“Somehow I was the kind of a girl to whom husbands—and other men, too—gave copper frying pans,” Joan Fontaine once hilariously explained. “I could never could quite figure it out.” The lack of jewelry gifts from the men in her life did not stop the star from building her own amazing collection. Long before “self-purchasing” became a term for women buying their own jewels, Fontaine was shopping for what she wanted and her acquisitions were not meager basics. Like many stars of the era, Fontaine wore her own jewelry in her movies. Some of her best treasures appear in the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Suspicion.
In the film Fontaine portrays Lina McLaidlaw, a wealthy woman who becomes completely infatuated with the con artist Jonnie Aysgarth portrayed by Cary Grant. It’s obvious from the first scene he is a hustler, but Fontaine doesn’t begin to really realize his duplicity until after they are married and arrive in a lavish home he can’t pay for. During the dramatic revelation that he is totally broke, Fontaine wears the magnificent Wing brooch she had purchased from Verdura in 1939. The piece seems to symbolically suggests her virtue and angelic character, but the meaning was actually more elaborate.
The Italian designer Fulco di Verdura created the brooch when he opened his New York boutique in 1939. It’s reminiscent of jewels inspired by the Roman god Mercury he had made earlier in the decade when he worked for Coco Chanel as well as during his stint with Paul Flato. The clever silhouette of two elongated pear shape pink topazes weighing around 35.52-carats with magnificently engraved gold wings highlighted by diamonds, suggest Mercury’s winged feet.
Like all gods, Mercury’s story is complex. A popular figure in the ancient world he represented commerce, poetry and communication as well as travelers and trickery. In relation to the plot of Suspicion, there is a tale about Mercury in Ovid when he becomes the escort of Larunda to the Underworld. She has been sent there by Jupiter for betraying his trust. En route, Mercury falls in love with the beautiful mischievous nymph. I could be stretching on this, but with all the shadowy vagaries in the movie, I think the story could have been on Fontaine’s mind when she chose to wear the brooch in the scene when her husband’s devilish character is revealed and she can’t bring herself to leave him.
Another interesting detail of the brooch is the legendary story behind the stones. Verdura was passionate about pink gems. According to his biographer Patricia Corbett, “When it was rumored that the world’s largest hoard of precious pink topaz had come on to the London market, Fulco lost no time in dispatching Joe Mann to locate and acquire the entire lot of forty gems.” It is believed the stones were extracted from Russian jewels.
In another big scene when Fontaine’s level of distrust about her husband raises from the level of hustler to murderer, she wears an incredible jewel. While it is never to my knowledge been identified, the diamond honeysuckle bib looks like a Paul Flato design to me. The Hollywood jeweler made a series of diamond jewels in the floral styles. Why did she wear the jewel in the scene? I believe she put the statement piece on because it is a turning point in the movie, which is so often the answer for why you see big jewels in classic films. The symbolism of honeysuckle could also be ironic. In the language of flowers, honeysuckle reflects a sweet life without troubled arguments.
A triple-strand pearl necklace is the simplest jewel Fontaine wears throughout the film. Among all the pieces in her collection, it was her pearls that she decided to wear to the Oscar ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood when she was nominated and won the Best Actress prize for her chilling role in Suspicion. It was the a choice of an confident independent woman, a woman who knew her own style and bought her own jewelry.