LONDON — It’s hard work keeping pace with the British art historian and jewelry academic Diana Scarisbrick. During an interview in the drawing room of her neoclassical Regent’s Park home, the 91-year-old keeps jumping up to fetch pieces of research, letters and books from the antiquarian library she’s amassed in the next-door room.
She should be talking about her new book, “Diamond Jewelry: 700 Years of Glory and Glamour” (Thames & Hudson), but instead the discussion is darting between Thomas Carlyle’s view of the French Revolution and Mary Stuart’s jewels — and that’s before she hurries off to find the latest Gucci advertisement while quoting tracts of Shakespeare as she laments a modern lack of poetry and romance.
She has mentally logged every portrait, royal family tree, inventory and jewel that she’s forensically investigated for countless publications, museum catalogues and exhibitions she’s curated around the world, and the information is at her fingertips. This tiny woman is a human memory stick fizzing with social history, the world of jewelry, gemstones and beyond.
“I’m interested in one thing”, she said, “which is using my brain and engaging my mind in an interesting object and discovering as much as I can about it.” Her biggest thrill? Tracing the history of a bejeweled Book of Hours, a small devotional book that once hung from women’s belts, via its decorative carnelian intaglios back to Francois I of France.
“It’s quite exciting when you discover these things,” she mused. “It’s now in the Louvre.”
A diamond Renaissance ring which she bought after leaving Oxford University in the early Fifties sparked her lifelong obsession with jewelry.
“I had to sell it, of course, but wait until you see it,” she said of the ring that she purchased from London’s antique jewelry dealer S. J. Phillips. She pulls the book open to point out the ring that dates to around 1539. “It belonged to Isabella, Queen of Hungary and the quality of those table-cut Golconda diamonds are fantastic and the setting is marvelous. But what gives it its authenticity is the Hungarian provenance. I got hooked through this to start an antique ring collection, mainly 17th century.”
She describes post-war Britain as being “up for sale” during the period when a stately home clearance happened virtually every week. Where there are now shops and restaurants along London’s Bond Street, Jermyn Street and in Pimlico, there were once antique shops where Scarisbrick trained her eyes and developed her knowledge.
This period of antiquing, combined with her historical training, gave her the courage to accept an offer to catalogue the ring collection at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
“They brought these trays of jewels to me that had been bequeathed to the museum,” she recalled. “It was like the conversion of St. Paul, and I suddenly thought, ‘I can do something with these,’ so I researched the collectors, and got to know these people through the rings.”
Did she realize at the time this would be her lifelong work?
“I didn’t look that far ahead. I knew I had to fight for it.” There were obstacles to overcome as the museum domain was a largely patriarchal fiefdom. At the same time the grandest English homes welcomed her to catalogue their heirlooms. Noble names such as Devonshire, Marlborough, Wellington and Spencer trip from her lips as people who encouraged her to publish their collections in her first book, “Ancestral Jewels.”
She would go on to pen many more, yet she confesses she doesn’t like writing much.
Now she’s turned her attention to diamond glitz to explain the stone’s important place in the history of jewelry. Her book is an account of the social history of diamond jewelry told through stories of the European rulers and socialites from the mid-14th century to the present.
The subjects depicted in the art works and photographs in the book span a timeline from Late Medieval heiress Mary of Burgundy to Meghan Markle. She’s fascinated by the indestructibility of the diamond as a material to express the desires and tastes of the woman or man wearing it, all of which are transitory.
“But the diamond goes on and on,” she said. “And that’s part of the mystique.”
As a work of art, diamond jewelry mirrors the prevailing artistic and contemporary cultures and Scarisbrick talks energetically about the successive styles of each period — from late Gothic naturalism to Renaissance, Baroque splendor, Rococo elegance and the Imperial grandeur of the Napoleonic empires. Readers get to know European rulers through their jewelry.
She details cutting, setting and decorative techniques and makes forays into fashion, particularly during the 1700 to 1800 “Age of Elegance.” Aided by posthumous inventories, the author reimagines Madame de Pompadour’s exquisite taste. She describes her diamond parures swinging with heart shaped pinks and yellows with festoons of pearls suspended from diamond lover’s knots, worn to impress at grand court occasions.
The recurring theme is the power of diamonds: Grandiose displays of diamonds demonstrate regal status, reinforce political authority, and, as instruments of government, symbolize the glory of a nation. The account of Napoleon’s determination to restore Paris as the center of fashion and luxury is fascinating. By 1807, according to the Chambre de Commerce, there were 400 jewelers working in the city, and diamonds glittered everywhere.
“If you’re going to be in charge, you have to look as if you’re in charge,” she said. “Catherine the Great said she had to wear lots of diamonds, so whenever she appeared people should see at once that she was the empress. You see, they do something for people.”
To prove the point, she rushed to retrieve a letter from the late Sir Edward Ford, who acted as assistant private secretary to Her Majesty the Queen. He wrote following a ball at Windsor Castle in 2000, where European family members passed almost unrecognized in the throng of guests because they were not wearing tiaras.
In the age of democracy, customs have changed, diamonds are no longer rare, and they’ve now become the favored emblem of celebrities, adorning fingers, earlobes, noses and teeth, with the bling showing no signs of dimming.