The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (2024)

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Vincent Meylan

5 minute read

Updated 4:35 AM EDT, Thu April 13, 2017

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (1)

"Christie's: The Jewellery Archives Revealed," a new book from jewelery specialist Vincent Meylan, looks at the exciting, surprising and occasionally tragic stories behind some of the auction house's most important sales.

One of the many royals featured in its pages is Princess Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari, the second wife of a former shah of Iran.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (2)

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Soraya married in 1951, but the marriage was short-lived. The shah divorced her in 1958 because she could not give him an heir.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (3)

After the divorce, Soraya started a glamorous new life in Europe, where she was relentlessly followed by paparazzi, who had dubbed her the "sad-eyed princess."

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (4)

During the early days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Soraya sold a number of her pieces, including a diamond necklace signed Harry Winston. It went to auction at Christie's in Geneva on Nov. 17, 1988.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (5)

The 2011 sale of the late Elizabeth Taylor's jewelery collection netted more than $130 million. A number of pieces had been gifted to Taylor by her third husband, Mike Todd.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (6)

"When Mike gave me this tiara, he said, 'You're my queen, and I think you should have a tiara,'" Taylor wrote in "Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry."

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (7)

Here, Taylor wears a headdress designed by French designer Pierre Cardin with a Bulgari emerald necklace -- a engagement gift from her fifth husband, Richard Burton.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (8)

She was wearing the necklace when she accepted the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1967.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (9)

Screen star Gloria Swanson (seen here in a promotional still for the acclaimed "Sunset Boulevard") owned what are considered two of the most important pieces ever produced by Cartier.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (10)

The bracelets, made of rock crystal and diamonds, were made in 1930, and "are emblematic of the pure art-deco style that Cartier designed at the time," Meylan writes.

Swanson wore them in at least two of her films. In 1988, five years after her death, Cartier bought back the bracelets to add to their archive.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (11)

The Soong sisters -- (L-R) Ai-ling, Mei-ling and Ching-ling -- all played an important role in 20th century Chinese politics.

Ai-Ling, the eldest, was married to H. H. Kung, one of China's richest men in the early 20th century; Ching-ling was the wife of Sun Yat-sen, who is often regarded as the father of modern China and served as the Republic of China's first president; and Mei-ling was married to Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China from 1928 to 1975.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (12)

Ai-Ling, who was married to a millionaire, started the sisters' jewelery collection, which was dominated by jade taken from a now-exhausted Burmese mine. Each sister would add to it over the years.

When Mei-ling died in 2003 at the age of 105, their collection fell into the hands of Christie's Hong Kong. In 2015, the sisters' 46 pieces sold for more than $14 million.

The unbelievable stories behind world's most prized jewels

Editor’s Note: Vincent Meylan is a specialist in precious stones and high jewelry. This is an edited excerpt from his latest book, “Christie’s: The Jewellery Archives Revealed.”

CNN

Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari never imagined that one day she would marry Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and that she would reign over her country, Iran. She was queen for seven years, from 1951 to 1958. Brought up between Isfahan (a town in Iran) and Europe, Soraya had a relatively free adolescence. It was Princess Shams, older sister of the Iranian sovereign, who discovered this “rare pearl” during one of her stays in London.

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Her brother, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had succeeded Reza Shah during a period of political unrest at the beginning of the Second World War. First married to Princess Fawzia of Egypt, the sovereign had only one daughter, Shahnaz, and a younger brother, Ali Reza, to succeed him.

When his marriage to Fawzia ended in divorce, it was essential that the Shah remarry to ensure the succession of the Crown and the stability of the country. From their first meeting in London, Princess Shams was convinced that the young Soraya was the wife her brother needed, and she invited her to return with her to Tehran.

Two days after her arrival in the Iranian capital, Soraya was invited to dinner with the queen mother, Tadj ol-Molouk. During the dinner, the Shah was announced. The following day, Soraya’s father said to her: “The Shah liked you very much. Are you ready to marry him?”

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Twenty-four hours later their engagement was announced and Soraya, aged 18, had a magnificent diamond on her finger, given to her by the Shah.

Celebration and tragedy

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (13)

The Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi with Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari on their wedding day in Tehran in 1951.

The wedding should have followed quickly. However, Soraya became bedridden for several weeks after contracting typhoid. Legend recounts that the Shah brought her a jewel every day and placed it on her pillow. The wedding finally took place on February 12, 1951.

After weeks of illness, the event would prove a physical test for Soraya. She could hardly stand up. Outside, snow fell on the city. The Shah ordered the installation of dozens of wood burners in his freezing palace, in an attempt to alleviate her suffering.

