Worn once by Diana, Princess of Wales, this diamond and pearl necklace has appeared on Oprah, been worn by Katie Couric, and spent a decade on display at a furniture store in Texas. Ahead of its auction (again) next month, we’ve got a closer look at the meandering, unusual journey of the Swan Lake Necklace and its matching earrings.
As is so often the case with items related to pop culture icons, the stories surrounding the creation of this diamond and pearl suite have sometimes gotten a bit tangled and exaggerated. To set the provenance record straight, let’s start at the very beginning. In the spring of 1997, artisans at Garrard (then the crown jeweler) began work on a new suite of jewelry, consisting of a necklace and a matching pair of earrings. The jewels, made of platinum, were set with 214 diamonds and seven large South Sea pearls.
The set was created with a specific wearer in mind: Diana, Princess of Wales. Now divorced from Prince Charles, Diana had embarked on a new phase of her life. Three years after stepping away from her royal role, she was selective and deliberate about her public appearances, choosing to support a smaller slate of charities and patronages. But her life as an independent woman still featured heavy doses of sparkle and glamor. She needed plenty of gowns and jewels to help her maintain the kind of image that the public expected to see. Now untethered from many of the restrictions of royal life, Diana was able to work more freely with designers and brands. She’d borrowed pieces of jewelry during her tenure as Princess of Wales, but she was now able to become more deeply involved with commercial transactions—lending, wearing, returning, and, ultimately, endorsing and promoting.
The diamond and pearl necklace was completed by Garrard’s designers by June 1997. Work on the earrings was still in progress when, on June 3, Diana attended a performance of Swan Lake by the English National Ballet at the Royal Albert Hall in London. She arrived for the event wearing a sky blue dress by Jacques Azagury with the new diamond and pearl necklace. Because the matching earrings were not yet finished, she paired the necklace with diamond earrings featuring a horseshoe and laurel wreath design (now worn by the current Princess of Wales) and a diamond tennis bracelet (now worn by the Duchess of Sussex).
At the time, most of the attention of the media was squarely focused on the Azagury dress, both because of its daring neckline and because Diana had worn an almost-identical Catherine Walker design the previous night for a preview of the charity auction of her gowns at Christie’s. The jewels were not discussed extensively, if at all, in contemporary press reports. After the Swan Lake performance, Diana returned the diamond and pearl necklace to Garrard. She never borrowed it again.
The Swan Lake performance ended up being memorable because it was part of Diana’s final summer. It wasn’t her final official engagement, as many reports suggest. She attended other functions that June and July, including a walkabout in New York with Mother Teresa, a visit to the White House, various galas and parties related to the Christie’s dress auction, and a memorial service for her late friend, the designer Gianni Versace. On her last birthday—July 1, 1997—she wore sparkling diamonds and emeralds as she attended a fundraising dinner at the Tate Gallery in London.
In the meantime, Diana also became close to Dodi Al-Fayed, the son of the billionaire owner of Harrods. There have been suggestions that Dodi wanted to purchase the diamond and pearl necklace and earrings from Garrard as a gift for Diana, but any proposed acquisition was never able to take place. Diana’s association with the necklace ended in June 1997. She never had a chance to borrow or wear the suite again, because she tragically died in Paris on August 31, 1997.
As the world mourned, the necklace and earrings remained at Garrard. In March 1998, the company decided that it was time to sell both pieces. Through Paul Burrell, they contacted one of Diana’s sisters, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, who indicated that there were no family oppositions to the sale of the pieces. The royal family was also reportedly consulted about the proposed sale. (No surprise there, as Garrard then had a very close relationship to the palace because of the firm’s role as crown jeweler.) Surely sensing that they might be accused of attempting to profit off of the intense public interest that followed the death of the princess, Garrard arranged to connect part of the proceeds from the sale with the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. The sale was also conducted discreetly and not advertised widely to the general public.
It didn’t take long for Garrard to find a buyer for the set. One of their already-established customers, a wealthy businessman from Surrey, was approached about the necklace and earrings. At the time, the sale was strictly private, and the identity of the buyer was kept anonymous. But within a few months, press reports revealed that the jewels were purchased by James Thornton (described by the New York Times as “a managing director in the London office of Lehman Brothers”) as a birthday present for his wife, Amanda. The Sunday Telegraph wrote that Thornton “is believed to have paid up to £200,000” for the necklace and earrings and “made a donation of £50,000 to the Princess’s memorial fund.” Thornton reportedly made the purchase spontaneously during a trip to the jeweler, where he was picking up a bracelet that had been undergoing repairs.
