Get Beth Bernstein chatting about If These Jewels Could Talk: The Legends Behind Celebrity Gems, and you’ll hear a passionate oration of the tales in her new tome. That’s what I was treated to one evening last week when I got together with Bernstein to learn more about her book and why we haven’t seen her as much on the industry circuit of late. The answer to the latter: For the past year and a half, she’s been holed up putting together this gorgeous book about high-profile jewels and the people associated with them.
Bernstein, a seasoned jewelry editor and author, is also a self-proclaimed movie geek who recalls dressing up with her mother and grandmother as a child to watch old movies. A young Bernstein sipped ginger ale from a champagne glass while wearing a dime-store tiara—“Very Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” she recollects about the famous scene where Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard play dress up and steal masks. Meanwhile, the elder generations discussed the clothes and jewels of on-screen sirens. “We would stay up late and watch the late late movies, and I knew all the lines,” says Bernstein, who calls New York City home. From Joan Crawford to Audrey Hepburn to Elizabeth Taylor, Bernstein took mental inventories of all their wardrobes and bling, squirreling away the memories until the time was right for them to spill onto paper.
A friend urged her to ink the book, an idea shelved away for more than 20 years, but Bernstein wanted it to unfold appropriately.
“I didn’t just want to do a book on the best jewelry in movies or the best collections,” she says. “I wanted to talk about how the jewelry helped to develop characters in the films and the stories behind the pieces. Now, costume designers choose all the jewelry actresses wear, but in Hollywood’s Golden Era, even with famed costume designers like Adrian and Edith Head, stars would wear their own jewels in movies.”
Bernstein’s book, which goes on sale to the public this month, is loaded with stories behind dozens of high-profile jewels. Taylor’s La Peregrina pearl? Check. The Duchess of Windsor’s holly brooch from King Edward VIII? Yes. The Cartier Daisy diamond engagement ring from the first The Great Gatsby film? You Bet. Rudy Valentino’s own Cartier tank watch worn in The Son of the Sheik? Yup, that, too.
And which anecdotes are among Bernstein’s favorites? Read on for a memorable quintet of tales, in no particular order of significance.
Elizabeth Taylor’s make-up presents. While both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were filming movies in Rome, Taylor suspected Burton of flirting with Sophia Loren while on set with her. Taylor flew home to the states and grew ill and had an emergency appendectomy. When Burton found out “he presented her with a Van Cleef & Arpels pavé diamond three-dimensional heart pendant,” according to the book. Taylor called it “one of her favorite pieces of jewelry ‘because it was given with such love’—adding ‘that man knew how to make up!’ ”
Cartier diamonds and a lifeboat. Tallulah Bankhead plays Connie in Hitchcock’s 1944 psychological drama Lifeboat. Bankhead and survivors from a torpedoed ship float helplessly at sea while Bankhead’s luxurious belongings (a fur coat and a gold cigarette case, among others) are put to use for survivalist means. Her diamond bracelet from Cartier serves as unsuccessful fish bait.
Diamonds in High Society. Bing Crosby plays C.K. Dexter-Haven in the 1956 film High Society, in which he observes a mammoth-size diamond engagement ring on his ex-wife (Grace Kelly). “That’s quite a rock, Sam,” he says. He turns to her fiancé (John Lund) and asks, “Did you mine it yourself, George?” The ring is a 10.47 ct. emerald-cut diamond from Cartier and is Kelly’s own engagement ring from Prince Rainier III. “What most people don’t know about this ring is that it was the second engagement ring the prince bought for her,” says Bernstein. “The first was a ruby and diamond eternity band, but he soon found out that Hollywood stars got megawatt gems for their rings and went out and bought her the emerald-cut diamond.”
Norma Shearer’s box of rings. Norma Shearer had been dating Universal producer and her boss, Irving Thalberg, for two years, before he proposed in a memorable way. He called her into his office and “pulled out a box that contained something much more alluring than chocolates—in it was a range of engagement rings,” says Bernstein. “Shearer chose a fashionable slender platinum band, set with a large marquise-shape diamond. Who wouldn’t marry a man who knew how to figure out how to give a woman a ring she would most definitely want? Shearer wore the ring three years after they married in the film The Divorcee.”
Elizabeth Taylor’s ping-pong rings. During a match with Richard Burton, he challenged her to 10 points “off of him,” Bernstein says in her book. If she did, Burton “would give her a perfect diamond. He lost. She won. It was time to go shopping. Burton found the smallest perfect diamond ring weighing an eighth of a carat, along with two other small diamond rings. This was around the time that he had bought the Taylor-Burton. The couple had a private joke. When someone would say: “What a magnificent diamond,” Taylor would wiggle her little finger, on which she wore the ping-pong diamond, and say, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
For more stories and to meet Bernstein and get an autographed copy of her book, visit Doyle & Doyle at 412 W. 13th St. on Nov. 12, 6–8 p.m. Alternatively, check any fine bookseller to order copies.
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