Wallis Simpson’s Cartier Flamingo Brooch May Be One of the Most Famous Jewels of the 20th Centuries

Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, wears her Cartier Flamingo Brooch. Photo credit: Today.
Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, wears her Cartier Flamingo Brooch. Photo credit: Today.

This delightful Cartier brooch has become one of the most famous jewels owned by Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. Standing on one retractable leg, the bird evokes a somewhat whimsical air. His plump little head and long neck are paved entirely in diamonds, as are his legs and squat body.

Shop Antique Brooches

One sapphire eye pierces through the diamonds, and a yellow citrine cabochon and blue sapphire form his arching beak. His dazzling tail feathers glitter with the sparkling green of emeralds, the bright red of rubies, and the stately blue of sapphires. The overall appearance is one of bold whimsy.

This jeweled bird was conceived in the mind of the Duke of Windsor, who made a surprising trip to France in 1940, just before the country fell to the Nazis. The Duke’s mission to France was far from political, but deeply personal.

The Duke took one of his wife’s necklaces and four of her bracelets with him to France for a meeting with Jeanne Touissant, Cartier’s esteemed jewelry director. The two had collaborated many times before, and he knew she was the woman for the job of creating a brooch that would absolutely thrill his wife.

After documenting the Duke’s express wishes, Mdm. Touissant took their drawings, along with the stones she had culled from the necklace and bracelets, and conferred with her design partner, Peter Lemarchand. Together, they created this remarkable brooch, which the Duke gave to his wife on her birthday that same year.

The brooch was recorded in photographs of the couple’s visit to Madrid in late June 1940, where they spent a holiday in celebration of their mutual birthdays, which fall only four days apart. The above photograph shows the Duchess in her holiday attire, wearing the brooch. Here is another shot from that same day.

She also wore the brooch on their way to the Bahamas in August 1940, and again in October 1941, on a trip to the US. These are the only documented sources I’ve found so far; however, it is reported to have been one of her favorite jewels.

Over 40 years later, following Wallis Simpson’s death, the flamingo brooch landed on the auction block at Sotheby’s for what some believe was the auction of the century. The sale of 300 of the Duchess’s personal items and jewelry in 1987 raised $45.7 million, which was donated to France’s Pasteur Institute at the Duchess’s bequest.

According to David Bennett, Sotheby’s Chairman of International Jewelry in Europe and the Middle East, the flamingo brooch “quickly became the key jewel of the [1987] sale…[and] since the sale has become emblematic of the greatest of 20th century jewels. It’s realistic and at the same time abstract” {cited}.

In 2010, an anonymous seller contracted with Sotheby’s to sell 20 of the Duchess’s jewels in a sale that again shattered estimates and made headlines. Highlighted as one of the most sought after pieces, the Cartier Flamingo Brooch went home with an anonymous bidder for $2.52 million dollars, demonstrating a near 35% increase in value from the 1987 sale. See some more vintage brooches with their own history and add your own.