Over the next two years, the Thorntons reportedly received multiple offers to buy the jewels. Ultimately, they did decide to sell the pieces, in part because Amanda Thornton simply didn’t have regular reasons to wear them. James Thornton told the Sunday Telegraph, “My wife doesn’t really have the opportunity to wear them. We decided it would be better to allow someone else the opportunity to enjoy them. It’s a wonderful thing to have owned, but now it’s time for someone else to appreciate them.”
The Thorntons turned to an American-based auction house, Guernsey’s, to sell the suite, beginning a decades-long relationship between the auctioneers and the jewels. Led by owner Arlan Ettinger, Guernsey’s embarked on a major publicity tour to advertise the sale. Calling the auction “the gift of the century,” they trumpeted the Diana connection far and wide, particularly to an audience of American buyers. This meant highlighting appearances of the necklace on the cover of People, displaying the jewels in New York and Beverly Hills alongside life-size photographs of Diana, and even draping the diamonds and pearls around Katie Couric’s neck on the plaza outside the studio of the Today show.
There were countless references to Diana and even mentions of Dodi, and frequent assertions of the rarity and exclusivity of the sale, which was scheduled for December 1999. Ettinger called the necklace “one of the most significant pieces of jewelry to be offered in modern times” and stated that “all the expert opinion suggests that there will never be another significant item of [Diana’s] jewelry sold again.” Guernsey’s set a reserve price for the suite of $500,000, but they advised the press that they expected the jewels to fetch north of $4 million. Ettinger believed that the right buyer would sense the heightened value of the pieces. “In handling these jewels, the people who have come in contact with them are certainly touched by them. There’s almost an aura about them,” he told the Daily News. (In September 1999, an Associated Press journalist interviewed one of the everyday citizens who viewed the jewels on display. “Kinda expensive,” the man shrugged when informed of the $500,000 minimum price tag.)
The auction of the necklace and earrings was held on December 16, 1999, at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. They were sold alone, without other lots. (“While most auctions contain many, many items, rarely are you in a position where you put all your eggs in one basket. But nothing could compare to these,” Ettinger stated.) The sale room was described as “packed” in newspapers, though video of the actual sale shows numerous empty folding chairs. Auctioneer Lorna Kelley opened the bidding at the reserve price of $500,000, and an initial bid at that amount was quickly placed by a New York-based real-estate developer, 73-year-old Shep Brozman, and his wife, Melba. The Associated Press reported that Brozmans hoped to buy the necklace and earrings so that they could produce replicas for sale on the television shopping channel QVC.
To the disappointment of the Brozmans, who were only prepared to pay the reserve price, a second bid of $525,000 was placed over the telephone. That second bid—the only other one offered during the auction—was the winning one. Kelley’s gavel fell, and the necklace and earrings were sold to 48-year-old Texas businessman James McIngvale. The final price of the suite, including Guernsey’s premium, totaled $580,000. Some of that money was reportedly earmarked for one of Diana’s favorite charities. An AP report on the sale noted, “A portion of the purchase will go to UNICEF’s effort to reduce landmines around the world.” Though some newspapers had characterized the auction as full of “furious bidding”—an interesting depiction of a slow sale with a total of two bids—most press outlets acknowledged that the interest in the sale had been less than anticipated. One Express headline blared, “Diana loses her sparkle as gems go for £362,000 snip,” adding that the set sold for “just a tenth of its expected price.”
As for the buyer, he didn’t seem to mind. “I feel great,” McIngvale told reporters. “I thought it would go for a lot more.” McIngvale, who goes by the nickname “Mattress Mack,” is the owner of the Houston-based Gallery Furniture stores. He’s also a major collector of memorabilia and pop culture artifacts, many of which he displays at the flagship Gallery Furniture store. That’s where the diamond and pearl necklace and earrings ended up next—and stayed for an entire decade, displayed alongside other curiosities like a 1956 Lincoln Continental that belonged to Elvis Presley.