Judging this insufficient, the court doctor prescribed that Soraya wear a woolen vest under her dress until the last possible moment. She put on a pair of woolen socks under her skirts. Christian Dior was commissioned to create the wedding dress, but made the outfit too large and too heavy for Soraya. The twenty meters of white silk that made up the dress were overloaded with gold embroidery and strass. The result was a wedding dress that weighed more than 30 kilograms.

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Minutes before the ceremony, the Shah and one of his aides used scissors to cut away eight meters of the train, in order to relieve Soraya of some of the weight. Relieved, the new Queen of Iran could just about remain standing during the reception that followed the religious ceremony.

The first months of marriage were idyllic. Living in a large white villa that didn’t really resemble a palace, the Shah and his wife enjoyed a fairytale romance. The imperial family and the country at large awaited only one thing: the birth of an heir. However, the child did not come.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (14)

The Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi with Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari in 1958.

The drama of the couple’s private life became public in October 1954. On the evening of the 26th, the queen mother gave a family dinner at the palace to celebrate the Shah’s birthday. A few days before, Soraya’s doctor had confirmed that her hopes of a pregnancy were unfounded, and that it may take years for an heir to arrive.

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The Shah, already morose, became angry when he was told that his younger brother, Prince Ali Reza, next in line to the throne, would not be present at the dinner – he had been delayed leaving a hunting party in the forests bordering the Caspian Sea. The following day the imperial family were plunged into grief when they learned that the plane carrying the prince back to Tehran had crashed.

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The terrible news threw the Pahlavi dynasty and Iran into turmoil. Ali Reza had borne a son, Patrick, through a liaison with a young French woman, but his rights to succession were unclear. The Shah of Iran found himself in a delicate position: he was the only sovereign in the world without an heir.

From that moment, his marriage to Soraya was doomed. Familial and political pressure mounted on the young couple. The Shah and his wife decided that the only solution to the problem was that they should divorce. The dissolution of their marriage was duly announced on March 14, 1958.

A glamorous new beginning

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (15)

The "Aurora Green" is the largest Fancy Vivid green diamond ever sold at auction. The stone went under the hammer on May 31, 2016 at Christie's auction house in Hong Kong, selling for $16,818,983.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (16)

The world's largest blue diamond, an extremely rare gem known as "The Oppenheimer Blue", sold for $57.5 million at Christie's Geneva May 18, 2016, making it the most expensive diamond ever sold at auction.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (17)

The 14.62 carat Fancy Vivid stone is mounted on a platinum ring and flanked on either side by a trapeze-shaped diamond.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (18)

'The Unique Pink' is the largest Fancy Vivid pink pear-shaped diamond to ever be offered at auction.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (19)

The diamond was sold for $31.6 million by Sotheby's, at an auction in Geneva. The price makes it the most expensive Fancy Vivid pink diamond to sell at auction.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (20)

Cubic zirconia replicas of the original and a modern cut of the Kohinoor diamond, one of the oldest and most famous diamonds in the world.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (21)

The De Beers Millennium Jewel 4 has broken auction records in Asia.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (22)

The stone sold for $31.8 million, which makes it the most expensive piece of jewelry sold at an auction in Asia.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (23)

Sotheby's auctioned this 9.54 carat ring it says belonged to child star Shirley Temple on April 19, 2016. Though it was expected to fetch between $25 million and $35 million, it failed to sell.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (24)

This 12.03-carat blue diamond fetched $48.4 million at auction on November 11, 2015. It was previously the world's most expensive price-per-carat diamond sold.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (25)

The fancy, vivid blue diamond was discovered in South Africa in January last year.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (26)

In recent years, other high-value diamonds have hit the auction block. The 59.60-carat oval cut pink diamond known as "The Pink Star," went for $80 million at a 2013 Sotheby's auction. However, after the buyer defaulted on payment, it was returned to Sotheby's.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (27)

This 118.28 oval white diamond became the largest sold at auction when it went for $30.6 million at a Sotheby's auction in 2013.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (28)

In April 2015, a 100-carat, emerald cut, D color, internally flawless diamond -- the largest of its clarity and cut to ever be shown at auction -- sold for $22 million.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (29)

The 76.02-carat 400-year-old Archduke Joseph diamond set a new record for price per carat for a colorless diamond in 2012, when it sold for $21.5 million at a Christie's auction.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (30)

In 2010, Hong Kong's largest jewelry retailer, Chow Tai f*ck, bought one of the world's largest rough diamonds for $35.3 million.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (31)

Jeweler Wallace Chan and a team of craftsman worked 47,000 hours to transform the stone it into this piece, which Chai Tai f*ck estimates could be worth $200 million.

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Soraya left the country and took refuge in Switzerland, where she was targeted by the world’s paparazzi. They christened her “the sad-eyed princess.” Her ex-husband’s generosity allowed her to live an extremely comfortable exile between Rome, Munich and eventually Paris. She was invited to all the parties and became an icon of the jet set. She even made a film, although it wasn’t a great success.

