A Christmas Gift – 100 Years Ago
James N. Carder (December 2013)
For the Christmas of 1913, Robert Woods Bliss surprised his wife, Mildred, with the gift of a jade and pearl necklace made of two strands of graduated Imperial jade beads interspaced with natural pearls and with a gold clasp set with a flat circular jade bead. Understandably thrilled by the gift, Mildred Bliss excitedly wrote her stepfather, William Henry Bliss:
Robert’s Christmas present to me was a jade necklace, with which I expect to turn all my friends into envious enemies. The beads are more beautiful in translucency and subtler in tone than any I have seen, and while in London I think I got to the root of all jade.
Both Blisses had a strong attraction to and a fascination with jade. Indeed, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum retains 171 jade or jadeite objects in its collection. Moreover, Robert Bliss is known to have often carried in his pocket a piece of Olmec jade which he routinely caressed with his fingers. And in Mildred Bliss’s correspondence with jewelry dealers, she always sought jade of the very highest quality, often rejecting jade pieces that were offered to her due to her dislike of their color or the cloudiness of the stones.
The Christmas jade necklace of 1913 was one of over 100 pieces of jewelry that Mildred Bliss bequeathed to Harvard University in 1969 as additional endowment for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. These pieces were auctioned at the Sotheby-Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York on January 15, 1970, almost exactly one year after Mildred Bliss’s death on January 17, 1969. This auction of what the New York Times called “outstanding rubies, sapphires and other gems” successfully netted Dumbarton Oaks $420,165 (over four million dollars in today’s valuation). In announcing the auction in her syndicated column “Smart Set” on January 13, 1970, Suzy Knickerbocker wrote:
The name of the game these days is auction and Parke-Bernet’s jewelry sale on Jan. 15 could bring out the cream of the addicts. At that time the fabulous jewel collection of Washington socialite, the late Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, will go on the block. In the ravishing style of the ‘20s, the collection is made up for the most part of colored stones. Bidding is expected “to the death” for a 9-carat emerald ring, a 24-carat sapphire pendant, a pair of sapphire and diamond brooches and an Imperial jade and pearl necklace. For those who like something a little wilder, there is Mrs. Bliss’ peacock feather brooch in colored stones with a huge sapphire forming the “eye” of the feather and a miniscule key to unlock each multi-jeweled strand from the feather’s stem. Proceeds from the sale go for the upkeep of Dumbarton Oaks, the Blisses’ Washington estate in Georgetown, which they left to Harvard.
Prominently illustrated in the auction catalogue is no. 74, a “Magnificent Imperial Jade and Pearl Necklace,” Robert Woods Bliss’s Christmas gift of 1913 (see image). A copy of the auction catalogue and Mildred Bliss’s correspondence with her stepfather are retained in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.