The Cartier Bracelet That Explains How Wallis Simpson Became a Jewelry Icon

This fall, a rarely seen piece of royal jewelry will spend a period on display before it finds a new owner. In November, Christie’s will auction off a Cartier bracelet with two rubies and diamond insets that once belonged to Wallis Simpson—or the Duchess of Windsor as she was known after she married Edward VIII following the abdication crisis—and the auction house estimates that it might fetch as much as $2.15 million. Throughout her life, Wallis was an avid jewelry collector, and though the bracelet is not considered one of her most spectacular pieces, it is one with plenty of sentimental meaning. It was a 1938 gift from the Duke of Windsor, and the inside of the Art Deco–style bangle bears an inscription: “For our first anniversary of June third.” Though a first anniversary isn’t always the most notable, for Wallis and Edward it was a symbol of their freedom from the royal family, but it’s also a reminder of the era when their reputation as traitors to the United Kingdom grew.

The summer of 1938 was a comparably settled one for the couple, nearly two years after Edward walked away from the throne and one year before the United Kingdom would engage Germany in World War II. The couple married on June 3, 1937, in a luxurious yet small (by Windsor standards) ceremony at the Château de Candé, a 16th-century castle in France. Soon after the wedding, Edward and Wallis moved into an apartment in Paris, their financial situation not yet settled, and having not been accepted by the thriving British expat community. Edward had hoped to be able to return to England, but in terse letters, his mother, Queen Mary, rejected the idea.

By the spring of 1938, the couple began to settle into France but were searching for a country home. Wallis learned that the Villa La Croë, a luxurious home on the French Riviera she had originally hoped to use as a wedding venue, was up for rent, according to Wallis’s biographer, Greg King. (Edward’s brother, King George VI, had actually been the one to recommend the castle where they wed, King writes in The Duchess of Windsor. However, the king reportedly demanded that no one from the immediate family attend due to the embarrassment the couple had caused.) Eventually, the couple moved into the gleaming white three-story home with a sea view on a 12-acre estate in the Cap d’Antibes, equipped with tennis courts, gardens, and blue-and-white awnings over a colonnade on the back of the house where the couple entertained famous guests.

At some point in time, Edward must have begun mulling what he might give Wallis as an anniversary present. He and Wallis were both jewelry lovers, and he had long used gems as a token of his affection, having given plenty of finery to Freda Dudley Ward, his previous mistress of about 16 years. He was known to engrave gifts with the dates of special occasions. On their wedding day, Wallis wore a Cartier charm bracelet hung with nine crosses made of precious stones, including an amethyst, baguette diamonds, blue and yellow sapphires, and rubies; each one was engraved with a message, including one that read, “WE Are Too,” and the date November 25, 1934, which is thought to be near the time the two became romantically involved.

From Bettmann.

Cartier was considered one of the main court jewelers for the royal family, and Edward had long been their committed customer. A 1925 caricature by the French artist Sem showed “prince charming” entering the Cartier store on the Rue de la Paix, surrounded by a throng of fans. That might be why, according to biographer King, Edward would sometimes go to extraordinary measures to fetch gifts for her early in their relationship, while she was still married to her second husband Ernest Simpson. King wrote, “While Wallis slept, the Prince rang the night manager of the hotel and asked him to, in turn, summon to work the staff of the local branch of the Cartier store; he then disappeared into the night to do some private jewelry shopping.”

Christie’s notes that this particular assemblage of rubies and diamonds was originally a necklace, before eventually being reset into a bracelet, and according to royal jewelry expert Suzy Menkes, rubies were one of Wallis’s favorite stones. A clue to why Edward might have given her a ruby bracelet specifically can be found in one of his previous gifts. In March 1936, he gave her a Van Cleef & Arpels ruby bracelet inscribed with the words “Hold Tight.” Because the gift came about seven months before her divorce from her second husband was heard in court, scholars have interpreted it as a message indicating the steadfastness of his desire to be with her.

In some ways, the Cartier anniversary bracelet—which itself came on the heels of the sapphire-and-diamond bracelet she wore the day she married Edward—can be seen as a mirror of that original ruby gift. He might have intended to thank her for her commitment to the relationship despite the upheaval it caused in their lives, or acknowledge her patience as they decided what to do and where to live for the rest of their lives.