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Wherever or whatever it was – a gala opera in Paris, a party in Marbella, a ball in St. Moritz – she always made a dramatic entrance, beautifully dressed but a little distant. Her parures of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds were signed by the greatest names in jewelry: Cartier, Bulgari, Harry Winston, Van Cleef & Arpels.

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At the beginning of the 1980s, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran reduced her revenue, Soraya decided to sell a number of her gems. The most beautiful amongst them, a diamond necklace signed Harry Winston, went to auction at Christie’s in Geneva on Nov. 17, 1988.

The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (32)

Princess Soraya wearing a diamond necklace signed Harry Winston. The necklace went to auction at Christie's in Geneva on Nov. 17, 1988.

Princess Soraya died in Paris on Oct. 25, 2001. The Shah of Iran had died some 20 years earlier, in Cairo. She didn’t see him after he was dethroned in the revolution. Her brother, Bijan, who was her sole benefactor, lived in Munich.

He journeyed to Paris for his sister’s funeral and it was here that he also died soon after, following a heart attack. Soraya’s estate was sold at auction some months later in Paris. Even though he lived only a few days longer than Soraya, Bijan was the legal inheritor of her estate.

However, he had no legal heir, and the entire estate of the sad-eyed princess passed to the German state.

“Christie’s: The Jewellery Archives Revealed” by Vincent Meylan, published by ACC Art Books, is out now.

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The jewels of Iran’s ‘sad-eyed’ princess | CNN (2024)

FAQs

Did the Shah of Iran love Soraya? ›

Of all the Shah's many women, it is generally believed that Soraya was the "true love" of his life as she was the one he loved the most. Soraya later wrote about herself and Iran: "I was a dunce.

Who was Soraya married to? ›

What happened to Soraya of Iran? ›

Princess Soraya died in Paris on Oct. 25, 2001. The Shah of Iran had died some 20 years earlier, in Cairo. She didn't see him after he was dethroned in the revolution.

How many times did Shah of Iran marry? ›

The shah had two marriages that ended in divorce when they failed to produce a male heir to the throne. In October 1960 a third wife, Farah Diba, gave birth to the crown prince, Reza. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Why Soraya was accused as adultery? ›

Not wanting to support two families, nor return Soraya's dowry, he spread false rumours of her alleged adultery after she began cooking for a local widower. Abetted by venal and corrupt village authorities, who turned her father against her, he accused his wife of adultery.

Is the stoning of Soraya true? ›

(114 minutes) Director Cyrus Nowrasteh teams with screenwriter Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh to illuminate the dangers of religious fundamentalism, gender apartheid, and mob rule with this fictionalized adaptation of Freidoune Sahebjam's best-selling novel centering on a true-life tragedy.

Does Soraya ever get pregnant? ›

Soraya eventually becomes a teacher and the two eventually move away from Soraya's parents. However, one thing that Soraya wants more than anything is to become a mother and start a family with Amir. Despite their attempts and treatments to do so, Soraya is unable to get pregnant.

How old was Soraya M when she died? ›

A story told by Zahra to a French journalist of her niece Soraya Manutchehri, a 35-year-old married woman, who received capital punishment and stoned to death because of false accusations in the remote village of Kuhpayeh, Iran, in 1986.

Who is the last princess of Iran? ›

This is the turbulent life story of Farah Diba Pahlavi, who became the first and only Empress in the history of Persia.

What religion was the Shah of Iran? ›

Reza Shah
Reza Shah Pahlavi
ReligionTwelver Shiʿa
Signature
Military service
AllegianceSublime State of Persia Imperial State of Iran
26 more rows

Is Iran still ruled by a Shah? ›

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi propelled Iran's economy and education forward, but oppression. January 16 marks 45 years since the departure from Iran of its last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, marking the end of five decades of family rule and 2,500 years of monarchy.

What happened to the Shah of Iran first wife? ›

Fawzia, the glamorous sister of Fuad's father King Farouk, married Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1939, before he acceded the throne in Tehran. They divorced nine years later. Fawzia remarried, to an Egyptian army officer, on her return from her failed marriage to the Shah.

Is the movie Soraya a true story? ›

Biopic of Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari, the second wife of the last Shah of Iran, who was overthrown in the 1979's Islamic Revolution. Biopic of Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari, the second wife of the last Shah of Iran, who was overthrown in the 1979's Islamic Revolution.

What happened with the girl in Iran? ›

Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, died Sept. 16, 2022, in a hospital after her arrest three days earlier by the country's morality police for allegedly not adhering to the government's mandatory rules on headscarves for women and clothing restrictions.

Where is Soraya buried? ›

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