Writer and historical biographer Flora Fraser is prolific in her work and inspiring in the way she imagines her subjects. The author of 8 books with topics ranging from Pauline Bonaparte to her latest, a detailed account of the lives of George and Martha Washington and their marriage and devotion to one another, Fraser is without a doubt the authority on in depth insight into the worlds of history’s most fascinating characters.
Delightfully, Fraser admits to gaining further knowledge about her female subjects through the jewelry they wore, as it’s often telling about their social status and value in the eyes of their husbands. For example, Martha Washington in particular, loved garnets, pearls and seed pearls. Her style was often reflected in her jewelry and though images of her during her time as first lady showed her in more matronly attire, at around 25 years old, when her first and wealthy husband Daniel Park Custis passed away, Washington assumed her late husband’s business, negotiating sales and also receiving English lace, silks and jewelry. This portrait done of Washington in 1772 captures her wearing a pearl choker and jeweled pearl hair ornament.
“(Washington’s daughter) Patsy was a considerable heiress,” says Fraser, “And Martha always sent to London on her behalf for the best lace and jewelry.”
Jewelry also plays a role in Fraser’s own life. The author states she has a penchant for SJ Phillips and Lorenz Bäumer, and adorns herself depending on her mood and the occasion. Additionally, she often observes what kind of jewelry friends are wearing and what it says about them and their personal style.
Rarely does jewelry span from the professional to the personal and even historical, the way it does in Fraser’s life, so it’s no wonder she has such a wonderfully unique perspective on the matter.
Here, Fraser shares her own history with jewelry and the jeweler that sparked her interest in the pieces worn by Mrs. Washington herself.
What are your favorite jewelry stores and designers?
I am always going into SJ Phillips in Bond Street London. The brothers Norton, who own and run it, know everything to be known about historic pieces and carry many of them. They are a National Treasure, in my opinion.
The most inventive and sublime modern jeweler I know is Lorenz Bäumer in Place Vendôme. I also like for occasional pieces Boucheron. I also buy big new cocktail rings wherever I find them — very good ones from Assya in London. They are like power rings. And I continue to buy power bracelets. But otherwise my heart is rather given to older jewelry.
What is it about estate jewelry that you are particularly fond of? And has it ever inspired you in your work?
SJ Phillips sparked my interest in the jewelry Martha Washington and other 18th century women — subjects of my biographies — wear. I research their jewelry and it becomes part of the portrait I build up of them in my mind. Also the prices male protectors paid tell a lot about their social status and maybe how much the husbands valued their wives and daughters and mistresses. So for thirty-five years or so, I have thought about other people’s jewelry a lot. And I think all the time about what jewelry friends and people I meet are wearing and what it says about them.
Where do you like to search for older pieces?
For the last five or six years I have been increasingly buying vintage designer jewelry on Ebay. I like the idea of Kenny Lane or whoever, at work on the pieces. I have recently bought Lulu de la Falaise for Oscar de la Renta and Lulu for YSL, for instance. This started following a lecture my sister Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni — who’s co-written a book about Lulu — gave at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I was mesmerized by the slides showing Lulu in her jewelry.
How do you like to wear your jewelry to best express your personal style?
Some of the vintage jewelry I buy for the city, some for T-shirt jewelry. For example, pieces that look great in the Mediterranean sun would look terrible in a city. And I buy some vintage jewelry as professional pieces. I wear calf-length author coats when I speak and if the coat is relatively plain I pin a big brilliant brooch on. The idea is to give the audience something to look at. And often when I’m signing books, people ask about the brooch. It is a kind of icebreaker.
Although I love certain fashion designers, I would give them all up to wear great jewelry!
FLORA FRASER is author of “Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton”; “The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline”; “Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III”; “Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire”; and, most recently, “The Washingtons: George and Martha, ‘Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love.'” She is chair of the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, established in 2003 in affectionate memory of her biographer grandmother. She lives in London.
Photo: Elena Siebert