An Opera Diva and Her Gems Return to the Spotlight
During this centennial year of her birth, the opera star Maria Callas’s life of high drama and high fashion — and the jewelry that accessorized it all — are back in the public spotlight.
A photo of Callas in the 1958 “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House in London, suitably anguished and with fabulous earrings, is among the lead marketing images for “Diva,” an exhibition opening June 24 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Several high-profile cultural celebrations are planned leading up to her birthday on Dec. 2, including a gala concert in September at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the ancient open-air theater at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, where Callas performed several times. And a new movie, “Maria,” starring Angelina Jolie and directed by Pablo Larraín, is in preproduction.
To her many fans who called her La Divina (Italian for “the divine”), she was a tempestuous and bejeweled opera star who soared to the heights of high society and international stardom. But she was also the girl who grew up in a broken home in New York and Greece, and she died alone in 1977, at age 53, in her apartment in Paris.
“Jewelry was part of Maria’s public image, but it was not really a part of her,” Nadia Stancioff, 89, an assistant to Callas who wrote “Maria Callas Remembered: An Intimate Portrait of the Private Callas” in 1987, said in a recent phone interview. “They were ornaments for her professional life. They weren’t part of her inner life. But she had to put on a face as actresses do — and as we all do in life.”
Indeed, jewelry played an outsize role in creating her persona — particularly several ruby and diamond pieces — during her rise to stardom in the late 1940s.
“She went from singing 300 years of operatic music as an overweight young woman to becoming an icon of elegance and beauty,” said Stefano Papi, co-author of “20th-Century Jewelry & the Icons of Style,” which includes a lengthy chapter on Callas, published in 2013. “She became quite beautiful in a very short time, and jewelry was a part of the Callas persona.”
Many of her jewels were bought by her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy industrialist 28 years her senior whom she married in 1949, and who guided much of her early career.
“For example,” Mr. Papi said, “for her triumphant performance in Cherubini’s ‘Medea’ at La Scala in December 1953, Meneghini bought her a ruby and diamond parure, comprising a necklace, bracelet and ear clips. This set was bought at Faraone in Milan, which was one of the most esteemed jewelers of the time and famous for selling the work of Harry Winston.”
(Mr. Papi’s book noted that information about the makers of much of Callas’s jewelry was scarce, although many specialists have said that most of it appeared to have been made by Harry Winston. The jewelry house declined to comment for this article.)
And for the famous 1955 production of “La Traviata” at La Scala, directed by Luchino Visconti, Mr. Papi said that Meneghini presented her with an emerald and diamond necklace, bangle, and pendant earrings, and a ring featuring a 37.56-carat step-cut emerald and baguette diamonds. Its maker was also never disclosed, he said.
During her time at La Scala, Mr. Papi noted, onstage she often wore high jewelry pieces — not costume jewelry — that were loans from some of the prestige jewelry houses in the city.
As Callas’s professional status and wealth grew, so did her private collection of gems. She amassed pieces by Harry Winston as well as several by Cartier, including a 1972 flower brooch that was revived for the Cartier Collection, an in-house collection of vintage pieces dating back as far as the 1850s. A brooch of the famous Cartier panther rendered in gold, enamel and emerald was also among her favorites.
“Like so many other important women of the time, Maria Callas chose Cartier for jewelry that reflected her personality,” Pierre Rainero, the international image, style and heritage director at Cartier, wrote in an email. “When I think of the relationship between Maria Callas and the maison, the quote of another brilliant woman comes to mind, the Mexican actress María Félix, who said, ‘Cartier has always been the jeweler of the aristocracy of blood, but also of talent.’”
In 1959, at the height of her career, Callas left Meneghini for the wealthy shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. He lavished her with even more jewelry, mostly from Van Cleef & Arpels (“Ari’s total understanding of women comes out of a Van Cleef & Arpels catalog,” she was famously quoted as saying).
Another signature piece from Van Cleef — seen on Callas in dozens of photos from the period — was Cinq Feuilles (Five Leaves), a platinum brooch of six Burmese rubies totaling 15.77 carats and diamonds totaling 16.35 carats.
Mr. Papi said Callas often carried an 18-karat gold and diamond evening bag, and wore a sapphire and diamond brooch, as well as earrings and a bracelet in coral, pearl, diamond and turquoise, all by Van Cleef & Arpels.
Much of her jewelry was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2004, although the seller’s identity was never revealed (her mother and sister battled Meneghini, whom Callas never divorced, over the estate, reportedly splitting the jewelry; many believe that Meneghini’s devoted maid eventually inherited most of it).
Callas’s last years were troubled: She had largely retreated from society after Onassis left her for Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968; she had problems with her voice and professional relationships.
It was a sad ending to a remarkable life, one that was played by Callas the diva and all the jewelry and glamour that she utilized to achieve it.
“When she and other women of that era became successful, it was to create an image of power,” Mr. Papi said. “Jewelry does that. And jewelry certainly helped turn Maria into Callas.”
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