The jewellery of Marilyn Monroe and what it says about her

With the release of Blonde on Netflix, we explore Marilyn Monroe’s life story through her most famous jewellery pieces. Whilst she sang Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend, what was Monroe's relationship with high jewellery?

By Davina Catt

Marilyn Monroe was one of the most beguiling female figures of the 20th century. Hours of screen time has been devoted to find both nuance in and to unravel the myth from reality in the story of the late, great actress.

Director Andrew Dominik’s controversial film Blonde, (released Netflix 28th Sept) with current star Ana De Arnas in the lead role has garnered interest. Not least due to Dominik’s signature lipstick glossy direction, which takes direct inspiration from Monroe’s most well known images and recreates them into scenes pieced together like photographic vignettes. But what can we derive about the arc of traumatised teen, Norma Jean Baker, to movie star and sex symbol via the invention of Marilyn Monroe through her jewellery collections?

Conversely for a movie star who famously sung ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, in the 1953 hit film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and made diamonds synonymous with the engagement ring, Monroe didn’t actually have a love affair with jewellery in the way of Elizabeth Taylor. Instead she accumulated a small number of items gifted to her from husbands, admirers and even the Emperor of Japan, which she happily gave away. (Marilyn bequeathed all her jewellery to acting coach, Lee Strasberg). So how has Monroe come to personify bold jewels, glitz and glam? 

Marilyn Monroe diamonds in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 1962), as Lorelei Lee in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to Scott Fortner, founder of The Marilyn Monroe collection,(the largest privately owned collection worldwide) she was ahead of her time in wearing costume jewellery. ‘She didn’t have a lot of ‘high quality’ jewellery – she had very little with precious metals or stones, nearly everything was synthetic or rhinestones.’ Surprisingly even the indelible image of Monroe coated in jewels (as well as the opening scene featuring triangle link necklace, cuff bracelet, hip brooch) and the hot pink silk dress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are costume not real diamonds. According to the Bulgari picture book, The Glam Culture, ‘monochrome diamonds were very much in vogue during the 50’s and 60’s, whilst Marilyn sung Diamonds are a Girl’s Best friend.’

Marilyn Monroe in 'There's No Business Like Show Business'. (Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images)
Marilyn Monroe in ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. (Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images)

However, it was mainly publicity shots and press tours that Monroe used to promote the diamond industry, like ‘the largest piece she wore in her lifetime’ the Moon of Baroda. The 24.04 carat pear shaped, fancy yellow moon diamond necklace was lent to her in 1953 for the film’s promotional tour. The Gem Institute of America has recently determined the historic diamond came from the legendary Indian Golconda mines and was crafted into the antique pear shape to suit the royal headgear ‘pagri’ of Indian nobility. (It was resold at Christies for around $1.5million in 2018)

The jewellery from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Other jewellery collectables so synonymous with Monroe’s glitzy chic include the Fox publicity shot. This was shot by staff photographer Frank Powolny for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes promotion, in which Monroe wears a racy gold lame pleated dress designed by William Travilla, with matching gold plated clip on earrings featuring filigree spheres accentuated with simulated diamonds. ‘Those earrings were actually designed by Derosa but rented for the shoot from our studio’s’ explains Joseff’s of Hollywood. This famous jewellery business was started by Eugene Joseff in the late 1920’s and is still creating and renting jewellery for film stars and costume designers. ‘Joseff did make the dual gold cuffs that she wears when trying on the tiara in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as well as the engagement ring and the pair of ribbon design clip on earrings with pearls worn in publicity shots,’ she continues. 

The jewellery in Blonde

Jennifer Johnson, costume designer on Blonde, was aware of differentiating between ‘the two Marilyn’s of the film – the quiet simplicity of Norma Jean with the studio manufactured bombshell Monroe.’ Initially working with Chopard for the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes recreations, Johnson didn’t have the film budget so ended up turning to LA vintage jewellery specialist, House of Fisher, for vintage designer costume jewellery that she could piece in as close matches. 

Blonde does pay homage to Monroe’s favoured jewellery styles – chandelier earrings, filigree diamond chokers, and matching cuffs as well as her love of classic pearl jewellery often worn casually or with a twist. 

Pearls are used during the film to convey character arcs, from her young starlet days married to (second) husband Joe Di Maggio (who enjoyed a simple life away from the spotlight) and, strikingly, on the plane scene (going to visit JFK). She wears a single strand pearl choker which is paired with a simple black Anne Klein style shift dress as Monroe retreats into barbiturate induced loneliness and vulnerability towards the end of her life.  

Marilyn Monroe's Mikimoto pearls from Joe Di Maggio
Marilyn Monroe’s Mikimoto pearls (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

The jewellery from Joe Di Maggio

The Mikimoto pearls, a 16 inch strand of 39 lustrous Akoya cultured pearls with a diamond clasp – amongst the most expensive pieces she owned – were a gift from Joe Di Maggio on their honeymoon in Japan in 1954. Monroe wore them throughout her life as a reminder of ‘happier times’. Later they passed through the Strasberg family before being sold back to Mikimoto in their original oval shaped, velvet box at auction in 1998.  One of the only other fine jewellery pieces in Monroe’s collections, after her death, was the platinum eternity wedding band (again from Joe di Maggio) set with 35 baguette cut diamonds. As well as a petite vintage Blancpain (circa 30’s) watch auctioned off in 2016. 

Jewellery gifted by Arthur Miller

During her marriage to playwright, Arthur Miller, and her later life in the 1960’s as she sought more challenging film roles (The Misfits). Also to move away from the studio driven bombshell persona, Monroe experimented with beads and colourful rhinestone necklaces (one is still owned by The Marilyn Monroe Collection). Blonde re-enacts the simplicity of the most well- known images of Marilyn with Arthur Miller through the fractured narrative lens. 

Marilyn Monroe chandelier drop diamond earrings
Marilyn Monroe earrings in front of a photograph of Monroe with Marlon Brando (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Ironically, the opaque narrative behind Marilyn Monroe’s jewellery collection is another piece of her myth-versus-reality life trajectory. According to Martin Nolan, director of LA based, Julien’s Auctions, which has auctioned off some of Monroe’s most famous items, ‘Unlike Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery pieces, which had intrinsic high value, Marilyn wore mostly costume jewellery but her association made it as valuable as real diamond jewellery.’ 

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