“This diamond has so many carats it’s almost a turnip.”
That diamond, weighing 69.42 carats, was a gift from Richard Burton to his wife Elizabeth Taylor on her 40th birthday. She sold it after her divorce for $5 million with the money going a hospital in Botswana.
“I wanted that diamond because it is incomparably lovely. And it should be on the loveliest woman in the world. “
The stone was put up for auction in October 1969. When Taylor heard about the upcoming sale, she had to see it, so it was flown to Gstaad, Switzerland so she to see it, and she fell in love. Burton set his maximum bid at $1 million and had his lawyer bidding via telephone from London.
Cartier jewelers won the auction. Some other under-bidders included jeweler to the stars Harry Winston, Aristotle Onassis, and the Sultan of Brunei. The final price was $1,050,000, or about $5.75 million in current U.S. currency. The previous record price for a diamond was set in 1957, at $305,000.
A provision of the original auction stated that the diamond’s buyer got the privilege of naming it, and the stone was christened the ”Cartier Diamond”.
When Burton found out that he had been outbid, he was livid. Taylor protested that it didn’t matter, that she didn’t mind if she didn’t have it.
The next day, the diamond was sold by Cartier to Burton for $1.1 million. It was renamed the ”Taylor-Burton Diamond”. Part of the sales agreement was that it could be displayed at Cartier’s stores in Chicago and New York City for three month. Each day 6,000 people stood in line to see it in person.
After being exhibited, the diamond was taken to Monaco in November 1969. There, Burton and Taylor took possession of the fabled gem, along with three pairs of nylon stockings that cost fifty cents apiece, but that were only available in America. Legend has it that Taylor was just as excited to get the stockings.
Taylor decided that the diamond was too large to be worn on a ring. She had it placed in a necklace and had it positioned so that it would cover her scar from an emergency tracheotomy.
Lloyd’s of London’s million-dollar insurance policy stipulated that the Taylor-Burton diamond could be worn just 30 days out of the year, and that Taylor had to be accompanied by armed guards when wearing it in public. Plus, it had to be stored in a vault. Because she could rarely wear the real stone, Taylor had a fake made for $2,800. She wore the real thing to the 1970 Academy Awards.
In case you missed this part of the 20th century, Burton was a Welsh actor famous for his gorgeous baritone voice and his legendary drinking. Burton had proved himself to be a formidable Shakespearean actor in the 1950s, and in 1964, he gave one of the greatest performances of Hamlet ever.
Burton was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but never won. He did win two BAFTAs, a pair of Golden Globes, a Grammy, and a Tony Award. By the mid-1960s, Burton was one of the top box office stars, and one of the highest-paid actors in the world, receiving $1 million or more per film plus a percentage of the gross.
In July 1961, Burton replaced Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s Cleopatra. Burton was paid $250,000 for four months work in the film. The gigantic scale of the film’s troubled production, Taylor’s illnesses and fluctuating weight, plus Burton’s off-screen romantic relationship with Taylor all generated tons of publicity. 20th Century Fox had a lot riding on what was the most expensive movie ever made until then, at $40 million. During filming, Burton fell in love with Taylor, who was married to Eddie Fisher. At first, Burton could not stand Taylor, calling her “Miss Tits”; he saw her simply as a celebrity with no acting talent. But, in their first scene together, Burton was nervous and forgot his lines, and she soothed and helped him. Soon an affair began, and both Fisher and Burton’s wife Sybil Burton were devastated and they fled the set in Rome. Laurence Olivier, shocked by Burton’s affair with Taylor, sent a telegram saying: “Make up your mind, dear heart. Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?”. Burton replied “Both”.
As a youth, Burton was noted for his robust athletic prowess, yet by the time he was 40-years-old he was a wreck. He suffered from bursitis, arthritis, dermatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and kidney disease, and he had developed pronounced limp. In the 1970s, Burton was drinking three bottles of vodka a day. He also had a five-pack- a-day cigarette habit. Burton was taken by stroke at just 58-years-old.
He blamed the booze for wrecking his marriage to Taylor. Burton:
“I was fairly sloshed for five years. I was up there with John Barrymore. His ghost was looking over my shoulder.”
Burton said he drank for solace:
“… to burn up the flatness, the stale, empty, dull deadness that one feels when one goes offstage”.
Liz and Dick (that’s what they were known as when I was a youth) made 12 films together. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is as compelling today as when it shocked film-goers in 1966. It is by far their best film as a couple. Their other movies play like star vehicles showcasing the sex appeal of the two stars, giving audiences a sense that they were getting a glimpse into the couple’s real-life, much discussed relationship.
Burton disagreed with others about Taylor’s famed beauty, saying:
“… calling her the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense. She has wonderful eyes, but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she’s rather short in the leg.”
In a 1975 interview, Burton said he “tried” homosexuality. He also suggested that perhaps all actors were latent homosexuals, and “we cover it up with drink”. Later, Taylor suggested that Burton had an affair with Olivier and tried to seduce Eddie Fisher.
After their second divorce, Taylor sold the Taylor-Burton Diamond to jeweler Henry Lambert, for $5 million in 1978, or $19 million in 2018 dollars. In 1979, Lambert sold the Taylor Burton diamond to Jewellers Mouawad, who have retained ownership ever since.
In the press coverage while Taylor owned it, it was almost always referred to as the Cartier Diamond. Indeed, in the 2011 failing New York Times obituary for Taylor, it is referred to as the Cartier Diamond. The story surrounding the purchase of the amazing gem and the presentation at the Cartier became as much a part of the legend as the stars who made it and an ironic symbol of their love story.