You’d be surprised how rare it is to find a spectacular quote from a legendary jewelry collector about her collection. It’s a personal subject and not usually discussed with journalists. Beyond Elizabeth Taylor who often enthused about her special pieces to the point of writing her only memoir on the subject, there really isn’t much to speak of from women who were famous for their jewelry in the twentieth century.
Maria Callas, who was celebrated for her seamless Bel Canto soprano range on-stage and a source of fascination for her love affair with the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis off-stage, had a grand collection of jewelry. To my knowledge, she never talked about it publicly or perhaps she was never asked. One time, however, she did use jewelry to describe Onassis. She told author Peter Evans in an interview for his book, The Life and Times of Aristotle Onassis, “Ari’s total understanding of women comes out of a Van Cleef & Arpels catalogue.”
It’s such a brilliant back handed slap. Clearly, she is calling the man simple minded but she is also managing to aptly express the femininity of the French jeweler’s collection and the underlying fact that Onassis must have indeed seriously studied Van Cleef & Arpels catalogues. He bought Callas so much of the jewelry and proceeded to buy his wife Jackie Kennedy even more.
While the only jewelry information in the new Tom Volf book Maria by Callas published by Assouline identifies a few of the designers of her jewels, there are lots of never before published photos of the gorgeous singer wearing the collection. Callas received any number of treasures from the Golden Greek and perhaps even more from her first husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, an Italian industrialist. Several pieces she wears in the book were among the 11 jewels sold by Sotheby’s, Geneva in 2004, including two with her favorite gem combination ruby and diamonds. There is the Van Cleef & Arpels leaf clip she wore on her shoulder and the unsigned ribbon choker.
The 230 pictures in Maria by Callas show how the mid-century formal jewelry was styled with her glamorous updos and gorgeous gowns. The personal images reveal Callas was a Zelig of sorts. They give a wider angle at well-know events showing she was there. Grace Kelly was a friend and so was Elizabeth Taylor. She may have been overshadowed by Marilyn Monroe at the party celebrating President Kennedy’s 45th birthday in 1962, but she was there to sing two arais. Among the most fascinating pictures is one of Callas on her final tour in 1973 surrounded by the enthusiastic autograph seeking fans mobbing her while she is wearing her Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry.
The author of the book, filmmaker Tom Volf, is planning a documentary to accompany the publication so there will be a lot more opportunities to see the sparkle of the opera star in action.