Who could fail to be moved by the love story of the UK’s Edward VIII and Wallis, the duchess of Windsor. He gave up his throne because he could not envisage life without his love by his side and the rest was history.
Bennett saw first-hand the evidence of their love for each other when he personally handled the jewelry collection of the duchess after her death in Paris in 1986.
In his capacity as head of the jewelry department, he set off for Paris with colleague Nicholas Rayner to inspect the collection held in the vaults of the Banque de France on rue Croix des Petits Champs near the Palais Royal.
One-by-one as they opened the boxes, the magnificent jewels emerged — pieces that resonated with the history of the pair whose chosen path saw them exiled from England and the king cut off from his kingdom.
Bennett, who had responsibility for cataloguing the collection, was amazed to discover some private details previously unknown and undocumented.
“At that point, no one had recorded that the duke and duchess had commissioned facsimiles of their writing on the jewelry. The inscriptions were not of the routine kind — such as ‘Christmas 1943’ — they were, instead, love messages that had to be deciphered in double quick time in order to be included in the catalogue that I compiled,” he recalled.
A diamond dress suite made by Cartier in 1935 was engraved with the initials W and E and the inscription “Hold Tight” — a phrase used by the duke and duchess in their correspondence during the abdication crisis.
Bennett noted an evolution in the style of the jewelry worn by the duchess before and after her marriage.
“The pieces before the marriage reflected the duke’s taste, for example, the emerald bracelet and the engagement ring in its original setting. They are more traditional, very high quality, very fine architectonic Art Deco jewels of the period 1935 or 1936.
“Then, after the marriage, the pieces became much more ground-breaking. Pieces like ‘The Flamingo’ — nothing had been created in jewelry like that before. She also started wearing the jewels differently. You can see the photographs of her in the 1940s when they were leaving Britain on the deck of the ship. She is wearing a sheer, long black dress with just a brooch. That was new. Normally, when you look at photographs from the era, for example those taken by Cecil Beaton, women are dressed covered in all sorts of jewelry with many bracelets worn at the same time.
“The duchess came along and used her dress as a frame for the jewels: The brooch worn high on the shoulder as a statement piece.
“Everybody began to follow the duchess — she was the original style icon of the 20th century.”
Other fascinating personalities that Bennett has worked with include Ava Gardner, Gina Lollobrigida and Lily Marinho.
He has special memories of each celebrated woman.
“I thought Ava Gardner was an absolutely lovely woman. I spent four afternoons with her discussing her jewelry. Each piece of jewelry would remind her of special people and times in her life, because jewelry is so personal it brings up a huge number of stories.
“Gina Lollobrigida was a great lady, an actress — a goddess in the 1950s — sculptor and photographer. I had been going to visit her for about ten years when suddenly she said: “Oh — by the way I think I will be selling my jewelry collection.
“She knew a great deal of the history of her pieces — she had a pair of pearl and diamond drop earrings that had belonged to the Habsburg family.
“Sotheby’s also handled the collection of the ‘uncrowned queen of Brazil’ the arts patron, philanthropist and socialite, Lily Marinho. That involved about four trips to Rio — to her amazing house with flamingos in the garden. We talked and talked for hours about her life. Apparently, I reminded her of her father who was English. She told me about aspects of South American history that I knew nothing about.”
Bennett is passionate and highly knowledgeable about jewelry in all its aspects, but as a young man he had wanted to become a film director. In his final year at university, where he studied philosophy, he confided this plan in his father who took a dim view of the prospect of his son forging a career in Hollywood. He persuaded him to take up an apprenticeship at Sotheby’s and when an opening came up in the jewelry department — with the country in the throes of recession — he took the opportunity.
He is celebrated in the industry as the auctioneer who has presided over the sale of four out of the five most expensive jewels in auction history, but for Bennett the money, while important, is not the driver behind his passion for jewels. That goes much deeper.
“I look at jewelry as an art form,” he explained.
“I am passionate about gemstones as essences of the planet. The great gemstone nations are India, Sri Lanka and Burma. The Indian subcontinent has a wonderful, unique relationship with gemstones because it is part of the Vedic tradition. The connection between gemstones and planets, which I have studied in depth in the Western tradition, has its foundations in India 4,000 years ago. The great guardians of the symbolism of gemstones are found in the Jain religion. It fascinates me as I have been interested in astrology since university.
One particular gem is held as supreme in its beauty in the eyes of Bennett.
This is “The Sunrise Ruby’,” named after a poem of the same name, written by the 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi. The ruby sold for a record $30.42 million in 2015 at a Sotheby’s auction in Geneva to an anonymous buyer.
“When the client showed it to me for the first time I was speechless for a full 20 minutes as I was so absorbed in gazing at it in different lights,” Bennett said.
“It is fascinating to me that this has come out of the rock. It is a treasure within the rock and somehow we must find that treasure within ourselves,” he added.
Bennett is constantly traveling and frequently visits the Gulf.
“It is a pleasure for me to go as I am very fond of the Arab world. I love the culture. From the mid 1970s to the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia accounted for, by far, the lion’s share of jewelry buying in the world. There are wonderful collections in KSA and other GCC countries, such as Kuwait, but I cannot name clients as we have to respect the desire for anonymity,” he said.
He has seen a great upsurge in interest in jewelry over his career and has contributed to widening the appreciation of jewels through his publications.
“When I joined Sotheby’s in the mid-1970s, there wasn’t a great interest in jewelry. Then by the mid-1980s jewelry had become of great interest, but there wasn’t a lot of information readily to hand. That’s why my colleague Daniela Mascetti and I published our first book, ‘Understanding Jewelry’,” he explained.
This ground breaking work, which has been translated into many languages, became a huge, sell-out success with sales estimated to be in the region of $4-5 million.
As he sets off to take yet another plane he admits that traveling today is a bit of a chore, but this negative is far outweighed by the knowledge that at the journey’s end could be waiting another unique and magnificent jewel.