The Taylor-Burton Diamond
One of the most famous diamonds of the modern era is the Taylor Burton diamond, a 69 carat pear shape stone, D colour and Flawless clarity, named after perhaps the most famous Hollywood couple of the 20th century, Elizabeth Taylor and Ricard Burton.
Taylor and Burton met and fell in the love during the filming of Cleopatra in 1963. She was a 30-year-old starlet who was already on her fourth marriage, and he was a former British stage actor, also married but known to drink and womanise on set.
Cleopatra made them both superstars, and in 1964 they were married in Montreal.
The couple’s stormy private life often drew more attention than their movie roles, and their extravagance was legendary. During the 1960s, they earned a combined $88 million and spent almost as much on cars, hotels, a jet, a helicopter, a yacht and a collection of extraordinary jewellery.
The purchase of the Taylor-Burton was the result of a fight in a restaurant one night, when he declared that she had large hands. She replied that he had better buy her a bigger diamond so that her hands would look smaller and more attractive!
The diamond was cut from a 240.80 carat piece of rough, found in the Premier mine in 1966. It was bought by Harry Winston, who took it to New York. After six months of planning, it was cleaved into two pieces; the smaller (78 carats rough) was cut into a 24 carat diamond, and the large piece of rough (162 carats) became a 69 carat pear shape.
Winston sold the diamond to Mrs Harriet Annenberg Ames, the sister of the American ambassador to London. She consigned it to auction in 1969, after only two years, stating that it was too big for her to wear.
The auction saw an intense bidding war between Cartier, Harry Winston and Richard Burton, with Cartier eventually purchasing the diamond for 1.05 million dollars, a world record at the time.
Burton was enraged; he phoned his lawyer from a payphone in a hotel lobby in Buckinghamshire, negotiating the seven-figure purchase while continually shoving coins into the box! In his diary, he wrote:
“I turned into a raving maniac and insisted that he (lawyer Jim Benton) get Aaron on the phone as soon as possible. Elizabeth was as sweet as only she could be and protested that it didn’t matter, that she didn’t mind if she didn’t have it, that there was more in life than baubles, that she would manage with what she had. The inference was that she would make do. But not me! I screamed at Aaron that bugger Cartiers, I was going to get that diamond if it cost me my life or 2 million dollars, whichever was the greater. For 24 hours the agony persisted and in the end I won. I got the bloody thing. “
Cartier agreed to sell it, on condition that they were allowed to exhibit to briefly in their New York and Chicago stores. More than 6000 people per day queued to see the diamond, and it even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. The New York Times was somewhat unimpressed, writing
“The peasants have been lining up outside Cartier’s this week to gawk at a diamond as big as the Ritz that costs well over a million dollars. It is destined to hang round the neck of Mrs. Richard Burton. As somebody said it would have been nice to wear in the tumbril on the way to the guillotine. … In this Age of Vulgarity marked by such minor matters as war and poverty, it gets harder everyday to scale the heights of true vulgarity. But given some loose millions, it can be done-and worse, admired”
Taylor took delivery of the diamond in Monaco, and the story of its journey is almost like something from a spy novel, with three delivery men travelling separately with three identical cases, armed guards with machine guns, and final delivery to Taylor’s yacht! The case containing the diamond also contained three pairs of 50 cent stockings, which she could only find in New York and were unavailable elsewhere! Taylor was apparently as happy to receive the stockings as the diamond. She first wore the diamond publicly at Princess Grace’s fortieth birthday party in Monaco, and also at the 1970 Academy Awards.
The diamond was insured for a million dollars, and the insurers laid out very detailed terms of cover, given its value and also her high profile – that she could only wear it for 30 days in a year, that it be stored in a vault, and that she be accompanied by armed guards when wearing it in public. Taylor would later have a replica made of the diamond that cost $2,800.
In 1978 she and Burton divorced. Taylor subsequently announced that she was selling the diamond to finance the building of a hospital in Botswana. In June of 1979 Henry Lambert bought the Taylor-Burton for $5,000,000. He later sold it to the current owner, Robert Mouawad.