Going to the movies transports us from our daily lives to other worlds where plot twists, witty dialogue, larger-than-life characters and happily-ever-after endings make us feel all kinds of emotions.
And in those worlds, jewelry worn in movies—and particularly diamonds—often play a starring role in pivotal moments involving relationships, glamour, and desirability. They are also often at the center of heist movies or play a supporting role when helping to develop a character’s personality or reveal something crucial about the plot.
On-screen diamond moments are even more exhilarating when they’re personal articles of the actor themselves. This was frequently the case among leading ladies during Hollywood’s heyday. Some of the diamonds in these iconic films were presents from their loved ones, and others were bought for themselves before the term “self-purchasing” ever became a catch phrase.
Let’s take a look back at some of the great diamonds on film owned by A-list actresses.
‘Self-Purchased Jewels’ in Film
One of Mae West’s famous one-liners was: “I believe that a gifted diamond shines so much brighter than the ones you buy for yourself.” But she didn’t really buy into that theory. Instead she purchased much of her own jewelry for herself, piling on her diamonds in real life and film.
As the burlesque, bejeweled “Lady Lou” in She Done Him Wrong (1933), she re-launched her stage character “Diamond Lil” who was based on Lillian Russell. Her nickname was inspired by her love of diamonds and knack of getting men to buy them for her.
West wore her Belle Époque jewelry and Art Deco bracelets, mixed and stacked, until she donated much of her jewelry for the war effort.
One of West’s jewels, which wasn’t sold during the war, was a 1920s 40-carat diamond Art Deco piece. It is believed to be one of the bracelets she wore in She Done Him Wrong. Years later, after Neil Lane bought it, it had a new role in a film. Lane, the “jeweler to Hollywood’s stars,” lent it to costume designer Colleen Atwood for Catherine Zeta-Jones to wear in the film version of Chicago.
Speaking of bracelets, another female Hollywood powerhouse, Gloria Swanson made a bold statement wearing her Cartier rock crystal and diamond bracelets in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In the Billy Wilder film, she played the famous role of Norma Desmond, the aging silent film star who falls in love with a younger screenwriter (William Holden).
In the movie, her own jewelry punctuates her dramatic movements as she begins to lose her grip on life and reality.
The diamond bracelets were seen again at the party Swanson attended due to her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. It was there, while the awards were announced on the radio, that the pieces were shot by the press. Unfortunately, she did not win, and she found out that the Oscar went to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday…on her birthday.
In the 1950s, at the beginning of her acting career, the smoldering glamour of Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida was matched only by the jewelry of another Italian institution, Bulgari.
One of her favorite pieces was a scroll-motif platinum diamond necklace and bracelet combination created by the jeweler in 1954. It can also be worn as a tiara, as Lollobrigida did in the movie Woman of Straw. The Italian actress was reported to have purchased almost all of her jewelry.
Barbra Streisand is also renowned for buying her own pieces. The singer, actress, director and producer is a fan of antique and vintage jewelry. For her roles in Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975) in which she played the role of Fanny Brice, the legendary Ziegfield Follies performer, she knew she owned the perfect pieces for the time period (early 1900s) in which both films take place—for which she wore her collection of Edwardian and Art Deco jewelry.
The chosen jewelry revealed the changes in Streisand’s portrayal of Brice from one film to the next. In Funny Girl, Brice wants to be a star and eventually wins over Ziegfeld with her humor and her perseverance. In this role, Streisand wears jewelry that is simple and streamlined, with linear diamond earrings and diamond hair clips in her hair. But after the gambling Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif) leaves her at the end of Funny Girl, and she meets and marries Billy Rose (James Caan) in Funny Lady, she has “arrived” and can pull out the stops with her pieces—diamond clips, and diamond brooches as well as large geometric diamond rings. For quite a number of her personal jewels, it was reported that she shopped at the legendary Fred Leighton store in New York.
Grace Kelly’s ‘Gifted Jewels’ in Film
“That’s quite a rock, Sam,” says C. K. Dexter Haven (played by Bing Crosby) to his ex-wife, socialite Tracy Samantha Lord (Grace Kelly) in the 1956 film High Society. Then he turns to her fiancé́ George Kitteridge and asks: “Did you mine it yourself, George?”
Dexter is referring to the 10.47-carat emerald cut engagement ring by Cartier adorning Tracy’s’ left hand. The ring was actually Grace Kelly’s own engagement ring from Prince Rainier III. Kelly wanted to wear it so the lines referring to it were written into the script.
The ring turned out to be perfect for the part as a newly engaged socialite and appears quite often in the film, which also starred Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm.
But these were not the only diamonds owned by the beautiful Grace Kelly that she wore on film.
Her Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet-watch of ruffled lattice motif and diamonds appeared on her wrist in the 1953 game-hunting film Mogambo. Although it did not fit as neatly into the plot as the engagement ring in High Society, it did help with the characterization of her role as the married and proper Linda Nordley, who competes with playgirl Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly (Ava Gardner) for the attentions of hard-drinking Marswell (Clark Gable).
Bridal and wedding jewels were displayed by many actresses on film. Norma Shearer wore her diamond engagement ring from Universal producer Irving Thalberg in The Divorcee (1930). It is reported that she had a box of diamond rings from which to choose and she selected the large platinum-set marquise cut ring.
On the day of their wedding in 1939, Alexander Korda gave jewelry collector Merle Oberon three Cartier diamond set roses, which she wore in the 1940 film ’Til We Meet Again.
In the opening scene Oberon wears the three rose brooches clipped to her suit; later she puts them on a ribbon around her neck. During publicity interviews she revealed to reporters the diamond brooches’ very sentimental value.
Paulette Goddard was another actress who appreciated the luster of gifted diamonds. She did not believe in buying jewelry for herself, saying: “I don’t accept flowers. I take nothing perishable.”
Many of the gifts Goddard received were from the men with whom she was involved, including Charlie Chaplin and the composer George Gershwin.
One of her favorite pieces of note was a diamond-fringe scroll necklace by Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin. When a reporter, referring to the amount of diamonds in the necklace, asked her how she came by it, she replied: “I got it by getting engaged so often. I never give anything back,” implying that she had the diamonds added in the rings.
What makes it all the better: Paulette Goddard wore her jewels with abandon, on and off-screen, like any woman of her time… and ours.
Beth Bernstein is editor and founder of bejeweledmag.com.