Indeed, after her death, Diana’s image transitioned into the commodified world of single-named celebrity icons like Elvis, Lucy, and Marilyn, with collectors cashing in on an immense range of commemorative items. Franklin Mint dolls, Beanie Babies, and more—trinkets were and are available at every price range, and the necklace became simply one of the more expensive of the available items that could be bought or sold. The status of the necklace and earrings as pop culture collectibles was reinforced a year after the auction. On December 7, 2000, the FOX television network aired a special called The Ultimate Auction, which featured sales of iconic items like a Cowardly Lion costume from The Wizard of Oz and an original handwritten manuscript of “The Night Before Christmas.” The necklace and earrings were showcased as part of the special, which was co-hosted, naturally, by Robert Urick and Sarah, Duchess of York. (Even Fergie, though, was reportedly nervous about being seen to capitalize on Diana’s death as part of the program.)
In May 2009, a disgruntled former employee of Jim McIngvale’s Gallery Furniture set fire to the warehouse near the flagship store’s showroom. The blaze raced through the space, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, before firefighters were able to contain the flames. There was also water and smoke damage to the showroom itself. Luckily, the necklace and earrings were unharmed—because, by chance, they were not on display in their usual location. Instead, they had been loaned out to an exhibition in New York. Not long afterward, McIngvale decided to part with the jewels. His daughter, Laura, wore the set on her wedding day in 2010, and shortly afterward, he contacted Guernsey’s to put the necklace and earrings up for auction in a second public sale.
The marketing department at Guernsey’s turned up the volume once again ahead of the sale. The jewels were shown once more on morning television. (This time, it was Erica Hill of CBS’s The Early Show who wore the jewels on screen.) Guernsey’s doubled down on their claim that the necklace represented a one-of-a-kind opportunity to own a piece of Diana’s jewelry, stating that “it is the general belief that these may well be the only substantial jewels worn by Diana that will ever be sold.” (This turned out to be inaccurate in the end.) The necklace and earrings returned to the Park Avenue Armory, where they were featured as Lot 65 in the auction house’s “Iconic Objects” sale. Numerous other items were also part of the auction this time around, including original artwork by John Lennon, photographs of Marilyn Monroe, and a piano that belonged to Liberace.
The necklace and earrings were again expected to realize an enhanced price in the auction, which was held on September 24, 2010. The auction house hoped to bring between $1.5 million and $2.5 million for the jewels. But once again, there was no bidding war to drive up prices. The suite of jewels was purchased by Mark Ginzburg, a Ukranian real-estate developer, who reportedly paid just over $600,000 for the set.
The jewels are still owned by the Ginzburg family today. In 2017, the family attempted to significantly capitalize on their investment. They planned to sell the jewels again in an auction, once again conducted by Guernsey’s in New York, that would be scheduled to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death. News of the pending auction was distributed to the press—I even covered it here at The Court Jeweller—along with reports of a shockingly high auction estimate. Seven years after purchasing the suite for under a million dollars, the Ginzburgs were hoping to sell the necklace and earrings for a stunning $12.1 million.
The 2017 auction was never held. The Ginzburgs continue to own the jewels to this day, though they’re currently working with Guernsey’s on yet another big auction of the suite. The auction house has released a new press campaign ahead of a planned June sale. “Once again, Guernsey’s has been honored to present to the world Princess Diana’s historic jewelry,” the press materials state. And, once again, there’s a tie between the sale of the jewels and a charitable endeavor, perhaps as a way to reassure prospective buyers that they’re honoring that part of Diana’s life: “Potential buyers should know that a portion of the proceeds from this new sale will be dedicated to the re-building of Ukraine.”
The auction materials also work to convince buyers that they’re purchasing part of a particularly lasting legacy: “One further note: while many accomplished figures fade from view with the passing years, Princess Diana is as vibrant today as when she was indeed the most admired woman on the planet. And with her son, Prince William, destined to one day become King, Diana’s star will be shining brightly for decades to come.” Just how much money will a buyer need to fork over to be connected to that brilliant star? The Ginzburgs and Guernsey’s wanted $12.1 million for the necklace and earrings back in 2017. Now, in 2023, they’re looking to make up to $15 million on the sale of jewels that have so far never exceeded the price of $650,000.
Will the necklace and earrings find another owner this time around? The royal bump is real, but is it that real? (When Kim Kardashian bought an amethyst and diamond cross earlier this year that had worn by Diana, she paid less than $200,000 for the jewel.) We’ll all have to stay tuned…