It's no secret that Elizabeth Taylor was a talented actress who loved her jewelry. By the time she was in her mid-30s she had collected more incredible fine jewelry than most of us can scarcely imagine. From Cartier to Bulgari to antique pieces from the Belle Époque and Art Deco eras, she was the steward of an amazing array of adornment.
She also had a penchant for costume jewelry and all of the eye-catching lots in the Christie’s 2011 auction of her stash served as testimony. Among the fashion jewelry she owned and wore were lovely pieces produced by Ciner and Kenneth Jay Lane (K.J.L.) along with many others.
But Taylor, further exhibiting her business prowess after launching her White Diamonds fragrance line in 1991, also worked with Avon (yes, the “Avon Lady” company) to create her own line of costume jewelry. Join me as I explore this achievement along with sharing some tidbits about Avon jewelry in general and some of the fine jewelry that inspired Taylor’s Avon collaboration.
Avon Jewelry, in General
Among collectible jewelry enthusiasts, most Avon jewelry sold through their catalogs is, well, uninspiring. That’s not to say it isn’t pretty or it wasn’t stylish during the timeframe that it was made. Many of these pieces are still wearable today, in fact. But by and large, it just doesn’t have the unique styling, bold look, or cachet that most seasoned jewelry enthusiasts favor, and values tend to follow suit.
There are exceptions to every jewelry collecting rule though, and that’s certainly true for some co-branded Avon jewelry pieces marketed through their catalogs in the 1980s and ’90s. During this period the company worked with designers like Jose & Maria Barrera and K.J.L. to come up with fashion-forward jewelry that was a hit with their customers. One K.J.L. set in particular incorporated his famous Cartier-inspired panther heads into a torsade necklace set that also had a matching evening bag. All these co-branded pieces were more expensive than average Avon jewelry and most are quite collectible now.
And, of course, Elizabeth Taylor was another familiar personality that worked with Avon to design and promote a line of costume jewelry from 1993 through 1997.
Elizabeth Taylor for Avon
When Elizabeth Taylor for Avon jewelry was introduced in 1993, catalog customers were captivated by not only the jewelry inspired by her collection but the photos of Taylor modeling several of the pieces. One of these is the Shah Jenah necklace – a recreation of the heart-shaped pendant holding the Taj Mahal diamond gifted to Taylor by Richard Burton for her 40th birthday. Carefully simulating Cartier’s chains of karat gold with ruby accents holding the centerpiece in the original necklace, it is one of the most beautifully crafted pieces in the line.
When you take a close look at this jewelry in comparison to other designer costume pieces, it is evident that if Taylor was going to associate her name with a fashion jewelry line, it had to be done right. That doesn’t come cheap in costume jewelry manufacture, and the price for these items was far higher than average for Avon. For example, the Shah Jenah necklace sold for the hefty sum of $250.
Other popular pieces like those in the Egyptian Style Collection – which paid homage to Taylor’s acting role portraying Cleopatra – included a heavy, wide hieroglyphic cuff bracelet that sold for $75. The coordinating enameled Egyptian revival earrings and faux amethyst ring were priced at $50 and $60 respectively. With most other Avon pieces available for a fraction of those prices, it was a splurge to own them. Part of the reward was receiving an item luxuriously enclosed in a purple drawstring dust bag, wrapped in purple tissue paper, and then tucked into an equally purple gift box.
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Some of the costlier pieces to acquire in the secondary marketplace now include the fish-themed Koi Shimmer brooch with matching earrings that were sold separately, and the Gilded Age earrings with baroque cherubs incorporated in the metalwork. These are plated in the matte gold finish that was so popular during the 1980s and early ’90s. Others like the Elephant Walk brooch and earrings and the Eternal Flame collection have classic polished gold plating.
The glass beads, faux pearls, rhinestones, and cabochons simulating fine gemstones, moonstone and coral used to craft these designs, as well as a number of others in the line, are top notch in quality as is the construction of each piece. Most of this jewelry, in fact, still looks close to new more than 25 years since it was originally purchased.
Honestly, this costume jewelry is so nice that collectors are often surprised when they loupe the mark and realize the piece was originally sold by Avon. The signature, however, can sometimes be hard to read. If you notice a large script E within an oval on one of your jewelry finds, examine it closer for the complete mark: Elizabeth Taylor Avon.
If you’re left wanting to learn more about the fine jewelry in Taylor’s collection, don’t hesitate to snag a copy of Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry (Simon & Schuster) which tells the tale of some of her most fabulous pieces in her own words. This includes the complete story of how she and Burton acquired the Taj Mahaj necklace. The book also offers a deeper understanding of the tribute she paid to adornment by creating a costume jewelry line for others to enjoy.
When Liz Taylor's Jewelry Sold at Christie's
The landmark auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s personal collection of jewelry at Christie’s in 2011 was a staggering event, with total sales nearing $157 million.
As one of the most highly anticipated sales in auction history, the 1,778-lot auction attracted bidders from around the world and set a world record for the most valuable sale of jewelry in an auction. Hailed as “The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor,” the multi-event auction realized $157,756,576.
“My mother always acknowledged that she was merely the temporary custodian of the incredible things she owned,” Chris Wilding, Taylor’s son and member of the Elizabeth Taylor Trust, said at the time of the sale. “I think she would be happy to know that her collections will continue to enrich the lives
of those who have acquired pieces.”
The auction featured six items that sold for more than $5 million and 26 items that sold for more than $1 million.
Highlights of the sale included “La Peregrina,” the 16th century pearl on a necklace designed by Cartier for Taylor, which sold for $11.8 million, setting the world record for a pearl jewel. The pre-auction estimate was $2 million to $3 million.
La Peregrina upstaged what was expected to be the top lot, The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond. The 33.19-carat Asscher-cut D color potentially flawless diamond set on a ring that Taylor wore nearly everyday sold for $8.8 million, well above its $2.5 million to $3.5 million estimate.
The Taj Mahal Diamond, a gift from Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor for her 40th birthday, sold for $8.8 million. The heart-shaped diamond is believed to have been owned by emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666) and given to his favorite and most beloved wife, Mumtaz-i-Mahal. The emperor’s grief at her death four years later inspired him to commission the majestic Taj Mahal in her memory. The estimate was $300,000 to $500,000.
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