What would you do if you had all the money in the world?
Barbara Hutton came close. At the age of 12, she inherited $28,000,000 from her grandmother. By the time she turned 21, in 1933, her golden nest egg hatched into a $50,000,000 ticket to whatever her little heart desired.
Except, perhaps, love. As wealth generators, Franklyn Laws Hutton (co-founder of E. F. Hutton & Co.) and Edna Woolworth Hutton (daughter of Frank W. Woolworth, founder of F. W. Woolworth Company) went above and beyond, but as loving parents the word was that they fell woefully short. After a difficult and painful childhood, Barbara went on to marry seven times. Many of her husbands were abusive or exploitative. None of the marriages lasted more than three years (one, only 53 days) and all ended in divorce. The life of America’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” is a sad and cautionary tale.
There was (at least) one thing Barbara was very good at: appreciating fine design and craftsmanship in jewelry. Her taste and instinct for precious ornaments seems to have been in place from a very early age. Having the financial means to acquire and commission exquisite pieces, she went on to amass one of the most famous collections of the twentieth century. She established working relationships with the major jewelry ateliers of the world, including Cartier of Paris. Her first significant Cartier piece was a jadeite necklace given to her by her father on the occasion of her first wedding. She later commissioned a redesign of the clasp, replacing a simple diamond with a diamond and ruby circle. The contrast of ruby red artfully enhanced the string of hand-carved jadeite green beads.
In 1957, bucking the panther trend, Barbara purchased a beautiful, articulated (he could move!) Cartier Paris tiger clip brooch. The brooch was crafted from yellow gold, multiple single- and brilliant-cut, fancy intense yellow to near colorless diamonds, marquise-shaped emeralds for the eyes, and fancy-shaped onyxes for the stripes. She was married, at the time, to husband number six: German Baron Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt Freiherr von Cramm (such a mouthful!). Baron von Cramm was a former amateur tennis champion and non-cooperator with the Nazi regime. According to Jon Marshall Fisher, author of A Terrible Splendor, von Cramm married his old friend Barbara to “help her through substance abuse and depression but was unable to help her in the end.”
Cartier is once again in the news. The Paris Biennale des Antiquaires – an exhibition held every other year at the Grand Palais – is under way. The best of the best in art and antique jewelry (some from the house of Cartier) are on display until September 21st. The event is “the cream of European salons . . . . fine arts, antiques, and collectibles of museum quality are exhibited, but this is better than a museum,” touts the Biennale’s website. For those who attend, the affair is “where art lovers and collectors rub elegantly-clad elbows with dealers of international renown under the glass nave of the of the Grand Palais.” Barbara and her elegant elbows would have loved it.