Sotheby's Presents Madame Ganna Walska's Briolette Diamond

The "Walska Briolette Diamond" Brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels. Photo © Sotheby's. The "Walska Briolette Diamond" Brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels. Photo © Sotheby's.

Headlining Sotheby's Geneva Magnificent Jewels sale on November 13, 2013, is this absolutely stunning 'Bird of Paradise' brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels. A masterpiece in jeweled artistry, the yellow gold bird is bedecked in yellow and white diamonds and emeralds with a central blue cabochon sapphire, emerald eye, and emerald headdress. Hanging from the bird's beak is an astonishing 96.62-carat Fancy Vivid Yellow faceted diamond, called the 'Walska Briolette', which has made a fantastic journey through time.

The rarest of all diamonds, fancy yellows form when nitrogen fuses within the carbon crystal structure. The known history of the briolette begins with one of the most intriguing early-20th-century women, Madame Ganna Walska.

A Most Interesting Life

Born Hanna Puacz around 1887, she grew up in a middle-class family in Poland. As a teenager, she escaped the limitations of her life in Poland by fleeing to Russia. Soon after, she embarked upon the first of many marital adventures in St. Petersburg. Her elopement with Count Arcadie d'Eingorn of Russia served as an entree to Russian society and the beginning of a "most interesting life" {9}.

According to the New York Times, Hanna continually invented and reinvented herself. In these early days, she styled "herself as a wealthy Russian famous for her charisma as for her opulent jewels" {9}. Eight years later, her marriage to the count came to an end. Soon after she took flight in pursuit of a singing career, first as a cabaret singer in Paris and later as an opera singer in New York. One taste of the theatrics of show business, and she was hooked for life.

While in Paris, Hanna took up singing with Jean de Reszke {5}. Reinventing herself once again, she changed her name to Ganna Walska {5}. Ganna is a Russian take on Hanna, meaning 'grace', while Walska is reminiscent of her favorite dance, the waltz {9}. While the Madame part of her persona was added a touch later on the opera scene, it soon became her signature appellation.

A Fortuitous Meeting

Madame's life story reads a lot like Marilyn Monroe's, a ravishing beauty with a talent for theatrics and a penchant for inventing herself in whatever way the moment demanded. Like Marilyn, men were attracted to her in a way that seems mysterious and intriguing when viewed through a 21st-century lens. Her acceptance of so many quick proposals seems also to defy all 21st-century logic, though it is impossible for a woman of today to fault her for trying to find security wherever possible.

In 1918, a devastating throat condition threatened her career, and she found herself seated in the office of Dr. Joseph Fraenkel. Ten days later, the elderly man took the Madame as his wife and encouraged her singing aspirations. Her debut as an opera singer that year was an utter failure, though it culminated in a fortuitous meeting with Harold McCormick, a wealthy supporter of the Chicago Opera Company {5}.

Three months after the devastating loss of her second husband to cancer, she succumbed to the dogged pursuit of Alexander Cochran, heir to Smith Carpet Manufacturing. Soon after she married the wealthy man, the recently divorced Harold McCormick set about wooing the married Madame. Her refusal is swift, but made not without some measure of regret. Troubled by her husband, who jealously resented her passion for the stage and her friendship with Mr. McCormick, Madame Walska turned to Eastern mysticism for comfort and meaning {5}.

Two More Marriages

In 1922, the press has a heyday at her expense. They begin by extorting her scandalous divorce from the jealous Mr. Cochran, with a flurry of reports following three months on her swift marriage to Harold McCormick. In 1923, her new husband bought for her the Theâtre des Champs Elyseés in Paris, a gift she would faithfully adore for almost 50 years. She invested her entire being into the theater scene in Paris, neglecting her American husband. Mr. McCormick filed for divorce 8 years later, though the two parted amicably {5}.

A shared passion for the opera led to her fifth marriage, this time to physicist and inventor Harry Grindell-Matthews in 1937. Three years later, instability in France, as well as her supreme unhappiness with yet another jealous husband {2}, finally compelled the Madame to board the last commercial passenger ship to New York before German occupation of France. It would appear that her husband stayed behind, as she received word from his housekeeper of his death in 1941 {5}.

During her respite from the war and her marriage, she had made several trips to California, where her pursuit of mysticism found her in the classroom of one Theos Bernard, popularly known as "The White Lama." Following her husband's death, she spent another six weeks in California attending to her mystic studies and the attentions of her new Yogi {5}.

A Renewing Cycle

By now an extremely wealthy woman, the Madame had grown weary of the hectic pace of New York life. The California air energized her. She found a renewed sense of purpose in this Bohemian culture, where "people are decidedly more interested in your being than in your pocket" {2}.

She left her past behind in New York and purchased a small farm in California. Not long after, she fell under the spell of the Yogi whose classes opened her mind to the possibilities of mystic connection with the universe. Unaware of the renewing cycle in her life, she once again gave in to the pestering of this handsome young man and married him in 1941.

Theos found her a remarkable piece of property in Santa Barbara, and though he could not buy it for her, he convinced her they would be supremely happy there pursuing "their" destiny. She purchased Cuesta Linda, a 37-acre estate nestled in Montecito, and gave him significant freedom and money to pursue his life's work on the beautiful acreage. Meanwhile, she pursued her new passion--gardening.

Madame's Greatest Theatrical Endeavor

The beauty of the property lay primarily in the lavish gardens. Cuesta Linda was first established in 1882 by Ralph Kinton Stevens, "a rare-plant afficionado who used part of the grounds as a demonstration nursery" {13}. His elaborate gardens set the stage for Madame's greatest theatrical endeavor, the very pinnacle of her life really.

