The other day I went to the launch of the latest book by my colleague Vivienne Becker. The Impossible Collection of Jewelry is a greatest hits of jewellery from the 20th century, and even if it were only half as good as it is I would urge you to read it. Vivienne is as keen about the subject as I am about watches and cigars, and I think you need an enthusiasm bordering on monomania to pull off a book like this, as it amounts to an alternative telling of the history of a pretty turbulent hundred years. Using gold, gems and the magic wrought by the hands of exceptional artists and craftsmen, she weaves the skein of modern history through the pages.
The cover carries the image of a necklace comprising two very naturalistic crocodiles. They were made by Cartier for the vampish María Félix, a Mexican movie star who enjoyed a second career in France as a socialite par excellence from the 1950s to the 1970s. Her tastes – not just in jewels, but in everything from hats to Napoleon III furniture – were several sizes larger than her already over-dimensioned life. Accordingly, while I might not have placed her crocs up there at the front, I have to admit that they make a cover by which one can judge the book.
The book also makes me realise how, as a relatively conventional man, I am denied the pleasures of wearing too much jewellery. Periodically, my wife has to tame my taste for gewgaws. For a while I used to wear as many necklaces as Mr T in The A-Team. When she persuaded me to scale down this aspect of personal adornment, I sprouted a forearm of jewellery that would have given Daphne Guinness’s armour a run for its money. Now that I have been talked down to a slim Cartier bracelet from the 1960s and an elephant-hair bangle, I have started to wear rings on half my fingers. Next, I daresay, will be an ankle bracelet, which reminds me of an anecdote about the celebrated socialite Etienne de Beaumont and writer/film-maker Jean Cocteau during the first world war.
In 1915, the epicene and dandified Beaumont formed an ambulance corps from his artistic and literary friends, including a young Cocteau, who was kitted out for his frontline duties by designer Paul Poiret. Thus appropriately equipped for the horrors of war, they drove off to join the fray, but got lost on the way and fetched up at a remote inn. While the young Parisians took rooms and went upstairs to change for supper, commander in chief Douglas Haig and his staff walked into the tavern and, sitting down to dinner, were just in time to see Beaumont descending the stairs clad in black silk pyjamas, followed by Cocteau, who had opted for pink ones. Their entrance was accompanied by the castanet-like clicking of the bangles they wore around their ankles.
If only the careers office at my school had made me aware of the sartorial possibilities offered by the medical profession.