One of the reasons I most enjoy working in the jewelry business is that I often celebrate happy occasions. Whether I’m helping someone purchase a special anniversary gift, or restyling an outdated jewelry heirloom into a piece that can be worn and loved every day, the positivity and delight that I and my clients experience always keep me coming back for more.
It's a rare day when jewelry makes me sad. Every so often I work with a client who is selling everything her ex gave to her, or siblings who start squabbling over an inherited collection, but thankfully these instances are few and far between. This week, however, I experienced a completely new emotion from a piece of jewelry – revulsion.
It came up unexpectedly, at a regular lunch I share with retired executives with whom I worked in an earlier career. As often happens, one of my friends had brought something jewelry-related along for me to see. I carry a loupe with me at all times, so I’m happy to help friends spur-of-the-moment whenever possible. At her husband’s request, she asked if I could look at the piece and tell whether the diamond was genuine. I pulled out my loupe and with interest accepted a slender, lovely old leather box from her hand to examine its contents.
These special boxes interest me almost as much as the jewelry they hold. Like so many other lost arts, custom-fitted boxes with silk linings such as this are no longer made. Their faded exteriors usually yield an interesting antique treasure. When I opened the box and tipped back its top, I could see that it held a gentleman’s stickpin, but I louped the interior of the box lid first. The name of the jeweler printed in elegant, pale blue script was unknown to me, however I could read that it was located in Paris, on the Champs Elysees.
I then removed the stickpin, which was pleasingly well-balanced and decorated in a refined manner, to inspect the unusual, large diamond set at its top. Through my loupe I could see it was cut in a shield shape, similar to a narrow pentagon, which is uncommon. Furthermore, it was an old-fashioned rose cut, meaning that the diamond was broadly faceted across the top, and flat on the bottom.
It was then that I began to pull back a bit, and view the piece as a whole. A finely engraved, flat platinum wreath encircled the diamond, and behind the wreath was an angled, geometric design of yellow gold. Just below the diamond were two small, platinum markers, which I immediately recognized with shock.
They were the lightning bolts of the German SS.
And the gold geometric design behind the wreath was a swastika.
As I held this object in my hand, I was repulsed. And horrified. One of Hitler’s elite guard, the most feared and sadistic of all Nazis, had been given this special piece of jewelry to wear with honor and pride. Perhaps it had been awarded to him for some particularly brutal act. I told my friend that the diamond was genuine, noted that it had belonged to a member of the SS, and said I didn’t want to touch it any further.
Now three days later, I cannot stop thinking about this -- how my hands had held something that had been treasured and touched by an SS member. As a jewelry expert, I recognized that it was a beautifully crafted piece, and now I knew that it had been created by a Parisian jeweler during the German WWII occupation. I cannot imagine being that jeweler and having to make this stickpin, and perhaps multiples like it, at the behest of those living in and terrorizing his or her country. And the diamond itself was so unusual . . . it too was probably commissioned and cut specifically for this design by some unfortunate Belgian diamond cutter, also living in an occupied country. What heartache, despair, and anger lay concealed in the history of this piece of jewelry?
I follow the Auschwitz Museum on Twitter. I do this to honor the victims , and to always remember the potential for man’s inhumanity to man. The Museum regularly posts the photograph of someone born on that day who was eventually imprisoned in the death camp. The day before my lunch, my feed showed the photo of Dutch Jewish girl Esther Polack, who was born on January 26th, 1937 and deported to Auschwitz on July 28, 1942. She died in the gas chamber after the selection. At age 5.
Beautiful Esther’s eyes had haunted me. And here I was, holding the stickpin of a decorated SS guard, on what happened to be Holocaust Remembrance Day. I have never felt such intense grief, shame, and disgust from a piece of jewelry. I will never forget how I felt. I hope to never feel this way again. Esther, dear sweet girl, on what would have been your 85th birthday, may your memory be a blessing.