Unfortunately, her marriage to Theos Bernard would end in utter dismay four years after it began. By all appearances, Mr. Bernard was a skilled con man with a reputation for unabashedly endearing the wealthy to himself and his causes {14}. He spent her money publishing books, touring the lecture circuits, and attempting to import retired Tibetan monks to Santa Barbara.

His plan was to establish an academy of Tibetan literature, and the monks were being solicited to teach yoga philosophy and and act as translators for various sacred texts. Theos's grand vision was thwarted by war. Visas for the monks were put on hold in hostile India.

Her Garden Became Her Stage

Meanwhile, Madame Walska lost herself completely in the restoration and creation of the many gardens that still exist today on the property. The exotic nature of the gardens inspired within her a passion for horticulture, and she hired countless men to transform the property into a ravishing collection of gardens filled with exotic species in mass plantings. Her garden became her stage, a final act that would take over 40 years to complete.

"For Walska, plants were more than plants; they were colors to paint with, a family to nurture, characters to direct...Densely packed on a series of knolls, the 100 or more varieties form galaxies of fleshy stars....We are no longer an audience but a part of this crowd scene: The 2- and 3-foot-high flower spikes are flame-colored spears or an army of torches, and we're onstage with them" {13}.

In 1945, the Madame's husband chose to cut his losses. While she was away on a trip, he stripped their home of paintings, furnishings, and all of his own belongings. He led her to believe he would meet her at the Burbank Airport, but she was met with only shock and embarrassment when his lawyer greeted her with divorce papers {15}. A nasty court battle followed, but in the end Madame retained her dignity, and thankfully her property.

A Trade is Made

Finally having found her life's purpose, Madame gave up her pursuit of men and opera and settled into the joys of designing, nurturing, and enjoying her expansive garden. She changed the property's name to Lotusland and abandoned herself (and her riches) fully into the gardens. Forsaking the large mansion on the property, Madame Walska settled into a small cottage nestled among the plants {3}.

In 1971, the Madame set her mind upon acquiring a large collection of cycads for a special garden room at Lotusland. Cycads are reputed to be the most ancient of plants, ancestors of cone-bearing pines. They grow slowly, and there are only 230 species in the world. To fulfill her desire, she consigned with Sotheby's to auction off a fair number of her precious jewels.

Her jewelry collection was world renowned. According to Bruce Weber, "Ganna's discriminating taste drew her to Cartier's ornate Indian- and Middle Eastern-inspired pieces, breathtaking arrangements of emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds. Her premiere pieces held stones sized between 48 and 243 carats, making her jewelry box enviable, even among the wealthiest on the international scene" {17}.

The auction took place at the Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York in 1971. The sale of her jewels realized nearly $1 million, and her cycad garden was completed soon after, hosting nearly 170 species of the magnificent plants in a "serene green bowl cupping the sun" {13}. A naturalized pond is framed entirely in "clumps of gently waving fronds with their startling eruptions of footlong cones," suggesting a "a world that has never known a human" {13}.

Van Cleef & Arpels

During the sale, many of her Cartier pieces were purchased by Doris Duke {Cited: Bruce Weber}, but the beautiful canary yellow briolette diamond was purchased by Van Cleef & Arpels. A year following their fortuitous acquisition, Van Cleef & Arpels featured the stunning diamond on their 1972 catalog, "flying over the mythical Place Vendôme in the beak of a bird."

That same year, an esteemed client purchased the diamond, requesting that the Maison transform the yellow diamond into a "precious bundle carried through the skies by [a] magical bird" made of yellow gold, white & yellow diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires "in celebration of the birth of her son in 1972" {cited: Van Cleef}. This magnificent brooch was crafted to transform into three distinct pieces: a pair of winged earrings, a brooch, and a stand-alone pendant for a neckchain {16}.

Taking its place among jewels from the Collection of Countess Gabriel de La Rochefouchauld, as well as "an impressive array of important white and fancy couloured diamonds" {11}, the Walksa Briolette Diamond Brooch will once again fall under the hammer at Sotheby's Geneva Magnificent Jewels sale on November 13, 2013. For more information, we invite you to visit Sotheby's website.


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  2. Chuda, Nancy. "The Many Husbands of Ganna Walska." LuxEco Living Blog, August 14, 2013.
  3. de Turenne, Veronique. "Finding the Secret Garden," Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1999.
  4. Ganna Walska Lotusland. "About Madame Walska." Accessed October 25, 2013.
  5. Ganna Walska Lotusland. "Lotusland History." Accessed October 25, 2013.
  6. Graham, Wade. "Santa Barbara and the Search for an American Eden," Santa Barbara Independent, March 5, 2009.
  7. Hayes, Virginia. "The Other Men," Santa Barbara Independent, March 5, 2009.
  8. Jeff. "Harold Fowler McCormick: The Real 'Citizen Kane'," Obscure American History Blog, September 24, 2011.
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  10. Slim Paley Blog. "Six Husbands & One Very Green Thumb." February 16, 2011.
  11. Sotheby's. "Magnificent Jewels, November 13, 2013." Accessed November 8, 2013.
  12. Sotheby's Press Release. "Sotheby's to Auction the 'Walska Briolette Diamond' Brooch: An Iconic Jewel by Van Cleef & Arpels." Accessed October 25, 2013.
  13. Swartley, Ariel. "A Diva Who Loved High Drama," Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2005.
  14. Syman, Stefanie. The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. MacMillan: 2010.
  15. “Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life.” ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2013.
  16. Van Cleef & Arpels. "Historical Special Orders: The Walska Brooch." Accessed October 29, 2013.
  17. Weber, Bruce. “Cartier I Love You.” Kempen, Germany: Nues, 2009.
  18. Wikipedia. "Ganna Walska." Accessed October 25, 2013.