Fine Taste & Good Fortune: The Hallmarks of Remarkable Individuals
Sir Thomas Brassey (1836-1918), 1st Earl Brassey, was the son of a self-made millionaire, who had a passionate love for the sea and cruised on his intercontinental yacht, ‘The Sunbeam’, as often as he could.
His first wife, Lady Anna Brassey (1839 - 1887), the daughter of an aristocrat, wrote several charming books including The Last Voyage to India and Australia, in the 'Sunbeam' 1886 – 1887 which recounts Australia’s first precious sedimentary Opal find near Blackall Queensland in 1869. Lady Brassey recorded their celebrated voyages around the world on the yacht, which carried about fifty people including the family, the crew, friends, and a complete domestic staff. This was her last voyage as she died of malaria and was buried at sea before the book was completed. Her husband completed the book apologetically with an appendix that briefly recounts the remainder of the journey.
Lady Sybil de Vere Brassey, daughter of Lord Malden, was Brassey’s second wife, together they spent five years in Melbourne he as Governor of Victoria and she was a gracious hostess who made herself popular with the women of the city. Lady Sybil is credited with having founded 'The Children's Protection Society' an initiative to save children from abuse and neglect. The couple were regular visitors to New York where it was noted in The New York Times 1906, that the young and handsome Lady Brassey was fond of Opals, of which she possessed a superb parure. In London the couple lived in a town house on Park Lane which housed an extensive collection of curiosities and jewels including Opals.
John Davison Rockefeller (1839–1937), the industrialist who founded Standard Oil and revolutionised the petroleum industry. J.D. Rockefeller became America's first billionaire and the world's richest man. He is often regarded as the richest person in history and as having defined the structure of modern philanthropy. J.D. Rockefeller adhered to total abstinence from alcohol and tobacco throughout his life. However he was taken by the alluring charms of Opal and had to have the mesmerising 'Fire Queen' Opal for which he paid £75,000, hitherto a record for an Opal.
Isabel Gray (c.1851-1929), the legendary ‘Eulo Queen’ was a notorious hotelier, Opal collector and advocate. She spoke fluent French and German and had been educated in Switzerland before she arrived in Australia in 1868. By 1886 Isabel and her second husband Richard William Robinson were hotel-keepers at Eulo (on the Paroo River) in Southwestern Queensland, an important Cobb & Co. staging post between Cunnamulla and Thargomindah and the coach junction from Hungerford. A few years later they had obtained the freehold, hotel and billiard licences of the Royal Mail Hotel and acquired the Empire Hotel. They also ran a store and butcher's shop in Eulo and thus controlled most of the town’s economy. Eulo had fast become a gathering-place for travellers, graziers, Opal miners and merchants.
An astute businesswoman; Isabel became a shrewd dealer in Opals - particularly from the burgeoning Opal fields nearby at Duck Creek, Yowah and Koroit. She even engaged a German Opal cutter to process the gems. It was not uncommon for her to advance sufficient money or goods from her store to anyone she thought worthy so as to keep them Opal mining. Conversely, she might make sure a miner had spent the value of his parcel of Opal and then oust the lingering drunk from her premises.
Although short in stature, Isabel was a voluptous beauty possessed of great sex appeal, she was ‘larger than life’ and desirable to men of all ages. A complacent husband enabled her to operate as a successful courtesan. A good stock of liquor and attractive young females helped her entertain groups of gentlemen with conversation, gambling and more intimate entertainment. In 1902 Robinson died and in 1903 Isabel married 29-year-old Tasmanian, Herbert Victor Gray, she was 53 yet claimed to be 35.
Opals were the key to her heart; the 'Eulo Queen' was captivated by these fiery gems, which she actively promoted as currency and for adornment. Her collection included a magnificent necklace, armlets, rings, pendants, an Opal studded belt and a fantastic girdle of large opals set alternately with nautilus shells.
