romania" (247).
3. Two years after the publication of this article, Nancy Leeds met Prince Christopher of Greece and Denmark at Biarritz, and they fell in love. Their engagement met with some resistance because of Nancy's previous marriages (one of which had ended in divorce), but with the upheaval of World War I and the exile of the Greek royal family, those objections faded. Nancy married Prince Christopher in 1920, becoming Princess Anastasia of Greece and Denmark. Sadly, she died only three years later. Christopher remarried to Princess Francoise of Orleans, while Nancy's only son, William B. Leeds Jr., married another royal: Prince Christopher's niece, Princess Xenia Georgievna of Russia. That marriage ended in divorce in 1930.