February 27th would be Elizabeth Taylor's birthday if she was still with us. Where does one start when discussing Elizabeth Taylor, her art, her humanitarianism, or her jewellery collection. She was the ultimate Covettist in her love of jewellery and her willingness to share her jewellery with the world. Not in the way Covettists today share; she had a strong belief in wearing her precious gems and letting them be seen by those of us who loved them. She didn't believe in locking them away in a safe and or wearing them only for her own enjoyment.
Elizabeth Taylor was in the public eye from the age of 11 and remained there even decades after her last hit movie. She managed to keep people fascinated, by her incandescent beauty, her courage, her open-natured character, her self-deprecating humour, her eight marriages (two of them to the actor Richard Burton), her many brushes with death, her seesawing weight, her jewels, and her humanitarian causes, all of which often obscured the reason why she was famous in the first place – she had a tantalising screen presence, in films including A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956), Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Butterfield 8 (1961), Cleopatra (1963) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Jewellery lover and collector
When it came to jewellery, however, her passion neither waned nor wandered. For years Taylor has been regarded as having the most important private jewellery collection in America. Her only book on the subject, Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, was the winding course of a lifetime loving men intertwined with loving jewellery. The many gifts she received and the great buys she made on her own are were auctioned by Christie’s in December 2011 after her death. By any measure—star factor, quality, provenance—it was poised to be the auction of our lifetime. As Taylor herself remarked, “I feel as though I’m only the custodian of my jewellery. When I die and they go off to auction I hope whoever buys them gives them a really good home.”
On the first night of the sale for The Elizabeth Taylor Collection, the actress's jewelry sold for $115.9 million--a world record for a private jewelry collection sold at auction. The proceeds went to The Elizabeth Taylor Foundation. The highlights of the night were a La Peregrina natural pearl, diamond, ruby, and cultured pearl necklace that sold for $11.8 million, including fees. That price broke the world record for the most expensive pearl ever sold at auction, formerly $7 million. The estimated value of Taylor's necklace was $2 million to $3 million before the auction.
A savvy businesswoman
While it’s now de rigueur for celebrities to launch their own signature scents, Elizabeth was one of the first, in 1987. Since its introduction in 1991, White Diamonds has earned more than $1 billion in revenue.
“The garden was her inspiration,” recalls Tamara Steele, senior vice president of global fragrance marketing at Elizabeth Arden, where Elizabeth developed her perfumes, including the best-selling White Diamonds, Black Pearls, Violet Eyes, and several others. “Her home was her fragrance headquarters.” Steele, who worked with Elizabeth for 12 years, would be ushered into the living room to sit at the round table and discuss designs for the packaging. “She was a savvy and astute businesswoman, a delight to work with,” says Steele. “She knew her jewels, and the palettes and the colors were the basis of the design of her bottles.” When Elizabeth died, her fortune was worth over $1Billion dollars, much of it from her perfume collaboration.
A humanitarian and activist
The transformation of Elizabeth Taylor, movie star and breathtaking beauty, into Elizabeth Taylor, humanitarian and AIDS activist, began in 1985 with the death of her good friend Rock Hudson. Heartbroken and furious that the Reagan administration was ignoring this mysterious, blood-borne disease, Elizabeth began to speak out. One of her friends noted, “When Rock Hudson died, we all knew it was AIDS, but it was painful to watch him deny it. And I think Elizabeth got that. She sensed his shame and thought it was wrong.” That year she founded the National AIDS Research Foundation to raise funds to find a cure for H.I.V.
Spencer Cox, an activist who worked for the combined organization, AmFAR, in 1990 and 1991, recognized that “Elizabeth Taylor was one of the few things we had we could leverage for support. She was deeply committed. She knew what she brought to the table: “People will pay good money to see how much I weigh or what color my eyes are,’ she said.”
The Red Ribbon was a tangible symbol of the work Elizabeth Taylor had been doing for years. By the time she sported the red ribbon at the Oscars, almost everyone in attendance wore the pin. The following year, the Hollywood community recognized Taylor’s tireless efforts for the AIDS cause and presented her with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. For the evening, the actress wore a ruby and gold rendition of the AIDS Awareness pin with her yellow Valentino dress and a joyful daisy diamond and chrysoprase necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels. During her moving speech, she spoke about the work that still needed to be done in terms of the way AIDS patients were treated. She said:
“Tonight, I am asking for your help. I call upon you to draw from the depths of your being to prove that we are a human race, to prove that our love outweighs our need to hate, that our compassion is more compelling than our need to blame, that our sensitivity of those in need is stronger than our greed, that our ability to reason overcomes our fear and that at the end of each of our lives we can look back and be proud that we have treated others with the kindness, dignity and respect that every human being deserves.”
In a rare interview, with Vanity Fair, Elizabeth Taylor’s second-oldest son, Christopher, remarked that what he learned from his mother was “to be expansive with compassion and generosity, to be open-minded and fair. She taught this entirely by example. She was absolutely fearless in standing up, without hesitation, for those she felt were being treated unfairly, whether it was a close friend, a crew member on one of her films, or an entire class of people.” But perhaps Richard Burton said it best years ago: “You haven’t lived unless you’ve known Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Taylor, proved time and time again that she was a humanitarian over anything else. While, of course, we admire her as an actor and famed jewellery collector, it was her willingness to embrace the world with an open mind, compassion, and generosity, that is her greatest legacy.