The Adventurine Posts At Auction: Salvador Dalí’s Étoile de Mer

The Salvador Dalí Étoile de Mer brooch and an image of Rebekah Harkness wearing it during the mid-20th century.. Photo Christie’s and Wikipedia

Jewelry History

At Auction: Salvador Dalí’s Étoile de Mer

The surreal starfish brooch originally belonged to Rebekah Harkness

by Marion Fasel

June 1, 2023—I started many tours of the Beautiful Creatures exhibition I curated in 2021 at the American Museum of Natural History by asking groups with people of a certain young age if they were Taylor Swift fans. While that might sound like an odd inquiry to kick off a jewelry walkabout, it related to one of my favorite pieces in the show: Salvador Dalí’s Starfish Étoile de Mer brooch.

The jewel was originally owned by Rebekah Harkness who all Swifties know was the subject of Taylor’s 2020 song, “The Last Great American Dynasty.” Taylor even drops Dalí’s name in the hit. The singer became fascinated by the heiress after buying her grand Rhode Island Home named Holiday House.

The main Water case in the ‘Beautiful Creatures: Jewelry Inspired By The Animal Kingdom’ exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History including Dali’s ‘Étoile de Mer.’ Photo

Now the Dalí jewel owned by Rebekah Harkness and the original design for the piece are being sold in separate lots at Christie’s in New York on June 7. The estimates are $1,000,000 to $1,500,000 and $40,000 to $60,000 respectively.

Dalí was at the height of his powers in jewelry when he designed Étoile de Mer around 1950. He had begun dabbling in medium during the late 1930s and collaborated on a collection with Fulco di Verdura in 1941. He got really serious about the subject in 1949 when he went into a partnership with New York–based jewelry manufacturer Carlos Alemany.

Many of Dalí’s jewels transformed materials into visual puns. His most Ruby Lips brooch had white pearls for teeth. Dalí’s diamond and platinum Eye of Time brooch was set with a diamond teardrop pendant, a ruby at the lacrimal sac and a watch dial painted by the artist.  

The Étoile de Mer is more sophisticated in its surrealism and construction than either of these two well-known creations.

Detail image of the ‘Etoile de Mer’ by Salvador Dalí. Photo Christie’s

The incredible flexibility of the arms of the Étoile de Mer is impossible to capture in a single image. If you look at the picture from Christie’s at the top of this post and the image from the museum above, you can glean what I am talking about.

The gold setting for the ruby and diamond arms of the starfish is like mesh. Rebekah Harkness played around with this feature in the way she wore the jewel. She pinned it on her shoulder and let the arms hang down her front and back. Don’t ask me how she made it stay that way because I have no idea.

For at least one formal occasion Rebekah wore the starfish clinging to her breast. In Bejeweled: Great Designers, Celebrity Style, a book I co-authored with Penny Proddow, we published an image of her wearing it in this provocative way where she was photographed  with Andy Warhol.

The 13 ¾ x 10 ¾ inch Salvador Dalí design for ‘Etoile de Mer.’ Photo Christie’s

Dalí’s design for the jewel shows it draped over a hand, but to my knowledge a mechanism to wear it in this mode was never worked out. The melted watch in one of the arms on the design, clearly didn’t make it into the final version of the jewel either.

One of the surrealist details are the gold branches with emerald leaves sprouting from the sides of the starfish. The two little butterfly pins composed of emeralds and sapphires and colored diamonds are another. They could be attached to a starfish arm or worn separately.

When we were setting up Beautiful Creatures, someone on the exhibitions team asked me if the little insects would be put on the Butterfly Wall in the Air section. I explained they had to be with the Starfish in the Water case because the pieces were designed en suite as a trio. I said, “It’s surreal.”

While the wildness was a little hard for the team used to working with scientist curators to digest, we compromised and placed the butterflies a little up and away from the sea creatures in the water case.

Rebekah Harkness in an undated image wearing her Salvador Dalí Etoile de Mer brooch. Photo Wikipedia

Dalí held strong opinions about the jewels he designed. One of my favorite rants from the artist was published in his 1954 catalogue Dalí: A Study of His Art-in-Jewels he wrote:

The jeweled pieces you find in this book were not conceived to rest soullessly in steel vaults. They were created to please the eye, uplift the spirit, stir the imagination, express convictions.

Dalí’s ‘Etoile de Mer’certainly succeeded on every score when it was in Rebekah Harkness’s collection. I feel very privileged I had the opportunity to see do so while it was on display at the American Museum of Natural History.

Related Stories:

The Story of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Medusa

Verdura’s Historic Collab with Dalí

At Auction: Salvador Dalí’s Eye of Time