Rene Lalique (1860-1945) having won a Grand Prix for his display at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, was named ‘The creator of the modern jewel’ by fellow jeweller Emile Galle. "Thanks to him the Jewel is art once more." said his author and jeweller peer Henri Vever of him. The most famous jeweller of the Belle Epoque he was courted by world leaders. Jeweller to the libertine courtesans La Belle Otero and Liane de Pougy as to the Countesses de Bearn and Béhague and the serious Madame Waldeck-Rousseau. Lalique designed stage jewellery for actresses Marguerite Moreno, Julia Bartet and the divine Sarah Bernhardt. Because he loved Opal most amongst gemstones Robert de Montesquiou (aesthete and critic) dedicated the Eighth gem of his Les Paons to Lalique who designed the book’s cover.
I know a jeweller in love with opals, The purest diamond would tempt him in vain, He will only carve the gem of pale fire, Whose iridescence has chosen him for its lover.
Liane de Pougy (1869-1950) was a renowned Folies Bergères dancer and considered one of the most desirable courtesans in nineteenth century Paris. In 1920 Liane de Pougy married a Romanian Prince named Georges Ghika, as a Princess she lived an elegant life. Rene Lalique’s Opal-studded jewels would invariably grace her dressing table if not her bosom.
Barney was a wealthy American heiress who was gaining a reputation as a writer. The two women flouted their lesbian affair in the face of French society. It was quite a delicious scandal.
That year, Rene Lalique at the request of Liane de Pougy and poet Renée Vivien – created several jewels for Natalie Clifford-Barney. Their dominant note is struck by enamels, moonstones and Opals (usually blue to match Natalie’s eyes) and the subjects dear to Art Nouveau jewelry (a circle of bats, dragons, fighting cocks). Barney later wrote a best-selling, tell all book about their affair – Idylle Sapphique.
Next lover in turn Renée Vivien would cover Barney with treasures signed Lalique: "She made me wear them on my neck, my arms, my fingers and my ankles."- Souvenirs Indiscrets
Olive Custance (1874-1950) was born to a distinguished (wealthy, landed, and proper) British family. By her teenage years, she seemed determined to be a part of London's literary culture. She met John Gray, the artist who would become Oscar Wilde's lover and fell in love with him when she was sixteen, they maintained a lively correspondence for years, during which he gave her feedback on some of her early poetry. Olive began contributing to trendy London periodical The Yellow Book and also contributed her poetry to the Savoy and the Living Age, building a reputation for her loveliness and considerable wit.
Olive's first book of poetry, Opals, was published by John Lane in 1900. Well-received critically, it managed to win her quite a few fans, including American expat writer and "leading lesbian of her time" Natalie Clifford Barney. Barney bought a copy of Opals while she was in London and was so enchanted by it that she wrote to Olive and invited her to come to Paris and form a "Sapphic circle" of female writers, an offer which Olive was glad to accept.
Emily Fargo author of Wild Olive: The Life & Work of Olive Custance identifies Olive Custance's literary persona as 'Opal' because that was the nickname adopted by Olive in her literary circle of friends. One of Olive's signatures was Opal jewelry, which she wore to mock the superstition that the stones brought bad luck. The unique, transfixing beauty and mischievous attitude towards fate that Olive's interest in Opals embodied was an integral part of her 'Opal' persona. Several of her verses cast her as a young princess: lovely, idealistic, and innocent. This was a role she played in her social life in London as well, charming many of the city's young men with her "flower-like loveliness" as described by fellow poet Richard Le Gallienne.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was the most famous actress of her time; she scandalized and titillated Paris by wearing pants and taking men's roles in some of her plays. In the US she was coveted by the press and received in every city as an ambassador of style. Sarah frequently wore Opal which was her birthstone and highly regarded within her circle. Infact Bernhardt never considered herself well-dressed unless she was wearing her Opals. The distinguished stage actress, who later pioneered the movie-making era, was a great patroness and inspiration to her fellow artists, Henri Vever, Rene Lalique and the decorative painter Alphonse Mucha. Sarah commissioned this ruby-eyed snake bracelet and ring (hathphul), inlaid with Opals, for her 1890 premiere as Cleopatra. Mulcha provided the sketches of this extraordinary jewel executed by George Fouquet. Bernhardt has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine St.
Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) the Austrian Symbolist painter was one of the most prominent members of the 'Vienna Secession' - Art Nouveau movement. His major works include paintings, murals and sketches. Klimt's primary subject was the female body, his works are highly decorative and marked by a frank eroticism. He was a frequent client of the Wiener Werkstatte, a guild of fellow secessionists, from whom he acquired numerous pieces of jewellery for his female companions and himself. He had a particular fondness for opal which Wiener Werkstatte used extensively, his close female friend and dress designer Emile Floge shared this passion and was the glorious recipient of numerous Opal jewels by Josef Hoffmann et al.
Patronage of Art & Opals
Oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) was one of the richest men of his time and was well resourced to be one of the greatest private collectors of all time. Apart from his insistence that any acquisition be 'only the best', Gulbenkian required that all his objects have a classical orientation, whether it be coinage, paintings or sculpture, jewellery or ceramics. Gulbenkian commissioned 146 artworks by Rene Lalique between 1895-1910; Dozens of jewels in the collection contain Opal and they are now housed in theCalouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.
Henry Walters (1848-1931) was the successful president of the Atlantic Railway Company who retired in 1902 and became focused on the collection his father had bequeathed to him in 1894. Walters envisaged a museum that would fulfill an educational role within the community and to this end he made a series of astute acquisitions including the purchase of the entire collection of Lalique jewelry on display at the World's Fair in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1904. Henry Walters died in 1931, leaving the Palazzo style building, which now houses the Walters Art Museum, and the extensive family collection to the city of Baltimore "for the benefit of the public." The jewels by Lalique on display at the museum include several compositions made with Crystal Opals and Fire Opals.
Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, Victoria. The two and-a-half-octave soprano made her debut as Nellie Melba in Rigoletto in Brussels in October 1887. Dame Nellie went on to become one of the world's biggest opera stars. In 1903 Louis Cartier created a magnificent heart-shaped opal pendant for the celebrated Australian soprano. Dame Nellie and fellow Australian soprano Elsa Stralia (Elsie Fischer) were recipients of Opal gifts from Percy Marks. As a special tribute Melba received a bouquet containing a rare black Opal mounted in platinum by Marks.
Percy Marks (1879-1935) designed and distributed Lightning Ridge Black Opal jewellery and Opal exotica to a roll call of international visitors, major and minor aristocracy as well as Australian celebrities. By the time of his death in 1935, Australian Opal was celebrated in poetry and dance as well as in settings. Amongst his earliest bequests was a “…[conductor’s] baton made of Australian wood, mounted in gold and set with rare Black Opals” presented to “March King”, John Phillip Sousa, during his Australian tour in 1911. When Amy Johnson, the British pioneer aviator flew from the UK to Australia in 1930, her landing was received with fanfare and an Opal brooch from Percy Marks.
Amy Johnson set off in her single engine Gypsy Moth from Croydon on May 5. She landed in Darwin on May 24, 1930. Having completed an epic flight of 11,000 miles she became the first woman to fly solo to Australia. The aviatrix landed in Quilpie 'Capital of Boulder Opal’ en route to Brisbane. Quilpie’s Airport Terminal now bears her name and the monumental display in her honour is a significant tourist attraction.
Father of the Australian Opal Industry
Tully Cornwaithe Wollaston (1863-1931) was Australian Opal’s greatest champion. He pioneered all the Opal fields of Australia in his time and bought the majority of the miners’ product encouraging them to continue the search. He took Australian Opal to the Empire Exhibition in London, and to Europe and the United States. Wollaston had a close working relationship with E.F. (Ted) Murphy who was regarded as the greatest full-time Opal buyer on the fields of White Cliffs and Lightning Ridge in their times. Tully's incredible energy and his passion for the stone brought Opal to the modern world’s attention. An accomplished gardener and impassioned father, poet and author of The Spirit of the Child and Opal: The Gem of the Never-Never.