Elizabeth Taylor says she can't remember a time when she wasn't famous. Famous for her acting, her illnesses, her friends, romances, husbands and divorces. Above all, for her incredible beauty that in image after image has always been accentuated by fabulous jewelry.
She's received countless honors throughout her career. England's Queen Elizabeth has dubbed her Dame Elizabeth, and in December, she will also be honored with the prestigious Kennedy Center lifetime achievement award. No longer a Hollywood leading lady, she has successfully transformed herself into a humanitarian and businesswoman. Using her iconic status, Taylor has raised millions of dollars for AIDS research. She's also made millions for herself selling her perfumes, like her popular, and aptly named fragrance, White Diamonds.
Taylor's latest venture is Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair With Jewelry, a book that celebrates her jewelry collection, considered by many to be among the finest in the world. As rich as Taylor's jewels are, so are the stories behind them.
Taylor says she sees jewels as an expression of "God's workmanship," and is fascinated by their perfection. "They're all from the ground. We didn't dye them. This red is from God," she said.
Extraordinary Loves and Jewels
It has taken Taylor a lifetime to amass her world-class collection. Her love affair with jewelry began as a child, when she bought a costume brooch for her mother. As she grew up, the men in her life fed her insatiable passion for jewels — especially her third husband, Mike Todd, a larger-than-life Hollywood producer whom she married in 1957.
A spectacular diamond and ruby necklace is among the extraordinary treasures Todd gave Taylor. "I'd never seen anything like that in my life. I probably never will again. He was so generous, and he just took such care of me. I felt so protected … and loved."
Todd also gave her an antique diamond tiara, which she wore to the 1956 Academy Awards. Tragically, 13 months into their marriage and after the birth of one daughter, Todd was killed when his plane, The Liz, crashed. Taylor recalls, "His legacy to me was love. He taught me what love really meant."
A decade later, Taylor met her second great love, British actor Richard Burton. The two stars met on the set of Cleopatra. Both were married at the time and their very public affair became an international scandal, as well as one of the century's great romances.
Taylor and Burton first wed in 1964. Throughout the 1960s, the Burtons were among the most celebrated couples in entertainment. Their wild jet-set lifestyle made them superstars before there was such a word.
Burton showered his wife with spectacular jewels, including the famous Krupp diamond. The Krupps were a German family that supplied munitions to the Nazis and as Taylor describes in her book, "helped knock off millions of Jews." Taylor said, "How perfect it would be if a nice Jewish girl like me were to own it."
Burton gave her other important historic pieces like the 16th-century Taj Mahal diamond necklace. Its original inscription reads "to my beloved Mahal." She also received the King Farouk bracelet, adorned with magnificent hieroglyphics, and the exquisite La Peregrina pearl, one of the world's finest examples of a pear-shaped natural pearl and once owned by Queen Mary Tudor of England.
Shortly after Taylor received the pearl, she had quite a scare. It disappeared when she and Burton were in a Las Vegas hotel room. As Elizabeth walked back and forth with the pearl around her neck she suddenly realized it was missing. She recalled, "I heard one of the puppies chewing a bone. And I thought, that's wrong, we don't give the puppies bones." One of the dogs had the pearl in its mouth. "Thank God there were no scratches," Taylor said.
The jewels Burton rained on her couldn't calm the growing volatility between them. They married and divorced twice. "I think we loved almost too hard. I think you become so much in the other person's pocket, in their mind, in their soul that you begin to lose your own identity," Taylor said.
A Grateful Guardian
Taylor says she doesn't think she'll have that sort of love again in her life. Her fragile health, particularly her severe back pain and two hip replacements, has limited her movement. Last summer she was also treated for a curable skin cancer. But even at age 70, her legendary violet eyes still mesmerize and remind us of her hypnotic beauty.
While the great loves of her life have passed, she still receives beautiful jewelry from men. In recent years, her good friend Michael Jackson has also contributed to Taylor's treasure chest. His gifts include a diamond bracelet, watch, and necklace.
Taylor says she and Jackson care deeply for each other and share an almost brother-sisterly love. Jackson is misunderstood, according to Taylor. "He has been hurt by so many people. Why should he trust people? I think I'm the only person in his life that has not betrayed him," she said.
When Taylor reflects on her collection, she says she feels fortunate just to have been "their guardian." She said, "I was their protector and nobody could have enjoyed them or had more fun with them."